Ann Wall oral history interview, August 21, 2020

Ann Wall

Jennifer Daugherty
East Carolina University

August 21, 2020
Joyner Library Interior Courtyard
East Carolina University

JD: Okay, my name is Jennifer Daugherty. I am the North Carolina Collection Librarian, and I'm going to be doing this interview on August 21, 2020. And we are in the Joyner - at the Joyner Library in the interior courtyard. And I'm going to go ahead and let you introduce yourself. So if you will, please say your name, your birthdate and where you were born.

AW: My name is Ann Wall. My birth date is February 5, 1964. And I was born in Washington, DC.

JD: Okay. And can you share a little bit about your background like where you were from, where you went to school and anything you want to talk about them?

AW: Sure. I grew up in Northern Virginia, right outside of Washington, DC. My parents were both - were both in the Navy. My mom was a Navy nurse and my father was enlisted in the Navy. My sisters and I grew up in Northern Virginia, I went to the University of Virginia undergrad, I have a bachelor's in city planning. And following school at Virginia, I went to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, I have a master's degree in Public Administration. And from there, I have worked primarily in local government in North Carolina, spent a little bit of time in Florida in local government. But the vast majority of my experience has been in North Carolina, and primarily in eastern North Carolina.

JD: Okay. And just, you know, some of these questions may overlap a little bit. So if you feel like you've already answered, you're like, Oh, you know, kind of.

AW: And I figure Isaiah can cut and paste, so.

JD: Okay, so how and you know, why. How did you end up in the role you're in in? or Why did you end up in it, if that makes sense?

AW: So I got into planning in undergrad - graduate school because frankly, I took a class on geography and they let me color a map and I thought that was just the coolest thing. And I, so my undergraduate degree is in planning. But when it was time for me to think about jobs, what I realized is what would best prepare me was to get a graduate degree. And I wanted something that was a little more generalist than planning. And so I found this master's degree in Public Administration. Frankly, I have, I'm one of three girls, my two older sisters, I have two older sisters. And my middle sister had gone to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and had a Master's in Public Administration. So I was very familiar with the program. And it provided me that generalist background. In the program, I learned and developed this really great interest in what city and county managers do. I thought the whole idea of running a city and being able to shape the destiny of a city was just fascinating. And so early on, I had this desire this goal professional goal to be a city manager.

JD: Okay, go ahead.

AW: So I started, I took - I had a number of jobs in local government management, all to prepare myself to be city manager and I currently serve as the city manager of Greenville, North Carolina.

JD: How long have you been in that position?

AW: About three years.

JD: Okay. How do you exercise - how do you feel like you exercise your leadership skills in this role?

AW: I think I do. I exercise leadership almost every day, it's the - it's sort of the nature of my job, my job is to run, to guide my organization. And to work with the council as they - the City Council - as they set an agenda. And then to make sure that we execute the agenda that they have established, my job is also to set the tone, to set a - to work the values of the organization, to make sure we're true to who we want to be. And, and so leadership in every day, little opportunities, and maybe not little is not the right word, but more individual opportunities as I interact with employees and citizens, and broader as I work with my department heads and the community to really execute the direction that's established by the City Council.

JD: So sounds like you have a lot of opinions and people to balance.

[Crosstalk at 04:09-04-17]

AW: And I do. I would say, a very big table, people a very big table of people who are interested, who are - have a voice and want to share that voice. But I would say I would, I would very much classify my job is sitting in a very large table, and I think that's awesome. I think that's good.

