That’s the advice Gladys Brown gives to students. It’s also the motto that helped her become Pennsylvania’s highest-ranking female African-American officeholder.
As the chair of the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, she heads a public entity that may affect more Pennsylvanians daily than any other government agency.
Since 2015, when Gov. Tom Wolf appointed her to the post, Brown has led commissioners from both parties. They decide on issues such as energy rates, the safety of pipes that transport natural gas and the regulations for ride-sharing companies like Lyft and Uber. Each commissioner must be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate, a process that brings a mix of perspectives and experiences to the five-member panel.
As a high-profile entity, the commission could find itself in a difficult place. It has a profound effect on consumers and businesses in the commonwealth, but, at the same time, is not immune to the intense partisanship that characterizes government and politics today. Brown’s fellow commissioners, though, say she is uniquely qualified to lead, describing her as a “consensus builder” and a “person of integrity and honesty.”
How did she prepare for this role?
She grew up with five siblings in Middletown and attended Middletown High School. She was always a good student and originally set her sights on becoming a pediatrician. However, after taking an American government class, she found a new interest, and her goals shifted.
“It just clicked,” she said. “I became fascinated by government and politics.”
She changed her college focus from pre-med to pre-law. She studied political science at the University of Pittsburgh then received her juris doctorate from Pitt’s law school.
After a few short stints at other jobs, Brown began working as a lawyer for the Pennsylvania Senate Democratic leader, advising him on legislative and policy matters. While in the Senate, she built a reputation for reaching out to “the other side,” developing personal relationships with executive branch staffs and Senate Republicans. She worked there until 2013, when she became a commissioner.
But, clearly, more than professional experience makes up Brown’s preparation.
She credits her Sunday school teachers and her church communities with helping to shape her values. She first attended Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal in Middletown and now attends Bethel AME in Harrisburg, where she is an active member. Her experiences with her churches taught her that, “to whom much is given, much is expected,” she said.
As a leader in the community, she is aware that many look up to her. She often speaks to high school students who have expressed an interest in becoming lawyers through a program with the Minority Bar Committee of the Pennsylvania Bar Association. She believes that she can serve as a mentor and as an example, particularly for “those who might not have had a family member who attended college.”
“I want to open their minds to the opportunities afforded by higher education,” she said. “I tell them, ‘Prepare yourself for opportunities.’”
Brown recognizes that opportunities also create significant responsibilities, which she takes seriously as PUC chair. Each day, she endeavors to protect consumers while balancing the needs of the companies that serve them. For her, a particular focus has been ensuring consumer safety by replacing aging infrastructure for natural gas, water and electric utilities.
These accomplishments led me to ask if she ever considered running for elective office.
“You are not the first person who has asked that question,” she said, laughing but politely declining to answer.
The future may not be known, but I left our meeting confident that Brown, as always, will prepare thoroughly for whatever lies ahead.
To learn more about the Pennsylvania Utility Commission, visit www.puc.state.pa.us.
Author: Michael McCarthy