On November 7, residents of Helena Montana elected Wilmot Collins as their new mayor. In the process, the four-term incumbent mayor, James E. Smith, lost his reelection bid.
Anytime a four-term incumbent loses an election is a watershed moment; however, Collins’s victory was more significant because about twenty years before, he had arrived in the U.S. as a Liberian refugee with 25 cents in his pocket.
As he explains, he didn’t have the 35 cents needed to call his wife, herself a refugee, who had arrived in Montana ahead of him on a student scholarship. Adding to the significance of Collins’ election is that he is the first black mayor of Montana’s capital city.
Over the course of my interview with Collins, we discussed several issues, ranging from the First Liberian Civil War, his time as a refugee, his arrival in the U.S., his family, and his election as mayor of Helena.
We also discussed the historical connection between Liberia and the U.S. I suggested that he is a visible manifestation of that history which Americans can conceptualize in real time. Indeed, the fact that his community bonded around him, his Liberian heritage, and their collective vision for their future as Americans and residents of Helena is a testament to the special ties that exist between both countries.
We can argue as to the meaning of this relationship, but let us say that on November 7, in Helena, Montana, this bond lived up to its potential.
Mayor-elect Collins credits his accomplishments in the U.S. to his zeal to persevere and overcome adversity. Like many Liberians, he lost family members during the war. Like many Liberians, the war gave him a profound sense to survive.
His passion for succeeding, combined with the educational foundation that he received in Liberia, prepared him to maximize his potential in the U.S. As he proudly states, “We received the best education.” He is a graduate of the Firestone primary school system, Bishop Francis Carroll High School, the Ricks Institute and the University of Liberia.
So solid were his academic credentials that he was hired as a counselor for at-risk youth within two weeks of arriving in Montana. Since his humble roots in the U.S., he has held numerous prominent positions. He was an officer with the Department of Homeland Security’s immigration department, the administrative officer for the Veterans Administration Montana Facility, and is currently a lecturer at the University of Montana, where he teaches psychology.
In fact, he has postponed his doctoral thesis due to his new obligations as the steward of Helena. Collins is also a member of the U.S. Armed Forces, as he proudly mentions, he is approaching his retirement from the Navy.
One year before his election, Collins took this same can-do attitude into politics. As he states, he has had a passion for politics, not as an end, but as a platform to bridge communities, improve lives and advance positive discourse in society.
What he accomplished is no less than remarkable. He began his campaign with no funds and just the help of his family and friends. When asked how he decided what platform his campaign should embody, he explained that he and his team embarked on a listening tour of the citizens of Helena to ascertain what was important to them.
His campaign platform then became their voice. Instead of dictating to them what they needed or what he was prepared to do, he amplified their voice. They heard him loud and clear and a campaign that began with no money, and a few friends and family, defeated a four-term incumbent mayor.
Despite his dedication, Collins attributes the victory to his community and his family. His community bonded around a former refugee from Liberia and embraced him as their own. As a testament to their bond, they have entrusted their future and that of Helena into his hands.
Not surprisingly, Collins places his family at the heart of his success. His wife and children are not strangers to military service. Maddie Collins earned her B.Sc. in nursing from Carroll College, a local Catholic institution, and is a U.S. Army Reservist. Their daughter, Jaymie, is currently on active duty with the U.S. Navy and their son Bliss, a senior at the University of Montana, played an active role in his campaign.
A few years ago, the mayor-elect brought his children to Liberia to see the land of their ancestry. Jaymie and Bliss, both born in the U.S., had never been to Liberia. As Collins states, their time in Liberia had a profound effect on them. They embraced the land, its people, and its many cultures. Even though they had never been to Liberia, they felt an immediate connection with it. For Collins, it is important that his children know their heritage.
As the debate over immigration and citizenship continue on both sides of the Atlantic, Collins’ story and that of his family serve to remind us of the richness of potential endowed in each of us that is yearning to be realized given the opportunity.
In Mayor-elect Collins, the citizens of Helena got a son of Liberia ready to work tirelessly to improve their lives. As an American, he represents the best of the U.S. For Liberia, Collins demonstrates the potential present in every Liberian, regardless of who or where they may be. Collectively, he is a visible manifestation of the special relationship between Liberia and the U.S.