Meet the Women of Cincy Team: Heather Willins


It was a rainy Thursday afternoon when I walked into The Overlook Lodge. I was so nervous, but as soon as I got there, I was greeted with a warm smile and a hug from Heather Willins. Heather is a team member on Women of Cincy who basically does it all. She is a Ravenclaw, wants to be in “Gilmore Girls,” and is also a fierce advocate for many issues of social justice. As a high school government teacher, Heather has a unique perspective on today’s political climate and conversations. Read on to learn about Heather’s love-hate relationship with Cincinnati and her thoughts on how to be an active and engaged citizen.

Interview by Kate Ducey. Photography by Nicole Mayes.

Women of Cincy is an apolitical organization dedicated to giving a voice to women of all beliefs. We encourage our readers to have open minds, make informed decisions, and be engaged in their community.

Tell me a little about yourself.

My name is Heather Willins. I am a teacher for Cincinnati Public Schools. I am also heavily involved in Women of Cincy; started working with them last year. My first assignment was Women’s March and Black Lives Matter panel. Since then, I have been doing events, marketing, social media, and photography. It’s been a lot of fun. I'm realizing I should have gone into business when I was in college, but teaching is rewarding within itself. So, no regrets. I teach 11th grade. I'm a social studies teacher; it’s a lot of fun. It's definitely an interesting time to be a teacher – especially a government teacher. There are a lot of things going on that are unprecedented. So, I have the pleasure of explaining that to my students. 

Do they ask you about it a lot?

Every day. I have to stop everything and be like, “Let's talk about this.” The way the curriculum is set up for Ohio is that there is no time to take a break. You do not get to stop because the United States is so complicated and has so many levels. You can't just take a break in the middle of the year and do current events. Sometimes I can work it [into the lesson] but unfortunately, most of the time is dedicated to just teaching structural government and the function of the government. We did have a lot of great debates last year. You have to find the perfect balance between the two. 

So is it nice being a government teacher with everything happening, or would you say no?

It depends on your political leanings. Some people might be having a better time than other people, especially if you find it difficult to remain neutral in front of your kids. I live the philosophy of, “Why not share your political beliefs with your students?” As long as you're not requiring or making them believe your way is the only way. As long as you're opening up that dialogue, you should be able to open yourself up to your students in a mature and professional way.” This is what's going on; I personally feel this is the way things should be going; what do you think?” I like giving them the room to speak and share their opinions rather than mine. 

I feel like my government class experience would have been much better if we were able to have an open dialogue. 

There used to be a real fear that whatever you said was going to be how the students voted. I encourage my students to go out there and do research and find their own information. I have them take an ideology test at the beginning of the year. Some of my students find out they’re conservative and they're like, “Uh, what!” You do not have to be one thing or the other, but as long as you do good things with whatever you choose, then you're fine. My classroom rules are basically: Don't be a jerk. 

You kind of mentioned this earlier, but what did you hope to find or gain by volunteering with Women of Cincy? 

I was hoping to find a like-minded group of women who brought out the best side in myself, which was that I really care a lot about the human element. I've always been a humanist and I believe that the world is naturally good and that we can do our best to encourage that in every person by putting good energy out in the world. Through Women of Cincy, I hope to kind of project that and work toward that, because it can get lost when you're a teacher – especially when things are stressful or challenging or overwhelming, because there are a lot of expectations. Sometimes you lose that sense of, "I'm doing good in the world." I want to create empathy for other people through reporting experiences and through sharing those experiences with others. I do not like the whole “walk a mile in their shoes” because I don't think a mile is enough. You have to be able to actively understand, consistently, in everything that you do. You need to have purpose and intention. 


Speaking of purpose and intention, how would you define empathy?

Empathy can be defined in a lot of ways. The best way I learned how to define empathy was through a Holocaust education course that I took a couple of years ago that kind of changed my life. We learn about the Holocaust a lot growing up. My husband is Jewish. So, choosing to participate in things that may be difficult for you because they are talking about experiences that are so vastly different from yours is empathy. Realizing that you need to take not only a walk in their shoes, but you need to be them – for even just a little while – is how to understand empathy for yourself. 

