‘a student of this community’

Nasha McCray: city’s first black

director of parks & recreation  

By Laurie D. Willis

 

From 2003 to 2009, Nasha McCray went from being a historic planning intern in West Palm Beach, Florida, to a senior planner in Jacksonville, a much larger market in the northeastern part of the state.

However, in 2009 McCray decided she was ready to leave her home state. She considered relocating to Salisbury, North Carolina, until a Greensboro job posting in the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation caught her eye.

Turns out it was a good move. In January, Greensboro officials named McCray the city’s new director of Parks and Recreation – the first African American to hold that position.

“I was part of the team that interviewed Nasha when she first came to Greensboro and I recognized her incredible personality and talent, but didn’t fully support the position she was applying for,” says Assistant City Manager Chris Wilson. “It was still a fairly new position that I didn’t believe at the time would benefit the department, so although Nasha was great, I didn’t want the position.

“My respect for Nasha has increased over the years due to all of her accomplishments and the genuine desire she has to help out the community,” Wilson continues. “The role she started in became hers, and she did it so well that I became an advocate for the position in later years. She is one of the best people I have ever met, and she uses all of her talent to help others.”

McCray came to Greensboro as the division manager of planning and project development, a position she considered perfect for her.

“I admittedly didn’t know a lot about Greensboro and had never visited the city, but after researching it I was intrigued by the sense of community here and the ability to make a mark in the community doing something I love,” McCray says. “Plus, I read about a lot of exciting new development and growth opportunities on the horizon and wanted to be a part of shaping that.”

 

‘a higher standard’

 

As director of Parks and Recreation, McCray oversees millions of dollars in capital projects, a comprehensive plan, thousands of acres of parks real estate, and millions of dollars in economic impact-related events, Wilson says.

“My expectation is that she does that her way, the Greensboro way, and that means well above expectations because that’s how talented she is,” Wilson says. “This won’t be an issue, though, because she holds herself to a higher standard than anyone else could.”

That McCray is her own worst critic while always giving more than 100 percent isn’t news to Dr. Sonya R. Shaw, the president-elect of the N.C. Recreation and Park Association who met McCray about seven years ago.

“My first impressions of her were that she was very personable and very committed to the profession in terms of understanding the role of parks and recreation in communities,” says Shaw, the director of Garner Parks and Recreation. “I also thought she was very detail-oriented, very aware of community needs and very interested in using her skillset to help solve problems.”

Shaw says her initial good impressions of McCray have only increased. After her promotion, McCray became one of only 17 African American women parks and recreation directors in the U.S., according to Shaw.

“I think she’s even more committed now because she has a larger community to influence,” Shaw says. “She has a great team there. I know several of the staff managers as well as the assistant city manager … and I’ve been impressed with their commitment to maintaining their goals and objectives as well as their ability to help their employees gain upward mobility. Nasha is a product of that because she came in as a division manager and worked her way up to deputy manager and then director.”

McCray got hired in 2009 as Greensboro’s planning and project development division manager. After six years she was promoted to deputy director and, after a couple of years as the No. 2 person in the department, she served as interim director before getting the job outright.

“I would have been disappointed had she not gotten the job,” Shaw says. “She was definitely prepared. You pay your dues and put in the hard work and eventually it pays off. I’m not surprised at all that she was offered the position.”

Neither was LaKeisha Lewis, a longtime friend of McCray’s who met while both were students at the University of Central Florida. McCray has a bachelor’s degree in liberal studies and a master’s in public administration with a concentration in urban/regional planning.

“I wasn’t surprised at all that Nasha got the director’s job in Greensboro,” Lewis says. “When I first met her, I thought she was very down to earth with a tough exterior. She came off as confident but not so much so as to be unapproachable and unpleasant. There were some very strong candidates for the director’s position from what I understand, but I assured her that based on her experience and the relationships that she’d developed in the Greensboro community, the position was surely hers. I’m sure she didn’t want to be overconfident during her interview process, so I felt compelled to have a ‘big head’ for her.”

 

‘wear many hats’

 

McCray has five direct reports and more than 170 fulltime and part-time employees, not to mention hundreds of seasonal employees, under her leadership. She says her management style isn’t imposing.

“I’m definitely not a micromanager and believe in general that a really good manager gives clear directions and expectations but actually stays hands-off,” McCray says. “At the same time, I believe a good manager is also ready and available to jump in and offer expertise, help and guidance when needed. Unless we’re tackling some very complex or critical projects, I don’t usually hound or hover around my team, but I do like to do informal check-ins on what they’re working on and also just to make sure their personal well-being is in a good place, too.”

McCray says since being named director, her biggest challenge has been discerning what she needs to sink her teeth into.

“I have to wear many hats as the director but also figure out which ones to try on,” she says. “There’s so many things that I can be doing as a director and a lot of time is spent trying to figure out what is worth my time versus whether it’s something another of my team could be doing. Now that I’m no longer operating in a ‘gray area’ as interim director, I feel much more comfortable with making decisions. I believe my team feels less anxiety also because our leadership is not in a transitional stage.”

There have been many bright spots on McCray’s watch since becoming director in January, and she’s quick to give her staff high praise.

Among notable accomplishments, she says, are getting through half of the Plan2Play process, an update to the department’s 20-year strategic master plan and vision; hosting the Joint N.C. and S.C. Recreation and Park Association Conference that brought more than 1,200 people to the city; assisting in disaster recovery efforts after a tornado devastated parts of Greensboro in April; handling more than 5,000 visitors to the city’s pools and spray grounds since Memorial Day weekend; managing the city’s youth baseball program and spring kickball league; running Greensboro’s summer camps; and receiving more than $300,000 in various grants  to fund various projects and initiatives.

Lewis has no doubt McCray will continue excelling in her new role.

“Nasha and I have grown from young adults to mature, career-minded women and have faced the challenges that life has presented to us by … being able to account for our mistakes, maintain our sense of humor and recognize when a situation calls for a pragmatic approach,” Lewis says.

Shaw echoed Lewis’ sentiments, saying McCray will fare well in the Gate City.

“She will do very, very well, and I think the community will embrace her,” she says. “She certainly has a team supporting her, which is always important features to have when you matriculate to those important positions.”

 

‘student of this community’

 

McCray has a 13-month-old daughter named Journee and counts her parents and former First Lady Michelle Obama as her biggest role models. She tries to live by 2 Timothy 1:7, which says, “For the spirit God gave us does not make us timid, but gives us power, love and self-discipline,” and Philippians 4:13, which says, “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.”

In high school, McCray played softball and flag football and was an athletic trainer. In college, she played intramural softball. Over the past four years, she’s played softball and kickball in city-sponsored leagues, and her next goal is to learn to play golf and, perhaps, Pickleball.

Wilson, the assistant city manager, says McCray is highly competitive and jokes that games can get dangerous when she’s involved. He’s also quick to point out McCray’s importance to the city.

“Nasha has lived in other parts of the country and chose to call Greensboro home,” he says. “She is a student of this community and how to serve it.”