After a white police officer killed a black teenager in Ferguson, Mo., it wasn’t surprising that people in Tacoma, Wash., decided to march in protest of the decision. That was happening in many cities. But most places didn’t have the mayor and police chief leading the march. Then again, Marilyn Strickland isn’t like most mayors. She’s the first African-American, first Asian-American and second woman elected to Tacoma’s highest office. Rather than avoid a conversation about race relations, Strickland has promoted it. “Being a female of color,” she says, “there probably is an expectation there. And I’m happy to fulfill it.”
Strickland likes taking unconventional positions. When she ran for mayor in 2009, she decided to focus on improving the local public school system, something not under mayoral control. “I knew education was tied to just about everything you’d want to accomplish as mayor.” She advocated for a change to state law allowing charter schools, helped create a local college scholarship fund and launched a summer jobs program that gives students academic credits toward their diploma. The results so far have been promising: High school graduation rates have climbed from 55 to 78 percent during her time in office.