By Emily King
NOVEMBER is a busy month with lots happening, from Veterans Day to Thanksgiving to Christmastime prep–and Election Day. Polls open on Election Day at 7 a.m. and close twelve hours later. During that time, voters cast their ballots at their designated polling location, effectively choosing who would represent them at City Hall. Each district across the city has multiple people running for office, and in District 2– there are three. Candidates for the district include Alderman Detric Leggett, rookie Taylor Washington, and activist Tia Brightwell.
In continuation of bringing coverage to the community regarding critical local happenings, The Savannahian sat down with each candidate to discuss this year's race. Interviews covered each district's political platforms and resident concerns to provide first-hand accounts of each candidate's intent. Next on the docket for District 2 is Tia Brightwell.
Tell me a little bit about you, your background, and why you decided you wanted to run.
My name is Tia Brightwell, and I was born on March 1, 1980. Born and raised in Savannah, Ga. I went to Jenkins High School. I was in ROTC and happened to be in a few sororities. Those are the programs that they had on the campus for young ladies.
Fast forward, I did get pregnant pretty early with my oldest son [who’s 26] at 15-16 years old. I ended up moving into a place here for girls in Savannah because I started having family issues like a lot of young kids do. That's where I get my love for working with my kids with my nonprofit [Through It All Inc.]. Seeing kids, the way I wanted someone to see me when I was that young.
I got married very early [at 18] to my first husband, who was in the Air Force. So, we left Savannah and lived in Shreveport [Brossier City], Louisiana, where my daughter [24 years old] was born. I went through a lot there. But you know, it was just an experience. I lived on base– Barksdale Air Force Base– and it was cool. Being the Air Force wife. I went through a lot in my marriage and later returned home to Savannah.
When I returned to Savannah, I was still in the workforce and met my second husband. We went to school [Hubert] together. We ended up getting married, and I have two teenage sons from that marriage. They're 15 and 17 years old and attend Savannah High School. I got a divorce around 2014.
I ended up getting sick in 2013 with Lupus and fibromyalgia. It took me out of the workforce. I used to work for Memorial Hospital as a food carrier. I worked for the Board of Education, worked in nutrition, as a crossing guard, and a janitor.
Yes, but I always tried to make sure that the jobs I had back then, were jobs where I could work on my kids' schedule because I’m always a mom first– above everything. But back to 2013, the doctor told me, “Listen, you gotta stop working.” I ended up hiring a lawyer from Florida to try to get my disability. That lawyer couldn’t help. I then hired my second lawyer, who got me my disability after two surgeries and a couple of holistic ways. I had to learn how to walk all over again. As I said, I got my disability, my Medicaid, and my Medicare, but I had to retire early.
I opened up a nonprofit and my own LLC in Frazier Homes– that's off MLK. I just knew that with disability alone, I was in no way going to be able to take care of my children while they were getting ready to go to college. I wasn't building generational wealth either. I'm still on disability, even with my two businesses and running for office.
That's what makes this great because, people who typically run for office have full-time jobs, right? Or, at some point, manage multiple things. That's what I know makes me a good candidate. I've been able to organize multiple things in my life, from being disabled to being an entrepreneur that provides jobs for folks. So, I say all that to say that I’m fighting for the people– because I am the people.
People are talking about feeling left out of government and that decisions are being made on their behalf. Sometimes, they're folks just like me– folks that are retired– folks where disability is not enough for them. Or people working with young people to make sure that they understand how to deal with bullying, how to deal with emotional intelligence, and then exposure to art. That was one of the healing tools that really helped me that I teach people. I didn't realize what colors were to me when my eyes were closed. I didn't see what the world looked like before I got sick– it’s beautiful.
I'm trying not to get too emotional because this is very personal for me, but running for office is something where I want to be the change that I desire to see. So that's just a little bit about me. I hope that wasn't too mushy!
It was perfect. Do you think what you went through growing up in Savannah, coming back here, and the struggles you had getting play into making you want to run for office?
Yes. It played a huge part, along with some tools that were in the community. I always give my voice to Step Up Savannah’s Neighborhood Leadership Academy. Coming here to public housing, they made sure that– being the community-minded person that I was– there were avenues open and doors that I could walk through to become the person I am now, to grow and continue my education. I remember saying that– going to Savannah State every week in the class– I was like, “I'm going to run for office. I don't know when, but I know the timing will be right. I'm going to run, and I'm going to be able to stand up and tell folks: this is why I'm running; this is what I'm running for, and I'm for the people. Period.”
The Second District has a lot of concerns about big developers, tourism, parking, and SCAD. Do you have a plan in mind of how you would like to address those issues with the community?
A lot of it can be addressed with my three major platforms. So, let's talk about them. We have to have transparency and leadership. That means that leadership can't be one side. We've been getting folks complaining about what you just called out, right? That means that's one-sided leadership, and we're not listening to the other side. People whose voices don't have the credibility, right? People are often left out of decisions or pushed out of their communities. We have to lift them.
Secondly, we need the Second District to grow responsibly. This is where I grew up, Emily. From Henry to Duffy St. to Paulson, I grew up across from Frazier Homes, where I currently live. I cannot stay in the community where I grew up. Neither can a whole lot of other people. That's not responsible. Someone said, "Well, live in another district.” Why do residents– long-term residents– have to live in another district? Why can't we live where we want to live? If we allow 35,000 nonresidents to come and visit our beautiful city, and they get to decide where they want to stay with Airbnb and if they want to stay downtown, midtown, or Southside– why can’t those of us who live here and pay taxes? That’s a problem.
