February 25, 2020

Grounded and fearless, Rochester Mayor Lovely Warren focuses on her city’s hopeful future

One of the city's youngest leaders, this upstate New York mayor doesn't let the racism and sexism she's experienced along the way stop her from serving her community.

Mayor Lovely Warren shared the stage at the 2019 Essence Festival with fellow Black female mayors from around the country. They discussed how they're tackling their cities' challenges, from economic inequity to criminal justice. Photo by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for ESSENCE

Rochester, New York, is nicknamed both “Flour City” and “Flower City,” based on former industries that once powered the city’s economy. Mayor Lovely Warren, however, wants to put Rochester on the map in a new way. “It’s a great place to live, work, and play and I want to return us to being on that national stage,” she told us during our interview.

Warren was the youngest ever president of the city council before she became the city’s first ever female mayor and second Black mayor. During her time in office, she’s focused on job creation through the Kiva Rochester Crowdfunded loan program that helps entrepreneurs and small businesses get their start, as well as education with her Early Learning Council, designed to expand pre-K programs. Now in her second term, she says she is keeping her eye on what’s most important: the work.

“A lot of times we focus on what goes wrong, but my thing is to focus on what we do right, and to get it right for the next generation,” Warren said.

We spoke with the mayor recently about the city’s biggest challenges and what’s surprised her most about being in office. Read on for that, and follow the mayor on Facebook and Instagram. This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Describe Rochester in three words?

Fearless, resilient, and innovative. I say that we’re a fearless city because we have led the way for generations on issues of civil rights and women’s rights and we are at Sanctuary City and we’ve been a fighter for LGBTQ rights as well. The fact that Frederick Douglass and Susan B. Anthony both are buried here and chose Rochester as their home shows our fearlessness to stand up for people that can’t stand for themselves.

I would say that we are a resilient city because we have continued to reinvent ourselves time after time when industry has declined. We went from being a company city to a city of companies. It’s not just about the big three of Kodak, Xerox, and Bausch and Lomb. It’s about the hundreds of thousands of small businesses that we have around our community.

And we’re innovative. We have 19 colleges and universities that surround us. They are leading the way when it comes to medicine, gaming, and technology. There’s also the fact that MIT professors Jonathan Gruber and Simon Johnson chose Rochester as a potential city for high tech growth. We are and have been leaders when it comes down to innovation.

That was a really good mini-history of Rochester! But I’m curious what you see as your city’s most underutilized resource?

I think the first thing that is our most underutilized resource today is our riverfront. We have a city that has the Genesee River which is one of the few rivers in the world that flows north. The reason why Rochester was founded on the banks of the Genesee River was because of the ability to have a flour mill. We turned away from what was our most promising resource, and basically turned our back to the river and we paid dearly for that and now we have realized that was a mistake. Now we’re doing everything possible to re-engage the river through a number of different projects, including a major project that we launched called Roc the Riverway, which is a $500 million overall investment in our natural habitat along the riverfront.

[Read more: Ithaca Mayor cites city’s strong business sector as one secret to its success]

I think that the second most underutilized resource is our young people. We have challenges when it comes to educating our children. About 15 minutes from one of the best schools in the country, you have some of the worst group performances academically in the country, and that’s just wrong. We know that education is the pathway out of poverty and given the way that technology and innovation is taking over communities and jobs, if we’re not preparing our kids for the future then we are failing them. I think that has been a resource that we have not, as a community, really focused on.

Pont De Rennes Bridge is located in the historic district of Rochester, New York. The bridge spans the Genesee River, which is the focal point of an investment program, spearheaded by Mayor Warren called ROC the Riverway. Photo by Kenneth C. Zirkel/Wikimedia Comons

What surprised you the most about being mayor once you stepped into office?

Do you want an honest answer? the hatred. That surprised me the most. I thought that we had come a long way. My grandparents were sharecroppers from South Carolina. They made Rochester their home in 1964 and were able to lift our entire family out of poverty. My mom and her brothers and sisters were able to get good jobs, take care of their families. All of my cousins have gone on to college and we were able to have the life that we have because of the sacrifices that our grandparents made. My dad is an immigrant from Trinidad and Tobago. He came here as an undocumented immigrant and was able to make a life for himself here and work for Xerox in engineering and was able to live the middle class life.

I grew up with people that were Black, Hispanic, white, LGBTQ, elderly, so I had a unique perspective on life. I knew about racism, I knew about sexism. I knew all those things, but I thought that as long as you worked hard and you did the things you were supposed to do—graduated from college, went to law school, worked for the New York State Assembly—you’d be fine. I’m an attorney in real estate, I was a city council member, and then city council president. I had ticked all the boxes and none of it mattered. The hatred that was spewed and continues to this day, but that was the most surprising part of it all.

