Jennifer Roberts: eagle that learned to fly

Story by Ashleigh Fields, Online Editor In Chief

Before she was Mayor Jennifer Roberts, she was Jennifer Watson.  Just like many of today’s “Eagles,” Jennifer was a young girl who was raised in a community that taught her to be a passionate and effective leader.  
Jennifer was raised in East Meck’s backyard and it set her compass as a public servant.

She remembers spending afternoons at Lansdowne Elementary where she and her other siblings would go to play basketball. One of her most vivid characteristics, then and now, was recognized on the basketball court, her height.

“I could never hide,” said Roberts.

Her height was a trait that would cause her to stand out in her neighborhood as well as at school. But – so would something else, her skin color.

The year that the Watson family moved to Charlotte was also the year that “busing” made its debut in the Queen City.  The US Supreme Court approved the strategy to eradicate racial segregation and inequality in CMS. Young Jennifer was one of the first students to ride a bus far from home to help integrate a school.  Her first stop was First Ward Elementary. She went on to attend McClintock Middle, and eventually East Mecklenburg High.

She says that each of these schools and the peers she met served in helping her understand people of different backgrounds and their needs. She also says that the experience showed her the importance and value in public education. It would lay the strong foundation that became the core of her life’s work.

Roberts accredits her success at East Meck to mentors like Gene Morgan, Pop Miller, and Marlene Corbett.

They each encouraged her to get involved in extracurricular activities like Student Congress, Governor’s School, and playing basketball. Each of these outlets prepared her for the Morehead-Cain scholarship to UNC Chapel Hill.
She went on to earn two master’s degrees from Johns Hopkins University and the University of Toronto. Roberts also worked for a time as a foreign diplomat for the US Department of State.

Along the way, Roberts took the foundation she learned from teachers Morgan, Miller and Corbett.  She says they taught her about more than just participating, but “how” to participate. They taught her the importance of communication.

“Every word has meaning,” said Roberts. “Communication is extremely important, but not everyone does it well.”

She says that communication is a very important factor in teaching which at one point all humans will have to do.

“Even as a public official, you’re an educator,” Roberts said. “You’re constantly explaining to folks in your community how government works, what your authorities are, what your authorities are not; you’re trying always to get public input, but you are always working to educate people about that process.”

Roberts first ran for public office because schools mattered to her.

“What got me into public office was my kids going into the public school system,” Roberts said.

In her race against Edwin Peacock III, education was a big issue. Roberts continually stressed her support for schools and openly spoke of her past personal experiences in her campaign.

Even after her most recent loss in her campaign for re-election, Roberts wouldn’t change a thing.  She feels she stayed true to herself by using local government as a means to improve the public school system as one of her core objectives.

Under her watch, the city saw divide over the issue of HB2 and violent protests after the deadly police shooting of Keith Lamont Scott.

Still, Roberts believes that what will promote healing after these complex events is people being more educated about one another and truly learning to communicate and understand each other.

Now, she’s looking ahead to her next chapter with no regrets.

“For me, political life is not the be all end all,” she said. “For some politicians, it is.”

In her special “exit” interview with “The Eagle” staff, Roberts was authentic, candid and inspirational.  She says she’s not exactly sure what’s next for her.

Roberts said, “I am passionate about a lot of different things and there are a lot of ways I might go. I love teaching and I enjoy promoting and advocating for things I think are needed.”

She left young minds with the notion that if she could soar to heights she never dreamed – they can too. And, the sky is the limit!