Alumna Shawyn Patterson-Howard ’05 makes history as the first female Mayor of Mount Vernon, New York.
By Andrea Dawn Clark
SHAWYN PATTERSON-HOWARD, who earned her master’s degree in Public Administration in 2005 from John Jay College, never intended to run for elected office. But when she saw her city in turmoil, “I responded to the call of my community,” she says, becoming the first female Mayor of Mount Vernon, New York, and one of only four African-American mayors in the state. “For me, it was never about trailblazing. It was about seeing needs that were not being met, drilling down, pulling together resources, and really seeking to make a difference in Mount Vernon. I’ve always enjoyed working at the intersection of government, community, civic business, and the faith-based community.”
BEING A JOHN JAY STUDENT
As a non-traditional student, Patterson-Howard took several online and in-person classes to earn her M.P.A. “One of my favorite parts of the experience was learning from my classmates. We had dynamic conversations. There were quite a few people in my class from other countries, and the international presence of law enforcement and government leaders from around the globe helped us discuss innovative solutions to community problems,” says Patterson-Howard. It’s those globally informed strategies that have guided the way she leads today, especially during challenging times, like the current Covid-19 health epidemic that has hit Mount Vernon particularly hard. “We can’t just do things the same old way that we’ve been doing them. We have to make sure that within a government framework, we can still be responsive to the emerging needs of a community, as well as continuing to deal with longstanding challenges.”
BEING THE MAYOR
Actress and activist Lily Tomlin once famously said, “Somebody should do something about that! Then I realized, I am somebody.” Before Mount Vernon’s 2019 mayoral election, Patterson-Howard realized that she was the “somebody” that folks needed to lead them. “After our previous mayor had been indicted, our community was in turmoil,” she remembers. “I went on Facebook and I started making points that I thought were important. After a while, people started saying, ‘Well, why aren’t you running?’ People were asking me to step up.”
In less than 72 hours, Patterson-Howard responded to their call and threw her hat in the ring. “I never saw myself in elected office because I worried that I would lose my voice. But I still very much speak truth to power, I’m still very committed to serving the community in a way that is authentic, and I still put the citizenry and our stakeholders first.”
After winning the election, Patterson-Howard felt the first thing that needed to be done was to reengage the community. Her team put together seven transition teams with over 25 community members on each team, along with experts on the subject matters. She’s also been focusing on critical economic development for Mount Vernon.
BEING A SOCIAL JUSTICE ADVOCATE
In true John Jay form, Patterson-Howard is committed to social justice issues. She’s worked for over 25 years on prisoner-reentry programs and criminal justice reform.
“After people have been prosecuted and served their time, when they come back into the community, there are essential services and supports that they need to ensure that they don’t recidivate. This is not only for their betterment, but also for public safety.” For the past 10 years, Patterson-Howard has run a program called SNUG (which is the word “guns” spelled backwards) that helps lower community violence by employing system-impacted individuals to be change agents and credible messengers. “I had one gentleman who went in for second degree murder at the age of 18. He came out at 44,” says Patterson-Howard. “He knows what it’s like to make one stupid decision that changed the trajectory of his life. For the past six years, he’s been working hard to reduce the potential of that happening to more young people like him.”
BEING A LEADER DURING COVID-19
With tens of thousands of confirmed cases of Covid-19 in Westchester County, and sadly hundreds of deaths as a result of the disease, being the Mayor of Mount Vernon during these challenging times would test the mettle of any leader. Luckily, Mount Vernon has an inspiring leader at the helm. “As businesses started to shut down, people started to feel anxious. But instead of panicking about the situation, I suggested that they let their anxieties drive them to plan, prepare, and prevent. Use the time at home to connect with your family. We have to take this deadly disease seriously, and as a community we have to practice precaution on the front end to save precious lives.”
Photography: Courtesy of the City of Mount Vernon