Legislature chooses first woman of color leader

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Leslyn McBean-Clairborne, Tompkins County legislator and director of the Greater Ithaca Activities Center, has spent most of her life in America advocating for civil rights and equitable treatment. As she tells it, she’s seen her and others’ efforts affect positive change in the county, and those changes were on full display when the county Legislature made history this month.

On Feb. 18, McBean-Clairborne was selected as chair of the Legislature, becoming the first woman of color to lead the county Legislature.

“It brings me a deep sense of pride that my colleagues have this confidence in me,” she said. “[This is] helping our Legislature continue to grow and thrive in the 21st century and bringing us to that place where we continue to be a role model and leader for other municipal governments.”

The decision ends a long stalemate in the Legislature, where for over a month starting at the beginning of 2020, legislators were deadlocked between chair candidates Anna Kelles and Mike Lane.

Kelles recently announced her candidacy for the 125th Assembly District seat, withdrawing her nomination for Legislature chair. In her place, she nominated McBean-Clairborne, who became chair after a 9-5 vote in the most recent Legislature meeting.

Kelles said she is proud of McBean-Clairborne and knows her history proves she was made for the job.

“Leslyn is a true representative of and for the people,” Kelles said. “Her personal experiences have helped shape the courageous woman we know, a public servant whose resolve to champion equity for all Tompkins County residents is unparalleled. I’m honored to serve with her.”

McBean-Clairborne’s history is indeed filled with great challenges and great successes. In 1989, she left her home country of Guyana, South America, to join her mother in the U.S. Though she had graduated high school and was a trained teacher in Guyana, she said she had to visit her mom.

“Although I came with a permanent visa, I thought I would just visit and go back home,” McBean-Clairborne said. “I found my mom, and I did not want to leave her.”

Starting a fresh life in a new country was difficult, but having her mother with her helped assure her that she could handle whatever this next step in her life had in store. She spent nearly a year in Auburn, New York, having to start practically from scratch because her teaching degree wasn’t accepted.

Through her experience of trying to make a new life for herself, McBean-Clairborne faced challenges like adopting the language and customs, but one thing that she did not anticipate was the microaggressions she experienced regularly when looking for work and at her new jobs.

She’d have phone interviews that seemingly went well and then get turned away when she went in person and the managers saw the color of her skin, and people would treat her differently than some of her peers.

Improvement was slow, but one big step of progress happened in one of her first jobs in the U.S., working as an assistant at an office job. One of her responsibilities was making coffee for her boss, but the percolator was new to her and therefore difficult to use. The result was terrible-tasting coffee that angered her boss so much that she nearly got fired. But her boss’s boss decided to give her a different role that suited her better instead.

“It actually was a promotion – that’s how I looked at it,” McBean-Clairborne said. “And to this day, I don’t know how to use a percolator, if those things still exist.”

From Auburn, she took a job in Syracuse teaching English as a second language in an elementary school. But her training and love in Guyana was for high school, so looking for new work, she closed her eyes, pointed to a map of New York and applied to the top three places she found. Ithaca was the first place to give her a job, so she moved here in 1990.

In Ithaca, McBean-Clairborne still faced many of the same challenges and microaggressions as in Auburn and Syracuse, only here, she found someone who would shape her life for years to come.

“It took a lot of learning and a lot of teaching from my mentor, Diann Sams, to truly understand some of what was happening to me being attributed to racism and classism and immigration status,” she said.

Sams, who died in 2005, was a city alderwoman and leader and advocate for Ithaca African-Americans and people with disabilities. In 1987, she became one of the first African-American women on the Ithaca City School District board and in 1993, she was elected as the first African-American woman on the Ithaca Common Council.

McBean-Clairborne lived with Sams for some time in Ithaca when Sams needed a caregiver and McBean-Clairborne needed a place to stay. She credits Sams as one of the biggest influencers on her eventual decision to try to help others who had experienced what she did.

“I began to take stock of and be serious about advocating for people’s basic human and civil rights because of what happened to me, and those experiences shaped my strong advocacy to this day,” she said. “No one should be overlooked because someone wouldn’t take the time to figure out something with them.”

In 2000, McBean-Clairborne joined the Legislature, which she said was something she hadn't even thought about doing. Other community members like Sams, Lynn Jackier, Joyce Muchan and Raquel Mercado encouraged her to do so, and she knew she had to do it based on her history. 

“I felt that my voice, the experiences of people like me, all of the things that I had experienced and all the things that go into making this community what it is, that it was a voice that I and others thought was not present on the Legislature at the time that I ran,” McBean-Clairborne said. “I felt compelled, like I have an obligation to be there to represent those causes and work to share those voices.”

Prior to the Legislature, she worked for the Human Rights Office, and once on the Legislature, she served on every committee and chaired the county’s affirmative action committee and transitioned it to the committee of workforce diversity and inclusion, according to Kelles.

“I’m one voice, at that time, one of 15 votes, but I think that I made a tremendous impact on highlighting even more some of the issues that weren’t … getting as much priority attention as they should get,” McBean-Clairborne said.

Sams also introduced her to GIAC, where she started as a camp counselor and worked her way up to deputy director and, now, director. McBean-Clairborne said her experience at GIAC was instrumental in shaping her approach at the Legislature.

“[At GIAC,] the mission and the core of what we do, the foundation of it is social, economic, racial justice,” she said. “Those fundamental qualities are also the core of what I bring to my position as a legislator.”

McBean-Clairborne said she’s seen the results of her positive effect on the Legislature, bringing more attention to issues like public safety, homelessness and economic development.

“Another big thing for me is diversity and inclusion,” she said. “That’s one of the things I picked up and have started a movement in county government – to make diversity and inclusion a culture change, a part of everything we do in county government, not an add-on, not a second thought, but a natural way of doing and being in county government.”

Those efforts were a driving force behind the Legislature’s decision to elect her as chair, as several legislators attested.

McBean-Clairborne said that as much of a welcome event as the vote was to her, what hit her the hardest was her son’s reaction to the news.

“He said, ‘You’re one of the trailblazing black leaders since the beginning who’s been cleaning up messes, doing things efficiently and helping others to grow and thrive,’” she said. “And that means so much to me.”

As chair, McBean-Clairborne said she plans to continue focusing on public safety and diversity and inclusion, as well as ensure that the legislative body works well together and communicates effectively within itself and with its constituents.

“We’re all bringing different expertise to the table, and I think, collectively, we can definitely be a force to be reckoned with in affecting good change for the people of Tompkins County,” she said. “I will continue to be a strong advocate for a living wage throughout our county.”

With this role and others, she looks forward to the example she can set for her family and her county.

“For far too long, we as black men and black women have been told that we can’t, we do not meet the qualifications to do what we do, that we only got there because of … affirmative action, and I’m happy to be able to show my child and others that we can, as long as the playing field is level, and everybody’s playing by the same rules,” she said. “We’re brilliant enough, we’re talented enough, we’re skilled enough, and we can aspire to and achieve more.”

 
 

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