CINCINNATI — Cincinnati City Hall has a storied past. Opened in 1893, the building was home to young bureaucrats, like William Howard Taft—future President of the United States and Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court.
But the city hall building is as important for who works in it today. In celebration of Black History Month, we look at the efforts of three African American women who are leading the Queen City into a new era.
Iris Roley of the Cincinnati Black United Front still can’t believe it.
“I often pinch myself and say ‘is this real’ for such a place like the City of Cincinnati?”
Roley, knows the historic progress she and others in city hall represent.
She’s driven her city’s winding road to inclusion. Roley’s long-time work with the Black United Front fostered the Collaborative Agreement between Cincinnati police and the community.
But this is not the Cincinnati Police of 2001, when civilians called out CPD violence against unarmed Black men. Today African American women call the shots. There are at least six African American women in key city government positions—an all-time high in Cincinnati.
This includes Captain Danita Pettis. She leads CPD’s District 2. Captain Pettis is the department’s highest ranking African American woman. For her, diversifying the leadership ranks is common sense government.
“I’ve walked the walk that they’ve walked. I’ve grown up in the communities and had some of the similar experiences that a person that is not from a diverse background—you don’t even know what you don’t know.”
And what you may not know is that the person running Cincinnati on a daily basis—City Manager Cheryl Long—is the first African American woman in that position.
Councilwoman Meeka Owens sees the power of the polls behind the big changes in who runs Cincinnati government. “If we’re thinking that things are going to change systemically, then you’ve got to be able to elect people in office who are making decisions that are similar with what your values are.”
Captain Pettis agrees: “we can’t change anything if we’re never at the table.”
And after centuries of exclusion from the city’s top political roles, Roley still marvels at this moment.
“Is it real that Black women can be in leadership and Black women can be the face of a city that represents so many Black people.”
Judging by the numbers, the leadership shift is real. In 2022, Roley accepted a city consulting position under Mayor Aftab Pureval. The mayor’s chief of staff is also an African American woman.
In supporting the next generation of diverse leaders, Pettis guides and challenges local youth in The Super Seeds program. There, youth build life skills and resilience.
Meanwhile, Roley’s door at city hall is open. She serves as a key community resource. For Roley, pervasive inequality means more change to address. Inequality is about more than crime. Roley focuses on “the disparities in good housing, clean housing, sage housing, and communities that have good schools with good numbers, with grocery stories and laundromats and cleaners—the things that you need in your community.”
Owen’s work on council includes fostering safety and sustainability. For her, Cincinnati’s future challenges are more meetable with women in the halls of power. “Women lead in a different way. We lead with empathy, and such compassion because we are the nucleolus in communities.”
And now the nucleolus of Cincinnati city government.