Tami Sawyer: ‘I wish I’d been bolder my first year.’
The Shelby County commissioner announced she will not run again and discusses her role as an outspoken elected voice
Tami Sawyer, Memphis, Tennessee. Tami Sawyer is a Shelby County Commissioner and Chair of Education in Memphis, TN. (Photo: Karen Pulfer Focht)
Tami Sawyer, a commissioner on the Shelby County Commission has been an outspoken social justice activist over the last three years, a role that has earned her praise as well as criticism on a national level. She was elected to the commission in 2018 and in 2019, she ran for Memphis Mayor, taking on incumbent Mayor Jim Strickland. After announcing she will not run for reelection in 2022, Sawyer spoke with the Tennessee Lookout about her voice as a woman of color and what the future may hold for her.
What was it like to grow up in Memphis?
I didn’t move to Tennessee until I was 12. I was born in Evanston, Illinois, over by Chicago. My mom is from Memphis and my dad is from Illinois and Chattanooga. We spent our summers back and forth between Fayette County and Illinois, so Memphis was like a second home for me. Growing up in Memphis and in Fayette County, I loved it. It was home.
I remember Sunday school in the country with all my friends in Fayette County and riding around rural Tennessee, hanging out. I remember taking the bus to Nashville to [University School of Nashville] for the model United Nations conference.
My dad worked at the Civil Rights Museum, so a lot of my upbringing was in middle class Black circles. I didn’t spend a lot of time with my white classmates outside of school so I was aware of segregation by the time I graduated high school, but I wasn’t aware how deep it had trickled down until I became an adult because I had a very privileged experience economically. Issues have always been there, but especially when we’re talking about segregated school systems and segregated access to opportunities. Those are things that people have been talking about since before I was even born.
I think we’re a generation that has access to a wider audience through social media and are able to connect what’s happening in our city to what’s happening in other cities.
[Memphis ] is both systemically and economically segregated.
What inspired you to seek public office?
I had been working as a community organizer or an activist for a while on issues related to police brutality and support other issues. I’d be standing outside the city hall and guards would be blocking us from getting in and police telling us we couldn’t get in the people’s building. I was like, “Why are we always out here? Who’s in charge representing us?”
You text city council people and they don’t answer you. You text commissioners and they don’t answer you.
They think you’re all just loudmouths, so clearly the people needed a representative and I wanted to be that representative.
First I ran for state representative and lost by 639 votes. [Torrey Harris] now has the seat I ran for. I think that I’m glad I didn’t win that seat because I’m a hometown person, you know, when it comes to advocacy. Driving back and forth to Nashville would have taken a little steam out of me and the work I do.
They think you're all just loudmouths, so clearly the people needed a representative and I wanted to be that representative.
– Commissioner Tami Sawyer, on deciding to run for office
So you are officially retiring after this term.
(Laughs.) I am officially retiring, yes.
How would you sum up the last few years while in public office?
Rewarding and exhausting. I don’t think anyone can prepare you for public service. No one has had the same experience. My experience has been tough for obvious reasons because I find myself in the middle of lots of battles, you know, for my audacity for making trouble, talking back, for not letting people talk back to me in any way and for bringing resolutions that call out racism directly. Nobody wants to hear that but I force the issue. Because I use social media and traditional media very well, it makes me accessible to good and bad feedback, and sometimes that bad feedback can be dangerous.
So mentally and emotionally it’s been a stressful three and a half years, and it’s just been rigorous. I’ve never been afraid of rigor so that’s not the reason I’m leaving. I just think there’s a better way to do the work that I want to do. And by better I mean more impactful, but also for my personal wellbeing.
One of the things that works for me is that I look at other people across the country who I know are getting it just as bad: [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] Maxine Waters, Cori Bush and everybody on the Squad. But one of the tough things about being locally elected is that I don’t have staff checking my email and Twitter account. I don’t have people tweeting for me, so I’m just getting the hate more directly. It comes straight to me.
Is it mostly local or outside criticism?
It’s both, it depends on the issues. Sometimes it’s local but when it’s more national issues, like for example the guy yelling at me, threatening he was going to kick my ass, the messages I got came from across the country. White supremacists from across the country were yelling at me. But it’s because that went super viral.
When it’s about masks, it’s people from West Tennessee. It just depends on the issue.
What accomplishments are you most proud of while in public office?
