When she first entered politics, Mayor Evelyn Wynn-Dixon was not the one with a vision—those came first from a coworker, and later, from her pastor. At the time, she was working for Grady Health Systems. A coworker, Loretta Taylor, came in and said, “Dr. Dixon, I had a dream about you.”
Dr. Dixon says she replied, “No you didn’t, baby.”
Taylor insisted. “I saw you in a magazine featured with lots of great women. I saw you in government, you were going to important places and you were going to do important things.”
Dixon, who has a doctorate in public health, says she laughed it off. But Taylor persisted. “I’m serious. I see you in politics.”
A few weeks later, Dixon was at church, when her pastor approached her and said, “Hello, Sister Evelyn, God just told me you are going to be the next Mayor of Riverdale.” The following Sunday, he repeated this message.
“That was in December 2007—I was sworn in as mayor in 2008!” Dixon says. “I never had any aspiration to be in politics, no desire. But after my coworker and my pastor both told me the same thing, I decided to discuss it with my family.”
Dixon, now 65, called together her adult children, her parents, and her siblings. A devout group, they prayed over the decision.
“We felt that by then, I had been in community service for so long, and so many people knew me from my work with homeless people, running for office seemed possible,” Dixon, now in her second term, says. “I said, ‘I don’t now how to do it, but I’ll run.’”
With a campaign chest of $2,000, Dixon tapped her eldest son, Pastor William Wynn, to be her campaign manager. Like his mother, he was a public servant, working for the State of Georgia in managing a group of specialists who monitor children who are in the state’s custody. He has a master’s in public education, and had recently completed a doctorate in divinity.
“I said, ‘Mom, what’s your platform?’ And she said she wanted to make the community a better place,” Wynn says. Dixon laughs, and says, “I bought some tennis shoes, got some flyers and my kids, and they helped.”
Wynn described one memorable day from her first campaign, when she would spend her Sundays going door-to-door in the community of about 20,000. It was a rainy day, and he was unable to accompany her: Undaunted, Dixon went on her own.
“When people saw her out there—her, with her full figure, her sincerity, and her beauty. She has a gift for speaking to people and making them feel welcome. She had her aims and her plans, and people just loved her,” Wynn says. On that rainy Sunday, she set out to visit residents of three subdivisions. By the time she reached the third, Wynn says, 15 people were walking in the rain with her.
An’cel Davis, Mayor Pro Tem of Riverdale and a city councilman, says that Dixon’s “downhome mothering style” of leadership draws people to her. “She has a place in her heart for everyone. There is no one who cannot reach her.”
In a time when so many women shy away from seeking public office, understanding what enables some to overcome barriers and fear may be critical to engaging more women to seek elected office. The film, Miss Representation, describes the trends and issues that affect women who seek office, and includes a bleak statistic: At the current rate, it will be something like 400 years before Congress includes equal numbers of men and women.
The reasons women do not seek office are many, and complex, stemming from gender stereotyping that keeps the glass ceiling in place, to women’s reluctance to engage in the deeply personal and divisive nature of modern elections. Witness Wendy Davis, and one begins to understand the trepidation so many women have about becoming elected officials.
Dixon felt those apprehensions, too. Her own life had been one of struggle. She had been a single mother of four children. She had been homeless. She had received safety net benefits. One of her sons is in prison.
When she launched her campaign, she was forthcoming about her own experiences. “I said upfront: I’ve been bankrupt. I’ve been homeless twice. I’ve had my gas cut off. I have an online doctorate. I’ve been late paying my mortgage. I was on welfare, and Section 8.”
And, she said, “I got no shame in my game. I used the system to get off the system, I did not make it a lifestyle. We broke the generational curse, and my children got out on their own.” She eventually completed college, earned graduate degrees, and enjoyed a long career in public health, working and leading in diverse settings.
Her own struggles—and her ability to overcome them—giver her the compassion and empathy so essential to leadership. As Councilman Davis says, “She took her hard knocks and her hard times, her tribulations, and she turned those negatives into a positive contribution to our community. She proclaims that you can make it against all odds.