JD: Okay, um, what accomplishments are you most proud of in your career or in your public service in general? Because I know you said that you have done a lot of work in local government and

AW: I, I would give you a couple of accomplishments, first and a very broad sense. I'm very proud of the organization here in Greenville. I believe we developed we deliver wonderful customer service, and we deliver great public services to the community. So I'm really proud of that. From a physical standpoint, one of the - one of the projects that I'm really proud of and really believe it is accomplishment is the Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza. It's a new Plaza that the city we just dedicated in the last two weeks, it is a $2 million plaza on the Town Common that seeks to record and to memorialize a neighborhood that existed on the Town Common that was eliminated through urban renewal. And the neighborhood was a primarily African-American working class neighborhood. And some decisions were made in the 60s and the neighborhood, many of those residents were relocated out. And this was the city's investment into making sure that we captured history, and we recorded history. And if you go to the memorial, it is very reflective of a church that once stood on the grounds. But there are also photographs and history of what transpired on that ground. And it's really wonderful. And I hope everybody goes to look at it. And that the third thing I would say I'm really proud of right now in 2020, is how my organization has adjusted to and responded to COVID - COVID-19, you know, we don't we have 100-year pandemic, we have emergency plans to deal with flooding and hurricanes, and snowstorms. But we never envisioned that we would need an emergency plan to deal with a pandemic. And what I can say is that my organization, the leaders in my organization have responded incredibly well. They've been creative, they've been thoughtful, they have really worked hard to make sure that we deliver all the public services that we are supposed to deliver, that we need to deliver in a really safe way. And they've been really responsive to the needs of the community. And I'm just incredibly proud. And I'm really feel very privileged to serve as city manager of that organization right now in 2020.

JD: Okay, and why do you think it's important to see females in leadership roles? If you do think it's important?

AW: Yeah, I do. As I was preparing for this, I remembered back to my first job, my first job I was an intern in a community very near here, very near Greenville. And I was the only female in sort of a leadership or management role in that organization, only one I can remember we would go on a staff retreat, and they would have to make special arrangements for my housing, because I was the only female. And so I have watched women in local government management evolved over the last 30 some years I got into local government in 1987. So I really watched women transition from - into broader roles. I mean, right now, I'm the city manager of an organization. And I think that what we bring what women bring is we bring, and I don't want to speak for all women, right? Um, I would I can say I speak, I think that I bring a I think I bring a desire to include everyone. I think I like to work from that big table, I bring this desire for everybody to have a seat at the table. I think I bring a perspective of a female, I'm a single, I'm a single mom, I raised a - my son is 25, I bring the perspective of a of a mom trying to manage work and home, I bring a just a different player to the organization that maybe makes us look at items in a, in a slightly different way. I can recall another time in my career where I had a - my son was very young at the time, and I was managing work and daycare, and a pretty, pretty busy schedule at work. And I went into my boss and I said, look, I'm going to be honest with you. I got to be out of here at 5:30 because I got to go pick up my son, and I'm happy to take work home and I'm happy to do work after he goes to bed. But I have to be here out of here at 5:30 to go pick him up. And he said no problem. He appreciated that I was up front with him. And he came and I would be in meetings with him and at five about 5:25 - the daycare was very close by - but about 5:25 he looked at me and he go okay, and I get up and leave. And I took a lot of work home and I'd work on the weekends when my son was at his dads. But I would I was able to successfully manage it probably because I had a great boss who was willing to give me the ability to do that and help me to be able to do that. But I think that perspective, that mom, that balancing, that might my knowledge of what women have to go through every day particularly moms has really helped me in my career.

JD: And the next question, I think that this actually kind of ties in. And like you said, you had a good boss to kind of help you. But how do you think traditional gender roles have helped or hindered you?

