Yvette Simpson: The Power of We
St. Monica’s Recreation Center in Lincoln Heights is quiet. It’s early on Friday afternoon and school hasn’t let out yet, but in just an hour or so, local kids will be filling the halls, starting games of ping-pong, and climbing on the enormous indoor playground that makes us want to put down our cameras and notebooks and just play. But Yvette Simpson, city councilwoman and candidate for mayor, is here to tell us her story. She opens a soda – a “pick-me-up,” she says, after a long day of meetings running over. I tell her we’re excited to get to know Yvette – the woman, not just the candidate – and she laughs. “You mean you’re interested in me?”
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Why did you choose this place to meet today?
So, I grew up not far from here, and this was a place that I would come after school to hang out. This was a place we would come for Christmas. It just represents, I think, so much of my childhood, which is a big part of who I am today and why I do the things I do. This is kind of one of the places that helped make me me. You know, you think about, in certain communities like this one that has some great things about it, but also some struggle, it’s places like this where kids can go to keep them from being on the streets or getting involved in negative things. It’s just a place of great joy. Just a couple of years back, I got to come and speak to the church at one of their events, and then they give out toys to the kids at Christmas. It was really cool, that full circle moment where someone did that for me, and then I got to do that for the next generation.
It's really evident that that neighborhood identity is still a huge part of who you are.
It is, because, not just this place, but what it represents. It represents so many places in so many cities, places where you got people of different economic backgrounds, people who are struggling, but they’re making it work, they’re building strong community, and they’re taking care of each other. I mean, this was a real village, and we’re trying to recreate a lot of that in our city – really empowering communities to take care of each other and take care of themselves.
Choose three adjectives to describe yourself.
That’s tough. Just three, huh? I consider myself a passionate person. I consider myself a fun person. Committed is probably a good word. I like to put fun in there because I think that’s the part that people forget, you know? I do karaoke. I dance. And I think when they see you in the suit they don’t realize, like, that we can have fun, too, and I like to have fun. We crack jokes.
What’s your go-to karaoke song?
It’s “Killing Me Softly” by the Fugees. Everybody’s got one, and that’s my one.
Speaking of, how do you handle the stress and pressure of being a public figure?
I try my best to meditate, to pray, to journal. I was doing yoga for a good spell there and I’ve kind of gotten out of the habit, which is a problem. I jump on my treadmill when I can. I love to watch TV that’s fun and engaging. I love to have a beer, glass of bourbon every now and again, hang out with friends, entertain myself as much as I can, and sometimes that means just crackinʻ jokes or hanginʻ out with people.
I’m weird, though, ʼcause I’m a true extrovert. I actually get energy from people. I’ll be completely exhausted, and somebody’ll say, “Let’s go do this!” and I’ll be like, “Okay!” But the more I do this job, the more I cherish my “tuck time,” my “just tuck away, get quiet” time. And my partner, he’s been really good lately, like right after the primary, we went to Red River Gorge and got a cabin and just escaped, and I never used to love that time. I used to think that that was like a waste of time, like I wanna be around people. I’m starting to really cherish that quiet time that allows me to recharge and to just center with myself as much as I can.
I’d imagine it’s important to have people in your professional life who balance you, too.
You know, I think the hardest part, particularly when you’re a leader, is that you control your own life, and you tend to hire people who are a lot like you. So usually your professional folks are not the best people to tell you to power down, because they’re just like you. I could say, “Hey guys! Taking a day.” But I don’t. And my team’s never gonna tell me to take a day ʼcause they’re just like me. They’re working till 9 o’clock at night.
It was funny: Kamala Harris is supporting our race, and she’s been amazingly inspirational to me, but she and I had a talk on the phone last weekend, and I said, “What should I do? How do you get through it?” And she said, “The morning is mine. I get on my treadmill. I run.” She said, “I tell my team: ‘Don’t fill me with energy bars and energy drinks. I need to eat.’” She realized that she had to do it because no one else was gonna do it for her. Your team is supposed to make sure that you’re successful, and they’ll push you as far as you let them push you, and you’re a crazy leader who says, “I gotta go, go, go.” You’re never gonna call for a timeout. So she said to me, “Call for a timeout when you need it.” So I’ve been doing that a little bit more and that’s been really helpful. That’s how I got on my treadmill again. It’s just like, Kamala Harris has time to get on the treadmill; I got time to get on the treadmill.
Why do you think it’s important to be passionate about your work and that people see that you’re passionate about your work?
I mean, I did a job – I was a practicing attorney – that was financially fulfilling and intellectually stimulating. And it made me feel like I was helping, but I wasn’t passionate about it and I knew that there was more that I needed to do to fill this space in here [pointing at her heart].
I felt like I wasn’t connecting to something bigger and really making a significant difference in the lives of people who needed me. And so I think, for me, having that passion is what should be the guiding factor. The other things will come. You start with a job that makes you excited to get up every day and go to work, that inspires you to, even if you’ve had your best day, to say, “Tomorrow, I’m gonna do even more,” because you know it’s not about you. It’s about the people you’re serving.
