A school teacher turned mayor is still teaching lessons
If you want to see the change, you must be willing to participate in the solution. A middle school teacher, Malynda Wenzl has spent years listening to her students’ suggestions for improvements to their small town of Forest Grove. She recognized the importance of a larger platform for change, but could not run for school board, being a paid employee of the Forest Grove school district.
Wenzl’s roots are deep in this community: She graduated from Forest Grove High School and only left town to attend Southern Oregon University in Ashland. She boomeranged back and has been a teacher at Neil Armstrong Middle School in Forest Grove for over 20 years, was elected as a city councilor in 2014, then Council President in 2020, and in November 2022, elected as mayor.
First Woman as Mayor of Forest Grove
Wenzl made history as the first female Mayor of Forest Grove. She explained the pressure she felt to do her job; proving to people why she was qualified to do her job put a lot of pressure on her. Wenzl said that she was hesitant about running for mayor and had a lot of doubts along the way, somewhat ironically as Mayor Wenzl runs a leadership class. But in that class, young girls fill the room, whereas when she walks into a council meeting, the ratio of women and men is no longer in favor of the women. That question and concern about representation helped push her toward running for Mayor, to give young girls a person to see in a leadership position.
“I had to give myself grace and say, ‘you know, Malynda; you don’t have to be the best female Mayor. You have to show up, do your best, and just open that door,” explained Wenzl.
Wenzl stated that her primary objective is to work herself out of a job. She wants young people to see her and believe that they, too, can be in prominent roles, even if they don’t see people who look like them in those roles very often. She provides opportunities for young people to see a woman as mayor and develop the confidence to pursue any dream, regardless of gender, race, or sex.
Mayor Wenzl candidly says she is aware of the lingering question in people’s minds about whether she was elected primarily because she is female. Instead of doubting herself, she stays focused on her mission and keeps going.
“I was elected because I deserved to be. I worked hard for it. I can do the job. It’s something I’ve done for the past eight years (as Council President). And, while I am a woman, you would never say to a man, ‘You got elected because you’re a man, right?’,” Mayor Wenzl elaborated.
Growing and Collaborating
Many Forest Grove residents enjoy the small-town atmosphere but want to see the city grow. Others are concerned about too much growth destroying the small-town feel. While Forest Grove has added many restaurants to its downtown in recent years, Mayor Wenzl would like to see the entire community work together to create those lasting memories. Mayor Wenzl emphasized the importance of the community collaborations to create more “core memories.” The core memories you reflect on when you tell your kids stories about your college days.
One of Mayor Wenzl’s favorite city activities is the sidewalk chalk festival. The town comes together and shares ideas, creativity, sidewalk, and chalk to create sidewalk art downtown. The city swarms together as a community to make beautiful creations and memories. Mayor Wenzl has plans to develop a festival street on 21st Street that will be closed for music events and other activities. While doing that, she believes that the price point needs to be affordable for students and community members to want to go downtown.
“I want Pacific students to go downtown and have fun and feel like there is stuff to do and that they belong,” smiled Mayor Wenzl. “I really want to collaborate with Pacific and develop that relationship better.”
Pacific President Jenny Coyle sent flowers to Mayor Wenzl’s house after she was elected mayor—and Mayor Wenzl expressed her enthusiasm for meeting with President Coyle and working with Pacific University. President Coyle had already proposed that the 21st Street event festivals end on campus in the Pacific lawn area to connect the university and town.
Change of Pace
Mayor Wenzl praised the previous mayor, Peter Truax, who expressed his support for her candidacy. They are in very different places but have a close relationship and mutual admiration. According to Mayor Wenzl, Truax had a gift for public speaking and was always eloquent with his words. She also believes Truax would point to one of his accomplishments as working with the council to obtain approval to update the Forest Grove social justice mural to reflect the diversity, equity, and inclusion accurately.
“Truax has given almost 50 years of public service for Forest Grove,” said Mayor Wenzl. “He does it all and has always been for the community. Then he never takes credit for it and always would give credit to someone else.”
Mayor Wenzl explained that she feels her experience as a teacher gives her an advantage as mayor because she is already involved in the community and interacts with people all day. Mayor Wenzl in the office allows the community to see new roles being tested. The former mayor was previously retired and could treat the position as a full-time job. While Mayor Wenzl plans to do nothing short of that, she intends to continue teaching because she enjoys working with students and has a mortgage to pay, which the mayor’s token stipend of $150 a month will not cover.
“There has to be room to do both, and I think being a school teacher and mayor will give the community a chance to see if we are okay with this system,” explained Wenzl. “Can this be done? We’ve never really had to test the pressure of that. So, no, we’re going to test it and see if we are okay with that. Because if we’re not, then that is okay. But then, are we going to pay somebody? How many hours do we expect them to work at this job?”
Mayor Wenzl wishes to demonstrate to the community that anyone can get involved and volunteer. She is eager to work and develop new policies to help the town grow economically while strengthening community relationships. The legacy Wenzl wishes to leave is to inspire her students and members of any community to feel like they are capable of making a difference by simply showing up. — Emily Rutkowski