HAGERSTOWN, Md. (WDVM) — In Western Maryland, you don’t have to look far to find strong black leaders. They’re right in the community, working to improve the lives of the people they work for. But there’s no one-size-fits-all for styles of leadership. And while Hagerstown city councilmembers Tiara Burnett and Tekesha Martinez have many things in common on the surface …
“We are friends, we grew up in the same area,” said Burnett.
The two say they have their fair share of differences. But according to these women, those differences have a positive impact on the way the council is run.
“I think that that’s what’s important for other people to know,” said Martinez. “Just because you look alike, or you have an ally in a place, you have to be able to appreciate the things that are different as well.”
Martinez and Burnett both grew up in Hagerstown, in the Jonathan Street community. Neither woman thought she would end up in local government, let alone imagine creating history as the first two black women to serve together on the city’s council.
“Of course, I didn’t run thinking, ‘Oh, I’m going to make history.’ I just ran because I wanted to make an impact,” said Burnett. “And it’s been over a year and I’m still in shock that we’re here. I’m still not over the fact that we’re in this position.”
But Martinez said they had no time to dwell on the symbolism of their wins. “I think that there was so much work to be done coming into this administration — and not only that we came in in a pandemic,” Martinez reflected. “I don’t know that those moments I’ll be able to wrap my mind around until 10 years from now.”
Still, Burnett acknowledged that she and Martinez are crafting the next generation of black leaders, and draws on her experience with the strong women who she looked up to as a child on Jonathan Street.
“I believe Tekesha and I are those women,” said Burnett. “But we need more of that. We can’t just do it by ourselves, we need the whole community back to be that voice again.”
The councilwomen had a great deal of advice for the young black people of Hagerstown, especially young black girls. But above all, Martinez and Burnett encouraged the youth to avoid trying to fit inside of a box, and to learn to work with a wide range of people — not just those who agree with you.
“At the end of the day, I realized that I can’t please everyone. And that’s a challenge for me personally, that I’m trying to overcome,” said Burnett.
“My perspective has to be inclusive, to everyone,” said Martinez. “So it’s 40,000 people. The amount of people who voted and think like me, and believe in me, is only 5,000 people. [There are] still so many other people that still need representing.”
While Martinez and Burnett may seem to have all the answers, they’re still learning as they navigate their very public roles as Hagerstown community leaders, and still have to overcome the obstacles that come with the color of their skin.
“No matter how much work I’ve done, no matter how well known I am, I still wake up as a black woman in Washington County,” said Martinez.
“I show up with my afro and my big hoop earrings, and I show up in a different color hair,” said Burnett. “And if I want to wear a wig, I’ll choose to do a wig, if I want to wear braids, I’ll do that. It’s just my part of rebelling to say that I am who I am and that’s it.”
While Martinez and Burnett said they haven’t given serious thought to another run for city council just yet, they said they’re open to all of the possibilities the next two years could bring.