There’s really no end to the work that I do. I’m never gonna be done. And that continues to be a motivating factor for me. I think we have to change the dynamic and say, “How about you find your passion first and then know that the rest of it will come.” I was “Forty Under 40” [Business Courier, 2005] and they did an update article, and they said, “Why are you leaving this very lucrative legal career at the height of your career?” And I said, “I realized that I loved the things that I was doing after work more than I loved the things I was during the day. And I started to think, ‘Can I make this my full-time job? Can I make my passion my profession?’ And I decided to take the leap.” Now, I took a 50 percent pay cut for that [laughs], but I don’t regret it. I don’t.
We asked some local seventh graders what they would say if they could ask you one question. Jonathan wanted to know: How can kids contribute to the fight against gun violence?
You know, I think one of the things that kids can do is to lead by example: Treat other people kindly. Right? The root of gun violence is violence. And it starts with people treating others in a negative way. Bullying, for instance, is something a lot of kids see and experience. Start with the way you treat each other.
Never, ever, ever touch a gun if you see one, and if you see one, tell an adult. Gun violence is starting younger and younger. It can start with themselves and their friends saying, “We’re never, ever, ever gonna be involved in criminal activity. We’re gonna stay positive and stay in positive places.” If each child decided they were gonna do that, we wouldn’t have a future of gun violence, right?
I also think that if kids are being hurt, they should tell somebody. Our research suggests that, by being exposed to violence personally and environmentally, those are the folks most likely to repeat violence and those are the folks we’re seeing carrying guns now. Kids are susceptible to being manipulated if they’ve experienced violence; they have a desensitization to violence. They may feel like they have to protect themselves ʼcause they are being hurt.
Honesty asked, “How will you inspire young African-American women?”
I like to think I already do. We were in Winton Hills last night, and one of the young ladies saw me and she said, “Yvette Simpson’s in the neighborhood! Yvette Simpson’s here!” So she runs over and all the little girls come around and surround me: “She’s gonna be the mayor! She’s gonna be the mayor!”
One of the girls is gonna be a mayor. She goes and knocks on doors with me until I have to take her home ʼcause the streetlights come on. She goes, “Hello! The election is on November 7th! You need to vote for her! Her!”
I always think about how big that is, and everything that I do – the way that I carry myself, the way that I conduct myself – I’m always cognizant of the fact that little girls are watching me. I try to include them. Like that young girl; I said, “When I become mayor, will you come down and be my junior mayor for the day?” I try to inspire them, particularly because
I grew up in a way that nobody would have ever predicted that I’d be here. It’s not like I was positioned for this. This is a big deal, right? And so hopefully that inspires other girls that there no limitations.
Maia asked, “What is the hardest thing to prove to people that you can do?”
Be mayor. [Laughing.]
You know, that’s a very good question. One of the things about being a woman in leadership that we always deal with is “What have you accomplished?” My resume is long. I’ve done a lot. But for some reason, women have to prove that we’re experienced way more than men ever do. I think men get the benefit of the doubt a lot more that the things that they do are the right things.
So every day I have to prove that I can do this job. Every day I have to prove that I can be strong enough, that I’m smart enough, that I’m accomplished enough, that I’m savvy enough.
I shared with a group at Christ Church yesterday. They said, “Well, why do you feel like your opponent continues to say that you haven’t done enough?” And I said, “Maybe it’s not because of what I’ve done, but who I’m serving. And maybe he just doesn’t value the people that I serve.” I’ve helped people who really need it. We women tend to be the ones that work in the places where people don’t have power or influence. People said, “Well, Yvette, if you were trying to win an election, your strategy isn’t that great,” ʼcause I spend most of my time with kids, and they can’t vote. Next to them, I spend a lot of time around people who are homeless, and they traditionally don’t vote. We do a lot of work with people who are poor and impoverished who rarely vote. We’ve done a lot of work with anti-sex trafficking. Those women probably aren’t regular voters. So if I was trying to get votes, I probably didn’t pick the right groups of people to work with, but that’s not really what it’s about.
Is there anything to be said for trying to give those populations a voice and helping them get to the ballot box?
We’re trying to lean into that. It takes a lot to create a new voter, which is why people spend so much time just convincing people who regularly vote. The Maslow hierarchy of needs is very real, right? So when you’re dealing with basic needs, self-actualization is the tip of it. Self-actualization says I can take care of myself, I’m independent, and I’m on my own. Until somebody gets to that place, they can’t really be thoughtful about a political process and how that might help them. Even if they were personally helped by it.
But we’re doing some of that work. During the primary, there was a woman who lives at one of the houses that we support and she came into the office. She said, “Hey Yvette. I’m gonna vote for you.” We did actually have a bus go and get a bunch of those women and take them to go vote.
Let’s talk a little bit about your parents. Your mom has dealt with mental health issues for most of your life; your dad has experienced addiction – both very stigmatized issues right now. How have your experiences with them affected what you’re passionate about?
