Everything Underground's Trailblazer Retrospectives
By Ron Wynn
Everything Underground launches a new monthly series of articles saluting some of our past Trailblazer Awards winners. These are people who've made giant strides and major contributions in various communities for decades, and are inspirations to many.
Yet they have seldom received the praise and recognition they deserve. We'll present both biographical sketches and let them speak about their experiences and motivations. It's a chance to get a closer look at some amazing people and get ready for the 2021 Trailblazer Awards as well.
Our first profile is on Commissioner Maida Coleman, a highly respected and admired resident of Missouri.
Public service has been the driving force in Maida Coleman's distinguished career, She was born in the small southeastern Missouri town of Sikeston Her background includes growing up in a four-room home with an outhouse, one she now jokingly claims was the best outhouse around. Commissioner Coleman labeled it "The talk of the town. It was a two seater with a concrete floor." Her grandmother hung a mirror in it and added a picture of flowers. During her youth Ms. Coleman chopped and picked cotton, starting at age 12.
But a thirst for knowledge led her to excel in school. She became one of Sikeston High School’s first Black cheerleaders, and the first member of her family to attend college. After college came marriage and divorce, followed by a period of personal struggle. Those times included living in public housing, receiving welfare and food stamps (then called Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). At the time, meeting the poverty standards enabled her children to qualify for the school's free lunch program.
But through this period, Commissioner Coleman never lost faith in herself, nor wavered in her desire and determination to achieve and work on behalf of others. She eventually earned a B.A. degree in journalism from Lincoln University in Jefferson City and later was awarded a Doctor of Humane Letters Degree from Harris-Stowe State University in St. Louis.
From 2001-2009, she served as a State Representative and State Senator from St. Louis. Commissioner Coleman was the first Black woman in state history to serve as Senate Minority Leader. During her tenure she sponsored the Hot Weather Law. This prevents utility companies from disconnecting cooling-related service for residential customers during extreme summer weather. She also sponsored legislation that became law to protect children from lead poisoning.
Maida Coleman was appointed to the Missouri Public Service Commission (MPSC) in August 2015. Her expertise has been utilized in several capacities She is Chair of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Committee on Consumers and the Public Interest. She also serves on NARUC’s Board of Directors, NARUC’s Broadband Access Task Force, and on the Telecommunications and Supplier and Workforce Diversity Committees.
Commissioner Coleman is also a member of NARUC and the U.S. Department of Energy’s Natural Gas Infrastructure Modernization Partnership. In addition, Commissioner Coleman is a member of the Critical Consumer Issues Forum Advisory Committee, and the Center for Public Utilities Advisory Council.
She regularly moderates and speaks at numerous community and energy regulatory events. Commissioner Coleman also facilitated a workshop for the United States Agency for International Development Ethiopia Energy Regulatory Partnership in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and a Peer Review on Emergency Preparedness and Public Consultation in Colombo, Sri Lanka. She is a guest columnist for the St. Louis County Community News.
Commissioner Coleman has held management level positions at the Missouri Secretary of State and the St. Louis Housing Authority. She is a former member of the Board of Directors of Heat-Up/Cool-Down St. Louis. Prior to her appointment, Commissioner Coleman was Director of the Missouri Office of Community Engagement.
She previously served as Executive Director of the Missouri Workforce Investment Board at the Department of Economic Development, and in a leadership role at the Missouri Department of Labor.
Commissioner Coleman graciously took time from her busy schedule recently for an interview with Everything Underground. Her responses are quotation marks.
1. What initially got you interested in public service?
"I’ve always wanted to serve others. It was instilled in me as a child when my mom gave me the responsibility to pick up trash in our neighborhood. A State Representative convinced me to get involved in local politics. Through political interactions I discovered that the use of common sense was lacking in our elected officials when it came to making laws. That motivated me to run for public office to offer real help to those in need. I wanted someone like me, to represent me."
2. What do you consider the toughest challenges that you face?
"The nonchalant attitude that people have toward others. The inability of people to care about, and for, their fellow man. This keeps certain citizens down and creates an attitude of superiority by others."
3. Did you ever envision yourself in the position that you now hold?
"I thought I would teach or write books. However, I am thankful for every position I’ve ever held as most every one of them has allowed me to help people. I see service as my calling."
4. Who were some of the people you consider role models and/or mentors.
"I have been fortunate to be the descendent of amazing women. Both of my grandmothers, and my mother, were strong role models. My maternal grandmother became a widow at a young age, left to raise four children alone. A great cook with impressive common sense, she parlayed her skills into opening a restaurant to support her children and became a successful businesswoman. From her I gained a sense of independence and strength."
"My paternal grandmother lived to 103, and was the wise, affectionate mother of nine (9). Always eager to help others, she volunteered often in her church and community. She instilled in me the desire to be there for others."
"My mother endured much for her eight (8) children. She taught me about commitment and sacrifice."
5. What do you consider some of your greatest accomplishments?
"In 2006 Missouri had the third-highest number of heat related deaths in the nation. Only the desert states of Arizona and Nevada had more. These senseless deaths are unacceptable. As State Senator I passed legislation that saves lives - The Hot Weather Rule. This law prevents utility companies from disconnecting residential services during summer weather extremes."
"I get a deep sense of satisfaction for passing the Returning Heroes’ Education Act. This measure limits the tuition that may be charged by higher education institutions to certain combat veterans. It requires all Missouri higher education institutions that receive state funding to limit the tuition charged to combat veterans to $50 per credit hour. This law ensures that when our veterans return home from war, they have the opportunity to get an education."
"And, I was twice elected Senate Minority Leader, Missouri’s first woman and African-American to serve in this position."
6. As you look back over your career, what do you consider some of the most positive changes you've seen in society?
"Technological advances have been a blessing and a curse to society. Workplace productivity has increased but at what cost? Some employees are never without their work cellphone and they constantly check their emails. While lives have been enhanced, as we now have the world at our fingertips, life is also more stressful."
7. What are some things that haven't changed enough in your view?
"Acrimonious behaviors in numerous areas of society to include racial disharmony and ongoing discrimination, a disregard for the needs of the poor, lack of respect and care for the homeless, the destruction of our neighborhoods through gun violence, and the failure to protect and support society’s children."
8. What advice would you give to aspiring young people regarding careers in public service?
"Public Service is an honorable profession and in need of honorable people. There is room for those whose mission is to work on behalf of mankind. Determine who you are as a person and the reason you desire to serve. Start by getting involved in your local politics."
9. What are some of the key issues that you see facing Black communities in the coming years?
"The continued lack of access to healthcare, jobs and high performing schools."
10. Do you think moving forward that the Coronvirus/Covid-19 pandemic will fundamentally change things in our society in either a good or bad way?
"Definitely it will, and I believe in a positive way. While I don’t think things will ever completely go back to being the same, I believe a new normal will be in play that will benefit the entire world. My hope is that people will take what they learned about themselves in solitude and use it to their advantage while finding ways to help others."
11. Finally, do you consider yourself an optimist or pessimist, and what future final things would you like to accomplish?
"I am such an optimist! All my life I’ve believed that good overcomes evil, that the “sun will come out, tomorrow”, that everyday will be a beautiful one - no matter the weather, and of course the optimist mantra...the glass is half full (smile). My ultimate goal is to finish one of the books I’m writing. Alas, however; I am a professional procrastinator, it seems, in my personal life."