"Our nation will be stronger for it." - A Q&A with Mayor Susan Shin Angulo
The Center for American Women and Politics (CAWP) recently released new data on women's representation at the municipal level, revealing that women hold less than one-third of seats in municipal governments (in cities and towns with populations over 10,000) nationwide. To provide additional context for this data, we asked one of those municipal officeholders, Cherry Hill Mayor Susan Shin Angulo, about her experience with and perspective on municipal leadership.
Mayor Angulo took office as the Mayor of Cherry Hill, New Jersey in January 2020, becoming the first Korean-American woman in that role. She previously served on the Camden County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Cherry Hill Township Council. She also served as a member of the Cherry Hill Zoning Board of Adjustments and the Human Relations Advisory Committee. Apart from her public service, Mayor Angulo has worked as a genetic researcher at the University of Pennsylvania, and has held sales and marketing positions in the pharmaceutical and biotech industries.
Our conversation with Mayor Angulo is provided in its entirety below.
You have served as Mayor of Cherry Hill since 2020, but have a long career in public service at the local level. What motivated you to take on public service roles at the local level? And what has kept you engaged in service at this level of office?
To put it simply - my family. My parents were always active in their community, church, and helpful to others, especially those less fortunate. They inspired me at a very young age. Fast forward to when my husband and I started our family here in Cherry Hill. I had been living in the township for just a few years and loved the town. I realized that Cherry Hill would play a significant role in my daughters’ lives growing up. However, I wasn't familiar with local government or how decisions about Cherry Hill's future were being made. That realization sparked my curiosity, and the more questions I asked, the more involved I got in Cherry Hill. I just knew I wanted to do more to make the township the best it could be for my daughters. My first introduction to municipal government was on our township zoning board, where I got a first-hand look at just how complex and important their work is and all that our township professionals do every day.
Cherry Hill is well-known, for example, for being a go-to shopping destination and dining scene where you can find global cuisine. But, at the same time, we have these inclusive, diverse neighborhoods and sprawling green spaces and parks that feel like oases amid the activity of our commercial corridors. We also have top-rate schools that make it an incredibly family-friendly place to live. It takes a delicate balance to make sure all of those equally important elements thrive together in one ecosystem. It’s important our growth isn’t just intentional. It must be smart and forward-thinking.
Maintaining that balance while promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion, fiscal responsibility, and public safety is a constant challenge, but well worth the effort. I'm committed to public service because I have seen the meaningful difference I can make in people's lives. Once you know that the work you do truly matters, it’s easy to stay the course.
CAWP’s new report on women in municipal government shows that women are less than a third of municipal officeholders in incorporated cities and towns with populations over 10,000. How – if at all – do you believe this underrepresentation of women matters for municipal governance in 2021?
Whenever and wherever important decisions are being made, it’s crucial that the people who will be impacted by those decisions have a seat at the table. That’s just one reason this statistic concerns me so much. How many decisions are being made without the perspective of women, who may have important lived experiences to contribute to the discussions? How many are being made without any input from women of color specifically?
Too often, when rooms of people who all look alike and have the same backgrounds get together to solve a problem, their efforts produce lackluster results. Study after study has shown that a diversity of ideas and experiences leads to more innovative thinking, and without that diversity it’s far too easy for leaders to miss blindspots, ignore potential benefits or downfalls, and rush to judgement. In municipal government, where our constituents entrust us to make decisions in their best interest, that narrow decision-making process is not just unacceptable, it can have lasting negative impacts on an entire community for generations.
Of course, making sure we're inclusive when it comes to municipal government – making sure those diverse ideas are actually heard and acted upon – is equally important for enduring and effective diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts.
You became Mayor of Cherry Hill, NJ in January 2020, just before the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and a national reckoning on racial justice issues. These issues are both felt acutely and reliant on policy at the local level. How have you navigated these challenges as Mayor of Cherry Hill? In what ways, if any, do you believe your own identities and backgrounds have informed your leadership during these crises?
