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ABQ’s new leaders are women ready to change history

When the 7-year-old stepson of deputy chief of staff Justine Freeman introduces her, he includes “she works for the mayor.”

When Alicia Manzano was going to turn down the communications director job because of her 9-month-old daughter, her husband told her to take it “for the exact reason you’re turning it down – her.”

Women are leading in 10 of the highest-level jobs in Mayor Tim Keller’s administration. They include, from left, Communications Director Alicia Manzano, Aviation Director Nyika Allen, Cultural Services Director Shelle Sanchez, Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair, deputy chief of staff Justine Freeman, Human Services Director Mary Scott and Senior Affairs Director Anna Sanchez. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

When Anna Sanchez hesitated on taking the job of director of the Department of Senior Affairs, her husband told her, “You love this city, you believe in this mayor; if you don’t take it, you can’t say anything for four years.” Now when her 8-year-old daughter talks about her, it includes “Mommy’s a director.”

When Shelle Sanchez debated taking the Cultural Services director’s job, her 17- and 18-year-old sons asked her why she didn’t “just say yes.”

When Nyika Allen took the job running the Sunport, she saw “the long wall of photos – all white men” and realized “this is going to be different.”

And when the elevator doors close on Chief Administrative Officer Sarita Nair at City Hall, female employees “hug me and say, ‘I never thought I would work for a woman.’ ”

March is Women’s History Month, and the 3½-month-old administration of Mayor Tim Keller has filled a number of high-level appointments not only with women, but with women of color and women who are striving to find that elusive work-life balance as they care for their families.

Manzano says Keller has appointed 25 women to top positions in his administration – almost half of the 52 slots available. Ten are directors. In his last year in office, Mayor Richard Berry had six female department directors.

And Keller’s team says there’s a very different energy.

Mary Scott, who has been with the city for 14 years and was director of human resources under Berry and now Keller, says “it’s nice to see so many women in positions of power. It’s hopeful. (We’re here to) turn the city around.”

On March 7, the day before International Women’s Day, I responded to an invitation from the Keller administration and walked into the conference room on the 11th floor of City Hall. Close to 30 decision-makers were in the room – all women – and it was striking, and I’ve have spent 30-some years interviewing male and female power brokers. The energy had nothing to do with male-bashing and everything to do with girl power.

At the executive team/director level, add to those mentioned above Economic Development Director Synthia Jaramillo, the first woman to lead that office; Director of Family and Community Services Carol Pierce; and Director of Equity and Inclusion Michelle Melendez.

Anna Sanchez was the director at the National Hispanic Cultural Center Foundation and ready to return to her native Los Angeles when the Department of Senior Affairs job offer came. She agrees there’s “a new, fresh energy.” HR Director Scott adds, “We have people who have never had a conversation with the CAO (now) speaking with her in the elevator.”

Shelle Sanchez, who was in the private sector before signing on to lead Cultural Services, seconds that and adds there’s an emphasis on “collaboration, departments working together.” As director, she is in charge of the zoo, botanical gardens, KiMo Theatre, public libraries, museums and special events.

And Sunport chief Allen says, ” ‘Collaboration’ screams ‘women.’ We get to bring that to life; we do that better than anyone.”

And while all that collaboration can wreak havoc with your personal life – all consider their jobs 24-7, and Allen says it’s a huge responsibility that comes complete with “calls from the chief of police on the weekends” – Shelle Sanchez says having a team with the “skills, vision, experience and commitment (of these women) made it easier to say ‘yes’ to 24-7.”

Putting together that kind of team has taken time, Nair says, and the administration has taken some criticism for not having everyone in place soon after Keller took office Dec. 1. But “we wanted to find people qualified and experienced in their field. We stretched thin (until) they came on board.”

The remaining top slots are city clerk (after the Native American woman appointed withdrew last week, and

directors of Environmental Health and Animal Welfare. The administration is conducting a national search for the latter.

Deputy chief of staff Freeman says the administration wanted the most diverse, most qualified and educated folks available. And while critics point out some of the women are stepping into roles they haven’t had before, Nair says there was also an emphasis on “self-made people.”

“People like me don’t get opportunities like this. Women of color, a special-needs parent,” she says. “You are told you will have to work twice as hard to get half as much. (This administration) gives you a shot, a chance for equal footing.”

Nair was Keller’s chief government accountability officer and general counsel when he was state auditor, and Freeman has worked with him in every elected job he has had – state senator, auditor and now mayor. “I’ve seen how he draws all different voices to the table,” Freeman says. “He thoughtfully put this team together; it’s not for show.”

Economic Development Director Jaramillo says, “I’ve spent 17 years in the business community. This is the first time I’ve felt like an equal. (Mayor Keller) just sees us as his equal. I’ve never felt that, that I am (seen) as smart and intelligent as my male counterparts.”

So how does it work when the regular workday is interrupted by personal responsibilities?

Communications Director Manzano says that’s when the administration’s one-city approach kicks in. “They are making it work for us. We have other people who can back us up. It’s all about the support system.” CAO Nair adds there’s simply no issue with team members pitching in for each other “as long as the work gets done.”

But Human Resources Director Scott admits having “a notepad on my nightstand” so when she wakes up around 3:30 a.m. she can write down what to tackle when the official workday starts.

When Shelle Sanchez started leading Cultural Services, at the top of her list was “getting out and meeting people on site. (That’s) something women in administration bring. (My 400 employees) were happy – and deeply confused – when I went to the places they work the first week.”

Aviation Director Allen, the first millennial to take a city director’s job, says she is still crafting a response to the many folks who see her and say, “You’re so young.” When she was told by staff discussing a particular challenge that the response “has always been ‘no,’ I broke in and said, ‘Actually, I’m going to make this decision, and it got very quiet.”

Nair adds that after she raised the topic of sexual harassment training and the rest of the room – all male – began debating its value, she had to break in and say, “I need to rephrase that. We are going to do it – it’s how, not whether.

“Six months ago, there were no women at that meeting.”

Allen says, “we changed the course of history so that we can be equal from Day One – mother, mentor, employer – it starts with us.”

Communications Director Manzano says, “I was born and raised here and just had a child. I want her to see the city differently. Mom’s (female) co-worker is the CAO, and she can do that, too.”

UpFront is a front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to editorial page editor D’Val Westphal at 823-3858 or Go to to submit a letter to the editor.



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