My last one is a thriving district for all. How do we make that happen again? A flourishing community for all needs to be remembered in November. Whoever you put back in those seats will give us the same thing they've provided for four years. A thriving district for all is taking the stand, sending people to City Hall that have shown you change, and that will be the change. We won't get pushed around by big corporations because we have corporations. We have LLCs that we are also building. We want to show the people that we can bring the resources here to them, and they can continue to build that generational wealth for them and their families.
Do you have anything you would like to do to tackle the parking issue for residents?
The people are very well-versed on how we can make it happen. We're talking about developers and people coming in and pushing through our City Council to get the things they want done. So, how do we do the same for the people? How do we make it so we have more parking for the people? The same places taking up the parking, they’ve got to give up some of what they had going on. We have to come to the table to compromise– and that's what will happen. So, let's see. Give me a street if you have one in mind.
Let's say E. Gwinnett.
I don't know if we have abandoned buildings or houses over there– I'm just trying to look at the area in my mind to create parking for those residents. The city can take money and make lots and spaces just for the residents. We need to bring funding to do what the residents need to do to ensure they’re happy because they're paying their money. They're paying their taxes. Let’s listen to them.
Someone might say, “Well, she doesn't know what she's talking about.” Yes, I do. I'm talking about the lowest basic of a residency, where you pay your taxes. Suppose there's a thing I need at that residency, and something is stopping me from having the accommodations that I need. In that case, it's up to the person I'm paying my taxes to, to make that happen.
People are concerned with all the new developments and property taxes increasing in the area. What might be able to help with those concerns?
First, to look at property taxes– and I know somebody’s going to say, “What does poverty have to do with property taxes?”– we are at an average of $2,500 for rent. So, that means that people that are moving here– and I have no problem with change– they're the ones that are coming in and raising the cost of living. We must start making everybody pay their fair share so we can start helping people who are in marginalized communities when it comes to poverty, taxes, and property taxes. That also plays a part in how much taxes you pay because people are moving in thinking that if they bring new developments, this will help crime and poverty. But it doesn't. It just continues making the cost of living go up.
So, you need to balance– and that’s what we don't have. It goes back again to responsible growth, transparency, and leadership. Who's at the table during these things? Who's making the decisions? They have to hold everyone else accountable. I don't think they have.
If folks say, “I'm going to buy a two-story house over there, and then I'm going to rent it out but not even live in the district," they're probably going to average the rent at about $3,500. I'm just going to guess for students, they'll all move in together and pay their share, right? Think about how many families and marginalized communities there are where you can't even let your family member come live with you. You can't help your family because, in some places, you’ve got to have the people on the lease. So, then we’ve got more homelessness. We're creating our problem, and we're not balancing it out.
I break this community down into three groups– and please excuse me, I'm not trying to offend anybody– you have your poor, the working class, and the rich. That’s what the Second District is. Our incumbent said that this district brings in the most revenue.
Where's the balance in that for the residents? So, if you love your district, let the district love you back and send me to the office so I can help this district love its residents and its tourism.
I'm not fighting tourism; I'm saying balance it out for the people’s sake cause it's oppression to the people. White, Black, whatever you are– it's oppression to the people. Remember, in November, send some new changes to the City of Savannah. I'm going to bring creative ideas– fresh ideas, but most of all, I'm going to listen to you so that we can work together.
Do you have any advice for constituents in the district who need help with something but are unsure where to turn?
One thing I have always been a part of that I’ve seen do significant work is coalitions. If you reach out to me and you have an idea, you have something that you want to put together, I'm here for that. That's grassroot to me. Grassroot wins it.
I believe some City Council members are fighting for the people, so talk to them. We want all people to join together in this fight. Let's show them that we don't have issues with our skin color. We’ve got issues with how you're treating us and that we deserve better as a people. We have to demand that we be heard.
I get it because, at one point, I felt unheard. I felt unseen as a single mother with two African-American sons. I felt unheard from the school district. I felt kept out. So, now, I must take this route for myself, my family, and my community. I will take my creative ideas and experience running a business to City Hall to create some change for the people.
And if anybody asks, I do have some background in government. I’ve sat on the Board of Education. I can examine policies, budgets, and what we need to run an efficient district. One that makes us all say, “I love being in my district.”
I have two more questions for you. The first: can you tell me more about Through It All Inc (TIA) and how you think that will coincide with your position as an alderperson?
Being an alderperson, you look at budgets and approve certain things. I’ve been doing it for years, even as a little girl. I've learned how to be in corporations and everything I need to know to be in government that would prepare me for this.
My role at Through It All made me understand that marginalized people are the most unheard people. And you have to understand– and I'm going to say this nicely–there's a game called Savannah Monopoly. People are going to City Hall and playing the game on us. It’s time to stop that. As the people, we have to figure out how to play Monopoly back on the people playing it with us.
I can get city grant money and raise funds on my own. I can run my nonprofit from day to day. I can lead a group of people who have never wanted to do a nonprofit in their lives. So, all those things make me the person who can go to City Hall and play the game with them. What happens when you send a soldier to boot training? What are they going to come back as? A soldier. And that's what they did. They sent me to boot training.
We have a lot of things in our city that they want to dilute. It's time for us to dust them off, bring them out, and show people that if you train a soldier for war, then that soldier’s prepared to come back and fight. And that's what has happened to me.
Do you have anything else that you'd like to share?
I’ll tell the people of the Second District: Miss Brightwell is here, I'm open, and I'm ready to make sure that what you want to see in your district becomes reality.
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