When Tami Sawyer worked as a Congressional intern, she saw the masses of people who navigate and filter floods of information and work together to get things done. This background proved useful as she became an activist and organizer and coordinated community members to broach large problems by focusing on the points where they could have an impact, including the effort to remove Confederate statues from Memphis parks. She also brings this focus on education and collaboration to inform her work as the Managing Director of Diversity & Community Partnerships at Teach For America – Memphis and applies it to her new role as a Shelby County Commissioner. Meet this week’s empowered FACE of Memphis, Commissioner Tami Sawyer!
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Evanston, Illinois. I was raised pretty comfortably. The majority of my upbringing was focused on family and school. My mom is from Memphis and my dad was born in Chattanooga, so we moved here when I was 12, where I went to St. Mary’s. Memphis has had my heart ever since.
Why did you choose to leave Memphis for your education and early career and what brought you back?
I left because, in the end of the last century, Memphis wasn’t necessarily steeped with opportunities for black youth. D.C. was progressive, it was refreshing, it was the time of Obama. I feel like I became my own person in D.C.
When I decided to return home, I was approaching 32, and I was just thinking about what my life legacy would be and what I wanted that story to be. It was also around the time a lot of things were happening in the country: mass gun violence, Sandy Hook, a mass shooting at the Navy Yard while I was there. Trayvon Martin was killed, and that’s when I said, “I’ve got work to do, and I don’t know if D.C. is where I should do it, so let me try home.”
After studying law and working in the defense industry, how did you apply your background to education and community policy?
I took the skills of my job and ended up at Shelby County Schools. At the same time, Mike Brown and Eric Garner’s deaths happened. I’d gone to St. Mary’s, so I didn’t know the depths of educational inequity until I returned home. That’s also when my work in activism and organizing really started as well. Part of it was what was happening in the world, and part of it was what was happening in my career.
Before joining the County Commission, you sought a state House seat. What did you learn, personally and politically, from your first run for office?
We were starting very bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, like, “We’re going to run for justice … with no infrastructure and no money.” We might have had a different outcome. But what I did learn in that first run was how much people are underserved. We were meeting people who were saying, “No one’s knocked on my door in four years.” That really was something I wanted to change, and know that if I ever got elected that I wanted to be a person that was centered on the people who got me there.
What inspired you to start #TakeEmDown901?
The statues were always, for me, something that I just was like, “Why are these here?” Whenever I would shape conversations around inequity, especially racial inequity in Memphis, I would mention, “And here is the physical embodiment of that.”
I went to a retreat for work and we do this thing called conscious leadership. Everybody gets a turn in the hot seat. I was really drained and down. I just felt like we needed a win. And my team said, “What’s one thing you can fix? What’s one thing you can leave here today and say, ‘I’m going to go do this?’” I went home from the retreat and I just wrote on Facebook, “Anybody want to get together to talk about how to remove these Confederate statues?” And next thing I knew we had 300 people in a gym.
How do you think the statue removal has and will continue to impact Memphis?
I think one thing that’s really going to stick is that we’ll see more and more people feeling like, “I can make a concrete change in my city.” Whether it’s a physical change or it’s structural or systemic — I can be an advocate, I can make change. You’ll also see politicians getting braver and standing up more as well.
What was it like being named to the Ebony Power 100?
Honestly, for me it wasn’t real until I got there. The first time I saw my face, they were playing all the winners all night on the screen, and I turned around and saw, no, you’re really on this list with Michelle Obama and the cast of Black Panther. Tami Sawyer. It’s insane.
I struggle with this imposter syndrome sometimes. Which I like to share, because I wish somebody had shared with me that it’s OK, as long as you know when you’re stuck in that and pull yourself out. A lot of millennials struggle with imposter syndrome, I think because our world moves so fast and so much stuff is open to us now.
In the last national election cycle, there was so much change from what we expect politicians to be or how they got into the field or what they look like. Having been on the forefront of these changes and also facing some of the backlash, what advice would you offer to those coming into the political process?
I’ll tell anybody, one, never count yourself out. That’s the biggest thing. If you’re in it for the right reasons, and you want to make change, people recognize that. Whatever’s holding you back, especially women and young women, it’s probably imposter syndrome or someone saying wait your turn, and both of those are bull…sugar.
What makes you most proud of Memphis?
The people. We are proud, and we are resilient. That’s the thing that always made me come back home. I love me some Memphis people.
What are your goals for Memphis’ bicentennial?
To make the bicentennial relevant to everyone. I think it needs to be an honest story. We are a beautiful city and the people are the greatest thing, but we’ve struggled, and our story of equality has so far to go. It’s important to celebrate Memphis being 200 years old, and it’s important to look at how Memphis makes the next 200 years even better — for everybody.
What is your best advice?
The advice I always give is to live your life like the freest person you know. When you realize that you’re underprivileged because of any of these categories — gender, religion, race, etc. — you hold yourself back. Live your life free so you can do what you want and what you know needs to be done.
Other than faith, family, and friends, what are three things you can’t live without?
My phone, which is probably said by everybody. My mama, who wakes me up every morning, and when she doesn’t, I notice it. And laughter.
Thank you, Tami! To learn more about Tami and her work as a Shelby County Commissioner, visit tamisawyer.com.
And thank you to Mary Kate Steele of Mary Kate Steele Photography for these fabulous images of Tami!
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