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Living Legends: Shannon Hardin

Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin shares his passion for local politics and his view for the future of our community.

February 24, 2021

This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history makers who throughout their careers have served as leaders and role models in the Columbus community.

Columbus City Council President Shannon Hardin shares how he believes Columbus can commit to improving racial equity over the coming years.

Born and raised on the south side of Columbus, City Council President Shannon Hardin has dedicated his life to bettering the community for all residents.

As a high schooler, President Hardin served as the External Affairs Manager and on the Religious Advisory Commission for the Office of Former Mayor Michael B. Coleman. Then he became a City Council member at age 27. And in 2018, he became the first openly gay Columbus City Council President.

As Columbus grows, President Hardin is committed to building an equitable future that works for every resident. He is focused on fostering an inclusive economy by partnering to build mass transit and affordable housing, empowering small and minority businesses, and bridging opportunity gaps.

For our fourth and final Living Legends interview this Black History Month, Rhove Co-Founder and CEO Calvin Cooper sat down with President Hardin to talk about local politics, racial justice, and the future of Columbus that he represents. Here’s their conversation, condensed for clarity:

Shannon Hardin, Interviewed by Calvin Cooper

Shannon, I remember meeting you at a fundraiser in Bexley about 10 years ago, and I’ll never forget the conversation we had. You were working for the city at the time, and you told me with conviction about your passion for public service. I asked if you were interested in running for Congress or being a senator one day, and you said absolutely not. What inspired you to dedicate your life to local politics, and specifically the city of Columbus?

Well, I’m so happy that there’s still consistency. There’s no place that I would least like to be than Washington, D.C., at any point in my career. And I still say that. One, it’s because of my read of politics right now. I really do believe that local government is the last best place to make real change, and where your residents—your constituents—still have faith in you, or “it” as an institution, to serve them. And truthfully, especially over the last four years and with social media, that is wearing down as well. Just the lack of faith and trust in local government. For me, though, I believe that there is real opportunity to go through a process of listening to the constituents, working on their behalf, and then regurgitating something. That they say, I asked for it, I saw it happening, and I saw it delivered, that keeps and gains the trust of folks who need it most in our neighborhoods. And I think you have an amazing opportunity to do that on a local level.

I call my most reliable poll the “Kroger caucus.” I’m addicted to grocery shopping, so I go to the Kroger on East Main Street about every day, or certainly every other day. And I know when we’re not doing well, when I’m not leading well, because folks will tell you. I know when we’re doing a good job because they’ll tell you that too. And I get to hear and sense and touch and feel the real concerns and the real joys of my constituency. And that is something that is wholly unique to local government.

Why aren’t more young people like you elected to public office?  

Well, I think that folks are getting more active. I think that folks are starting to focus on local government as a way to move policy and have an even greater expectation that their local government, if anyone else, will actually listen and respond to them. When I came into City Hall 12 years ago, I was the youngest person by 25 years. And that is not the case now. City Hall is run by 20-something-year-olds right now, especially our Council. And it’s something I’m very proud of, that they have the access, the opportunity, and—for me, why it’s a value-add for Columbus—they have the energy and the idealism to really push progressive policy.

How do you go about developing your strategy for winning on behalf of the people? How do you take lessons you learn from the “Kroger caucus” and use them to craft good public policy?

It’s all about your team. I don’t ever want to be the smartest person in the room or the smartest person on my team. That’s not what my role is, actually, as a leader. My role as a leader is to set vision and to throw the ball out ahead and then challenge my brilliant staff and team and co-workers, and encourage them and give them the space to get that job done. So, I am successful because I have a brilliant, hardworking, idealistic, progressive, pragmatic team around me who trust in the vision that we are setting forward. And I think that can be true, and should be true, to everyone who aspires to leadership, is building a team around you that you can trust. 

What would you consider your most significant accomplishment thus far on the council?

That’s a good question. You know, I really don’t do that kind of look back yet because I think that the big things I’m going to be very proud about when I’m done are still ahead of me.

I think that we are leading through some of the most tumultuous times that any of us will see in our lifetime, something akin to the 60s, when tomorrow didn’t feel promised. And the things that we knew yesterday didn’t seem so secure for tomorrow down the road. That can be terrifying for people, so what I’m really proud of so far is some of the leadership that we showed last year to be responsive, to try to be level-headed, to try to listen, try to throw the ball forward in terms of policy, and keep people’s trust and faith that their city is listening to them, that they’re reacting, and that things are going to get better.

With a million people expected to move to Columbus by 2050, what are our biggest challenges and opportunities as a community?

Our challenge and our opportunity are the same thing—it’s growth. I am very grateful that we are living in a city that is growing. It is much better to be in a growing city than a declining city, but we have to be real and clear-eyed about the challenges and the opportunities that brings. The challenges will be compounded if we don’t move on things like transit. If we do not develop a transit system that serves everyone—a true high-capacity transit, it can be light rail, it can be autonomous bus rapid transit, it could be just bus rapid transit—we need to do that and we need to do it now. Because if we kick this ball down the road any longer, it takes 10 years to build out one of these systems, and it takes billions of dollars. We have just enough time to do the hard work, but we’ve got to get it in now.

We are living at an important moment in American history, and particularly in Black history. In 20 years, how do you hope our story unfolds?

Well, I hope that every Black and Brown child in this community now will in the future have the opportunity that any other child will have—especially around education. And in terms of workforce and housing. It’s imperative that that is almost a line item in our city’s budget—that kind of commitment—because we can’t be our best selves if there is a glass ceiling on a large portion of our population. We just can’t. We won’t have the brainpower, we won’t have the workforce power, and we will have strife that is unnecessary and that will be detrimental to us, if we don’t take that glass ceiling away from folks who have historically been disadvantaged, and sometimes purposefully disadvantaged by public policy and laws. And for me, talking about our Black and Brown folks, and our hopes and dreams for them, how we will work to uplift them over the next years to come, is not a Black issue.

When we say that we are going to increase the graduation rates for Black young people in our community, guess what, that means that all of our graduation rates go up. When we say that we’re going to reduce gun violence perpetrated and against young people of color, guess what, that makes our entire city safer. I think that we have to make some real commitments right now. It’s time for leaders, both public and private, and certainly nonprofits, to put some real markers in the ground for what we are going to do to raise the least of these.

Challenges Are Opportunities

President Hardin is an inspiring voice for those of us lucky enough to call Columbus home. There’s clearly so much to be excited about, but we must come together as a community—Public officials, Private sector, and People—to address some of our greatest challenges while seizing our greatest opportunities.

To learn more about what Council President Hardin is doing to serve our Columbus community, you can visit his website here.

As our Living Legends series comes to a close, we’re reflecting on the advice these history makers have given for lifting up our neighbors and fighting for equality in everything we do. From small acts of kindness to getting involved in local politics to doing everything with a purpose, these leaders’ lessons will continue to guide us toward a brighter future well beyond this Black History Month.

This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the history makers who throughout their careers have served as leaders and role models in the Columbus community. Follow us on social media for more inspiration from our Living Legends.