AW: And, you know, I think - I think a little bit of both, I think that it early on in my career, it was very unusual to have females in local government, you probably at that time, could have counted just a few females in executive levels in local government in North Carolina. It was a that was very unusual. I think that sometimes I, my coworkers who were males really didn't know what to do with me. They just didn't know what to do. And I think that we both, we both I and as well as those male coworkers, we had to figure out, what are the sort of operating norms that we had to work under, I can remember I used to always say to them, don't refer to me as a girl. Don't call me a girl. Right? I'm not and, and we don't work with girls - a girl is someone who's under 12, right? Don't call me a girl. Instead, I you know, call me a female, a woman, a lady, hey you, but don't refer to me as a girl. And, and, and they would come, I would be in staff meetings. And they would go well, that girl and I look at them. And they go, that lady who worked at the front desk. And so I feel like I was fortunate to be in a place where I had most of my male coworkers were willing to hear me out. And I was pretty assertive about sort of communicating what those norms should be. I do think to some extent, being a female in this sort of non-traditional, other people, it was unusual at times, I never got invited out to play golf, right? I don't play golf. So that's okay, but nobody ever in and, and we all know that there are some informal places that work gets done, never got invited to do that kind of stuff. And I had to figure out how to work around it. And others had to figure out how to work around it. On the other hand, I think that it was I was a little bit of a novelty, I stood out. And I like the fact that it that I was one of just a few, I kind of like that I like I kind of like being a little bit unique. And I was able to get my name out and information out about me a little easier than others. So maybe it worked to both of my advantages, I will say I don't know if it's going to come up. But I'll say I was very fortunate have been very fortunate that I have had some extraordinary mentors in my career that have helped me that they have been my sister was in local government. She is in a different state, but she could help me navigate. I had about two-three bosses that were really great. They took me under their wings. They helped me make important decisions. They guided me in work environments, they gave me the ability to talk out issues, they gave me opportunities. And I think that that I don't know if that was because I was female or not. I do believe that that mentor relationship was absolutely vital for my career.

JD: Did you ever feel, I don't know how to say like - did you ever feel like anyone ever questioned your authority, or there was any. Or do you think it was sort of like a gender thing? Or do you think it was just like a just. That they would have been questioned? anyway?

AW: Um, I think I think it could have been one, I think, yes, I've had people to question my authority. And I think it could do with both my, my gender, as well as my age at that point. I was. I was fairly young. And I think that some people might have question, why am I sitting across the table from a 20-year-old and having this discussion. I once questioned somebody in a different department, and he was furious with me. And I actually think, I think it was probably, I think it was that I was female, and it was, and it was my age. And I had a boss at that time, who was willing to support me to say the guy, look she's not questioning your authority, she's simply trying to get some information because this is information that we need, and they put in a little broader context. And in the end, we kind of worked out some of those - some of those issues. I think it has happens a lot, I do think it probably happens with females probably more than others, particularly those that are in, in sort of non-traditional roles. And then, but it's happened and I think that I think you've got, I think you've, you've got to deal with it in the best way that suits you. In, in my case, I probably dealt with it a lot with some with a little bit of humor, and a little bit of let's, let's try to talk about what the issue is, and, and in the end, we all got to work through it. You know, we all got to work through that. Not that it's okay. I'm going to just say that not that it's okay. And I think it has certainly happened less over time. A, because I think people have gotten used to seeing women in some of these roles. And B, because I'm a little older.

JD: Well, I know what I'm planning and city management, sometimes you have to tell people no, and that's never a popular thing.

AW: That's right. That's right. And, you know, and you've got to learn over your career how to finesse those no's, so that it and you can be assertive and aggressive in the no, or sometimes you just have to finesse it in a different in a different way. And I think that part of that goes to communication and the ability to get the point across in a way that that people can focus on the it more on the issues than less than the manner the manner and or by whom it was communicating.

JD: Absolutely. So then, the next one kind of relates directly to COVID-19. So if you feel like you've kind of answered this, we can skip it, but how has your experience with leadership been helpful during the COVID-19 pandemic?