Do you think that’s needed here in Cincinnati?

Cincy is a weird little place and I would never live anywhere else but at the same time, I have to appreciate and understand that the history is complicated. People from the outside still don't get it. We are in the middle of the weirdest little town. I grew up in Anderson, so my experience growing up was very sheltered. Anderson is an upper middle class to upper class white community. My experience was very sheltered until I met a couple of people through friends who went to Walnut Hills, and that's when my world just opened up. There is a world outside this tiny little bubble. My best friends shared their experiences with me about growing up in Cincinnati as young, black individuals, and their experiences were just vastly different than mine. I was like, "Wow." I think about them now and look back at how they had such a huge impact on me growing up. I don't even think they understand that they got me out of my bubble. I moved out of Anderson the second I got to graduate. I ended up going to U.C. [University of Cincinnati] and I lived in Clifton for a long time. I lived in Walnut Hills for a little while. Currently living in Pleasant Ridge; like I've now been all over the city. I feel like my life would be vastly different if it were not for those friends I had made in high school. I would have never even realized that there was a world outside of mine. I thank them a lot for that. I don't even know if they'll ever know. I could reach out and say thanks but I feel like they'd be like, “What are you talking about?” [Laughs.] Cincinnati is the best, little, weird place I have ever been. 


You kind of touched on this, but how would you describe your relationship to Cincinnati?

Oh my God, a love-hate one; it's always love-hate. This city drives me freaking insane. My friend said it best on her Instagram the other day, that Cincinnati is like a train wreck; you just can't stop staring at it. I would agree, because every time we are in the news, it's a tragedy. We have a riot over a young man being shot to death. Then again, another police shooting. But, we have some of the most well preserved historical buildings in our country. We have a history of being some kind of social justice advocate. We have the most well orchestrated and one of the only museums in the country that is completely dedicated to understanding the plight of the enslaved in the United States. But, we also have terrible pockets of racism and you see it and hear it. My students have told me stories and have asked me, “Why does that happen, Mrs. Willins?”

And I'm like, “You're asking the wrong person, because I don't understand it, either.” I love it for all that it can do, and I hate it for all that it has done. We have such potential.

What is your ideal Cincinnati?

Can we stop being in the news for terrible, terrible things, please? Just for the love of God, can we just put our big grownup pants on and just stop bickering over streetcars? That's embarrassing. I have friends from Cleveland being like, "What's going on down there?" I'm like, "I don't know; it's insane." And then on the top of that, we have one of the highest poverty rates of children in this country. The country. That is embarrassing. It shouldn't be like that here, especially in a city that prides itself as something that is grand and gorgeous. You are not grand and gorgeous when you've got people getting shot every couple of years, and you've got kids in poverty. And my C.P.S. [Cincinnati Public Schools], as people like to point out to me, is a “failing” school district, but only in that it cannot be compared to others in the state. We are unique here, and no one wants to treat it like that. “Let's just throw a new initiative at it and just get over it.” That's not how it works.

Poverty is a huge problem. Because Cincinnati has such huge rates [of poverty], my ideal Cincinnati is if we could be the first city to eradicate it. If we are going to shoot for the stars and pretend to be a Queen City, then we might as well start shooting for the big deal, which is to eradicate poverty. It's doable. I mean, I do appreciate that Cincinnati is a sanctuary city. We've already established that for ourselves. We have openly gay individuals on our City Council. We have a dynamic city government. People from all backgrounds end up running and being successful. Then at the same time, no one has wherewithal to establish that they are anti-poverty. That would be a great stance to take, and if we all just tried to work together and tried to fix it, it's doable. And yes, I understand charity and philanthropy are important, but that doesn't fix poverty. But, an ideal Cincinnati is that we stop pretending like there's not children suffering here in our city, and that we need to start stepping it up and as a city to start fixing the poverty issue.

