Coral Evans to this day describes herself as a community organizer, someone who likes advocating for neighborhoods that she says are being overlooked, impacted negatively by policy decisions, or in need of services.
But now, instead of challenging those in power, Evans is the one looking back from the other side of the council dais as mayor.
The Flagstaff native, whose family first arrived in northern Arizona nearly a century ago, was elected to the Flagstaff City Council in 2008 and again in 2012. In 2016, she ran for and was elected mayor of Flagstaff.
“It’s been amazing, an honor to represent the city I grew up in, an honor to represent the city that I love, and it’s fascinating to see all the different ways we can look at an issue,” Evans says.
The Flinn-Brown Fellow and executive director of the Sunnyside Neighborhood Association first got involved in politics after hearing the city was going to sell a building it owned in Flagstaff’s Southside neighborhood, between Northern Arizona University and the downtown area.
That night she made a flier and a week later 80 people showed up to protest selling the building, the once-segregated (all-Black) Dunbar Elementary School.
In the end, the building was transformed into the Murdoch Community Center.
“We saved the building and its history, and the heart of the Southside is operating as the Murdoch Community Center,” Evans said. “This shows what a community can do together.”
A short time later, she was elected to the council for the first time. But after eight years in office, her opinion was the council was no longer representing the overall city.
“I could have either gone back before the council as a community organizer raising hell or as mayor helping to set the tone and conversation in a way that I think represents everyone in Flagstaff,” says Evans, who defeated an incumbent in the mayoral race.
Evans says she has done that with hot-button issues such as the minimum wage increase and an affordable housing project that impacted the viewshed.
Evans was raised in a city-run housing development and got her first job in Flagstaff at age 13. Today, she lives in the house her grandparents built in 1942.
In addition to serving as mayor and running a nonprofit, Evans is pursuing a doctorate in sustainability education, with an emphasis in citizen engagement and public participation, at Prescott College. She owns a small business, Destiney’s Creations, in which she makes all-natural bath and body products along with cards and jewelry she sells in a local retail cooperative space. She has also been the recipient of many awards from community organizations.
Evans was recently named to the Arizona League of Cities and Towns executive board and is vice president of the Greater Arizona Mayors Association, which includes 15 northern Arizona cities. She previously served on the Arizona Governor’s African-American Advisory Council.
Evans remembers being encouraged to apply for the Flinn-Brown Civic Leadership Academy even though, she acknowledges now, she had no interest in actually being accepted and knew she could not afford to attend.
But then she learned that mileage and hotel are covered for participants from outside Maricopa County, so she reluctantly accepted.
Evans laughs looking back because the flagship program of the Arizona Center for Civic Leadership—which was launched in 2010 by the Flinn Foundation—was an incredible experience for her that continues to pay dividends. She says she thinks daily of the information she learned.
“It gave me the ability to step outside my comfort zone, and I left with a clear understanding that Flagstaff is part of something much broader,” she says. “I started looking at things more holistically and I have a better understanding of my state and where to go to get information.”
Evans says she can now talk from a statewide perspective when representing Flagstaff, whether in Washington, D.C. or around Arizona, on subjects such as water, the budget, education, and others.
The Flinn-Brown Academy is now accepting applications for its 2018 cohort. The deadline to apply is Nov. 13.
Evans says she is open to future state-level service down the line, but for now she’s focused on being “the best dang mayor I can be.”
By Brian Powell