I think I’ve gotten to see where systems can be improved and where they work. Having a mother who’s been in the mental health system my entire life, now being in a position to be one of her powers of attorney and having to navigate that system…it’s a real flawed system. As a lawyer, I still struggle navigating that system. And so for folks who either don’t have advocates or who don’t have family members who are equipped with the knowledge that I have, it’s a struggle. It’s a system that just needs to change.
My dad was very fortunate. His recovery was at a place that was perfect for him. As we see this happen with the heroin epidemic, it feels like a full circle moment, and it’s why I’m constantly elevating treatment, treatment, treatment. There’s a lot of people talking to me about suing pharmaceutical companies, and that’s great. But at the end of the day, if we can’t give people a place to go to get better, then we’re gonna be in this situation for a very, very long time. If we don’t start to address the issues that get people there in the first place, we’re also gonna be spent.
I think, as you said, the stigma of both of these causes dehumanization where we say, “Those people have a problem, so they are not like me.” Well, they are you. Right? They’re just human beings who have real life situations, as we all do.
There’s so much judgement, and it makes it so that people don’t wanna step up. It was hard for me, initially, to acknowledge it. And guess what? If it can happen in my family, it can happen in anybody’s family.
It’s also why I’m such a fierce advocate for kids, because kids don’t control who they’re born to and the way they’re raised, and it’s just not fair for children’s trajectories to be based on who they’re born to. Every child should have an opportunity for success. For me, those very challenges in my family are what gave me this fortitude, this strength, this forcible will that makes me so good at my job now. It also gives me the passion that I have and the determination, as well, and so I feel like some of our kids are strong because they’ve had to go through stuff. It’s a great skill for the future, if we can harness that into something positive as opposed to something negative.
Fast forward 20 years. You were elected mayor; you served out your term. When people look back on your tenure and they describe your legacy in one sentence, what would you want them to say?
“Yvette made Cincinnati greater for everyone.” There’s a reason it’s our mantra. People believe that government benefits some people, but it never benefits everybody. If we can say that we served everyone, meaning everyone felt heard, everyone felt like they got a piece of something, they felt like they were able to invest in their own community in a way, then we’ve done something right, and I think that’s gonna be a combination of things. It’s not just gonna be what we do on the days. It’s gonna be the way we treat people out there. If we come to people and listen to people, even if we can’t fix every problem, I think if people feel like we worked hard, we listened to them, we were accessible, and we tried, we’re gonna make it a lot further.
This “power of we” is real for us. “Power of we” says, “If every single person does a little bit, then we can have everything we need.” If you have more than enough, you build a longer table, not a taller fence, right? Cincinnati wouldn’t have any problems if we all lived according to the power of we.
I’m sure there are a lot of naysayers out there who say, “Well you can’t possibly have a government that can serve everyone.”
You can’t possibly be a girl who grew up in the projects and became a lawyer and eventually became mayor. Never gonna happen.
I don’t believe in impossible ʼcause it’s never been true for me, and if I believed that, I wouldn’t be here. You need leaders who understand the things that people think you can’t do. You absolutely can. And you must. ʼCause what’s the purpose of it? What’s the purpose of government if we don’t do this work? Why are we here? And if we can’t do it, then who can? We’re the city, you know?
That’s why the power of we is so important, because what we can’t do ourselves, we’re in a position to empower and encourage other people to do. Which is why part of the strength of our administration will not just be about us and the 5,000 people who work for us, but all the people in the city that we can call up and empower to do things, too. You know, that’s part of being a leader, saying, “Hey, company. Hey, nonprofit. Hey, neighbor. Hey, recreation center. Hey, police officer. Hey, firefighter. We need your help.” This is our vision.
We’re marching together. We need you to step up. And in Cincinnati, you know what? People say yes a lot.
I’ve often said that it’s not just about the ingredients. I think we’ve always had the right ingredients; we just didn’t have the right recipe. Just by saying out of our mouth that we’re gonna build a city that works for everyone, that’s a vision, and if you don’t have that vision, you’re never gonna get there. What do they say? “Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” But if you have a mayor who says “we can’t do that” or “we won’t do that,” we certainly won’t. Right?
Tell us about an influential woman in your life and how her influence affects your approach to government.
It’s hard to pick one woman. There were just a lot of women in my life who have really inspired me to be thoughtful, to be inclusive. The woman who’s had the most impact on me to get me here was my mentor. And you know, this “power of we” thing really does start with her decision as a woman – who had a husband and three kids – to take on a mentee who she didn’t know, who needed a lot of help, and who now, 25 years later, is emblematic of my approach to leadership: You gotta step out of your comfort zone; you’ve gotta go help somebody in need; and you gotta hold on.
Even Kamala Harris – she inspires me to just be fierce. She was a state prosecutor in California, and she’s now in the Senate battling an administration, and people are calling her all kinds of names, but she is doing what she knows how to do, which is to be a great litigator. She is taking on bold things – like the bail system in our country. I’m like, do you know how big and institutionalized that is, and you’re gonna take that on? And she does it fiercely. She also found time to help a little girl in Cincinnati get elected to mayor. She just reminded me that, no matter how busy you are, no matter how hard you work, if you don’t help somebody else, then what is it?