I was an education major for one semester, and we talked about how children in Cincinnati; over 50 percent of them, live in poverty. I had a crisis about how OTR is booming, but 50 percent of children live in poverty.

We are now at 75 percent as of 2014. No, it's 75 percent of free lunches as of 2014, meaning we qualify as below the poverty level to such a degree that our students should not be entitled to pay for their own food at the school. And then currently, we are at – oh boy – in the 2017-18 school year, 69.9 percent of children are economically disadvantaged – that's of just CPS students only. That disgusts me. Those are my kids. I tell them every day that I love them; now get the heck out of my room. I love you, but go. And they're like, "Okay, love you too, bye!" So, I know those kids are going to go home, and maybe not eat, and if they are eating, they're eating something affordable, which is not always the best, healthy thing for you. And that is not any fault of their parents who are probably working three jobs. And they are 16-, 17-, 18-year-old kids. When I was that age, I didn't know how to take care of myself. I'm not concerned for them for the safety issue, but I am concerned, you know, what they're eating: ramen noodles, because that's what they've got, because that's what they can afford, and it's what they know how to make. Again, not any fault of anybody’s, but it is the fault of the society as a whole. I digress, but a city that takes its poverty issues seriously would be my ideal Cincy. But that reaches all people, especially women. We are hit the hardest by poverty. Women of color are the hardest hit by poverty, and that is a systemic issue that we should not allow to happen anymore.

Where do you see Women of Cincy in five years?

Hopefully paying me [laughs]. Paying me for all my hard work [laughs]. No, hopefully being this powerhouse in Cincinnati and really doing a lot of good for the community. Creating the system to change everything. Making huge strides in the feminist agenda, making huge strides for women of color and other underrepresented women. Anybody disenfranchised, hopefully we ... get through to becoming one of those organizations in this city that we talk about with such high regard. And a place for all women to come under the umbrella and come work with us and be able to help create that change that we are all just dying for. It's women that are starting that conversation.

Tell me about an influential woman in your life.

Oh my God! It's the biggest question ever! I'm going to put these in two categories: celebrity and non-celebrity. I'm going to do non-celebrity first, and that would have been my grandma. She was hard as nails and she did not take any crap. She taught me from a young age that you have to be okay on your own. I was able to have some very successful and happy relationships throughout my life because I was okay being by myself. I was like, "Well, that one didn't work out," but then I kind of had the opportunity to embrace the positivity with each relationship I had with people, based on friendship, romantic, or whatever. She was so ambitious. She didn't have a college degree, but she managed the entire accounting department at a very popular car dealership out in Anderson for her entire life. She started working there before I was even born and continued working there until she was managing the entire accounting department. Barely graduated high school; in fact, I don't even know if she did graduate because she had my aunt when she was 17. Her and my grandpa were together for 55 years. They had two wonderful children, my aunt and my mom, who are also women I admire. But, my grandma being this matriarch of this family… She passed away from C.O.P.D. [Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease] in 2014. That hit me really hard. I hear her voice in my head to go for things and to try. “What's the worst they are going to do? Tell you no?” Thanks, Grandma. After she passed away, I realized there was no time to waste in life, and all she ever wanted for me was to be happy. God love her, she did everything she could for me growing up. She was just a really awesome woman and someone who had integrity and was tough. Not in a mean way, but everyone knew that you didn't mess with Grandma. She was the warden; she kept us together. That amount of someone who gives so much love for you, but is not afraid to tell you what's up, is just an irreplaceable person in my life. Shirley Weeks: She was a cool broad.

Wow. And then for celebrity?

