The strong, tolerant women leading Hamtramck

Hamtramck has received a great deal of attention in recent months for having what is considered to be the nation's first majority-Muslim City Council. With this has come a variety of national narratives—some bolstering the city as a model of diversity, others painting a fearful picture of its imminent future of governance dictated by Islamic law.

While the city is indeed a prominent cultural melting pot, it is also a municipality with strong women at the helm. Hamtramck's first female mayor Karen Majewski, city manager Katrina Powell, and Hamtramck's first female police chief Anne Moise each offer different perspectives on the city, its residents, and how their roles impact Hamtramck as a whole.

In the back room of Hamtramck's Tekla Vintage, a vintage clothing and retail boutique, Karen Majewski reflects on her first impression of this community. "What was really exciting to me about it was the mix of ethnicities," she says.

Majewski is the owner of Tekla Vintage, and has been the mayor of Hamtramck for more than a decade. She remembers hearing people speak different languages as she walked down the street, and trying to guess where each person was from.

A Chicago native with Polish-American roots, Majewski was elected Hamtramck's first female mayor in 2005, then re-elected in 2009 and 2013. Before that, she served on Hamtramck's Historical Commission, Hamtramck City Council—as both a member and council president—and as mayor pro tem. Majewski is also a published author and the first person in her family to attend college. In fact, she came to the area in 1988 because she earned her doctorate from the University of Michigan in American Culture with a focus on immigration and ethnicity.

Majewski is also a passionate member of Detroit and Hamtramck's Polonia—residents of Polish descent who live outside Poland. She maintains her relationship to that community by attending as many Polish-American events as possible and by working to be "a model of engaged ethnicity."

As far as her relationships with Hamtramck's other cultural groups, she says they've been very good for the most part. The challenges in keeping Hamtramck's population united come largely from leaders that emerge within each ethnic community. "A lot of new people coming in don't know the history of the call to prayer in Hamtramck, who championed [Arab Americans], and who spoke and voted on their behalf," says Majewski.

City Council approved an ordinance allowing mosques to broadcast the Islamic call to prayer in 2004 while Majewski was council president. Although she acknowledges the difficulty of navigating the cultural ins and outs of Hamtramck's various ethnic communities, Majewski is quick to point out that it has little to do with her being a woman. Instead, she says, "It's me not being Bangladeshi or Yemeni or what have you."

Hamtramck has had strong women on its City Council since the 1930s, and Majewski is proud to continue that legacy as mayor. "I think it's important for the boys and girls to see," she says of her position. "Especially for the girls. Their eyes light up to see a female mayor, and to know the police chief is a woman, the city manager is a woman, and up until recently, the mayor pro tem was a woman as well."

City manager Katrina Powell's journey to Hamtramck is a bit different. Virginia-born and North Carolina-raised, Powell was appointed city manager in late 2014, and came to Michigan following two decades in the military and a variety of municipal management roles in Florida.

City Manager Katrina Powell

"I think a lot of my experiences led me here. I mean why else would I have come to Michigan from Florida in the middle of winter?" Powell jokingly asks.

As city manager, Powell works closely with Hamtramck's City Council and says the experience has been overwhelmingly positive. In the most recent election, Council gained its first Yemeni member, Saad Almasmari. "Before it was just Bengali and Polish. Now there's more diversity, which is a good thing," she says.

Powell goes on to say that she's been invited to countless Yemeni, Bengali, and Arab American events, like one hosted by the Yemeni American Leadership Association last year. "There were a couple of hundred men and one woman, and they asked me to welcome everyone and talk about the city," she says. "In my mind that was a great thing."

As a female leader in Hamtramck, Powell says she feels empowered to "squash the shari'a law nonsense" that's come up in many sensationalistic headlines about the city. Powell recalls the onslaught of threatening phone calls and messages that came in the days following the election. "People were saying they're going to come here and take care of all the Muslims," she says. "Do some research on this community and look at all the females who are in leadership. As we continue to treat everyone equally and be respectful, this community will continue to be amazing."

Although Powell, who currently resides in St. Clair Shores, is unsure of how long she'll continue as city manager, she says this moment in time is "an opportunity to show so many people that their Islamaphobia is not justified."

As far as how to show them, Powell says it's a matter of continuing the positive momentum happening in this dense, little community comprised of churches, mosques, bars, homes, restaurants and other cultural attractions. "We just make it work," she says with a smile.

Police Chief Anne Moise

One floor away from Powell's office in Hamtramck's City Hall sits Anne Moise, the city's first female police chief. It's a position that Moise has worked up to since joining the city's police force in 1999. Moise was appointed police chief following the controversial resignation of former chief Max Garbarino. It was a difficult time within the department, according to Moise. There were morale issues, budget cuts and controversy.

But as someone who has been involved in public safety for decades and has a husband who is also in law enforcement, Moise was familiar with the difficulties of running a police department—including overseeing a mostly male workforce.

And now that some time has passed, the department is running smoothly again. Of course there are always challenges, regardless of gender. But when she thinks about Hamtramck's female leadership, she's proud to be working alongside other intelligent and hardworking women.

In serving a community with many immigrant populations, the barriers of language and culture come up frequently. But just like handling any city's unique characteristics, Moise says, "you just learn how to deal with it."

Moise says remaining calm is the most important part of ensuring clear communication. "If there's a misunderstanding about what's happening and four officers come when the problem is about a parking spot that doesn't require four officers, it can be scary for anyone,” she says.

Moise is proud of her department almost everyday—although one particular incident stands out. Moise was sent a photo of a group of officers who stopped on patrol to play football with a group of children. "That made me so proud, and I don't think they were doing it for any other reason than just wanting to better connect with the community and establish trust," she says.

Growing up with a sister and single mother for a good part of her childhood, Moise says she's proud to continue that legacy professionally and personally. Now, going on 30 years of marriage with her husband, Moise has three daughters of her own and two granddaughters as well. "Lots of strong women in my family," she says with a laugh. "And knowing that what I do makes them proud is a really good feeling."

All photos by Marvin Shaouni.
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Read more articles by Annamarie Sysling.

Annamarie Sysling is a multimedia journalist based in Hamtramck.