Good (Man)ners: Dani Isaacsohn on Cohear, Everyday Experts, and Changing the Norm
Good (Man)ners is devoted to male-identifying dudes who share our belief that when you uplift women, you uplift everyone. Read on to hear from Cincinnatians who take allyship to heart.
Like many who grew up in Cincinnati, Dani Isaacsohn left the city as a young adult. He attended Yale and Georgetown University, moved to D.C., and worked on both the Obama and Clinton campaigns. With a budding career in politics and law, Dani found his way back to his familial roots in Cincinnati. Inspired by his work on the campaign trail, he started Cohear, an organization focused on connecting everyday experts with local decision-makers. Together, they work to create innovative solutions to local issues that will positively impact all community members. We sat down with Dani at his alma mater, Walnut Hills High School, where he told us about the inspiration for Cohear, what he’s learned through his work, and what he hopes to accomplish in the future. He tells us the hardships faced by fellow Cincinnatians inspire him to use his privilege to find solutions. Dani works daily to bring more people to the table (literally) and to elevate the voices of those less likely to be heard.
Please tell us about yourself.
I grew up in Cincinnati. I went to Walnut Hills, left for college in D.C., and then went on to grad school. I worked on the Obama campaign in 2012 as an organizer. I got hooked on politics and on campaigns – especially grassroots organizing on political campaigns; both the adrenaline of trying to win and getting to spend your days organizing communities and trying to get more people to vote and volunteer. I moved on to Texas after that, where I helped start an organization called Battleground Texas. The basic idea behind that was if everyone in Texas was registered to vote and voted, Texas would be politically competitive at every level. It's an amazing organization; they are still doing really good work.
Then I went to law school. I kept working on campaigns and in government trying to figure out what, if any, type of lawyer I wanted to be. Then I worked on the Clinton campaign. I moved back home to Cincinnati in 2017 to start Cohear.
What drove you to start Cohear?
I spent a lot of time in Texas, North Carolina, and Virginia knocking on people's doors and talking to them about why they were voting. I have had literally thousands of conversations with people on their doorsteps and at gas stations about why they're planning to vote or, more importantly, why they're not planning to vote or even register. Often what I heard were things like, “What's the point? It doesn't matter who wins.” Particularly in underserved communities, there’s a sense of, “We're going to get screwed no matter what.”
My follow-up question was always, “What is happening in your life or in your community that is making you feel disaffected, angry, and apathetic?”
Sometimes people pointed to things happening in Columbus, Austin, or D.C. But a lot of times people pointed to things happening locally in their cities and in their neighborhoods. The people who make those decisions, I would say at least half of the time, are not elected officials. Elected officials have a role; I obviously believe it's important who wins elections. But, for people's day-to-day lives, there is this whole other set of influential decision-makers who have meaningful power but don't have the same systems of engaging their constituents. So, I wanted to try and take some of the organizing strategies that we used on campaigns and ask, “How can we get these local unelected decision-makers, who have a huge role in people's day-to-day lives, connected to these people?” We call the people who are actually impacted by and living these issues every day “everyday experts.”
Would you mind telling us about a session that made a particular impact on you?
The superintendent's office of Cincinnati Public Schools [C.P.S.] said, “Like many school districts around the country, bullying is a huge issue our students face. We want to get better about responding to bullying and preventing it in the first place.” We said the same thing to them that we say to everyone else: Come talk to the experts. In this case, that means talking to primarily kids who are getting bullied, other students, and their parents, teachers, and administrators.
We could be getting more innovative ideas from the people who face these barriers directly.
One of those conversations was with 11 girls from around the district, from ages 7 to 17. The superintendent, Laura Mitchell, asked them, “Can you tell us what you went through? Why are you in this room?” One by one, the girls described these awful situations. Some of the situations were ongoing. Some of the girls didn't want to go to school the next day. A couple of them had been hospitalized for trying to harm themselves.
We asked the students, “What do you want to see happen moving forward?” One of the students, who was in sixth grade, said, “Can we do this every week?” and everyone around the table was like, “Yes! Please!”
It resonated deeply with the superintendent. She spent the next eight months working with her team to develop a new set of bullying policies that C.P.S. rolled out a month ago and they're going to continue to build on. One of the ideas from the students that I think was the most powerful was that the answers to a lot of this lie with the other students. They want peers to mediate their issues. They want peers who have gone through this already to mentor them. They want more opportunities just to become friends with people in their classes or who they see in the hallways so there's a better chance that someone has their back. So, the district is hiring a student engagement coordinator. A big part of that position will be figuring out how to realize what those kids were describing.
Another project we did was with The Women's Fund of the Greater Cincinnati Foundation. They do a lot of advocacy and some grant making to help women in need in Cincinnati, particularly those seeking economic security. Their team came to us and said, “We could do a better job of hearing directly from the women in the communities we want to have an impact on.”
So we organized a series of conversations with women in those communities and, sort of similar to the students, what we heard was, “The resumé programs are great. The job training programs are great. But what we really need are more opportunities to network with one another and to build relationships. We need more relationships with people where we can say, ‘Can you watch my kid for two hours if I let you borrow my car?’”