AW: So, um, over my 30, some years in local government, I have worked in a variety of emergency management situations - done bad weather, snow storms, ice storms, hurricanes, floods. I've done some civil unrest. And what I know about emergency management is you got to you need to understand the issue, you've got to draw on plans, and you've got to draw on others expertise. And you have to make decisions at the right time. And as those emergency situations evolve as time goes on, and that that experience with COVID has really shown me that, because the decisions we would we did make or we made in March are very, are very different issues that we're looking at now in August. In March, we thought first, we were trying to get our wrap our arms around this, we were trying to understand it, we thought it was going to be so much shorter term and March, we thought, you know, we're going to shut down a couple weeks, and that this - things are - going to things are going to get back to normal and it's going to be fine. And it hasn't, it hasn't been that way at all. And even the whole shutdown, we're thinking you're going to shut down the whole community. We're going to do that. And then understanding who are the right partners, what's everybody's role? How do we all work together? So leadership is to me is making sure that you're setting your staff up and empowering them to make those decisions. And you're also setting the tone for collaboration and partnership to talk out issues. And I think we've done really well on in this COVID environment. And we'll continue to do well because frankly, in August of 2020, I don't really I don't - I don't see a light at the end of the tunnel. I don't think it's going to get dramatically better for quite a while. And we meet my staff, we get together every two weeks on a Zoom call. We all we share as we go through the Zoom call, where it's everybody going through what are the issues at hand? What are the things you're concerned about in the in the near term? And in the long term? And how are the employees doing because in our in our organization, we need to make sure we're supporting the employees because they're out in the field all the time. So what are we doing to help those employees to make sure that they have what they need to get their job done. And, but every two weeks, we sort of have that same conversation. And sometimes there's some new issues. Sometimes it's the same issues. But we'll continue to do that and make sure that we really are focused on making decisions at the right time and not, and not making. Decisions that - big decisions too quickly, making sure I don't have an old friend who once told me, sometimes your leadership is taking your foot off the gas, a little 10%, about 10%. And just sit back and think, look at what's around you without making a quick decision.

JD: It sounds like communication is just.

AW: Right? And, you know, COVID has made communication, so much difficult. I mean, we used to, we used to have big meetings with whole departments, and we can't, we can't bring everybody together. And so how are we we're doing that. And some of those traditional ways have really been more and more difficult for us to get some of the word out to our employees. And we've done it a lot with word of mouth and small groups of employees getting together. But even in the community, we've, we've really pushed the community to use social media, to make sure that they're engaged through our website, through our Twitter, through our Facebook and try to share as much information as possible. And then we're also trying right now to make sure we share some good news, because there's so much bad news out there, just trying to get some there, there are some positive things going on. And we want to make sure that we're reminding the community that, you know, life does go on and there, and there are some positive things happening in Greenville right now.

JD: Okay, so are there other ways, like even outside of your job that COVID-19 has impacted you or your life that you want to elaborate on?

AW: Right yeah, so personally, I am, my parents are in their 80s, they live in Virginia, my sisters and I have really tried to do everything we can to support my mom and dad, in this - in this pandemic, to make sure that they are, they're healthy, and they're safe. And that's been hard. That that has been hard to manage work here, and being here and taking care of my mom and dad from afar. And, uh, my son is in, he's in North Carolina, but he is a he's in the Triangle. And I think I've seen him twice since January. And that's super hard. It's just super hard. And I think that I had to remind myself sometimes that, you know, we're going to all get through it. And in about a year or two, we're going to look back, I think I can't believe we went through all of that. And it's made me appreciate friends and family, and more than I have.

JD: So do you think it's important to use your leadership skills to further positive social change? And if so, can you talk about some of those examples of that in your own life?

AW: Right, so I, you know, 2020 has been a very interesting year, certainly issues around race and equity have been on the forefront, certainly in the last couple of months. And I, I think that that is part of my job as a leader in both my organization in the community, to understand those issues, to acknowledge those issues, and to do what I can to, to identify our opportunities to affect change. So we have talked about, we're talking about issues around race and equity, I think it's part of my job is to, to make - to acknowledge again, I'm going to say this again, to acknowledge those issues, and to remind people that they exist, it, I think that because there's so much going on that we have COVID, and we have all of this, that we at times, and I'm probably guilty of it, too, we just want to cover ahead and go oh, my God, let it all kind of could we could life get back to normal, but we can't. And so we've got to put those issues on the table I we will frequently ask Are we are when we have a service. Are we making sure that we're delivering it in a way that everybody can have access to that service? Right? Are we doing it in a way that we can make sure that every - All of our city employees, we've done it in the past, but you can't ever - You can't ever train too much. So is there an opportunity to make sure that we're reminding employees about those issues so that they have at that rate, that lens of implicit bias they have a lens around race and equity. So when they are making decisions, do they understand the impact of the - of those decisions. I was fortunate to go through a leadership program. I worked full-time in Charlotte went to the leadership program in Charlotte and spent a year having a dialogue about race and equity. And I feel like it could not have been more timely to, to understand that I see the world, I see the way that I see the world because I'm a white female. And what I have to acknowledge is my world, others don't see the world the way that I see the world. And there are so many issues in there. And I have a piece in helping my organization in the community to go forward.

