Public involvement key for BI’s new mayor

When Brenda Fantroy-Johnson was a kid living in inner-city Detroit, seeing the mayor drive by was a big deal.

But, after spending a few years working on race equity and serving as a city councilmember, Bainbridge Island’s first black mayor said her perception of politicians has changed and that the Detroit mayor from her childhood was “just a regular guy.”

Fantroy-Johnson grew up with two brothers, a sister and her single mother, who cleaned houses for wealthy families in the nearby Gross Point Woods neighborhood.

When her mother died at age 41, Fantroy-Johnson experienced some difficult times but eventually put herself through college and earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees.

She worked for the state of Michigan for 17 years, starting as a file clerk and rising to become a social worker. But, after a year in the child abuse section, she needed a change. “It was too hard to look at what people could do to kids.”

Fantroy-Johnson became a computer technician. When she got certified in information security, her career took off because it was a new field. Her husband encouraged her to apply for jobs out of state when she hit the ceiling there. “I had no concept of that because I had been in Michigan all my life. We were a union town, and you didn’t leave your job; you stayed there. They cared about you; you cared about them.” But times had changed.

She took a job in Ohio for six months and then hired on with Nordstrom in Seattle. When her husband visited, they would go on house hunting trips, and during one to Bainbridge, she found the house they share on the north end.

While at Nordstrom, one of her areas of concern was disaster preparedness, and she organized an earthquake event for her neighborhood. “It turns out that Bainbridge Prepares already had all the information I needed, and that was my first intro to city activities.”

As mayor, one thing she’s concerned about is public involvement. “I want to find a better way for people to be engaged and know what’s happening. But once you get involved, stay involved.”

Fantroy-Johnson said the city is doing its best, especially with the Winslow sub-area planning and the Comprehensive Plan update and building equity to reach out to marginalized groups and people of color who don’t usually participate.

Her desire to take issues to the City Council is what inspired her to make her first visit to City Hall. In 2019, her friend, Karen Vargas, called her and said, “Hey, we’ve got trouble in River City,” and asked Fantroy-Johnson to speak to the council about racist events happening around the island. Someone had painted a swastika on a yoga house, and some kids on the bus were receiving racial slurs from schoolmates.

When Fantroy-Johnson arrived at City Hall, she signed her name on a list and entered a room packed with people, not realizing that she had just put her name on the speaker’s list. “So I get up there, and I’m talking about my experience walking down Winslow Way and having people give me microaggressions, and I go on and on because I’m on a soapbox. And I told them we’re not going anywhere, and we expect our city officials to acknowledge what’s happening and do something about it.”

From that meeting, the City Council created the Race Equity Advisory Committee. Fantroy-Johnson then got on the Race Equity Task Force and worked to make sure everything the council does is viewed through an equity lens. “It was a rocky start, but it was a move in the right direction, and through that, the city joined the Government Alliance for Race Equity, and we started training and learning about what other cities were doing.”

Once on the Race Equity Task Force, Fantroy-Johnson began seeing the difference in the way the community felt about having somebody of color in that position. “It was an honor to be looked at like that.”

Fantroy-Johnson said she got inspired to run for City Council after watching ex-mayor Rasham Nassar at the meetings. “She was a force to be reckoned with. She was one of the smartest persons in the room.”

And when Kol Medina resigned, Councilmember Joe Deets encouraged her to run. She talked it over with her husband, not thinking that it was a big deal. “But, it turned out to be a big, big, big deal.”

In the few years since Fantroy-Johnson stepped into the council chambers, her perception has changed. She values the personal connections she has with people on the island. She enjoys meeting people in a grocery store or restaurant. “You just have to be concerned and have time to do it. We’re of service to our community because everybody can participate and everyone’s voice ought to be heard. We can have a conversation and you don’t have to write to City Hall. It’s more personable.”

Her first couple of months as mayor have been busy. “Now that I am the chair of the council, I am the face of Bainbridge Island. And if there’s an emergency, I can command the police. But, I would probably go find the city manager to do that.”

Fantroy-Johnson enjoys reading her mail. “I get letters from little kids; that’s my highlight. They draw me pictures, and one little girl said, ‘Thank you for being the mayor.’ That almost made me cry. It’s that thing that says, I see you up there, and letting them know that they can be up there, too” someday.

She happily promotes the city, and lavishes praise on city employees. “We need to recognize the people who are being of service to us, and the least we can do is thank them for that.”

She also enjoys that Bainbridge is a tight-knit community. “You can put a message on Facebook or Nextdoor, and somebody will be at your house like that, and they don’t even know you. I never had the wealth of friends that I’ve had here. Bainbridge Island is a great place to live, work and play. And now I get to participate on a different level.”