Archive for Monday, January 12, 1998

STITES: CITY MANAGER-TO-BE

January 12, 1998

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Dorothy Stites credits her American Indian heritage with giving her the drive to become a leader in city management.

Think positive. Seek change. Help the community.

Dorothy Stites subscribes to these and plenty of other ideals, but it is her dedicated work and diverse actions that do the most to define her approach to life.

After entering college seven years ago, Stites has become a student leader, activist, associate degree holder, cultural trailblazer, bachelor's degree holder and, today, a top-level intern inside the highest administrative office at city hall.

And she's far from done. She plans to earn a master's degree this spring and, one day, fully expects to run a city.

"We need city managers who are sensitive to racial issues," said Stites, management assistant for the city of Lawrence. "I think race is a major issue. We're getting more and more of a diverse population every day. ... And if we've got that much diversity and it's growing, we need to have city managers who are sensitive to racial issues and are progressive in their thinking."

Stites, a full-blooded American Indian, credits her experiences at Haskell Indian Nations University with reawakening her Kiowa-Cherokee heritage.

Today, her office on the fourth floor of city hall is a testament to her dedication -- to her heritage and her career. A headset allows her to efficiently answer dozens of phone calls from concerned Lawrence residents each day, and she keeps a basket of fruit and a bowl of candy on her desk, in case someone stops by off the street and needs a bite to eat.

She's written an exhaustive report addressing options for installing bike lanes on Lawrence streets, and serves as the city's liaison to the Lawrence Arts Commission, one of the more visible appointed boards in the city.

Power to influence fairly

The screen saver on her computer flashes photos of American Indian art. And while her walls feature 14 city-owned black-and-white photos of Lawrence streetscapes and people, the 15th is tucked away behind a file cabinet in a corner, turned toward the wall.

The photo features a smiling tobacco shop owner standing next to a Massachusetts Street fixture, a wooden Indian -- not the image she wants her 8-year-old daughter, Julie, exposed to.

Stites still remembers being in third grade herself, when Mrs. Waterford accused her of stealing pencils from another girl, who was white and the daughter of a prominent doctor. Mrs. Waterford took Stites into the bathroom and proceeded to slap her hands with a ruler until they bled, then admonished her to keep the punishment quiet.

Stites won't forget the treatment. And she refuses to allow her daughter to put up with the same ignorance.

"I knew then I wanted to be Mrs. Waterford's boss," Stites said last week. "I wanted to be the administrator with the power to watch, the power to influence not just children but an entire city. I want people to be treated fairly."

Strength training

City hall is not new to Stites. She worked as an intern in the city's administrative services department while attending Haskell, interacting with employees throughout city government.

Today, as she wraps up work on her master's degree in public administration, Stites knows she has grown during her years at Kansas University and latest paid internship, which she plans to continue for a year following her spring graduation. She had always sought a seat in the front row of classes, so she could turn her back on the hushed criticism she heard about her beliefs.

"You're stronger there," she said. "You're moving forward."

Stites successfully challenged KU tradition by wearing traditional American Indian ceremonial dress during graduation ceremonies in 1996, instead of the required cap and gown. She recently completed a research project studying challenges that face American Indian students in higher education. KU Chancellor Robert Hemenway is one of her mentors.

At Haskell, she organized student programs with Lawrence police to encourage positive interactions. She's served in leadership positions with several community groups, including the city's Sister Cities Advisory Board, Diversity Task Force and Native American and Law Enforcement Task Force.

Her latest job is another move toward her ultimate goal: To be a city manager in a medium- to large-sized city with a large minority population.

Stites' boss, City Manager Mike Wildgen, expects Stites to succeed. She's smart, intelligent, eager to learn and willing to tackle even the most mundane tasks if it helps get the job done, he said.

With excellent people skills and a commitment to serve the public, Wildgen said, Stites is right on track.

"She's got all the intelligence and capabilities to reach her future goal," Wildgen said. "She's going to get there."

Stites can't wait.

"When I came here, I came to the conclusion that I could make a positive change from this position," Stites said. "I'm real thankful to God for these opportunities he's made for me, and I don't take that for granted."

-- Mark Fagan's phone message number is 832-7188. His e-mail address is fagan@ljworld.com.

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