In running for office, Dixon says, she made sure to surround herself with strong people—and prayer—to lift her up. “My daughter and my Uncle George, they were my roll dogs. They went everywhere I went, and helped me.”
“I got really serious about the campaign: I campaigned every day after work, and every weekend. People started telling each other about me, and then the local papers started writing about me. I understood that I had to be transparent about who I was, and in what I wanted for the City of Riverdale.”
Once in office, Dixon says, she was able to participate in several training progams for newly minted local officials, including some offered by the University of Georgia, and several through the national League of Cities. Her colleague, Councilman Davis, a former barber, says that he, too, has learned to govern well thanks to training opportunities for local officials.
Georgia State Senator Valencia Seay, a Riverdale resident, speaks to the challenges women face when they seek office. She herself is one of just 8 women among the 56 in the state.
“Public office is thankless and ruthless,” Seay says. “I have taken a lot of arrows out of my back—but then I got wise about it.” So wise, in fact, that she is now in her 12th year in the Georgia senate. She herself was first inspired to seek office because of her children: the public schools were not what she was accustomed too, and she wanted to see improvements. So she became the first African American elected to the Clayton County Board of Education.
Seay says that, with Dixon as its mayor, Riverdale has become “the crown jewel of Clayton County!” She jokes that Dixon has “just about adopted my granddaughter,” a participant in a local summer camp program that aims to inspire and nurture young girls.
“Mayor Dixon shows young girls that you can do and be anything, no matter where you come from or what you earn. You stay focused and you decide to persevere. The more you tell your story to young girls, the more they understand what the job entails,” Seay says.
In fact, Dixon’s mantra is that geography is not destiny: “Your ZIP code does not dictate who you are or what you can be.” Despite data that shows that, too often, where people are born and live can, in fact, set the course of their life, Dixon’s own life proves otherwise.
She says that she has worked with other city leaders to “change the energy of Riverdale. I lead from my heart. I do not want to be in anyone’s pocket. I want people to love to come home, and to call Riverdale home.”
In fact, she spearheaded efforts to create the Riverdale Town Center, a multimillion dollar complex that houses county offices, as well as a community center, with areas for fitness and courses.
Seay says, “On a good day, you’ll see people out there at the Center, just walking. There are outdoor activities, and chances to bring together children and families.”
Dixon suggests that other women considering a run for office should assess their motives. “Why do you want to do this? Are you willing to give the time to do it? You have to understand that there is not a lot of money. But do you want to make someone else’s life better? You need to have a heart and want to make a difference in the lives of other people.”
It takes a fair amount of grit, too. Her son, William Wynn, says, “She refuses to be denied. If there’s a goal, she is going to get there. She won’t sleep. She is driven by, ‘Can I make a difference in one person’s life.’”
And what truly undergirds her success, Wynn says, is this: “I have never heard my mom, despite her circumstances, make an excuse for anything. She will find a way. She has never made an excuse for any reason.”
Recently, all those years of focus and commitment to others have brought honors and awards to Mayor Dixon. This winter, for instance, she received the Terrell L. Slayton, Jr. Award of the American Red Cross, which “recognizes and salutes an individual who displays community leadership, involvement and education awareness surrounding challenges within their community.” In late February, she attended a reception to honor Black History Month at the Vice President’s Residence in Washington, DC. And in April, she will be the keynote speaker for the annual benefit of the Sargent Shriver National Center on Poverty Law.
At the Washington, DC, launch of The Shriver Report, Mayor Wynn-Dixon told the audience that every day, in every encounter, people have an opportunity to help others. She embodies that spirit, and inspires others. And though she is an older woman, it seems some new phase of her journey has just begun. Watching her might be a lesson to others who’d like to change their communities, but are not quite sure where to start.
- Change the Players, Change The Game. Encourage Younger Women To Run for Office
- Why You Should Care About Politics
- Elizabeth Gilbert’s Advice to Women: Get Out of Your Own Way
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