Dani McClain Is Cincinnati’s Activist-in-Residence

The writer wraps up a year of programs at the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library promoting the power of the written word and activism within communities.

Illustration by Zachary Ghaderi

Cincinnati native Dani McClain has dedicated her career to educating the public on racial, parenting, and reproductive health issues. Author of We Live for the We: The Political Power of Black Motherhood (published in 2019), she’s spent the past several months sharing her knowledge with the community as the Cincinnati and Hamilton County Public Library’s 2020 Writer-in-Residence. Her final monthly “office hours” program is scheduled for 4–5 p.m. December 18.

What has it meant to you to be the Writer-in-Residence this year?

I’ve had the opportunity to connect with readers and writers and to pass on what I’ve learned throughout my career about reporting, writing, media, and publishing. I grew up in Camp Dennison and spent a lot of time at the Madeira, Blue Ash, and main downtown branches as a child and teenager. Even before I started using the library as a resource for school, it was a place my mother and I visited often.

At a moment when public trust in institutions is eroding, I think we still collectively understand the value in public libraries and their role in giving everyone access to ideas and information. It’s been an honor to work with the people who have come to my events and to build relationships with our library system and its staff.

What are some projects and events you’ve worked on this year?

I host monthly office hours, which are hour-long roundtables during which anyone can come and bring questions about writing. My specialty is nonfiction, but people are welcome to talk about poetry, fiction, graphic novels, or whatever genre interests them. Those who show up learn not only from me but also from each other. It’s been a collegial space. In May I facilitated a workshop called “The Prose of Parenting,” which was for people who want to use writing to reflect on the experience of supporting the children in their lives. I hosted workshops about how to write opinion pieces and the basics of reporting. I host a podcast called Inside the Writer’s Head. Guests so far include journalists Kathy Y. Wilson and Nick Swartsell, writer and educator Tim’m West, Cincinnati Herald Publisher and City Councilmember Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney, author and Miami University creative writing professor Daisy Hernández, comedian Luna Malbroux, and Gregory Kornbluh, owner of Northside’s Downbound Books. I also write the occasional post for the library’s blog.

How has the COVID-19 pandemic affected any events or projects you had planned this year?

Everything went virtual starting in March. I’ve hosted three workshops online. I’ve held office hours in person at the Groesbeck branch (before stay-at-home orders), virtually, and more recently outside at the West End and Blue Ash branches. I used the booth in the main branch’s Maker Space to record the first few episodes of the podcast. Then I had to start recording remotely, which has been a steep learning curve. I’m learning as I go, taking my cues from library staff and staying flexible. As for my work in general, I used to travel regularly for speaking gigs and reporting trips. That’s all changed.

How have you been involved with the recent Black Lives Matter movements?

I started covering BLM organizing in 2013 after George Zimmerman’s acquittal in the killing of Trayvon Martin. Since this summer’s uprisings began, I’ve written about how skilled educators talk to young children about systemic racism and police for The Atlantic. I spoke on a panel for a San Francisco–area bookstore about police brutality and state violence. I’ve been following, reporting on, and writing about these issues for a long time, and that work continues.

How does your career allow you to encourage others to get involved?

My job is to help people understand what’s happening around them and to give readers an opportunity to hear from people who are themselves at the center of the action.

What sort of impact do you hope to make in the Cincinnati community with your writing?

I hope I make writing and building a life as a professional writer feel possible for more people. I hope I lift up the work of other lovers of books, libraries, and news who live here in our communities. I also hope I demystify the work I do. So many people seem to mistrust journalists these days, which I think is a lack of understanding what the job entails. I hope that as Writer-in-Residence I can shed some light on the ins and outs of the job.

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