Meet the Women of Cincy Team: Tara Keesling

Tara Keesling

I was nervous the day I drove to Muse Café. It was raining, I was in unfamiliar territory, and I was about to do my first Women of Cincy Q&A style interview. It’s such a strange dynamic to be face to face with someone you don’t know, trying to peer into their life by poking and prodding with questions. But Tara Keesling was warm, calm, and in tune with herself. Right off the bat, I related to the value she places on her community, her love for reading, and her spontaneous spirit that pushes her to say “yes” to the right experiences.  

Interview by Karina Baffa. Photography by Kali Robinson.

To start, could you tell me about yourself?

I've lived in Cincinnati for about five years now. I grew up in West Chester. Once I moved here, I never thought I'd leave again because I really enjoy being around my family. A lot of my good friends live around here, and I've had a lot of really cool jobs that have kept me interested and occupied.

Some of my background – I actually have a [bachelors in creative writing and literature and a] masters in poetry from Miami. For the last year of my education, I was teaching English to freshmen. After that, I started working for a nonprofit. It wasn't really for me – the job itself, like the actual day to day, wasn't for me – so I decided that I wanted to take a step away and I started working on films. Then I started working for Yelp part time as a marketing assistant.

That's awesome. Your work with films sounds interesting. Could you describe that job for me?

I was behind the scenes. My roles have been working for the location's manager. It’s basically making sure that once the film leaves the location that another film coming to town can use that location again. So that there's a good relationship between them and the industry.

What was working at Yelp like?

That was a really interesting job! Mostly I helped with events. Yelp Elites get invited to these parties at new or really interesting spots in Cincinnati, and they get the whole experience in that new spot. We had a Molly Wellmann bourbon tasting pairing at the Japps annex before it closed… I got to meet a lot of cool people. We were very focused on small, independent places and business owners.

Through all of the jobs I've had, I've met a lot of people around the city and around the county. It's really made the world smaller. It feels more like a community and a safe space to be. When you have an issue at your house with your car and you know who to call to solve that problem – I couldn't imagine moving away from that network.

Tara Keesling

And you are now the chief of staff for Councilwoman Tamaya Dennard! How did that come about?

I started working with a large group of women organizing interviews with people running for office in 2017 called Together We Will. So that's how I met Tamaya. She was the first person we interviewed. I compared every single city council interview to her. She was so genuine and so kind and so straightforward. She just has really amazing energy. I was working on a film kind of around that time, too, and when that film ended I had time on my hands and I didn't know what to do with it, but I kept thinking about Tamaya, and I thought, “I would really like to see her win and I have some time.”

I reached out to her and I said, “I would love to be your communications director. I want you to win. You're who I want to represent me on City Council.” And she was really excited about that. She was like, “I'd love to have you. I don't have any money. I can't pay you. I'd love to have you, but I don't have any money.” She repeated it like three times. [Laughs.] And I thought about it for a few seconds, and I was like, “Let's do this. I want to do it.”

So after the campaign, after Tamaya won, she was like, “I'd love to take you to City Hall with me.” And I was like, “Of course. I would love to work with you at City Hall.”

What has been the most rewarding part of working alongside that team?

Our office right now is basically the campaign team again. We worked so well together during the campaign that we just continue to work really well together. Anthony Johnson is our part-time policy director; Dominique Francisco is our director of community relations; and then Tamaya, of course. When we're all together brainstorming, we're just so synergetic. We all bring new ideas to the table. We all know what the overall goals are. It feels like we're a train, and we're all on the same track, and we're going the right direction working together.

Being from West Chester, what's kept you in the area?

For me, I guess it's a real game changer to have all of your close friends in the same area. My community is here. And not only my community of people that I loved, like my friends and my family and my boyfriend, but I started building a larger community within the space of Cincinnati through my jobs.

That's something I think is interesting to talk about – this essence of community. What does community mean to you?

To me, it's everything. It's feeling like you have people to turn to when you need to. It's knowing that when I go away, my neighbors are keeping an eye on my house for me. It's going to West Side Brewing or Muse Café and seeing people I know and getting a chance to say hi to them because I haven't seen them in a couple of weeks.

I think community to me means that I always have people around me who care about me and want the best for me. And I want the best for other people, too.

I'm a very introverted person, but I really like being around people. I think community to me means that I always have people around me who care about me and want the best for me. And I want the best for other people, too.

One of the most enriching things is getting to talk to people who didn't grow up as I did; getting to talk to people who had very different life experiences than I had. Different jobs; different everything. There's always common ground between people, and I really enjoy finding that common ground.

I've always felt like human connection is the best thing we can find. When you joined the Women of Cincy team, what did you hope to gain?

I would say throughout my life, the people who have really touched me and guided me have been women. I've had very women-centric communities around me. When you get a group of women together, there's just this energy that is so uplifting and inspiring. Women truly get shit done.

I first was introduced to Women of Cincy when they were interviewing Tamaya. I thought it was such a cool concept and such an interesting thing that no one in Cincinnati had been doing, or at least I had not seen them doing it – highlighting women that are doing cool things. Women don't typically ask for any recognition for the work that they're doing. So to have an organization that focuses on that, that wants to highlight it and lifts women up, it's everything.

Tara Keesling and Karina Baffa

Best and worst advice you've ever received?

The worst advice is going to be difficult because, to be honest, when somebody gives me bad advice I just ignore it and I don't hear it, which I think is really important for women to learn to do.

Best advice: I had a college professor, and I think about her every once in a while because what she said really stuck to me. She said to me: "You need to make space; make space in your life. If you want to do something, you have to have the space to do it." And I've thought about that for every role that I've had, or anytime that I've wanted to elevate or do something different. That’s been really important to realize because as much as I do want to say yes to everything, I need to say yes to things that I really want to commit to and not just say yes for the sake of saying yes.

