On Second Thought: Let’s Catch up with Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard
Life has changed just a bit for President Pro Tem of Cincinnati City Council Tamaya Dennard since we last talked with her in August 2017. During her campaign for City Council, she became famous for quoting Shirley Chisholm: “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
That day, Dennard said to us:
“There’s something very endearing about a folding chair. It’s not as permanent as one of those big chairs, you know, with the wheels on them, meaning your chair may not look like everybody else’s, but bring what you have. If they’re not willing to make room for you, bring your folding chair, ʼcause a folding chair is narrow. It folds up and it fits anywhere, so that quote means a lot to me as we engage people who have historically been marginalized by our political system.”
Now, she’s sitting in one of those big chairs. And she’s working, slowly but surely, to leave her mark. We visited a special City Council meeting that she held at Aiken High School, her alma mater, giving students the opportunity to present research they’d gathered about mass incarceration. It was certainly unlike any meeting I’d ever been to.
Before the presentation began, Dennard and her fellow Councilmembers David Mann and Greg Landsman took a formal vote on the establishment of a living wage committee, and Dennard told the audience about her mom: “She wasn’t working two or three jobs just so she could be ballin‘. She was working two or three jobs so she could pay rent.”
Students shared research and perspectives on the 2.1 million people currently incarcerated in the US.
“No matter where you’re from, you should be able to prove you’re innocent,” said one young woman.
Another young woman, with a bold, fearless voice, read a poem, to loud applause: “We are human beings, not the white man’s toy.”
A few weeks later, we walked down to City Hall on a hot day to catch up with Dennard on life at City Hall, the ups and the downs, and what the folding chair means to her today.
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.
So, how have things been since we last caught up? How’s life at City Hall?
Interesting. I mean, for the most part, it’s really cool, and I’m so honored to be here. There’s days when you’re just like, “This is a lot,” but it’s still the best job to have. I love what I get to do every day.
Is it different than you thought it’d be?
In some respects, yeah. I think it’s a little more political than I anticipated. I don’t know if I’d say I was naive, but I thought, “Okay, I have some good ideas. People wanna move the needle on certain things.” And then you get here, and you’re thinking, “I’m gonna be working with people who wanna move people out of poverty, too,” and then in actuality, the politics get involved. Like, are you voting for this because you really believe that, or is it because you wanna stay true to your party?
I’m so happy to have this opportunity to have changed the conversation. That’s not enough for me, but I think we’ll get there.
You can campaign, but governing is different. I have 1,005 ideas, but there’s the proper channels you have to go through, and you have to kind of massage those channels. You want everything to happen yesterday, and it’s a little bit slower.
I was just at the Gretchen Carlson Leadership Institute workshop, and someone on the panel said that in politics, you learn to appreciate incremental change.
What’s a day in the life here at City Hall?
Every day is different. There’s a lot of meetings. I’m not a big fan of meetings, but I know sometimes they’re necessary. There’s this constant tension between what I wanted to do on the campaign trail, which was make myself accessible. I felt like politicians weren’t as accessible as they should be, or they were accessible when they needed to be and then, once they won, they weren’t visible anymore, so I wanted to not be that person. So there’s this tension I feel every day between making myself accessible, but not accessible to the point where I’m not actually in the office and governing and pushing policy. Because, just being honest with you, like the folding chair, that’s super cool, but if we don’t actually change systems, if we don’t actually change policies, what’s the point of being here? So that’s a tension I feel every day.
You have to change mindsets in order to change behaviors so that you can change systems
So depending on what day it is, my days consist of committee meetings: I’m in Budget and Finance – all of us are members of Budget and Finance; I chair Equity, Inclusion, Youth and the Arts; I vice chair Major Projects and Smart Government; and then I’m a member of Education [Innovation and Growth]. So I have those meetings, and then we have the regular Council meetings on Wednesdays. Thursdays and Fridays, I try to do more meetings with individuals. It’s just trying to constantly strike that balance, because I hear all the time, “I’ve been trying to contact this Councilmember and I never get a callback,” and I try to meet with everybody. It’s just my fundamental belief that everybody should have access to government, not just people who have money or certain corporations, so I try to live that.
Do you have a challenge or an aspiration as to how government could reimagine itself to better reconcile that tension?
I think if we could just be a little more creative… It’s very weird to work at Design Impact, where we use creativity every day, and to come here and feel like creativity isn’t necessarily valued. Or maybe it’s a different kind of creativity. I’m not really quite sure yet.
But I think that one of the things that we can do as a government is to get out of how we’re used to doing things, and I think that’s a real struggle here. Even with one of the pieces of legislation that I did get through was changing Council times from 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. I wanted to do it every meeting, but it was like, “Whoa, wait, wait. This is too much, too fast, too soon.” I was walking around City Hall with a bullseye on my back ’cause people were not liking that, so the compromise was, after fall, we’ll do it for the first Wednesday of the month. We had to ease people into it. So that is the challenge: having government be open and receptive to changing how they do things, and that’s not always an easy thing.
