Community leader, Mayoral candidate.
When I first met Sophie Hawes-Tingey a few years ago, I was immediately impressed by her vision of public service. She had immersed herself in the Midvale, Utah community, and was passionately dedicated to serving the residents as well as she possibly could. I could tell that this desire to serve would make a difference in many people’s lives.
I recently sat down with Sophie to learn more about her perspective and advice.
How did you get involved with politics?
Some people describe it as organic. Having come from a progressive family of servant leadership, and coming of age in the conservative movement of the 80s, I graduated from high school into a world in social conflict and at a time when publicly acknowledging my gender identity to myself or to my friends had become increasingly anathema.
Having come from a military and progressively religious family, it didn’t take me long to learn basic principles of leadership including accountability, responsibility, and responsiveness. I also learned and was taught that I often led from whatever situation I was in, and that leadership didn’t require a formal title.
But the funny thing was that while my family was political, they avoided politics and activism. Family and community came first in everything that we did. We always were concerned for the strangers in our midst, and would do what we could to help. That is the kind of leadership that my family practiced: selfless, servant leadership.
I had a brief stint of activism when I left for college in 1983. I tried to single-handedly form Students Against Nuclear Weapons, believing that if we didn’t pour so much money into nuclear armament, we could pay for everyone’s college — and it would be available to everyone who performed well in public schools.
Despite that first foray into activism, I didn’t really get involved in party politics until 2008, when I finally registered as a Democrat so that I could vote for Hilary Clinton in the primary. I had just begun my gender transition at the time, and wasn’t out of the closet yet, but her courage in running appealed to me.
While I had just started my transition, the economy melted. I was laid off and had to move twice in the following two years in order to stay employed — first from Texas to Kentucky, and then from Kentucky to Utah. During those two years, I completed my transition, and was sexually taken advantage of. I found that the support groups at the time were not responsive enough to people who were transitioning, and I took a group I was forming in Kentucky to online on FaceBook when I moved from Kentucky to Utah because none of the few members at the time were ready to step up and lead the group.
As I built this online community of transgender women around the world, I became more protective of my community. My desire was to do everything possible to keep transgender people alive against an array of harsh social forces. When I moved to Utah, I was immediately invited to join the LGBT activist community, and within two months had joined in my first protest, a lie-in around temple square.
Finally, it was my marriage on December 30, 2013, that became the catalyst that took me from transgender advocate to political activist and politician. The day I legally wed my wife, who is also transgender, the state’s attorney general announced that he was going to fight against the ruling that allowed my wife and I to marry. I interpreted that as an attack on my family and that of 1300+ other couples. I wrote an email to the attorney general, which I converted to a petition and delivered the 32,000 signatures on the petition at that time inside the state capitol.
My fear of confronted elected leaders was gone in a moment. Because we also had a non-discrimination bill in the works, I contacted my local government officials via phone and email and left heart-felt messages about why they needed to support the non-discrimination bills. I also connected with a local senator that was reaching out to the transgender community in an effort to tell my story in committee. The local officials were non-responsive, and I got a close-up look at a legislature that was consistently turning down policy changes that we needed.
Seeing that the transgender community had no one to speak, neither of my elected officials demonstrated responsiveness, and I wanted to see policy changes that benefited the community make it through the legislature, I decided that I would get involved and prepare myself to run for office two years later. That changed when my local representative announced that he was retiring from politics. After weighing my options and talking to friends and family, I knew I had to throw my hat in the ring. The rest is, as they say, history.
You have to give of yourself before you can expect others to join your cause.
What did you learn about the nature of 21st century organizing from your activist and campaign experience?
I learned quickly that many people were excited to see me step up and be a voice, but finding volunteers that were both willing and available to be on the ground was a hard task. Many people felt inspired by what they saw as courage and having someone to speak up for them, but you had to be where they were. I learned that I had to make myself present in their communities, to let them know that I supported them there.
In today’s socially connected world, in addition to more and more people judging your authenticity on whether you show up in their spaces, they respond by showing up in yours. They don’t want to see a public persona and a private persona, they want to get to know you as a human being, and that means you have to be vulnerable. People want to connect, but they expect their leaders to make the overtures to connect with them first, and billboards by themselves won’t do it.
