In her own words, Mary Sheffield, Detroit City Council President Pro Tem, describes herself as someone led by faith and driven by passion to empower the people and communities of Detroit. Sheffield believes she’s been called as a public servant to facilitate progress for the people and city she loves immensely.
For some leaders, words never translate into action. Yet for Sheffield, actions must always speak louder than words. The actions for Sheffield have centered on her tackling hot-button issues that impact Detroiters the most, including homelessness, affordable housing, gun violence and social justice. She was a strong advocate for many of these issues before elected to City Council’s District 5 in November of 2013, making her the youngest councilmember in the city’s 319-year history.
Jobs for Detroiters have also been paramount in Sheffield’s list of priorities.
“The City of Detroit is experiencing a robust renaissance,” said Sheffield. “It is of the utmost importance that we ensure that Detroiters play an active role in the renaissance and can financially benefit from the city’s revitalization. It is critical that Detroit residents are given ‘priority’ for the new jobs that are being created by municipal financing and development programs.”
Putting words into action, Sheffield said she is working on the 51% Local Hiring Ordinance, which if adopted into law, means that city contracts and publicly funded construction projects will require a local hiring target of 51%. The 51% Local Hiring Ordinance is just the tip of the iceberg of initiatives that are being pushed by Sheffield. Many of the other initiatives are captured on Sheffield’s “People’s Bills,” a group of bills spearheaded by her.
The bills include the Community Benefit Ordinance Amendments, Homeless Bills of Rights, Water Affordability Ordinance, Housing Trust Fund, Homeowners Property Tax Assistance Program, Neighborhood Improvement Fund, Community Control Over Police Surveillance Ordinance, Inclusionary Housing Ordinance and the Senior Home Repair Grant Program.
Kaytea Moreno Elst, president of the Burns-Seneca-Fischer Block Club on the city’s east side, touts the importance of Sheffield advocating for funds for the Senior Home Repair Grant Program.
“One of my first interactions with Mary Sheffield was when I went to a council meeting several years ago,” said Moreno Elst. “I took some of our elderly with me and I talked with her about some of the concerns of our neighborhood and block club. I asked for her help with resources that would allow seniors to apply for grants to fix up their homes, who may not be connected to computers or able to read or couldn’t fill out the paperwork for the grants. Mary Sheffield responded fabulously at the council meeting and contacted me to provide resource information that I could pass on to the people in my community and block club. Mary has gone on to triple that budget which allows more seniors to fix up their homes.”
In keeping with her promise to always empower communities, Sheffield explained her Neighborhood Improvement Fund (NIF), which she crafted to benefit community residents who were concerned with the Detroit Pistons relocating to Detroit.
“I proposed, and Council fully supported, creating the NIF, which funded the proceeds from all income tax revenue generated by the Pistons players, visiting NBA players, and Pistons and Palace Sports & Entertainment employees,” Sheffield said. “Right now, it’s over $2 million in that fund, so my office is figuring out how neighborhood programs can access the funds for neighborhood development around the city. These funds are not for downtown and midtown neighborhoods but are earmarked for other neighborhoods with greater needs.”
Pushing forward, Sheffield recently sponsored a bill that bans race-based hair discrimination, marking an historic advancement in racial equality in Detroit. On Oct. 1 and 2, Sheffield kicked off her “Let Your Light Shine Empowerment Tour” where she delivered in-person messages of encouragement at Mariners Inn (24-hour residential substance abuse treatment facility), Alternative for Girls, the YWCA Domestic Violence Shelter, Wayne County Jail Women’s Ward and Covenant House.
Sheffield’s passion to empower others is also manifested through Occupy the Corner, an organization founded by Sheffield in 2014. The organization’s mission is to provide needed resources and hope to communities struggling with crime and gun violence, while still addressing other critical issues for Detroiters, such as registering to vote.
“What really caught my eye about the many great things that Council President Pro Tem Mary Sheffield is doing was through her organization, Occupy the Corner,” said Barry Randolph, pastor of the Church of the Messiah, community leader, and noted human rights advocate. “She went into some of the most underserved communities in Detroit and brought needed resources. What she is doing to empower underserved communities through her organization is simply amazing!”
Randolph talked about an organization that he created in 2013 called “Five Alive.” The organization, according to Randolph, convenes almost 30 organizations, community groups and block clubs in District 5 where networking and sharing of information are facilitated for the betterment of the district.
“Mary Sheffield has greatly supported and actively participated in what we are doing,” Randolph explained. “We believe in building power in District 5 and Mary Sheffield is a major person who has helped us do that. She is truly a person of vision, who believes in the future of Detroit and the future of all its citizens.”
Janine Spencer, Field Street Block Club president for more than 20 years, who once served as vice president of the historic Charlesvoix Village Association on Detroit’s east side, agrees with Randolph.
“Mary Sheffield has supported us on issues facing the neighborhood, two of the biggest being gentrification and over-assessed property taxes,” said Spencer, who also serves as community engagement specialist at Genesis Hope, an east side community development corporation in District 5. “She and her office will always listen to the people. I know that she listens because the proof is in the work that gets done.”
As Detroit continues to evolve, Sheffield is optimistic about its future, inclusive of Detroiters.
“There is so much happening in Detroit. I’m encouraged,” Sheffield said. “ I want people to know that they can improve the quality of their lives right here in Detroit. I’m excited by the growth and resources regarding jobs, housing, and other opportunities for Detroiters.”
Sheffield, however, realizes there are still challenges in the city. Poverty, homelessness and crime, she said, must continue to be addressed. She points out the importance of creating and implementing strong policies and programs to change things.
When Sheffield was asked to comment on her name being frequently mentioned as the next mayor of Detroit, which would make her the first woman to ascend to the city’s highest elected position of leadership, she responded candidly.
“It’s an honor that so many people have asked me to run or have told me I should run,” said Sheffield, who is also an ordained minister. “I’m at a point in my life where I don’t want to do anything just for a title or position or do something just to do it. It must be because that’s what God is calling me to do and what I believe I need to do. I really want to figure out the best way that I can be of service to empowering the city. If that means running for mayor, I will whole-heartedly accept and take on the challenge.”