KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — She’s the first African American woman to serve on City Council. She also serves as vice mayor.
Gwen McKenzie was elected in 2017 to serve the 6th District, and is a recognized and respected voice during the latest challenges of social unrest and gun violence.
She’s also a finalist in our Remarkable Women series.
“I thought, gee, I like competition, I’m real competitive, but that was, that was a lot,” McKenzie said, reflecting on a 2017 election to remember.
“I’m so truly delighted that I did accept this calling to run for public office because, as you know when I ran, we also broke a record of the most people running for one seat. I think it ended up being 12 or 13 people,” she said.
In the years since her election, McKenzie has pursued causes close to her heart. Her controversial gun show resolution led to the removal of gun shows from all city-owned facilities.
She co-founded the Faith Leaders’ Initiative to ensure leaders have accurate information on COVID-19 and then called on them to pray for peace during protests here in Knoxville following the death of George Floyd.
“I did a group mass text to them asking them if they would meet me in the parking lot at KPD 45 minutes before the protest so we could pray over that space. The mayor came early and prayed as well as a few of my colleagues from City Council which was amazing.
“I had also met with the Chief of Police and Mayor Kincannon and pleaded with them to please not have a KPD presence visually seen because I knew tensions and emotions were so raw,” McKenzie said.
McKenzie entered political office after years in the health care field. She also holds a special place in her heart for single mothers. She was one.
“I was married at a young age and divorced,” McKenzie said, “was a single mother of three children at a young age, so I really connect and understand the plight of single mothers of today and the challenges that they encounter. And now, second marriage, blended family of six children. We call ourselves the ‘Brady Bunch.’ Our oldest is a girl, the only girl, and so I have five sons.”
Her second marriage is to State Representative Sam McKenzie.
“My husband Sam; his journey into public service started in 2008. We were like couch critics,” McKenzie said.
“When we would watch County Commission meetings, more so I think at that time than City Council, and we would sit there and we would critique and complain and then finally my husband said, ‘you know, sitting here complaining is not helping solve anything.’ He was like, ‘you know, be part of the solution or part of the problem’ and he decided he wanted to be part of the solution.”
Watching Gwen McKenzie in action, you might not realize she never saw herself jumping into the political fray.
“As a matter of fact,” she said, “if someone had bet me, told me like five years ago that I would run for political office, I would have bet them, and I love shoes; I would have bet them all of my shoes and the shoes on my feet and I would have lost!”
McKenzie is the new executive director for Legacy Housing Foundation, a nonprofit that provides programs for seniors, people with disabilities and families in affordable housing communities.
She served as executive advisor with CVS Health for 19 years and held leadership roles with Covenant Health and Peninsula Hospital.
She currently serves on the Knoxville Area Urban League Board, Zoo Knoxville, World United Ministries, Girl Talk, Inc., Next Step Initiative. She is advisory member for Emerald Youth: Imagine a City, Leadership Knoxville Class of 2020 and Town Hall East Community Association.