Emilia Sykes

Emilia Sykes wanted to be a dancer. Now she’s a powerful Ohio legislator.

words by Noor Hindi, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti

If you ask representative Emilia Strong Sykes if she always wanted to be a politician, she’ll tell you, “never, never, never.” 

As a kid, Sykes was a gymnast and a ballet dancer, spending hours perfecting flips and refining her form.

Sykes was 13 when she realized her dream: To dance with the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater Company, a multi-racial dance company based in New York City. While watching videos of their dancing, Sykes saw herself in those women.

“I saw brown-skinned women who were short, who had different-shaped bodies with natural hair and I thought, ‘that’s what I want to be and that’s what I’m going to do.’”

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A graduate of Firestone High School, Sykes now serves as the Minority Leader of the Ohio House of Representatives. Since her election to the statehouse in 2014, Sykes has advocated for Black women living within and outside of Akron. She’s focused on policies related to reducing the disproportionate infant mortality rates within the Black community, as well as legislation protecting victims of domestic violence.

In July, she gained national attention for winning the EMILY’S List 2020 Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award, which is awarded to a female politician who stands up for women and demonstrates dedication to her community. Previous winners include Stacey Abrams, who served as minority leader in the Georgia statehouse for six years before running for governor of that state, and Ayanna Pressley, who represents Massachusetts in Congress.

Emilia Sykes sits for her portrait in Akron on June 29. (Photo: Ilenia Pezzaniti)

But Sykes’ political career began long before 2014. As the child of Vernon and Barbara Sykes, both longtime local and state politicians, it feels inevitable that Sykes has not only followed their paths but surpassed them at age 34. Vernon Sykes is currently serving his first term in the Ohio Senate, and Barbara Sykes was a member of the Ohio House of Representatives from 2001-2006. 

Emilia recalls being 10 years old and hearing the phone ring constantly. When asked if being the child of two politicians was ever overwhelming, she laughs.

“My secretarial skills are probably as good as anyone who went to school for it,” she says.

Barbara Sykes served as the first African-American woman on Akron City Council, and Sykes remembers watching her mom run for statewide auditor in 2006, paving the way for her.

“I was one of those little girls seeing a woman that was strong and assertive and beautiful and stylish and could come in a room and bring everyone together and command the attention of everyone and make things happen,” she says. “That was very powerful.”

Sykes argues that representation matters. Even today, serving as house minority leader, she says walking into the Ohio Statehouse can sometimes be weird, especially serving as one of the few Black women to historically have this position of power.

“It’s a place you have to work yourself into comfort because ultimately, what you decide and understand is they don’t accept you anyway,” she says. “They don’t want you there anyway. They always let you know you don’t belong there.”

In fact, in 2017, Sykes was stopped by security outside of the statehouse and told she “doesn’t look like a legislator.” Her bag was searched.

“It didn’t matter that I had a badge, it didn’t matter I was dressed appropriately or inappropriately. It didn’t matter. I was Black. And I was a woman. And so, I didn’t belong,” she says.

Recently, Sykes enjoyed reading Unbought and Unbossed by Shirley Chisholm, America’s first African-American and woman Congressperson in 1969. Sykes says Chisholm provided a map for her as she attempted to navigate an institution where Black women “are seen as distractions.”

“[Chisholm] was a good blueprint of just being able to be yourself in these positions. The world will make you want to be someone else, so you can have an easier way. And she kind of laid the groundwork of saying, ‘nah, you don’t have to do that,’” says Sykes.

Right now, Sykes serves on Gov. Mike DeWine’s Minority Health Strike Force, which is charged with helping populations that are disproportionately affected by COVID-19. She’s disappointed in Gov. DeWine’s lack of movement towards fixing the disparities, and issued a press release in May calling his plan “too little, too late.” 

“I try to find my common ground as best I can,” she says. “I think the governor wants to address it, but doesn’t want to address it in the way that it needs to be done. There is a comfortable way of addressing racism, which is getting rid of Aunt Jemima and Uncle Ben and giving money to the NAACP, and then there’s the part where you have to say ‘Shucks. I made it to my position because there are systems in place that kept people like you down and I was able to build wealth off of systems of unpaid labor,’ and that’s a different conversation that a lot of people are not ready for.”

Though Ohio lawmakers are on break for summer recess until November, Sykes says she remains worried about “mass death” from COVID-19, and election results in November falling in favor of President Trump. In the meantime, Sykes is spending time recuperating after a hectic six months and connecting with community members in Akron. She lives in Northside and loves going to Jilly’s Music Room and Sweet Mary’s Bakery.

When her friends describe her, Sykes says, they often say that “the package is very deceiving.” She says she can sometimes come off as uptight or closed off, but she enjoys a good time with her friends and loves to cook. While traveling back and forth from Akron to Columbus, she says “there’s no middle” with what she’ll listen to: “I listen to a lot of gospel music, and I listen to a lot of trap music,” she explains, laughing.

When asked if she’ll ever run for governor, she smiles playfully, then says, “We shall see.”

Sykes will hold a virtual town hall on Monday, Aug. 31 at 6 pm via Facebook. Follow her live stream at ohiohousedemocrats.org/ohio-promise-tour-2020

Noor Hindi covers equity and inclusion for The Devil Strip. Reach her at noor@thedevilstrip.com