Jimmie Woods-Gray, a veteran educator and community activist, is the new president of the City of Los Angeles Fire Commission and she faces some pressing issues in her new assignment.
Recent headlines about L.A. Fire Department reveal an agency charged with racism, favoritism and sexism. Another complaint is the lack of promotional opportunities for people of color.
Confronting these grievances could turn a less courageous person away, but not Woods-Gray. Throughout her career, she boldly tackled challenges to find solutions to problems and she aims to apply that strategy in this leadership role.
“I definitely like to look at what the issue is and then work from there because the issue is bigger than any one person. It’s not about a person, it’s about a group culture or concept, so we need to look at the real issue and figure out ways we can solve them. I’m convinced that there are ways to solve issues,” said Woods-Gray, who has served as a member of the commission since 2013.
“My goal is to work with groups in our department like the Stentorians (African American firefighters group), Women in Fire Service, Los Bomberos (Latino firefighter group), and the union to build a relationship. What we all want is to have the best department in the world, so there is no time to fight about different little issues that are not a part of the big picture,” she explained.
“I want to bring everybody in under that ‘big picture’ tent so that everybody has a part to play. I’ve met so many firefighters who are just excellent public servants. They never complain, they just keep moving and just do the job. I always found that a fascinating thing and I look forward to working with them.”
Also, Woods-Gray plans to focus on improving inclusivity and diversity in LAFD by recruiting more African Americans, women and people of color to the ranks. The numbers have definitely improved from 1974 when 97% of the department was Caucasian males.
Today, half of the staff is comprised of minorities. Hispanics make up 31.4%, African Americans are 11.3%, Asians are 5.8% and Native Americans are 2.4%. Women are 3.4 %, but the department’s goal is 5% and the new president wants to help the agency reach that level.
“This is a great profession for women, but we have to work on making it inviting and helping them to stay in the program. It’s the same thing with African Americans. We need to recruit, retain and we just help them get promoted. We don’t want them to work as firefighters only, we want to see firefighters in leadership as well,” she insisted.
As for accusations that the department is racist towards minorities and sexist regarding women, Woods-Gray said she takes those claims seriously and will work with Fire Chief Ralph M. Terrazas, along with her fellow commissioners, to address the concerns.
She added that the agency would be conducting a survey among employees to ascertain impressions and information about job satisfaction, workplace culture and upward mobility. Using the results of the report, LAFD executive management will develop strategies to enhance the work environment to benefit all staff.
“I find that the chief is open and he does sit and listen and talk with me about issues. We’ve done this many times in the past. So, I’m looking forward to working with him and learn what employees are thinking, how they feel about who they work with, where they work to do their jobs and exactly what department staff is thinking about different issues,” she said.
Working closely with staff is familiar ground for Woods-Gray, who amassed an abundance of experience in that area through her union background. As an educator for more than 30 years, she was active with United Teachers Los Angeles serving as the organization’s chapter chair, in the UTLA House of Representatives, on the California Teachers Association State Council and the National Education Association’s Board of Directors.
She received additional exposure as a delegate for the California Federation of Teachers and the American Federation of Teachers/American Federation of Labor/Congress of Industrial Organizations conventions as well as a delegate to the L.A. County Federation of Labor board. Most recently, she was a member of the NEA Standing Committee on Legislation and chaired the UTLA Political Action Council of Educators for six years.
In the community arena, Woods-Gray has been just as busy. She’s been elected multiple times to serve on the Los Angeles County Democratic Party, the California State Democratic Central Committee and the California Democratic Party Executive Committee. She was the first person of color and only the second woman to be elected chair of the L.A. County Democratic Central Committee.
Mayor James K. Hahn appointed Woods-Gray to the Neighborhood Empowerment Commission in 2001 where she served five years. In 2011, then-Council President Eric Garcetti named her to the LAUSD Redistricting Commission.
Anticipating her tenure as president, Woods-Gray said, “I’m excited. It’s a real challenge because there’s a lot of work, but I’ve always loved to volunteer for positions where there was a lot of work. I’m also excited that Mayor Eric Garcetti supported me for this position and just excited to try to work from a different perspective because I have a different background than some of the others who’ve been president before.
“The need for inclusivity and diversity is so important. I hope that having leadership that’s diverse has an impact on future recruits and the community,” noted Woods-Gray, who shared that Dr. Jimmy Hara, a Japanese-American and professor at Charles Drew University and UCLA, is vice-chair of the L.A. Fire Commission.
For the immediate future, she said her agenda will be concentrated on “working on recruitment, the issues with the different constituency groups, and building a unity that I hope will transcend into developing greater policy and greater activities and a comfort level for all firefighters that the department belongs to them and it’s not just some people who get access. Everybody will have access to the benefits of LAFD,” said Woods-Gray.
Also, she encouraged young people to consider joining LAFD. “You only need a high school diploma to become a firefighter in Los Angeles and we need firefighters of every ethnic group. There’s room for everybody in our fire department.”
In addition, Woods-Gray urged the public to share their concerns and their compliments about the fire department with her. “We have a 106 fire stations and so I invite the community to communicate with me if they have a need or question about anything by emailing [email protected],” she said.