COVER STORY: Sharon Owens, Deputy Mayor, City of Syracuse

Sharon Owens believes that everyone deserves a nice place to live.

“Every day of my life, the ultimate goal is that every resident deserves to live in a safe, affordable, clean, prosperous neighborhood,” Owens said. “We have a long way to go in some neighborhoods, but that is the mission and to do it in a way that celebrates the diversity of who we are as a city.”

Owens, now the deputy mayor of the city of Syracuse, has spent her entire career trying to make that happen. She began working in the non-profit world after graduating from Syracuse University in the 1980s. She credits her success to the inspiration of her mother, who grew up in poverty and held her children to a high standard.

“It wasn’t a question of ‘do you want to go to college,’ it was “you’re going and what are you going to study,’” Owens said.

Getting in on the ground floor

Owens started her career at the Dunbar Center working with families on the Southside of Syracuse, and then went on to PEACE Inc. where she stayed for 14 years.

“PEACE was a place that really cultivated my career development in all aspects,” Owens said.

She credits that development to Lou Clark, the CEO at the time and career mentor to Owens. During the 1990s, Syracuse was in an infant mortality crisis, with high numbers of children dying before age 1. The Onondaga County Health Department partnered with PEACE on an initiative to target the city’s Lower East Side of Syracuse to address the problem. Clark tapped Owens to manage the project. Owens was able to identify barriers for mothers and pregnant women in Syracuse, and her office was on the first floor of an apartment building, putting her face to face with the members of the community every single day.

“We were literally on the ground level,” Owens recalled.

After leaving PEACE, Owens moved over to Parent and Child Centers, now called Early HeadStart, where she took on the Directorship of Family Support Services supporting parents with children in the preschool program or under 3 years old.

“Those folks had kids with either babies or preschoolers, and later in my career, I’d see them and they would tell me their baby was in high school and they were ready to buy a house,” Owens said. “The lesson for me was that the role you play in the lives of people is for that place and time. It can plant a seed that you may not see the end growth of what you did, but your role at that moment was to do what you needed to do to cultivate that seed.”

Owens saw the residual of that as she progressed into other roles in the non-profit. She said is constantly running into people she has helped along the way.

“I can remember one particular woman who was at HeadStart,” she said. “Her oldest son was in the preschool program. She and her new husband were living in substandard housing. She knew she didn’t want this for her family or her children but she didn’t know where to start.”

Owens recalled that the woman got her GED, then her CDL and worked for transportation. Owens saw her again when she came to Home HeadQuarters, ready to buy a house. Owens said she sees her often and they talk about her two children, now in their 20s.

“Seeing women coming back to me to tell me what they are doing now — for every time I feel like I can’t move the mountain or I’m not doing enough, or there is this perception that I’m a bureaucrat not doing anything… God sends that person to reenergize me and get me going again,” she said. “And they come out of the blue and [yell] ‘SHARON!’ I love those moments.”

Understanding the need

After being at PEACE Inc. for 14 years, Owens had given birth to her youngest child, who will be 20 in January, and she decided to stay home with him. During this time her son was diagnosed with autism. She said her son’s diagnosis gives her a unique understanding for families of special needs children.

“When people talk to me about their kids, I get it! He was the kid with the behavioral issues. He was THAT kid. And we just had to plug through. And around third grade, it was like the sun came out,” Owens recalled.

She noted that, while disability doesn’t discriminate based on socioeconomic status, those with access to more money also have access to more resources, which allows them to provide therapies beyond what’s required by law. It’s one of many issues caused by the wealth gap, Owens said.

“People in poverty, many of them work two or three jobs,” she said. “The myth that they are sitting around taking advantages of systems is bull. They are working their tails off every single day… using public transportation to get to multiple jobs and coordinating daycare. These are the most skilled people on the face of the earth. And that is where the divide happens particularly when you are talking about health, education, and housing…. everything!”

Changing city neighborhoods

After less than two years at home, Owens decided to go back to work. At that time, Jubilee Homes was looking for someone to help with some grant writing, planning, and policy development, and her former boss and mentor Lou Clark recommended they hire Owens. While neighborhoods had always been at the center of her work, that was Owens’ first foray into the housing development arena.

“I was engaged in programs that could affect how people looked at their lives and the skills they needed and what vision they had for themselves and their family and I would help them get along that path,” she said. “But I had no influence in how they lived and where they lived.”

At Jubilee, Owens believes she started to have an impact on where people lived and how neighborhoods were configured.