I’m very sorry to hear that you’re dealing with this. You’re in your second term. How do you continue forward as mayor while dealing with that challenge?

Because of three things that I was taught growing up. I have a strong sense of faith in the reason why I’m serving and the reason why I wanted to serve. I noticed, when I ran for office, that we had A Tale of Two Cities. We had a city that was moving forward and a city that was being left behind and I wanted to change that. I wanted to level the playing field, and what better way than to have somebody in office who grew up in the challenged neighborhoods and the challenged communities of our city, who knows the problems and can be just as comfortable in those areas as I do in the boardroom? My faith in why I am here is what keeps me grounded.

Government is about serving people and making sure we make their lives better by the decisions and choices that we make. The seat doesn't belong to me. The seat belongs to the community.

The second part of that, is the sacrifices of the people who came before me. I have the ability to stand on other people’s shoulders. My grandparents worked in the field, they picked cotton, they made sacrifices so that I didn’t have to. I was able to go to college. I was able to get an education.

The last thing is that I realized that there are more people that are with us, more people that want things to be better. You might hear the negativity more because those people scream the loudest, but I can’t tell you the number of mothers, grandmothers, fathers, sons, and daughters that come to me and say, “you changed my life.” At the end of the day the people that matter most are the ones who live on every block of the city, the ones whose doors I knock on, who are truly affected by the decisions that we make in city government. I keep them in the forefront of my mind and I tune out the noise.

Do you have any advice for the younger generation looking to get involved with city government? What would you say to young people who, if they go into government, might end up dealing with the same kind of hatred that you’ve dealt with?

I would say to young people who are getting involved in government to look at internships and other opportunities [within government]. That’s why we started a really robust fellowship program here, where college students get an opportunity to work in different departments to get an understanding of what government is truly about. Government is about serving people and making sure we make their lives better by the decisions and choices that we make. The seat doesn’t belong to me. The seat belongs to the community.

I would tell them to let nothing stand in your way. There will always be opposition, but know who you are, know why you’re serving, and get a tough skin. If you can’t take people talking about you then this is not the business you want to get in. I find balance because I have my family, I have my daughter, I have my husband, I have a strong family support network. And I recognize that we’re making a difference and I know the work we’re doing is making our city change for the better. Those investments will pay dividends for future generations. I would tell them to have a space where you will never forget that.

In my office my conference room, there are pictures of children playing, and when I feel those challenging moments, I walk into that room and I remember who we’re doing this for. I’m doing this because I want this city to be just as good to my daughter and her friends as it was to me.

Is there a unique nonprofit in Rochester that’s really helping improve things for residents and the future?

There’s a lot of great nonprofits in Rochester. I think one special one that we’re working with a lot now is called Healthi Kids. We found that a lot of our young children are not getting outside and playing and they’re playing video games or watching TikTok, like my daughter! We wanted to get them out, so we helped launch the first Playwalk. We’ve also been working with Healthi Kids to create more green space and fix our play apparatuses to help kids play outside more. We’ve also had kids come out to work with local artists to create street art that helps to slow down traffic, while also getting them outside.

What are you currently reading? What book would you recommend to someone else?

I’m currently reading for the Mayor’s book club, the Year of Yes by Shonda Rhimes. What I read on a daily basis is The President’s Devotional by Joshua DuBois, who was President Obama’s faith advisor. He wrote a 365-day book that I’m reading every day.

The mayor’s book club sounds interesting! How did that come about?

It’s something that I run with my constituents. This is the second book that we’ve chosen. We started it last year. I had started something with my daughter, Roc Families Read, when my daughter was learning how to read so we promoted that. Then a couple professional women expressed a desire for us to get together, so I started Mayor’s Book club in conjunction with our public library. We meet quarterly, choose a book, and the library director and I moderate a session with whoever wants to attend!

Do you have a favorite place to hang out in Rochester when you’re not on the clock?

So Rochester, we have a great food industry and I like to eat. We have specialty restaurants. Donuts Delite is my neighborhood cafe and pizza shop all-in-one. They have special donuts that are made there—cannoli donuts and pretzel donuts. You can probably catch me there for a breakfast meeting. One of the things I like to do with my family is for birthdays we choose a new restaurant to go to in Rochester. But you can’t miss out on the original Nick Tahou Hots Garbage Plate.

I was going to ask about that! I heard it’s a Rochester specialty. Do you have a favorite place that makes it? Or a favorite style of garbage plate?

Of course. The original Garbage Plate is a signature dish, but everyone has their own trademark on it and they’ll have something that makes it different or special. I’m not going to get into the debate of which one’s better, but we have all kinds of wonderful restaurants here. That’s something I love about our city.

Caitlin Fairchild

Caitlin Fairchild is the deputy editor of The Renewal Project.