Imagine living in a town that’s 93% Black and majority women, but has been mostly run by men–many of them white. That’s the story of Dolton, Illinois—a town about 26 minutes outside of Chicago—and why it was such a big deal when Dolton’s new mayor, a Black woman who is a single mom, was sworn in last year.
A longtime resident of the Chicagoland suburb, Tiffany Henyard, 37, always knew she wanted more for the town. She noticed the gaps in service to residents during her time working her way up while under the tutelage of her respected mentor, Frank Zuccarelli, who was an democratic power player in Illinois up until his death in January.
“He was an incredible mentor and really taught me enough about politics that led to a spark that’s carried me throughout my career,” Henyard shared with Essence. “What I valued most about his guidance is that he boiled politics down to one thing: caring about people.”
Henyard has always been a leader.
In college and high school, she launched a small-scale baked goods operation that sold cookies and cakes to students on campus. She loved the sense of autonomy and financial security running a business afforded her. But she recognized the only way she would truly effect change is claiming political power.
“I got into politics when I started working for Pat Quinn’s campaign,” Henyard said, referring to her time supporting the former governor of Illinois with his employment initiative ‘Put Illinois to Work’ in 2011. Shortly after, she was elected as the town’s trustee, a position similar to that of a city council member.
This eventually led her on the path to running for mayor in 2020, a position she was a bit shocked to have actually clenched, but one she knew she was ready for. Not only did she edge out the competition, Henyard won by a landslide with 82% of the vote–clearly indicative of the residents’ desire for change.
“What I love about my position is I get the opportunity to show people their worth,” she shared. “Previously, for eight years I’d been advocating for what the residents truly deserve, which is sound leadership. As Mayor, I’m able to now put my vision in play from the major legislative moves to the smallest. I’m able to bring it to life. I’m able to say, ‘you guys are suffering in the cold because you can’t afford to properly insulate your home. Here’s grant money for windows and a roof. Here’s money to help you get back on your feet with your water bill. I implement those initiatives because I understand what it’s like.”
She’s not stopping there. Henyard was just appointed as the supervisor of Thornton Township, one of Illinois largest. What this means is in addition to her obligations to the citizens of Dolton, Henyard will oversee 170 full- and part-time township employees and an annual budget of about $35, according to the Illinois comptroller—a feat that her mentor Frank Zucarelli commandeered for more than 30 years before his passing in this year.
“This is all about generational change for me,” she said. “For any Black girl that wants to get into politics and make a huge impact for your people, you can do it. Don’t ever give up because anything is possible.”