Do you feel like you’ve seen any of your colleagues’ perspectives begin to change since you’ve been here?
I think so. One of the things I am proud of is that I am changing the conversation as it relates to affordable housing. When people are presenting, they’re looking at me, and they’re trying to tell me how many affordable housing units they have in their development, and I think I’ve brought a healthy change to even how my colleagues look at that. I’m beating the drum on tax abatements and giving those away, and my colleagues reference me in their comments. They say, “Councilmember Dennard cares about this.”
Can my interaction with him change the way he sees government? I feel the weight of that in every single interaction I have with anybody.
We had a committee meeting solely dedicated to evictions – what they look like; who’s being affected; what are the numbers – and that’s never happened before. One of the things I have to do is learn to be patient, because it’s theory of change, you know: You have to change mindsets in order to change behaviors so that you can change systems. So for me, I’m in that process and I have to think about that for a while. I’m so happy to have this opportunity to have changed the conversation. That’s not enough for me, but I think we’ll get there. I’m not looking to demean any of my colleagues who don’t necessarily feel the way I do. It’s just to keep beating the drum in hopes that they start to think about that in their conversations when people present to them – thinking about this huge deficit that we have around affordable housing. Until we are able to really grasp that and really take it seriously as a council, I will continue to ask developers when they come before me – even when I lose the vote. I’ve lost 8-1, 7-1. I want to count on another colleague soon on starting to really scrutinize these votes – just giving tax abatements away, for the sake of what?
I think me bringing that social justice perspective to Council is a bit different than what they’ve been used to. Not to say that they haven’t felt social justice-minded, but I don’t think there has been the political will to express that. So I’m hoping that, by me expressing that, other Councilmembers who maybe feel the same way can feel like it’s safe to do that, because we’re so binary… People think that because I question tax abatement, I’m anti affluence or anti progress. I just want us to really rethink who that progress has been for.
Do you have a single high moment and a single low moment that seems to define the past 6 months or so? I’m sure there are plenty of both.
The FC Cincinnati vote was very disappointing. People want to define progress and just leave people out. The community said no, and that wasn’t respected. It’s an “I know what’s best for you” attitude for people in their communities. That was a low point for me, because I felt like people just wanted to be heard, and people wonder why people don’t believe in government.
I just want them to know I’m different, but I guess the best way I can let them know I’m different is to show them that I’m different.
High points have been my swearing in. The folding chair, what it’s meant to people. I’ve gotten folding chair letters and lapel pins from around the world, which has been crazy. That’s been beautiful. Day to day, working with Tara and Monique. I have a four-person staff, but having those two women who never worked at City Hall before, that’s been a highlight every day. They’re beautiful people to work with. Make my job easier. They make me look better than I probably should. People told me I should have someone who’s worked at City Hall before, but when I worked at City Hall, I had never worked at City Hall before, so if we do that, then we’ll never get anywhere.
What was going through your mind during the swearing in?
I mean, I started thinking about so many things. I’m thinking about those days when I did not wanna see another door. I was knocking on so many doors toward the end. But you grind it out. I’m like, damn, it paid off. I was thinking about my mom sitting there in the audience… I don’t know, I remember watching her getting carted off in cuffs when I was younger and I just remember all the hard times… I’m thinking, “Man. I’m destined to be a different kind of Councilmember.” I just think about things differently. How do I leverage those experiences to make it easier for other people? Like, what’s the point of that? So I feel like I’m in this tension between leveraging my privilege and leveraging my oppression. I was talking to a young man last night in Over-the-Rhine – never voted before, and he’s trying to get help for a situation he had with the police. Can my interaction with him change the way he sees government? I feel the weight of that in every single interaction I have with anybody.
So as you work through that tension and that fear of disconnect, if you could say something directly to those people you most want to impact, what would you say?
It feels like a jilted lover type of situation. I wanna say, “I know those other politicians have let you down, but I’m different.” I just want them to know I’m different, but I guess the best way I can let them know I’m different is to show them that I’m different.
So you have Girls In Government Day coming up. What are you most excited about for that day?
Note: We chatted with Councilwoman Dennard before Girls In Government Day, which took place on Saturday, May 19. Stay tuned for our coverage on June 1st!
Just a bunch of girls coming in and leaving with a couple of things: 1. Maybe I can go into government. 2. Just feeling more educated around what government is and what it looks like and what it can be. I mean, I’m just excited. Girls are always told, “You should do something else,” or, “Maybe that’s not for you,” but for a few hours, we get to not only talk with them, but listen to what they have to say. That’s just as important. I care about how they feel about government and what they say about government and what ideas they may have.
I told Tara, “If we get 30 girls, I’ll be excited.” We have like, 120 girls, which is nuts. It let me know that there’s a thirst for young women that wanna be engaged. It’s a really weird time in our country where we’re having all these challenges, but then we’re also having these amazing moments, you know? So gosh, I can’t wait. The energy’s gonna be crazy in here. I don’t think City Hall’s ever hosted anything like this before, like ever, and that’s the part of it. That’s part of my role: to change how government is perceived by people. All people.