The desire to help a city began with a personal experience for Ashley Swearengin.

Coming home from school one day as a child, the woman who would become mayor of Fresno on a platform of revitalization and employment saw her father in the living room and wondered why he was not at work. He had lost his job. Growing up a preacher’s kid in Arkansas and Oklahoma, the Texas native said her family always had the basics, but still Swearengin remembered the feeling of instability.

“If I knew what this was like for our family, then what was it like for a whole city?,” she asked her breakfast audience October 27, 2016, at Fresno Pacific University. Community members, administrators, faculty, staff and students gathered in the Shehadey Dining Hall for “Reflections on Leadership—Leadership Lessons: Theory to Practice,” part of The Leadership Series sponsored by the FPU School of Business.  

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Fast-forward to 1990s Fresno and Swearengin and husband Paul saw a city seemingly at the bottom of every list of best places and at the top of every list of worst. The couple exchanged plans for personal success for a vision to help “the worst become the first,” she said. Swearengin first followed that vision leading the Central Valley Business Incubator, Fresno State’s Office of Community and Economic Development, the Regional Jobs Initiative and the California Partnership for the San Joaquin Valley. “I wanted to see this place be what it could become and be part of that in whatever way God had for me,” she said.

Swearengin said God had a plan for her 2008 election. “I did all the wrong things,” she said.

She talked about the downtown and infrastructure even though they polled as the two subjects Fresno voters cared about least. “I had a staff member threaten to quit if I mentioned ‘infrastructure’ again,” she laughed.

Once elected, Swearengin turned struggles into victories with issues that had been debated for years. Among them were police department review, long-range planning, getting help from the nation’s and state’s capital and a financial sustainability policy.

Her major loss—Measure G. After a long and bitter struggle, voters rejected Swearengin’s plan to outsource garbage pick-up. Swearengin still thinks it was a good idea. “You have to take a stand for what you believe is right,” she said, adding that the defeat taught her to trust God in the losses as well as the wins. “All things work together for the good, not just the things that make me look good,” she added.

So, lessons learned:

  • Everything starts with vision and a plan. Fresnans have been made cynical by poorly planned ideas that have gone wrong, she said, adding strong words for those who think not caring will protect them from loss: “Cynicism is for cowards.”

  • Hunger and desperation for change are powerful. Transformational change only comes when people are uncomfortable enough to get out of their boxes, whether those boxes are denominations, political parties or geographical areas.

  • Listen to all your critics and remember it’s not about you. A good point may hide in the nastiest attack.

  • Know the importance of celebration. “That’s the gas in the tank to keep going,” Swearengin said.

Next in The Leadership Series will be “The Future of Crowdfunding,” with John Katovich, founder & CEO of Cutting Edge Capital and Cutting Edge Counsel, at 7:30 a.m. November 18, 2016, at Bitwise Industries, 700 Van Ness Ave., Fresno. Register online at



Wayne Steffen
Associate Director of Publications and Media Relations