Adlene Harrison, First Woman Mayor of Dallas

This month, I had the opportunity to hear Adlene Harrison, 93, the first woman mayor of Dallas, speak about her historically progressive career juxtaposed with our current political climate.

Architect James Pratt with former Dallas Mayor Adlene Harrison at the presentation of his collection to SMU.  (

In 1977, following her tenure as mayor, Harrison was appointed as one of the first woman Environmental Protection Agency regional directors, in charge of the EPA’s anti-pollution efforts in five southwestern states. She held this position until 1981, when she became chair of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority Board (DART), as highlighted by the Jewish Women’s archive.

Harrison’s stories to the audience only backed up her reputation for being a smart, determined, and strong woman who doesn’t back down from a good fight. She recalled fights with the Carter administrationregarding their oil pipeline plans and recalled her learning experiences from lobbying, advocating, and pitching to the public the idea of DART, the North Texas mass-transit-rail system.

She talked about how hard one needs to fight for the greater good when the field is tilted in favor of special interests. She recalled the many projects in which she needed agreement from both sides of the aisle. She even received glowing recommendations from GOP peers to stay on during the Ronald Reagan administration, but the newly elected President Reagan had quite a different strategy for the EPA specifically and regulations in general.

Harrison’s Warning

When she was recalling the past, Harrison was quite charismatic and joyful. But when it came to talking about the present, she had a stern warning for us in the audience. Harrison expressed her fears that we as a society have become complacent. But even worse, we have become more self-absorbed and self-interested than ever. She warned that without active civil engagement by common citizens, special interests will write the rules for our future.

At 93, Harrison has never been as fearful as she is today for our democracy. She warned that the prevalent attitudes and the business-as-usual culture will lead us down a dark path of more inequality, segregation, and climate change. She worries that rising inequality is causing seismic cracks in our society’s foundation.

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