City's 2nd ever woman Chief of Staff reflects on job, life, career

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Joni Wickham stands 5’1” tall - a few inches taller in heels. She has a southern accent that is indisputable, a smile that reaches her eyes, and boundless energy partially fueled by five to seven cups of coffee per day. 

She's running things in the office of Kansas City's mayor, yet many outside of City Hall don't know her name. She's the Chief of Staff to Kansas City Mayor Sly James. She is only the second female to ever hold the position. Some still have a hard time doing business with a woman, but Wickham is not discouraged.

Wickham is a working mom - her daughter Vivian just started kindergarten. She works long hours and juggles parenting with her husband, who has a bit more flexibility.

READ: Q&A with Joni Wickham

On the day we shadowed her from the time she woke up to the time she turned in for the night, she woke up and thought about going for a run but was too tired to even put on her running shoes. She packed lunch for her daughter and laid out her daughters outfit. She writes in a text "I always pick out Vivian's clothes on days I can't take her school.” Her husband was handling drop off on this day.

Wickham started her day with an 8:30 a.m. Finance and Governance Committee meeting. She was there because of the push for the mayor's pre-K funding plan.

Then it was back to her office for more coffee. She was on cup five. Then a meeting with her staff about making appointments to boards and commissions.

The mayor and the Women's Foundation have helped 91 women get appointed to local boards and commissions since they started their efforts a few years ago.

There are openings now: Health Commission, Heart of the City TIF commission and the list goes on. The Women's Foundation continues to help any woman interested in getting involved.

She met briefly with the city manager to discuss the labor agreement announcement for the new airport.

Before her next meeting, she took a moment to show us the rooftop view, one floor up from her office. Anyone interested can go up to the rooftop Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

She ate a quick lunch at her desk. She doesn't like vegetables but the mayor is always on her to eat them. She wanted to make sure I showed the few vegetables in her dish.

She then returned a call about her trip to Seoul, South Korea. 

She went with other Chiefs of Staff from large US cities to talk about women's leadership, civic engagement and infrastructure.
 
Then, a call from a Harvard professor. He wants to study autonomous vehicles here, otherwise known as driverless cars. She heads down to discuss with Chief Innovation Officer Bob Bennet right away.
 
That last scheduled meeting of the day is in the city manager's office. A group is there to make sure they're on track to apply for federal funding for the streetcar expansion. They are. The deadline is September 7.
 
As the work day for most comes to an end, she and the mayor connect. She updates him. He updates her.
 
After that, the conversation turns to softball.  The mayor is coaching a team of staff members to raise money for the Urban Youth Baseball Academy. They were about to head to practice. He was obviously getting into character - getting a little saucy.
 
"Practice is not supposed to be fun. Practice is supposed to be practice. Winning is supposed to be fun," he says with the corner of his serious and pursed lips turned up in an attempt not to smile.
 
They have shirts, and apparently accessories, which the mayor clearly thinks is unnecessary. 
 
"There is no need to have accessories," he said, rolling his eyes.
 
He tells Wickham he better not see rings and bracelets and necklaces on the ball field.
 
The team shows up for practice at the Urban Youth Academy. At least one is in accessories. She's wearing wonder woman boots, with about a two inch block heel.
 
"You're not going to play in those right?," asked the mayor. The girls just laugh.
 
Wickham's daughter Vivian shows up to watch. Her dad has brought her to the field. Wickham chats with her daughter between plays. 
 
Wickham looks forward to the pace slowing a bit when her next chapter begins. The mayor’s second term is set to end in less than a year.
 
"I will not miss the pace. It has been hard-charging, sometimes seven days-a-week, sometimes on holidays. I won't miss the pace so much, but I'll miss the people for sure," she said.
 
Tomorrow, she'll get up and be busy again. There's more work to do for the city's future before her own.


 

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