The Women's Fund's main takeaway was that they need to take a step back, be a little less prescriptive, and foster more connections and relationships among the women in these communities. Now we're setting up a women's advisory fund board that will meet with the leadership from the Women's Fund to help infuse the grant making processes with those priorities. Meghan Cummings, the director of the Women's Fund, said those conversations have changed how the Women's Fund is doing business and how they're making grants.
You have a great education and could be doing whatever you want right now. What made you decide to return to Cincinnati and put yourself through starting a business?
The answer to that question starts with a strong woman. I’m Jewish, and my family came from Eastern Europe. My mom’s grandma walked from Poland to Italy to escape Nazi Europe. She was on a boat out of Italy. My mom's other grandma was on the last boat out of Poland in 1938. They moved to Israel and started a life there. That’s where my mom's side of the family is from and where my mom grew up. The rest of their entire extended families on that side came from big Eastern European Jewish families. None of them survived Nazi Europe.
If you take the long view of history – which Jews tend to do – Jews in general have been running from place to place. The short version of Jewish history – this is the joke: “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let's eat.” It's sort of how you describe most Jewish holidays. If you take a hard look at history, we’ve bounced around from place to place to place trying to find a place where the collective “they” were not going to kill us or ghettoize us.
Eventually, my parents made their way to Cincinnati. This city, this country has a ton of challenges, but, for our family, this is the place. This is one of the first places in history where – for Jews, at least – there are no ceilings. You’re not prescribed to a certain industry or type of work. That level of full citizenship, of full opportunity, is incredibly meaningful for me and for my family. I got to go to the best schools in the country. My parents have lived the American dream and passed that on to me and my siblings, with the recognition that that is not true for everyone here. That full suite of opportunities where there is no ceiling just has not been true for other immigrant groups and minorities. Most particularly, it has not been true for many African Americans, who have a very different relationship with the United States than Jewish immigrants do.
So, to answer your question, I think, that walk from Poland to Italy was not just so that me and my siblings could be comfortable and have a good life here. It is a waste if that is how we look at it. I think that would be wasting this really unique opportunity for my family to play a role in making sure that the gifts we have been given here are extended to people for whom that's not fully true.
What's an issue that you would like to address through Cohear?
There are two that we've been thinking about. The first is housing and, particularly, the lack of affordable housing. We're helping with the Greater Cincinnati affordable housing strategy now and making sure that residents’ voices are part of that process. There’s three of us full-time on that team.
There's a lot of discussion about the social determinants of health and the way, in particular, that housing, transportation, education, and food access all have downstream effects on health. Hospitals are waking up to it and are getting a lot of money to do something about it. But I think there is a real disconnect between a lot of these big health systems and the people who actually face those social determinants of health. We could be getting more innovative ideas from the people who face these barriers directly. There are people doing good work in that space, like Cradle Cincinnati and Queens Village.
Some of the norms that are applied to specific situations were designed often by men, for men, and that means being ready to change those norms.
What does it mean to you to be an ally?
I think about it in a couple of ways. It's recognizing that, for all sorts of reasons, access is granted to me for things beyond my control – like being a man, being white, and having gone to a great school like Walnut Hills. This access is not granted in the same way to other people. What am I doing intentionally in my life to make sure that I am working to get other people that access, both in terms of the work we do at Cohear and in my personal life? The core tenet at Cohear is that the voices of the everyday experts are the ones at the table. They're the ones coming up with the ideas. We're not speaking on their behalf; they can speak on their own behalf. Our work is to get other people that access.
I think about that in my personal life, too. What am I doing to step back and try and elevate other voices, particularly women's voices, in spaces where they might not get naturally elevated for systemic reasons? I also think about it in terms of my day-to-day work. Our two other team members, Nikita and Nia, are two amazing and very strong women. I spend a lot of time learning from them. There's definitely room to grow, but they have taught me a lot about what it means to support them as parents and to support them as co-workers. Some of the norms that are applied to specific situations were designed often by men, for men, and that means being ready to change those norms. When someone says, “That's not working for me,” not to question it, but to say, “What would work?” and then do that. I spend a lot of time trying to do that and learning from them.
Can you tell us about some influential women in your life?
That answer is easy for me: my mom. She is everyone's favorite member of my family. She is both incredibly strong and like a force of nature, but also has this endless reservoir of empathy and kindness; she can relate to anyone immediately. I'm jealous of her ability to make anyone feel comfortable from whatever situation and from whatever walk of life. She doesn’t pull any punches. She sets standards high. She will call me out if I am not living up to both the standards she sets, but also the standard she has had me set for myself. I’m very close to her and talk to her most days. I'm the only kid who lives in Cincinnati, so I see my parents a fair amount.
In addition to my girlfriend, who plays a very important role in my life, over the last year the people I interact with the most and learn the most from are Nia and Nikita. They are very unique in their own ways. They're awesome moms and they're awesome team members and employees. They do really interesting work that they're passionate about outside of Cohear in the community. They are incredibly fierce advocates for their community and for the community at large. I learn a ton from both of them. They also, as it turns out, do not pull punches, which is good.