As the sole Black woman elected to an at-large City Council seat for the past two decades, Blondell Reynolds Brown has been a consistent advocate for children’s issues and diversifying government.
But come 2020, she won’t sit for a sixth consecutive term.
Reynolds Brown will not seek re-election in the Democratic primary in May. The 66-year-old said she examined her career on City Council and decided to continue her work on public policy, children’s initiatives and other pursuits outside of politics.
“I can still do that, I can still make a difference, but I do not have to be elected to do that,” she said during a telephone interview Thursday.
Just don’t say she’s retiring.
“Retiring will not be part of my equation,” she said. “I simply made a choice to be thankful for the 20 years of City Council and I’m choosing to do something more and something different in a new space. I am not retiring.”
A different kind of Peace Corps
Born in Sumter, South Carolina, as the oldest of seven children, she moved to Philadelphia with her mother and siblings at the age of 5.
Reynolds Brown graduated from Philadelphia High School for Girls and then went to Pennsylvania State University for undergraduate and graduate studies in education. She was on track to join the Peace Corps at 22.
But that path was not meant to be.
Reynolds Brown said she recalled her mother, who was a widow, telling her, “You have three siblings in college and you have three siblings to go: Your Peace Corps will be right back here in Philadelphia.”
Her mother’s request to return to Philadelphia to help her family left a mark on Reynolds Brown.
“It was more than a seed, it really became the anchor for looking out for others, even when you don’t want to and even if you have other dreams. There’s responsibility that comes with being the oldest,” she said.
Reynolds Brown came home and taught in the city’s public schools.
A career of service
Reynolds Brown, who lives in the Wynnefield neighborhood of the city, began her political career as an also-ran.
She first sought an at-large seat on City Council in the 1995 Democratic primary but failed to crack into the top five Democratic positions in the primary that all but guarantee victory in the general election.
Four years later and with her 3-year-old daughter Brielle Autumn Brown on her hip, the former Philadelphia school teacher was elected to one of seven at-large City Council seats.
Reynolds Brown said she was motivated to run for City Council because of what she saw first-hand while working in Harrisburg as a legislative aide for state Sen. Chaka Fattah: Women — particularly Black women — were not at the decision-making table.
“I found my stride on City Council,” she said.
Always motivated by “big-picture public policy stuff,” Reynolds Brown is known for her work ethic — “No one can out work me.”
She regularly asks department heads about their diversity figures during their spring budget requests.
She has also worked to pass legislation that requires private businesses to disclose the racial and gender makeup of their boards, and pushed to establish the Mayor’s Commission for Women.
She was the lone woman to win at-large elections from 2000 to 2016, a streak that ended with the election of Councilwoman Helen Gym in 2015.
Reynolds Brown’s place was not lost on her.
“You’re inspired to become a gnat and to have a voice in those spaces where there’s still unfairness and inequality,” she said. “And so that gives you reason to want to continue to return because we still have so much work to do.”
During her 20 years in office, Reynolds Brown said her top legislative accomplishment was the creation in 2000 of the Fund for Children, which pays for youth initiatives in the areas of after-school programming and parenting workshops.
The legislation came about during the city’s negotiations with the Philadelphia Eagles and Phillies organizations about their lease agreements and stadiums. In the end, Reynolds Brown said she helped ensure the organizations each contribute $1 million annually for 30 years to the fund.
As she nears the end of her final term in office, Reynolds Brown said, strides have been made since she entered office to place more women in leadership positions in city government.
But few African-American women hold leadership positions in city government, and the councilwoman said the city ought to work with more minority and women business enterprises.
“Our city needs to do better,” she said.
So what’s next for Reynolds Brown after City Council?
“To be continued,” she said. “I will not be taking time off; I’ll be able to breathe.”
Reynolds Brown hinted that she’ll continue working on public policy initiatives, and may even write a few children’s books, too.
“Let me say this, I’m going to finish a couple of children’s books,” she corrected herself with a laugh.
As for her City Council seat, Reynolds Brown hopes another Black woman wins an at-large seat. While she intends to endorse a candidate, she declined to do so yet.
Winning an at-large City Council seat for any Black women will be a challenge, but Reynolds Brown had some advice.
“You run like the mayor” as an at-large candidate, she said, adding, “You’ve got to show up prepared. You’ve go to show up equipped with a track record of service to others,” and “you have to show up with a war chest.”