Jan-Michele Lemon Kearney Works for You

The vice mayor wants everyone to feel welcome at City Hall. She carries that ethos into her leadership.
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The vice mayor wants everyone to feel welcome at City Hall. She carries that ethos into her leadership.

Photograph by Angie Lipscomb

You’re one of the most powerful changemakers in Cincinnati right now. You have a laundry list of responsibilities. And you started during the pandemic. What was that like?

I was sworn in [to City Council] on March 28, 2020. And City Hall had just closed down. There’s no reception. No orientation. It was like, Here’s your key. Best of luck! And I thought, Oh my goodness, what do I do? But meanwhile, people need food. We need everything. The phone’s ringing. So we started working with The Center for Closing the Health Gap and then the NAACP. We’re doing podcasts every week, we’re bringing like the health commissioner, different doctors. You need to really get the facts out there because people are asking crazy questions. I’ve done over 40 town hall meetings. And it was a lot of being out in the street, just doing that. Of course, George Floyd was murdered. There were protests. Then we hit the budget cycle, where there were just a ton of needs. So it was a whirlwind. But the thing about it—you could never question, Am I needed? Because there was a really great need. It was kind of like drinking from a firehose.

With all of this swirling around you, how do you stay focused on the priorities that you set out to accomplish?

It’s really hard, because what might be the priority in terms of policy might not be the emergency of the day. The emergency of the day might be someone calling to say, Hey, I’m about to be evicted. Or, I’m already homeless. Constituents call, and you’ve got to respond, right? And a lot of times they say, We just didn’t know who else to call.

Our job is policy making. A big issue is gun violence, for sure. When we look at the statistics on gun violence, over the last few years, they’re really increased. The numbers really increased in terms of juveniles involved. And so what’s going on with our young people—they’re feeling lost. So a lot of it is what to do in terms of addressing underlying causes. People are struggling. They’re in poverty. They’re home insecure and food insecure. They’re not getting the kind of education they need. So we have to start looking at what we can do with those larger issues.

It sounds so difficult—to strike a balance between the big-picture issues, like gun violence, but also those emergencies that pop up every day.

I feel so bad when people say, I know you’re really busy. Because we’re here to serve you. We’re working for you. That’s why we’re here. So we’re not too busy for you. We’re busy trying to work for you, so we’re never too busy. Because that’s our job, right? And we want people to feel that they have access to City Hall. Everybody’s here working for the people of Cincinnati. This is your house. So come on in.

You’ve found success in many traditionally male-dominated fields. Surely, you’ve faced challenges, whether you’re the only woman in the room, or when you find it difficult to speak up.

I think [speaking up is] something that women are getting better at, but we have to keep encouraging each other to do it. Use your voice. It’s OK to speak up. What you have to say is just as important as what everybody else has to say, even if you’re the only woman in the room. And it can be intimidating at times. But we have to push through it, and also bring other people with us. We can’t be afraid to say, We need some more representation here. You know, diversity isn’t just a word. It’s really a strength. Because if you don’t have various voices, you cannot really understand [differing] viewpoints. You can’t move forward as strongly.

I think the challenge is to really get your confidence up. That’s what I tell people. You have to just get your confidence up and know that you belong there, and more people like you belong there. So don’t be afraid to go ahead and step out

Everybody gets to talk about how successful they are. Nobody ever wants to talk about the rough parts. But you can fall down. You just get back up, you brush yourself off, and you keep going. You show people, I’m still here.

You’re a politician and a lawyer, but you’re also a mother. Do you think motherhood has at all influenced the way you work? The way you lead?

I think that’s why women are really good leaders, because we have this—I don’t know if it’s an innate sense or something. Sort of a learned understanding of differences in people. All your kids aren’t going to be the same. And they’re also not like all the other kids in the room. So you learn how to appreciate differences.

When I’m trying to reach someone and trying to get them to agree with me on something, for example, I need to know, What are you interested in? What’s important to you? It might be something that’s not important to me, or there’s something that I hadn’t prioritized. So maybe we can come up with middle ground here. And I think as I think as a mom, we do that all the time. What is going to motivate my child to do the things they’re supposed to do?

And I think the other thing is just having a love for people. That maternal instinct. And you don’t have to be a mom to have that love for people, but I think that’s part of it. Whatever happens, no matter how angry you get, at the end of the day, you’re saying to your kid, I love you. That’s what really counts. And I think we have to give each other grace. Because we don’t think alike. We have different experiences, different points of view, but we have to be able to say, this is a person sitting here. And I love this person, and we can work together and we can work for someone else. We can work to actually make something positive happen with someone else, I think that that’s important.

How do you want to be remembered when your time as Vice Mayor and your time on Council has come to an end?

I’d like to be remembered as someone who worked really hard for the people of Cincinnati, made a positive difference, and never forgot the voice of the communities that we serve. I think, often, our communities don’t get heard. And that’s one thing I’ve found since I’ve been here—that we have to make sure that we listen.

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