Definitely my work on COVID protections. I think that I’ve been a leader on the commission as far as making sure that people in Shelby not just get vaccinations but pushing for funding for hand sanitizer and masks for schools. I think just being a leader in those causes and advocating for the health of people, especially people of color, and multigenerational families living in poverty is probably what I’m most proud of.
What’s the difference between holding public office before and during the pandemic?
You had to figure out how to help the community in different ways. We stopped having meetings for almost a year. I used to be busy from Thursday to Monday morning, having five events a day. Now, I’m not able to reach people the same way because I’m not active or attending things for the safety of my health and my parents’ health. That’s been one of the major changes in being able to convene with my district. You can’t reach everybody on social media. You don’t reach everybody through newsletters, so it’s tough.
What’s something you wish you would have done differently?
I wish I had been bolder in my first year. I look back on some things that I voted for in my first year or things that I didn’t push against because people were like “we’re going to support you for this office later so don’t burn out right away.” I wish I never tried to be accepted, because now I’m like “f— around and find out, but Imma do what I want to do.” It’s liberating. A lot more people aren’t going to like me.
How have you handled criticisms?
I’m not calm at all. My dad said to me the other day at the commission that I’m “letting (my) anger burn (me) up.” I do. I’ll be mad and I will argue them down. I will say if they’re being racist or sexist. If they cut me off, I will cut you off. In my opinion, sometimes force is the only thing some people understand. They’re so used to talking over people and talking down to people, so if I’m not clapping back, they’re going to keep thinking they can walk all over me. Being nice has not won me any battles.
And I’m really nice actually. I’m fun, I’m happy most of the time. I like to crack jokes. If you catch me walking down the hall, I’m probably singing some song from the 90s. I would rather tweet about love and hip hop than half the sh-t I have to talk about half the time. I like happy hour, I’d rather be in a pool most days than anywhere else and people don’t get to see that side of me because I have to be Black and angry.
What advice would you give to women, especially women of color, seeking public office?
Don’t let anybody define you. If you’re in this for the right reasons, speak out and don’t be afraid of speaking out. Even my experience, even though it hasn’t been a fairytale, I wouldn’t change it. It’s taught me to be bold, to be myself. And we always talk about these outspoken women we admire, but we don’t know about the days they cry. We don’t know about the days when they say ‘I’m done.”
One of the things that I’m glad that women can see from me is that they can see it all. I’m very transparent. I have bad days, I have good days. Last week, the white women from Collierville were trying to accuse me of sending kids [back home from school], so this week every mask issue that was on the agenda passed.
Let them know that your wings are coming. My dad, who said I was burning up with anger, told me to keep my foot on their neck last night.
Just know that in your heart, you know you’re fighting for the right thing. I know when I’m not fighting for the right things. I don’t feel the same passion or urgency.
But I’m committed to the things that move my heart, and I think that’s important for people to know. As for women color running for office, be yourself, and most importantly build a squad. I’m never alone, even when I feel like I’m alone. There’s people that check on me all the time. They are friends that are willing to drop everything for me. I’ve got friends who put $50 in my Cash App, no questions asked, saying “get yourself a pair of shoes,” or friends who will call my mom and make sure she’s okay because they know I’ve been busy.
My squad is probably the biggest force in my life, and I recommend everybody to make sure you don’t go into this alone.
Just yesterday, Commissioner Mick Wright, who is a white Republican, said “to the detriment of my own career I’m going to say this. I’m going to support this resolution and it’s because I respect how Commissioner Sawyer fights for her people.” Afterwards we hugged while the commission was still going on.
I’m very clear where I stand with most Republicans, because I think they vote for people who are a threat to my life and the lives of the people I love. Someone once emailed me saying ‘“all you do is stay on the news.” Do you see how I stay in the news? They show me misfigured, they got 4-year-old pictures of me with my face all scrunched up. Come on. They’ll run a segment of me telling someone to shut up but they won’t show what that person said. Yeah, I stay in the news, but they paint me as some radical figure, they’re not saying “we love Tami Sawyer.”
Know who you are and keep your circle tight.
What’s next in your political career?
Next year I’m headed to grad school. I hope to be attending a public policy Ph.D program and then I would like to build a southern policy think tank that focuses on legislation at a state and local level that will support and empower Black and brown people.
What do you plan to accomplish in your last year in office?
I hope my last year is my best year. I’ve got a lot planned. I’d like to do a lot of grassroots events. I hope to be taking over the legislative committee and really changing how we relate to the politics in Nashville and how Memphis is represented in Nashville.
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