Interview by Hannah Sprouse
Elizabeth Brown is passionate about building a strong community of the people and for the people. As Columbus City Council’s President Pro Tempore, she focuses her energy on bringing diverse perspectives to all public policy while leveraging Columbus’ success and growth. The 34-year-old mother of two hopes to offer a level playing field for everyone, a theme that is evidenced through her tireless devotion to several local groups, specifically those that advocate for women’s rights and help everyone in our community grow. “Our pulse is our people,” she believes. “The people of Columbus make our neighborhoods beautiful, our culture vibrant, our institutions inviting, and our future bright.”
Originally from Columbus, raised in Granville, what is it about this city that endears you to it the most? When you combine our humble roots as a modest Midwestern state capital with our more recent explosive growth and national attention as a city on the rise, what results is a combination of local community charm with big city attractions – which makes Columbus truly the best place to live and raise a family.
Give us a snapshot of your career path: Before my career started in earnest, I spent a year between high school and college in Philadelphia as a teacher’s assistant for middle school students through the Americorps City Year program. Working inside a school gave me a firsthand look at how public policy decisions affect (and sometimes fail) our families and communities, and it instilled in me a fierce dedication to fighting for a level playing field. In college, I majored in English and following graduation spent a year working as a journalist at New York magazine. I quickly discovered that I preferred to play a more active part in formulating policy rather than reporting on it. I moved back to Ohio and started a career in government, policy, and politics – ultimately working in economic development for Columbus. This is when I experienced the importance of local policymaking and decided to run for City Council.
Tell us about your role on Columbus City Council: Overall our role is to bring diverse perspectives to all public policy issues that matter to our city – to connect with residents and neighborhoods in every corner of Columbus to find ways for the city to support their success. No policy is just black and white writing on a page; behind every policy is a real person.
On a daily basis, my work is organized by the committees I chair: Finance, Recreation and Parks, and Education. My committee assignments encompass a wide variety of work including (but not limited to) review of the yearly operating and capital budgets, funding greater access to quality early childhood education, and providing recreation opportunities and green space throughout the city.
What are some initiatives you’re working on now? What’s on the horizon that’s most exciting to you? The city must leverage our investments to support living wages. Last fall I sponsored an ordinance to establish a $15-per-hour minimum wage for city job incentives, and more recently worked to include a $15-per-hour wage requirement and worker protections in the Convention Center hotel expansion. More broadly, I am focusing on working with my colleagues on Council to encourage smart and sustainable growth that supports affordable housing options, living wages, and public transportation. Our growth and success are exciting, but we must continue focusing on how we leverage our successes to benefit all our residents and neighborhoods.
What gets you up in the morning? And what gets you through the workweek? My three-year-old daughter and 12-month-old son are quite literally what gets me up in the morning! Every day, I strive to build a strong community for them and for the thousands of children across our city. The fact that in our city and across our country, the zip code where a child is born is the most predictive factor in what kind of health, earnings, and quality-of-life outcomes that child can expect. It’s not only wrong; it’s fundamentally un-American. We need public policy makers focused on changing that — on leveling the playing field for all people. I am motivated by the idea that progress is possible. I love the opportunity that elected office gives me to a make an impact in these areas that matter for our community.
What advice or mentors have helped guide you along the way? One important piece of advice I got from my dad years ago is that none of us is ever “smarter than the room.” Know your facts and do you research, but ultimately when it’s time to test those ideas, the voices and experiences of people around you often contain more wisdom than any data.
Explain some of your work-life balance challenges. How do you achieve success in spite of the hustle and bustle? As the mother of a three-year-old and a one-year-old, I face challenges similar to most working parents striving to balance their families with their careers. My days are often planned well ahead of time and scheduled down to the minute. This makes me efficient so when it’s time to pick up my kids, I’m ready to. (On the flip side, it can lead to a lack of flexibility, which has its challenges!)
I reserve time to spend with my family and I protect that time, because there are always work responsibilities that can interfere if you let them. When you can fill your days – and evenings – with work obligations year round, you really do have to make a special effort to plan the time you spend with your family.
What do you do to unwind? Again, like most working parents, I usually end up with zero time for myself outside the work-and-family hustle. When I can, I fit in a Pilates workout, or a good book before bed, or a stroll through some of my favorite local shops in the Short North. And when I’m really lucky, I can set aside time for dinner with my husband.
When you were a kid, what did you say you wanted to be when you grew up? A poet.
What might someone be surprised to know about you? I have seen Jay Z in concert nine times.
If you could have a superpower, what would it be? The ability to understand, write, and speak any language fluently at any time. Or time travel!
What books/podcasts are you reading/listening to right now? I listen regularly to all Slate podcasts, especially the Slate Political Gabfest, The Waves, and Mom and Dad Are Fighting (it’s a fantastic parenting podcast and it’s not actually about parents fighting!).
What would your autobiography be called? Elizabeth Brown: The Story of How Much Nutella One Woman Can Eat
What are among the top places you’d recommend to someone who is new to or visiting Columbus? First, as a parent I always recommend that visiting families go to one of Columbus Recreation and Parks’ many amazing playgrounds when the weather allows (our favorites are Goodale Park and Franklin Park), as well as the world-class Children’s Garden at the Franklin Park Conservatory. Additionally, year-round staples in our family are COSI and the Zoo (it is so fun even during mildly cold months when far fewer visitors pack the exhibits).
Beyond just kids’ activities, visitors should know that Columbus is an arts and culture city: see a performance at the Ohio Theatre, Palace Theatre, or Kings Art Complex, walk the exhibits at the Wexner Center or Museum of Art, or have a night out in the Short North for Gallery Hop. Eat your way through the Somali, Nepali, Indian, Ethiopian, and more restaurants in Northland. Don’t miss out on our 13,582 acres of parkland and 220 miles of regional trails. And did you know you can attend a boxing lesson with former heavyweight champion Buster Douglas himself through our Recreation and Parks Department??
Which organization(s) are you involved with around the community? I am thankful for the chance to work regularly with myriad organizations doing great work in the community – it is one of our core functions on City Council – but I’d like to give a shout out to CelebrateOne, the Columbus Women’s Commission, the Community Shelter Board, Moms2B, ROOTT, and other local groups who are supporting pregnant women and mothers as we work collaboratively to bring down the infant mortality and maternal mortality rates in Columbus. It is unconscionable that babies and women die from childbirth in our community, and that African American babies and women die at two and three times the rate of White babies and women.
Aside from the ones you’re spearheading, tell us about some other community initiatives that you’re passionate about: The Smart Columbus initiative and MORPC’s insight2050 work are laying the groundwork for sustainability and innovation in transportation and technology. We have great work ahead to connect people and communities to the jobs and the services they need.
What’s the most exciting thing about Columbus right now? Our growth! We’re expected to grow by as many as one million people over the next 35 years. The true test is how we will grow in a smart, equitable way. It is exciting to be a part of this time in Columbus – especially as we establish smart public policy to help keep us moving forward.
What are three things you think Columbus needs? A more complete tree canopy, greater affordable housing options, and high-capacity mass transit options. I lived in New York during college and have a fondness for train systems. The subway served not just as a great way to move people around, but also as an equalizer. Whether rich or poor, you ride the subway, and every subway car contains the tapestry of the city.
If someone were to ask you what the “pulse” of Columbus is, what would you tell them? Our pulse is our people. The people of Columbus make our neighborhoods beautiful, our culture vibrant, our institutions inviting, and our future bright.