A Life Devoted to Civic Responsibility

SMU Tower Center Board Member and Finance Chair, Jan Hart Black, is no stranger to public policy and civic responsibility. She was Dallas’ City Manager from 1985 through 1993 and President of the Dallas Regional Chamber from 1999 through 2009 where she bought new business to Dallas and worked to protect Dallas’ future water supply and clean air. During her tenure, Ms. Black and the chamber successfully lobbied for health care, water, transportation, environmental, education and tort reform issues in Austin. Along with serving on our Board, Ms. Black has lent her expertise and advice through Board service with several organizations that serve Dallas including the Southwestern Medical Foundation, KERA, The United Way and many more.

We spoke with Ms. Black on why she has dedicated her life and career to civic engagement and why the SMU Tower Center and its promotion and teaching of civil responsibility are vitally important for our community.

What made you decide to devote your life to public policy and policy work?

After I graduated from college, I was not sure what I wanted to do but I knew I wanted to help people. This led me to obtain a master’s degree in Public Policy and pursue opportunities where I could make a difference. One of those opportunities while a graduate student was as an intern with Senator Tower on the U.S. Senate Banking Housing and Urban Affairs Committee. I worked on the landmark Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) legislation during this internship. It passed that year and has since addressed such city needs as infrastructure improvements, homeowner assistance, and economic development projects. The Senator was a great inspiration, and this experience prompted me to return home from Washington, D.C. to see if I could make a real and lasting difference in the Dallas community.

Because of your many philanthropic and professional endeavors, you are in a position to guide up and coming policy makers like our Tower Center students. What advice would you give to them?

I learned, when City Manager, that to be effective I would need to be a consensus builder and have an ability to make things happen quietly behind the scenes. With any opportunity to work toward the common good, the focus should not be on I but on we, and the chief function of local government is to serve all of its citizens, now and in the future. It is important to set the tone for thousands of employees who look to leadership for guidance and inspiration in their community service. Good leadership is the key to whether our government does a good job for our people, which may mean making tough decisions at critical times, even when those decisions are unpopular.

I’ve been fortunate to work with a number of excellent Dallas leaders: mayors, council members, and city managers as well as business and philanthropic leaders. These good leaders strive to be honest and fair. Their work illustrates a commitment to professionalism that is absent of conflicts of interest at all times. They readily admit mistakes and only through leading with integrity can someone earn the trust of governing bodies, organizations and communities they serve.

How does the SMU Tower Center inspire the next generation of civic leadership?

I like many things about the Tower Center, but I especially like the opportunity it provides undergraduates to serve as interns in public service. Many schools do not provide that opportunity until graduate school and the Tower Center not only provides opportunities but funding to help students attend internships awarded at places like the State Department and think tanks in Washington, D.C. This type of hands-on exposure to civic leadership and organizations that act in the public’s interest, shapes and molds ethical leadership and character. It also exposes students to an arena where real change can happen. It is an arena where real leadership matters and where a good idea can change the lives of the citizens of this country.