Skip to Content, Navigation, or Footer.

Councilors Shelley Peterson, Helen Anthony, Mary Kay Harris reflect on experiences working in politics

Leaders discuss priorities, addressing inequities facing Providence residents

<p>From left to right, Helen Anthony (Ward 2), Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) and Shelley Peterson (Ward 14) are part of the most diverse City Council in Providence&#x27;s history. </p><p>Courtesy of Providence City Council </p>

From left to right, Helen Anthony (Ward 2), Mary Kay Harris (Ward 11) and Shelley Peterson (Ward 14) are part of the most diverse City Council in Providence's history.

Courtesy of Providence City Council

Earlier this year, the Providence City Council swore in its most diverse council to date with the majority of councilors being people of color and/or women, according to The Providence Journal.

Politics in the United States have historically been male-dominated, with women politicians representing only 25% of elected city officials in cities across the country, according to the 2022 Gender Parity Index. With eight of the 15 Providence city councilors identifying as women, this council has come to signal a new era of representation in Providence politics. 

Councilors Shelley Peterson, Helen Anthony and Mary Kay Harris are prominent leaders on the Providence City Council. Peterson represents Ward 14 — Elmhurst and Wanskuck — while Anthony represents Ward 2 — Blackstone, College Hill and Wayland — and Harris represents Ward 11, which consists of upper South Providence and West End. The Herald interviewed Peterson, Anthony and Harris about their paths to the council and their current work as elected officials.

‘Everyone can make a difference in the lives of others’: Entering politics


Anthony has been involved in politics since the 1990s, when she was elected to the Town Meeting in Needham, Massachusetts. She later served on the Planning and Zoning Commission and City Council in Columbia, Missouri. Before her election to the Providence City Council in 2019, Anthony served on the city’s Zoning Board of Review.

“I am a true believer that everyone can make a difference in the lives of others, and if you have the time and skill set, you should serve your community,” Anthony wrote in an email to The Herald. “I also believe that you can make the most change on the local level as the local issues have a direct impact on our everyday lives.”

Residents’ biggest issues in Ward 2 include the quality of public education, a lack of affordable housing, financial health and environmental sustainability, Anthony said. During her time on the City Council, she introduced the Building Energy Reporting Ordinance to Providence, a report that measures how much energy large local buildings use.

In an email to The Herald, Peterson wrote that she worked in development and nonprofit fundraising for over 20 years and currently has a small business to support local and out-of-state nonprofit organizations with grant writing. 

According to Peterson, her experience helps her better understand the barriers faced by underserved communities. “I knew that for the most fundamental change, I would need to create or enforce (policies) that could actually benefit people and communities that are most underserved and that nonprofits work for,” she wrote. 

Peterson wrote that she chose to run because of the prevalent inequities in her ward compared to the rest of the city — including gun violence, a lack of affordable housing, poor housing conditions and income disparities. “I wanted to start (in Elmshurst and Wanskuck) and work toward bringing some of the equity and impact to my neighborhoods,” she wrote. 

The income disparity between Elmhurst and Wanskuck is currently a major issue plaguing Ward 14. According to a report by Statistical Atlas, the median annual household income is $59,600 in Elmhurst and $36,100 in Wanskuck.

During her term, Peterson hopes to bridge this gap and address several structural and imminent issues in Wanskuck, including dumping and infrastructure issues. “These issues are concerns that can be resolved with some tenacity, and the impact is tremendous. It highlights the equity-related focus that I want to bring,” she wrote.  

In an interview with The Herald, Harris said that she also became involved in politics to make Providence more equitable and improve the quality of life for all its residents. She began her advocacy journey with Direct Action for Rights and Inequality, where she called for greater accountability for the Providence Police Department.

Through her experiences, Harris learned how to train people to stand up for social, political and economic justice and organized grassroots efforts for change, she said. 


After 15 years in advocacy and organization, Harris decided to run for City Council to initiate further change with the support of her community members, residents and constituents. “I don’t believe a leader is the person. I believe the people behind you are all the leaders,” she said. “In leadership, you bring other people with you.”

Harris was recently appointed as chair of the Housing Crisis Task Force and hopes to enable open discussion with individuals experiencing homelessness about barriers to housing access. “If you speak to any (unhoused) person right now, they’ll tell you their stories” but they often aren’t given the platform to do so, she said. “What you’re doing is empowering them … they realize that you are the one who is able to speak up for them.”

Harris recalled her experience working in the welding industry, where her workplace was extremely male-dominated, she said. When she reported her coworkers’ misbehavior and lack of respect toward her, they shunned her and made her working conditions more difficult. But she turned the incident into her “first moment of organization.”

“I want to see that happen with … (unhoused) people. I want to see … invisible people to be able to … speak up for themselves,” Harris said, adding that violence against people experiencing homelessness, and on women in particular, must be taken more seriously. 

Get The Herald delivered to your inbox daily.

‘Paved the way for us’: Representation in city politics

Harris believes that the current City Council is well-suited to address these issues because of the diversity in voices and perspectives of the elected officials. While Providence has a variety of voices represented in city government, most cities across the U.S. lack this diversity. In fact, white men make up 62% of office holders on the national and state level despite being 30% of the population, according to The Guardian.

Anthony believes that the underrepresentation of women in politics is largely due to expectations imposed on women by society. There is a perception that women politicians will prioritize caring for the home and family over their political responsibilities, putting them at a disadvantage in elections, she wrote. 

While recognizing the underrepresentation of women in politics, Peterson believes it is also important to consider the progress that has been made. “The women that I have met … in municipal government are women who have paved the way for us … to promote the balance” necessary for “progress for all,” she wrote. “Women of color … have put themselves on the front lines to not only fight for gender equity but also racial equity and (have) persevered.”

For Peterson, being a Peruvian-born immigrant and first-generation college graduate plays a key role in her advocacy on the council. “We had meager means but my parents wanted us to be successful and afforded every opportunity available to us to take our chances,” and reach success, she wrote. 

“Poverty teaches you two things: (One) everything you’ll do differently and (two), an appreciation for what that struggle taught you,” Peterson added. 

Harris hopes that new waves of activism, especially in feminism, are more inclusive of various positionalities and uplift the voices that have been at the backbone of the movement, focusing more on the collective strength in the voices of all people.

“The rich have the money, but we have each other,” and it is only with collective effort and power that an era of radical change and equity can finally come to be, she said. 

Avani Ghosh

Avani Ghosh is a Metro Editor covering politics & justice and community & activism. She is a sophomore from Ohio studying Health & Human Biology and International & Public Affairs. She is an avid earl grey enthusiast and can be found making tea in her free time.

Powered by SNworks Solutions by The State News
All Content © 2024 The Brown Daily Herald, Inc.