“Your vision for who you were as a person was transforming, but where you were living was not keeping up with who you were becoming,” Owens said. “Where you lay your head every night impacts you tremendously. I’m able to come [to work] every day energized and ready to go, because I’m able to lay my head down in a house that’s safe, clean, and affordable. I’m able to be in a neighborhood that I feel safe in, and not everyone in this city can say that.”

Owens continued on this path when she became the Assistant Director of Home HeadQuarters, helping underserved populations in Central New York with housing development, lending, and home ownership. At the time, Congressman James Walsh had made possible the Syracuse Neighborhood Initiative, making millions of dollars available to city neighborhoods. That initiative changed the composition and appearance of many neighborhoods across Syracuse.

“There are neighborhoods in Syracuse now that people cannot remember the condition they were in before that money came in,” Owens said.

When the foreclosure crisis hit, Owens became the Homeownership Center Director, helping clients with foreclosure prevention. The shift in roles was an opportunity for her to be face to face with the community again.

“When you think of poverty in this community, and income stability the first and greatest asset any individual will have is their home,” Owesn said. “Not only were we trying to get people into homes, but get them in there sustainably.”

‘Just the right thing to do’

Owens began her career in public service shortly thereafter, joining Mayor Stephanie Miner’s administration as Deputy Commissioner of Neighborhood and Business Development. In this role, Owens was able to continue the neighborhood and housing related work she had been doing with Home Headquarters, but with the added responsibility of overseeing the distribution of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) funds, and she was the Minority and Women Owned Business Enterprise (MWBE) Compliance Officer. Owens was also the hearing officer for water shut-offs in the city. Often, landlords would not pay the water bill and tenants would be left without water, despite having paid their rent on time. Owens negotiated payment plans and set up a process by which the tenants would have a voice.

“Some things are just the right thing to do,” Owens said.

In May 2013, she left Mayor Miner’s administration to become the Director of the Southwest Community Center. She had worked in the building while she was at PEACE, Inc.

“It just felt like going back home to me,” she said.

But it wasn’t the kind of safe home she hoped to provide for city residents.

“The building itself was in disrepair,” she said. “There was gang activity in the neighborhood. It was keeping people away.”

She had a two-fold plan in her first 100 days as director. First, she wanted to change the environment of the building to make sure people felt safe. Secondly, she wanted to improve the building itself. In addition to cosmetic updates, Owens upgraded the HVAC system and the security system. Owens had to make some tough decisions, but she successfully grew the center from $3.1 million to a $5.2 million organization. She changed the perception of the space in more ways than one.

 “Any conversation that’s going to happen around how people of color, particularly African Americans, live, work, and play in the city of Syracuse, that conversation is going to happen at Southwest Community Center,” she said. “We began a campaign to make a hub of community conversation around life in the city for people of color. At the end of the road I left the agency in a better place than it was.”

A life of public service

When Mayor Ben Walsh was elected in 2017, Owens was his first major appointment. At City Hall, there are five senior staff including Owens, and she covers police, fire, neighborhood, and business development.

“I am the service part, which fits into who I am and who I have been my entire life.” Of her move to City Hall, Owens said, “I want to now take my experience and my know-how and what I’ve learned on the ground to a policy level in government.”

Owens admits she is an insomniac. What keeps her up at night is that she sees people struggling but can’t fix it immediately.

“On a larger scale, I can implement policies that can help it. I can’t control everything,” she said. “I’ve been doing this for 30 years, engaged in the community and many people never knew me before I took this job. For some people working for government there is an immediate switch over that means you’re a bureaucrat. It does bother me when people have a perception that the person changed all of a sudden because I’m sitting in this office.”

Owens said she doesn’t see herself as a politician.

“I don’t do politics well,” she said. “I say what I think because I don’t have time. ‘This is what’s best for people, so lets’ do it!’ I don’t do this job for political reasons, I do it because it’s about service… If you don’t understand from a basic foundation of what that word means, then you should never work for city government.”

In addition to her husband, Shaun, and her son, Owens has a grown daughter who lives in Rochester. Owens wants to keep our young people in Syracuse, instead of moving to other cities for career opportunities.

“What I’m seeing now with 5G and Smart technology and Microsoft interested in our city, and that is exciting, when it is inclusive,” she said. “When we transitioned from manufacturing to the computer age, we left a lot of people behind and we cannot do that again. I’m thoroughly excited about what’s on the horizon for us. This place isn’t the Salt City just because of its history and the salt industry, it’s the salt of the earth people.”

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