I remember – this might be cliche – but I remember watching Oprah growing up, and I loved her energy. She was so awesome and she interviewed so many cool people. I didn't grow up watching the news for some reason, but I did watch Oprah every day after school with my mom. She was on at like 4 o'clock in the afternoon, and I remember this because I just remember her being so excited. She has this look in her eyes when she interviews people that is just so compassionate and like she's almost in tears, but she's not. She was just asking serious questions. I admired her so much for that. And then I didn’t know about her history and her circumstances growing up. I didn't know until I was older and looking back and I'm thinking, “How did somebody who went through so much have so much positivity?” So, I admire her greatly. I remember when her show got canceled; I was devastated. I think about her all the time. If she can get through what she did, then I have no excuses.

Oprah and my grandma have very similar personalities. There are so many awesome and exciting women in the world. Womankind all together is just a mindblowing, phenomenal club that I feel very lucky to be part of.

What is your favorite quality about yourself?

Ahh! [Laughs.] Let's see, my friends say that I'm very nice, but I'm not nice. I don't know how to describe myself. I'm pretty honest; I'm direct. For somebody with an anxiety disorder, I do not shy away from things. I deal with stuff; I'm a handler. I would say my superpower – that we said when we were doing Girls in Government – is definitely my spirit. I'm just a spirited person. I'm loud; I'm a little off the wall, but I will always giggle, laugh, and talk to you; look you in the eye and be like, “Thank you for being awesome. Have a good day.” My middle school and high school experience – not to be that person – but it was not entirely enjoyable. I had a lot of fun, but I look back on myself and I'm like, "Ew." I have friends I went to high school with that I did not even talk to then. You would have hated me in high school. I learned my lesson the hard way, because I lost a lot of friends and I was being a garbage human. So I guess, perspective and positivity. I learned the hard way and I want to move forward, so I always treat everybody with the utmost respect because I just feel like we all deserve it for getting through life this far. I could have made better choices, but I am able to look back and learn.

I feel like that's a good quality to have, to be able to look back and learn from your past experiences.

It was a tough pill to swallow, man, but sometimes you've just gotta do it. When you have an anxiety disorder, you tend to think about things a lot, especially when you did stupid things in the past. Your brain just haunts you with it, like, “Don't you remember that one time you said this or did that?” It just keeps repeating in your head, and you're like, “Thank you, I've got it.” So, if I do enough positivity, it's kind of self serving. Doing positive things and being a positive person not only puts that out there in the universe, but also allows you to receive that positivity back. So, it's like my anxiety can just chill out because I'm not dirt anymore. [Laughs.] And I'm hilarious! I tell my students that all the time, “Don't you know I'm hilarious?”

And they’re like, “Mrs. Willins, you're not hilarious.” I'm like, "I am so funny. I laugh at myself all the time." And they're like, "You're being crazy."

“I'm crazy because I'm here with you guys. Y'all drive me crazy.” [Laughs.] You have to have a good sense of humor to be a teacher.

What is the best piece of advice you have ever received?

“Gilmore Girls” was a huge part of my childhood. Lorelai Gilmore, although a very faulted character and definitely has her own problems, is a hero of mine. It was the whole motivation of the show itself. It made me realize that life sucks, but you've got to do your best.

Amy Poehler’s autobiography, Yes Please, was one of the most influential books somehow. The most ambitious. The most important thing she said in that book was: Why would you allow yourself to say no, when the only way to get ahead is to say yes? So just stop being such a chicken; say yes to things and good things will come your way. It's a lesson from her improv classes; you always say yes. That last thing really hit me. Why am I saying no? Why do I say no? I mean obviously sometimes, you're like no, man, I'm tired; I'm going home. But, then there's like those moments where you're like, yeah I should do that; why not? Do you want to photograph this thing, Heather? Yes! Do you want to write an article about this thing? Yes! Are you a good writer? Yeah! (Absolutely not, but I'll try.) It's always, yes I'll try, why not? So yeah, it'd be say yes. Amy Poehler is my Patronus, for sure.

Oh my gosh, what house are you in?

I would definitely be a Ravenclaw because I am ambitious and a little bit soulless, but I can be nice. I'm Luna, basically. That's what my husband says, so I believe him.


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