Tacoma Mayor Victoria Woodards grew up in the city she would, in 2017, be elected to serve. Moving around across many Tacoma neighborhoods as a kid, Woodards said she always maintained a positive attitude despite her family’s difficult financial circumstances.
“At most times in my life, we were not well off,” Woodards said. “I remember living in a house where we didn’t have electricity, and we could only get heat from the stove. And we ate nothing but grilled cheese sandwiches all the time. I thought it was fun. I never saw myself as poor — my attitude has always just been to find the good in everything.”
Woodards first cut her teeth in leadership and service when she got involved with a local church at 12 years old. After graduating from Lincoln High School, where she said she was an average student and had not been encouraged to go to college, she joined the military, which she said “forces leadership on you in ways you’re not accustomed to, and you grow up.”
Once out of the military, her career followed a nonlinear path, largely because, she said, it was unplanned. She never had a vision of where she wanted to end up — laughing and saying, “I certainly had no plans when I was younger of becoming mayor.” All of her work over the decades that she has lived in Tacoma has centered around service, from her time working at the Tacoma Urban League — a nonprofit that for 50 years has supported the local African American community in achieving social equity and economic independence — to her political career, which spans her work as a councilmember assistant; councilmember; and, currently, her title as mayor.
“My life goal has always just been to serve and be of value,” Woodards said. “I really believe that my love and care for people is the most important skill that I have. It’s natural to me to want the best for everyone, and to try to figure out how to get there. I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t always know how to do that. But that empathy, that eagerness to serve, that is my superpower.”
You did a lot of important work at the Tacoma Urban League. What did that entail, and what did you learn from it?
I think the catalyst for my entire trajectory of my life was getting the job at the Urban League. It was 1993, I was 28, and I was the assistant to the president. That was when I knew I would be doing community work forever. I didn’t know what it would look like, I didn’t know what I would do, but it just felt like home, like it was my call.
I got to try my hand at so many things — in the nonprofit world, there are never enough people to do the work, so I got to try different things and discover what I really loved.
I worked there for almost five years before I was offered a job to work as the legislative assistant to Harold Moss, who was the first African American city council member and the first African American mayor of Tacoma. I was offered the job in September, and on day one, it would have doubled my salary for half the amount of work. I didn’t make the decision to take it until November — that’s how much I loved my job at the Urban League, and for me it was never about money or prestige. Looking back on your career, what are some highlights that you’re most proud of?
Twenty years later, I got to come back and do a dream job, which was to become the president and CEO of the Urban League. At that time, I was either going to be the one to save the Urban League or the one that closed the doors. I set up new programs, got funding in the door, used my reputation in the community, and told my personal story: I’m what the Urban League produces, I’m proof that it does good work. Today, it’s still thriving, and I’m really proud to have been one of the people who got to take the lead and make sure it would have a sustainable future.
What most appealed to you once you started working in politics?
When I worked for Harold (Moss), I realized that I liked the ability to use my power for good. At that point, I wasn’t the out-front person, though — Harold was, and I thought that I was called to be the support person. When he retired and people told me to run, I was like, “No way; I don’t want to be an elected official.”
The first time I was elected, it was as a parks commissioner. Being the person out front, that was something I had to reckon with, but I did start to like it. I believe we all get gifts, and they’re different for everyone. And when you have a gift, I think you have an obligation to use it for the betterment of people. What I recognized was that in most cases, I was the only person sitting around the table who looked like me. I know I can’t speak for everyone in my community, but at least I was in the room, and I could bring a perspective that a lot of people in the room did not have. I took that as a very real responsibility, and I do to this very day. My gift is having the track record and experience and knowledge and skills to lift up all voices in this city.
Looking back on your career, what are some highlights that you’re most proud of?
There’s no one accomplishment that I’ve done by myself. But, you know, I’m pretty proud that the Urban League is celebrating its 50th anniversary. I’m proud of the fact that we pushed to open an Office of Equity and Human Rights in the City of Tacoma, and that we don’t look at things equally, but we look at things equitably. I’m proud of how the City is approaching the COVID crisis and how we’re investing in our community. Have we done everything as well as we could? No, because we’re human. But I believe that we are working as hard as we can.
As someone who has been both a community member and a high-profile leader, how do you think the roles are different?
I don’t really think that they are, at the end of the day. I think we all lead in different places. My leadership is no more important than a mother or father who leads their family. For all of us, there are moments when we have to speak up or step out. And I think being a good leader just means putting people first, caring for those around you, and making tough decisions based on the information you have at the time. And being willing to say, “I tried that; it didn’t work; I’m sorry,” and being able to take responsibility when something goes wrong.