The high bandwidth expected in authenticity means that anything that looks like mass marketing won’t sell. They need to see something that shows you care. People are a lot more skeptical these days, so you need to make sure that you find ways to listen to them.
There are a lot of communities out there, people are very protective of their communities, and many of those communities are struggling for a voice. Leadership is found by helping communities find their voice and empowering them to make a difference.
Quite often, intersectionality provides opportunities to bridge communities. Social media connections inform you of where people are gathered, where they are protesting, where they are meeting. There are so many ways to be involved, and when people see you are involved they see that you care.
I see 21st century organizing as leveraging existing organizations — those of identity or issues — as a way of bringing people together in new ways to address specific goals. It’s a lot of give and take. You have to give of yourself — and many times educate — before you can expect others to join your cause. You also will find media journalists monitoring what is happening in social networks for emerging stories, and as you become more known, your viewpoints and actions become more noticeable, and you can build positive relations with the media as well as everyone else.
You recently announced your candidacy for Mayor of Midvale, Utah. How do you plan to connect with the community and win their votes?
I am also the Vice Chair of the Community Council of Midvale City. By working on programming of interest to the residents, I can help the community council have a greater reach for the residents, building connections with the residents and what’s happening locally, and establishing a more closely connected community policing effort.
Midvale doesn’t have a chamber of commerce, but it falls under the Murray Area Chamber of Commerce, so I am building relationships with business owners there. I have been attending practically all the city council meetings and advocating for residents, and when residents appear advocating for their causes, I make sure that we connect.
I was elected to National Delegate for the congressional district, so I have reached out to all the Democratic Delegates in the city to let them know I was running for Mayor before I made my announcement, and I also keep people apprised via social media what is happening.
Via my relations with the media, they are going to be anxious to cover my campaign because of its political significance, and I will use that opportunity to try to speak to the needs of the community. I am getting fairly well-known as an advocate that has been fairly successful in her advocacy for good policy.
I have been introduced to a number of people at the local Senior Center by a staff member friend as the next Mayor of Midvale, and have been keeping positive working contacts with the Unified Police Department, Emergency Management, and by proxy, the Unified Fire Authority.
I am also on the Board of Directors for the Women’s State Legislative Council of Utah, and by extension, am proving my competency via my actions there.
The numerous media articles over the last year (on the average of once a month in major periodicals), has built my name recognition, and hopefully helped people get to know me a bit better. Friend requests on Facebook are still flooding in, and I make sure that I am responsive.
Finally, I need to reach out in a way that is not mass marketing, is respectful and authentic. I intend to send out newsletters to people in advance letting them know when I’ll be coming down their streets, how I feel I can help the community meet their needs, and to talk about anything that’s on their mind. Then, when I go knocking on their door, if they are not home, I will leave a memento behind letting them know I missed them and when the next meet & greet will be.
There is the activist on the outside drawing attention to what needs to be addressed, and there is the diplomat on the inside who is educating and providing a way out, one conversation at a time.
What advice do you have for aspiring activists over the next four years?
Over the next four years, we need to build more solidarity among the various causes, and we need to be there for each other. Turning out for other causes will inspire others to turn out for yours.
There are two main levels of advocacy. There is the activist on the outside drawing attention to what needs to be addressed, and there is the diplomat on the inside who is educating and providing a way out, one conversation at a time. I liken it to a castle under siege, the activists are outside with the battering ram, and the diplomat is inside telling the masters of the keep what they can do to make the battering ram go away.
We have got to continue to work together over the next four years to resist unsatisfactory compromise, especially compromise that favors one group over another. Your local progressive elected officials have vowed to protect all our communities and to fight for a world that will still be sustainable for the generations to come.
I have been reading about the role of ACT UP with regards to the AIDS crisis. Through their sheer persistence, the members of that organization changed heart after heart, and won significant changes. We need to be just as persistent, just as organized, and just as relentless. We cannot let a Trump administration divide us or compromise our values.
Continue to educate, and have conversations. Keep the end goal in sight. Angela Davis wrote, “I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept,” and Ghandi wrote, “Be the change you wish to see in this world.” And let me add, the change begins with you, one conversation at a time.