There's definitely a balance you have to find. I've realized that when I give myself time to just be, I become more inspired and attract better things.

It's refilling the well. As soon as your well is empty, it's hard to get it back.

Could you talk more about your studies at Miami University? Why did you choose to focus on creative writing and poetry?

I was the kid who had my nose in the book constantly – between classes, at home, outside, during lunch – I read a lot as a kid and I really enjoyed it. I enjoyed using my imagination. I went through different phases of genres that I would read. I got really obsessed with biographies and then I got really obsessed with Nancy Drew when I was a kid, Encyclopedia Brown, and then going into high school, any different thing I could read I'd try to get my hands on.

Why not? If I have the time and the space in my life, why not try something new?

So I thought when I went to college, if I was going to be reading all of these books anyway, I might as well major in it. I kind of always thought that I would go into publishing. I thought I wanted to read for my job, basically. I thought, "How awesome would it be to be an acquisitions editor where I was deciding which books were getting published?”

But also, at the same time, I have a hard time saying no to different opportunities and experiences because I think, "Why not? If I have the time and the space in my life, why not try something new?” So that's how I ended up not doing publishing. The first job I had after teaching was at the nonprofit… The rest is history.

I study journalism and something I get all the time is: "Why'd you choose that? What are you going to do with it?" Did you ever get those comments?

Yes, 100 percent. It was either, "What are you going to do with this?" or "Are you going to become a teacher?" I loved my year of teaching, but I also knew that it wasn't really for me.

I thought it was so funny getting those questions, anyway, because the amount of reading I could do meant that I could read quickly. I can closely read. I follow directions really well because I have read so much. I can communicate with people. I know how to speak with people. And I will say that with a caveat, I'm way better at communicating via writing than I am verbal which I would assume a lot of people are. But I can communicate with people through different mediums, and I know how to do that in a short and concise way because of all the reading I've done.

I kind of assumed you were a big reader, so I'm going to put you on the spot for a second. If you were stranded on an island and you could take only one book with you (assuming you have all the resources you need), which one would you take?

Oh my gosh! That's like asking a mother to choose which child she would want to save! [Laughs]. That's a really good question because I feel like, especially with literature, there are different phases of your life where certain literature will touch you. I don't even know if I can answer that question. If you said one author, I could probably answer that.

It's hard! For me, there are certain books that I read over and over just because they bring me comfort. You can choose an author.

If I had to pick an author, I would definitely pick Roxane Gay. I've read nearly all her books, if not all of them. I really enjoy her writing. The content can be difficult to read, but it's really important.

What makes it difficult to read?

Some of it’s about rape. Some of it's about experiences that women go through that are things that women don't normally talk about. She's extremely honest and vulnerable, and it's really important because a lot of women don't talk about these things that have happened to them; about experiences that were traumatic, and Roxane goes there. I really appreciate that. She handles it respectfully and honestly and I don't know if you could say that about every writer who writes about these topics. If you haven't read Bad Feminist, you definitely should.

Karina Baffa and Tara Keesling

When you taught for a year after your undergrad, what did you teach?

I taught freshman English, and I geared the class to all female writers. It was feminist texts that we were reading. I knew that freshmen at Miami may not want to hear or be a part of some of the discussions we were going to have. So before the semester started, I would email them the list of books and say, “This is what the class is about. If you’re still interested, I’ll see you in a couple of weeks. If you’re not, there are plenty of other classes you could join that might be of more interest to you.”

I don’t think I had a lot of kids that dropped out for that reason, but we had a lot of good discussions and there were a lot of different perspectives in the room.

I know I was like this at 18, and I know a lot of people are. You think you have opinions, you think you know, but there is so much you don’t know that you don’t know you don’t know. It takes experiences and being around different people to pry your mind open to understand that everybody has things that they don’t know and everybody doesn’t know everything.

That’s awesome that you chose all female writers. What prompted you to do that?

I had to take a test based on the canon of writers that already existed, and that canon was mostly men. I was being quizzed on poetry throughout the last few hundreds of years and there was only a handful of women on it. I’m sure that there were more than a handful of women in the last 400 years that had written poetry, and it kind of pissed me off. So when I went to put my reading list together, I was like, “I’m not putting a single man on this list.” And I didn’t.

People make jokes about romance novels, but a lot of women enjoy those. Why are things that women like considered less than?

I realized throughout that experience and throughout high school, middle school, even college, that most men are read. You just read men more often than you read women. Most men’s writing is considered “classic”, and a lot of writing that women enjoy is considered garbage a lot of times. I’m thinking specifically of romance novels. People make jokes about romance novels, but a lot of women enjoy those. Why are things that women like considered less than?

Tell me about an influential woman in your life.

I knew you were going to ask this question. And I knew it was going to be difficult for me to answer, so I’ve been thinking about it. [Laughs.] And this is the response of every single woman that you ask this question to – she could tell you dozens, probably.

My grandmother on my mother’s side is the most influential woman in my life. She passed away a couple of years ago, and I still think of her every day, and I try to do things to honor her memory.

It was really funny because she had a career, she worked at a telephone company for 30 years, I think. And she used to tell me when I was a kid, “I’m a lib.” Like, “I’m a liberated woman.” And I can still hear her saying that to me. I think when you’re a kid and you hear a really influential woman in your life say that, it sticks with you. I was a pretty opinionated kid, especially with my family, I did not hold anything back with my family. My grandmother wasn’t ever somebody who limited me or told me to be quiet. She might have been like “Okaaaay.” But she kind of let me do and say and explore life the way I wanted to. I wish everybody could have that experience with somebody because that affected me.