JD: Thank you. Is there advice you have for other females about how they can enact leadership in their own lives?

AW: How they can enact leadership. So I generally have some advice for females. So I'll say, and it's usually hearken to my experiences. The first thing I would say about females is to find a good, a good group of friends, a good group of acquaintances that you could you feel comfortable talking about issues, and those would be people who will be brutally honest, when they you need to hear, you need to have someone be brutally honest. In my case, that was my sister, my sister was very was very honest with me and straightforward. Maybe sometimes it ticked me off, but she would be very, she was always very upfront with me. And I could always go to her, and I knew that she would keep my confidence. So that's the first thing. The second thing is go find some mentors, go find people in a field that you, you want to be in and talk with them, have them serve as mentors, sometimes it can be a formal mentor relationship, where you say, will you be my mentor, and they say yes, sometimes it can be somebody who you think embodies the values and the leadership style that you appreciate. And you observe them and you talk to them, and you develop that sort of collegial relationship with them. But a mentor is really important, it's somebody to guide you, somebody to talk through issues, somebody to help you make decisions. And again, somebody who's going to be pretty honest with you about what you think I, I go back to the colleague that I had, who said, You're really good, you make great decisions, but sometimes you do them fast. And the best thing that you could learn is to take your foot off that gas pedal about 10%. And sit back and pause just a little bit before you make that quick decision. And I used to think making a quick decision was the best thing to do. But what I realized is slow down just a little bit. So finding a great mentor is just - is super important.

AW: And then the other thing I'd say to a female is be bold, you know, challenge, you know, go do something that you are - you feel uncomfortable with, go challenge your competence, just a little bit, but go make some bold decisions, go do something out of the box, go decide that, you know, you're going to try it and if it works great. And if it doesn't, okay? It's okay, you're going to have another opportunity to do something else, but be bold, and be challenged. And then finally, I'd say have a little fun. I have been fortunate in my career; I have worked on some amazing projects. And I look back in my and I feel so fortunate that I got to do the work that I did. And not every day was great. And some days were really hard. And some days I would come home and think oh my god, I cannot go back to work again. I just can't. But go, but every day I did and every - some days would get better, but go do something fun. Go enjoy it.

JD: And is there anything else you want to talk about that we haven't already covered? Or that you would like to contribute?

AW: Um, I can't think of anything that I that - I can't think of anything else that I would say. I just really no, I really can't think of anything else, Jennifer that I would say I appreciate the opportunity. I'd tell anybody who was who was watching that, you know, go do something that you want to go do and go and do it so that you enjoy it every day. And I feel like in the end that has served me well.

JD: Okay. All right. Well, thank you for being interviewed today. And we're going to go ahead and end the video. Thank you.

AW: Awesome. Thank you.

Ann Wall oral history interview, August 21, 2020
Oral history interview with Greenville, North Carolina's City Manager Ann Wall created as part of a 2020 Library Services and Technology Act Community Connections grant received by ECU Academic Library Services. Interviewer: Jennifer Daugherty. Wall discusses her experience as a woman in a leadership position in local government, being a role model, life as a single woman, the Greenville's Sycamore Hill Gateway Plaza, and Greenville's response to the COVID-19 pandemic, among other topics.
August 21, 2020
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oral histories video recordings
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Location of Original
East Carolina Manuscript Collection
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