Reciprocity: Jeanette White-Blackwell Is a History-Making and Humble Leader

  • Sep 9, 2020
  • Olivia Luppino

In 2019, as the first Black woman ever elected to the Middletown Common Council, Jeanette White-Blackwell made history. Working as a childcare and social worker since moving to Connecticut after growing up in North Carolina, White-Blackwell has always been an emotionally engaged and caring citizen. 

Once she got involved with Middletown’s Human Relations Commission in 2013, her desire to participate in government grew. This brought her to the Middletown Democratic Town Committee where she says she was “floored” by the opportunity to really learn more about how local politics works. 

“Having lived in this town for two decades, I had no idea…now I have a clue. I have a seat at the table to make decisions that will impact the citizens,” she said. Not only has her knowledge about how government works grown, but White-Blackwell uses this information to improve the lives of her constituents and to empower them. “When you get, you give; when you learn, you teach. I want to reach back” she said excitedly.

Reciprocity is my big thing. I can [reach back to my community] now because I have been informed, because I have more knowledge.

Her passion for bringing others with her is the mark of any great leader, and her accomplishment of becoming the first Black woman on the Common Council makes her example even more powerful because now countless little girls have a role model, and can see themselves represented. 

“A really wise woman suggested that we didn’t have a lot of women of color involved in local politics,” White-Blackwell remembered, talking about her decision to run and interest in Emerge. “I said ‘Okay, this is something I’m going to do,’” she said. “At the time, I didn’t have a desire to run for office because I was focused on becoming the first woman of color or the first Black woman to run for [the] office. It was really about me becoming more civically involved in an official capacity. So, I did, and I made history.” 

On running for office, Councilor White-Blackwell believes, “Any woman who wants to do it, should do it.” She also talked about how crucial having a group of women she feels safe around and supported by is. White-Blackwell wants more women involved in the political process because “policies are what can help to shape a community and a town for our children,” which is her main focus. 

Her desire to serve her community and ever-growing involvement is reflective of countless Emerge women. White-Blackwell herself serves on one committee and three commissions on the Council on top of her full-time day job. She would not have it any other way though. After explaining all of her commitments, she remarked, “My plate is full, but I have no regrets.”

This comes from the fact that she is truly honored and humbled by her “opportunity” to be on the Council. When talking about serving on the Council, she expressed gratitude to have this official role in her community, but it is clear that her community has a lot to be grateful for as well.

I am so blessed. I am so fortunate. I actually get very emotional when I think about the fact that I could not have imagined two years ago that I would be sitting on the Middletown Common Council. And so if I can do it, anyone can do it. It takes fortitude though.

One highlight of Councilor White-Blackwell’s work is sitting on the Middletown’s antiracist task force. In light of the death of George Floyd earlier this year, cities across the nation are waking up to the work that needs to be done, and this task force is an example of how Middletown is putting in that work. However, the beginnings of this task force predate Floyd’s tragic murder. Middletown began collecting data and information about racial inequalities in 2017. Working with the National Conference for Community and Justice, Middletown’s Human Relation Commission and the Middletown Racial Justice Coalition worked to lift up anti-racism conversations between community members and elected officials and developed report that will inform the task force’s approach today. 

Councilor White-Blackwell was proud to report that this work and commitment means that Middletown is “in a great place” to address inequities. Drawing on the ongoing discussions in the community, the antiracist task force is an evolving and all-encompassing group looking to promote equity in all aspects of life in Middletown.

A newer member of the Council, White-Blackwell has so much ahead of her and she is thinking carefully about the legacy she wants to leave behind. Councilor White-Blackwell is responding to the pandemic and she is proud of the Council’s ability to create block grants for local businesses. She is also on the building committee entrusted to oversee building a new school for the Middletown. 

White-Blackwell has already given so much to her community and will continue to empower its members to get involved in the political process too. When thinking about her role and future, she said “I am too thrilled. I don’t even have the words really to articulate how I feel about my accomplishment.” Emerge is also thrilled and is excited to see the history that she will make.