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A Conversation with Justin M. Bibb, The Mayor of Cleveland

February 22, 2023
4:30 pm
- 6:00 pm



Fleishman Commons, Sanford School of Public Policy
201 Science Dr
Durham, NC 27708 United States
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Event Sponsored By

Polis: Center for Politics
Heyman Center for Ethics

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A Conversation with Justin M. Bibb, the Mayor of Cleveland

“Mayor Bibb’s enthusiasm for Cleveland and for U.S. cities generally was contagious. He reminded us future policymakers that local governments are essential in driving change across the country, since local officials often have the flexibility to be innovative and adaptive to the needs of their constituents.”

Alena Antonowich (MPP ’23), President of Sanford’s Urban Policy Club

Mayor Justin Bibb asserts that “all roads do go back to Cleveland” during a fireside chat with Professor Deondra Rose on his pathway to public service and his role as Cleveland’s first millennial mayor.
Mayor Bibb argues that there is no “singular day that’s the same when your mayor of the city.” His schedule varies widely between press briefings, ribbon cuttings, meeting with community members, and tackling hard conversations on public safety or violence prevention.

His goal is to usher Cleveland into the 21st century “as a leading American mid-size city” while simultaneously ensuring the basic needs of the city are met.

His pathway to mayorhood was not linear. After the 9/11 Terrorist Attacks, he was emboldened to study diplomacy and international relations at American University as to better serve his country. However, after community organizing in Southeast D.C., he witnessed abject poverty “just a stone throws away from the nation’s capital.” He subsequently switched his major to Urban Studies and pursued work that would make the best impact on cities like Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Detroit. He then received a JD and MBA as to learn the intersection between business and policy and how it impacts American cities. He believes his various academic and career pursuits provided much needed intersectionality to his role as Mayor.

He argues that the country doesn’t just need leaders that can get things done, but those who are empathetic, “leaders who have gone through some of the problems that Americans are going through every single day.” He asserts that his experience as a “poor working class Black kid” gave him invaluable insight into many of the struggles faced by citizens of Cleveland.

At first, friends and family expressed doubt as he pivoted from a comfortable job in banking to campaign as a first time candidate for a major American city. Despite his lack of campaign experience and name recognition, he knew Cleveland “aspired to something bigger and larger,” especially after the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd. His message was simple: “Cleveland couldn’t wait, couldn’t wait for a bold, new dynamic, [and] visionary leadership.” He aspires to make sure the citizens of Cleveland feel seen and heard.

During his campaign, he was the only major candidate to endorse Issue 24, a ballot initiative that would create the toughest independent civilian oversight board around policing. He was called out for wanting to defund the police. Yet he knew Cleveland needed to be a model of new policing that would “restore the trust between police and residents.” Today, Cleveland has a brand-new Police Commission that is bolstering police accountability. However, he asserts, that change doesn’t happen overnight. He knows that he won’t be able to solve all issues in policing, the racial wealth gap, and other inequities in one term. Instead, he has an obligation to “get the trend line going in a better direction.”

Mayor Bibb argues that progress begins with restoring communication and trust between the government and its constituents. He says, “it’s important for us as local elected officials to remind ourselves that we got to do what we said we were going to do in the campaign trail.”

The first lesson he learned after his first year as Mayor is to get as much input you can “on critical decisions, big or small, from leaf [pickup] to police accountability.” The second is to “never be afraid to ask the hard questions” and look for solutions to problems even before they go wrong.
Mayor Bibb contends that we are living in an era of localism. Congress isn’t going to solve America’s problems, he says, instead “It’s going to come down to America’s mayors.” He continues, “every consequential issue” including police reform, reproductive rights, and climate change are “now on our front doors.”

This event recap was written by Polis Senior Program Coordinator Meg Bittle

About Mayor Justin Bibb

Mayor Bibb was born and raised on Cleveland’s southeast side in the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood. Over the past 15 years, Mayor Bibb has worked in government, business and the nonprofit sector as an executive and nonprofit leader. He started his career in public service working for President Obama when he was in the U.S. Senate and later at Cuyahoga County as a Special Assistant advising on education and economic development policies. He led the Global Cities Practice at global research firm Gallup, served as Vice President at KeyBank and most recently as Chief Strategy Officer at Urbanova, a startup focused on improving cities. Mayor Bibb is a proud American University alumnus with an undergraduate degree in Urban Studies. He completed the General Course Programme with an emphasis in Social Policy and Economics from the London School of Economics and is a graduate of Case Western Reserve University. He holds a Master of Business Administration (MBA) and Doctor of Law (JD).

Mayor Bibb is also a graduate of the Management Leadership for Tomorrow’s (MLT) leadership program. MLT is a national nonprofit organization, founded by John Rice, that equips and emboldens high-achieving individuals from underrepresented communities—Black, Latinx, and Native American—to realize their full potential, to make a mark, and make a difference. Mayor Bibb’s vision for Cleveland is to become a national model for city management, police reform, and neighborhood revitalization.