By Jerilyn Bowen
For the first time in its history, the city of Albuquerque has a woman as Chief Administrative Officer, a position that entails overseeing 19 departments of municipal government and a budget of over one billion dollars. Since being brought on board by newly elected Mayor Keller in 2017, Sarita Nair has skillfully managed the entire metro operation while also leading major initiatives to guarantee equity in city policies, ensure public safety, and clear the backlog of untested rape kits.
Describing herself as “very first generation,” Ms. Nair is the daughter of East Indian parents who emigrated to the U.S. in 1967. She grew up in a suburb of Pittsburgh, got a degree in African American Studies at Wesleyan University, and worked in the field of international development in New York City before falling in love with New Mexico on a road trip with her college roommate. When she decided she needed a change of direction, she left her former life behind and moved to NM to obtain an M.A. in Community and Regional Planning at the University of New Mexico, after which she earned a J.D. at the UNM School of Law, graduating magna cum laude. Her subsequent career as a NM attorney took a turn in 2014 when then State Auditor Tim Keller recruited her to serve as Chief Government Accountability Officer and General Counsel in his office. She clearly earned her stripes there. When Keller became Mayor of Albuquerque, he made sure she came with him to serve as his administration’s senior executive manager, a position fraught with challenges that Nair has met with agility, grace, and wisdom.
Being a woman has affected Nair’s professional life. When her children were growing up, being a working mother was always a difficult balancing act in which she had to make hard choices between things like staying on at the office to complete an important brief and making it to her child’s afterschool game. Especially now during the pandemic, she sees childcare programs as essential for working mothers and points to the childcare centers the Keller administration established immediately after the COVID shutdown.
Nair has made sure that women of all backgrounds are on the Keller staff and at the table when policies and programs are being planned as opposed to being siloed into areas traditionally deemed appropriate for their gender. As a result, pay equity for women and other remedial measures have become city priorities. One such measure: women who apply for positions on the Keller team are not required to disclose their past earnings history, to give women, who typically receive lower pay than men, a fair shot at fair compensation.
In her earlier career Nair encountered the usual unspoken workplace attitudes whereby women are automatically sidelined and their abilities underestimated and undervalued. Sexual harassment is for many another piece of that picture. She notes that in general these obstacles hold doubly true for women of color. As a younger woman she kept trying harder and harder to prove herself to those who treated her disparagingly. Then she realized that this was a losing game and started recognizing that she was dealing with misogyny interlaced with racism. She feels it important to acknowledge such realities, even if at times only to oneself. In naming these things for what they are, she found tremendous support from other women–friends, colleagues, and mentors. These caring allies helped see her through the tough passages and provided the grounding she needed to claim her rightful power. Along with that, Nair had an inspiring role model in her mother, a college professor who worked outside the home her whole adult life and ultimately became the Vice Provost of Carnegie Mellon University.
Nair identifies as a feminist, which she defines as a heartfelt commitment to the well-being of all women, a commitment that is enhanced by intersectional alliances across class and ethnicity. She cites African American poet Audre Lorde’s declaration I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.
In keeping with that sense of sisterhood, Nair is keenly aware that the safety net for women in Bernalillo County has many holes in it. Due to these holes, everything in a woman’s life can become destabilized as a result of one unexpected blow such as work hours being cut, a child or parent falling ill, an HVAC system breaking down, or a car wreck. Many women must carefully navigate such pitfalls on a narrow margin and many fall upon hard times when the precarious underpinnings of their security collapse. Moreover, since it is women who hold our families and communities together, what befalls these women inevitably has a deleterious ripple effect beyond their home spheres.
Nair’s well-seasoned advice to young women with futures to forge has two aspects. The first concerns how imperative it is to increase women’s presence in every sphere of life, from police departments to local businesses to elected leaders and beyond. The second is tailored for women seeking careers in public service. She recommends that these aspirants start with hands-on assignments and only over time work up to policy-level positions. Finally, recalling what she learned from the mentor with whom she clerked after graduating from law school, Nair describes NM Appellate Judge Lynn Pickard as “a force of nature” and quotes her as saying When you are in public service, you have a higher calling to let people know that government can work for them. As CAO of the City of Albuquerque, for Sarita Nair that’s a reminder to be promptly responsive to the citizens she serves and always responsible for the common good in what she does.