Much of the past year — which amounted to a far more challenging and unprecedented first year than I could have ever imagined — has been about listening to my instincts and calibrating that with input and feedback from expert sources and community leaders. Of course my own experiences, including my professional history and identity as an Asian-American woman cytogeneticist, by default, is interwoven throughout that process.
When the very first reports of COVID-19 began to come through, for example, my educational background in the sciences helped inform both my understanding of the seriousness of the situation and communications with the local, state and national partners we have worked with closely throughout the pandemic. Our absolute top priority throughout has always been to keep our community safe, including our employees, our residents and anyone who comes to Cherry Hill to work, recreate, or do business. To help mitigate the incredible financial impact the pandemic has had across the community, we’ve also been focused on helping our small business owners, nonprofits, and residents in need.
We promptly made temporary use permits available and waived any applicable fees to allow restaurants to set up tables in their parking lots and other outdoor spaces. We also applied funding we received through federal Community Development Block Grants under last year’s CARES Act to help support our community. Recently, we launched a program to provide up to $20,000 in grant funding to nonprofits that have helped our residents survive the pandemic but who are, as organizations, financially struggling themselves. We’re in the midst now of rolling out a new Rental and Mortgage Assistance program for low- and moderate-income residents who saw their incomes substantially reduced because of COVID-19. We have more than $600,000 available to fund up to three months of past-due housing payments and applications for that funding opened up May 15th on a first-come basis.
The fight for racial justice presented an entirely different type of challenge as a new mayor. It wasn’t just about listening to experts and following their advice. It was about being human, listening to Black and Brown voices in our community that often aren’t given the attention and amplification they deserve, and standing up against white supremacy and the ways in which racism has been embedded in the systems that control so much of our daily lives. All communities of color have faced racism in various forms, some unique to each community, but insidious nonetheless. I knew I needed to listen to those experiences first and foremost, be empathetic, and take action.
What have you learned since 2020 about being a mayor that surprised you and/or was something that you didn’t know or anticipate prior to taking office?
Aside from the pandemic, which I definitely did not anticipate, I would say the biggest surprise has been how much fun it has been to perform wedding ceremonies. We have had more requests come into our office because of the pandemic’s impact on judges’s availability and couples’ inability to hold traditional ceremonies. Officiating a marriage was an aspect of the job I hadn’t thought much about before becoming mayor. Now it really has turned out to be such a bright spot this past year. Not only is it a true honor to be invited to be a part of one of the most important days in someone’s life, it also brings me so much joy, allows me to get to know our community on a different level and, at the end of the day, it reminds me what all this hard work is really about.
What do you think needs to be done to increase the gender and racial diversity of local elected officeholders?
A lot. And because the lack of diversity among elected leaders is rooted in complex factors on different levels, our response and solution to the problem should similarly take a multifaceted approach. One way to address the issue is to turn toward women and people from underrepresented backgrounds early on in their lives and encourage them to explore public service. Most importantly, we must work to reduce the barriers that often keep them from public service.
For example, unpaid internships are often well-intended programs that provide students with government experience with organizations that may not have the extra budget to hire them, but they can often have the unintended consequence of preventing students without external financial support from being able to participate, denying them resume-building experience and networking opportunities that help launch careers in politics.
Despite this systemic issue, many people from underrepresented backgrounds are still able to build up their professional experiences and networks and embark on promising careers in public service, only to leave the field after coming up against discrimination and bias, both explicit and implicit. On that level, in order to increase diversity in our elected officials, we must fight back at every turn, including by implementing bias training and taking a hard look at our policies and procedures through the lens of unintentional bias — especially at the processes that a potential candidate goes through before reaching the ballot.
Deliberate and resilient action to affect change at the local level can ensure our elected officials are truly representative of the communities they serve. However, we must also continue the momentum at the national level and take an honest look at systemic racism, sexism, and xenophobia throughout every institution in this country, and we must persistently confront it head-on. This will take years if not decades, but our nation will be stronger for it.
For more on women's representation in local office, see CAWP's latest data on women in municipal government.