words by Noor Hindi, photos by Ilenia Pezzaniti
The year is 1975. Sharon Connor is 17 years old and waiting on student council votes to get tallied. Weeks ago, she threw in her name to become the first female student council president at Widener Memorial High School in Philadelphia. For weeks, she’s been canvassing and garnering the votes of her classmates and friends. Even at a young age, she knows that if you become a leader, you can change things for the better.
Sharon loses her bid to become president by 15 votes.
“I graduated in ‘76,” she says. “Girls just weren’t presidents back then. I hope they can be president now. I believe that. Whether you can get the whole country to believe that, we haven’t quite seen that yet. But we’re close.”
Flash forward 20 years later. She runs for city council, this time to become Ward 10 councilwoman. She loses by 42 votes, then again in 1997 by more than 100 votes.
For a lot of people, these losses may have been enough to push them out of local politics. But if you know Sharon Connor today, you know she recently won the Ward 10 council seat. When we meet eight weeks after she’s won her election, she tells me she feels “spectacular.” Her face is pure joy. She’s waited 20 years to get to this moment.
“I can finally do the work I’ve always wanted to do,” she says. “And it’s so fun. I feel the fun every time I talk about it.”
Her optimism is unparalleled and even surprising at points. When I ask her to tell me what she most enjoys about being a councilwoman, she talks about explaining how tax dollars are allocated to residents, helping make decisions, and activating local spaces in ways that best benefit neighbors.
Beyond that, it’s about helping local residents feel more invested in their city’s future and getting them to see their councilmembers as more than just “Casper the ghost downtown who makes decisions.”
“I’ve always wanted to change my little corner of the world for the better, and I think that’s what I’ve always tried to do for a long, long time,” Sharon says.
Then there’s always the excitement around local politics, as well as the personal connections. As someone who’s lost races over 10 or 20 votes, one of the first things Sharon will tell you is that every vote matters, and every hand you shake could either make or break your election. On a local level, politics are a microcosm of the larger American democratic process.
“Once you get a feel for local politics, I think you either really love it or really hate it,” she says. “For me, I loved it. I loved it because at a local level, at a ward seat level, your one vote counts the very most. It has the most weight that it will ever have of any vote you cast.
“When you get a feel for that and when you can help determine the direction and course of your neighborhood based on that [small] amount of people, it’s changing. It alters the whole thing. And for me that’s exciting. That’s grassroots at its roots. And I felt that when I lost both times,” she continues.
Sharon’s tenacity stems from her mother, Katherine, who taught her that “if you want something, go get it. Figure it out.” Growing up in Philadelphia, Sharon remembers a childhood filled with family. Her mother, one of 10, had a large family, and Sharon spent most of her time with her “million cousins” who lived within walking distance.
Thanksgivings were packed with 40 to 50 people. All of the Monopoly tokens were used during games, and there was always something to do.
One of four kids, Sharon was closest to her dad, whom she describes as the smartest man she’s ever known. Because of her spina bifida, there were a lot of activities she couldn’t participate in. Instead, she enjoyed evenings with her dad playing Scrabble, watching Jeopardy! and reading the newspaper.
Sharon wasn’t particularly close to her mom, but she says her mom taught her to go after anything she wanted.
“She would tell me all the time, ‘You’re smart. Figure it out. And I’ve lived with that for all of my life,” says Sharon. “There are people who look at you and they don’t expect much, but I expect everybody to do something. Because we all can. You just have to figure out what it is.”
The first in her family to go to college, Sharon dropped out a week after beginning the semester. At the time, she was using crutches, and her dorm was on the seventh floor of the building. She felt like she was navigating a world where she “didn’t know any of the right questions.”
“The elevator broke in the building,” she says. “And I’m walking up and down 14 flights of stairs just to get to my room with crutches and with books. I was about an hour and a half from my parent’s house trying to live at school. I was in a dorm room with a roommate who had friends over every night when I’d sleep. It was a whole lot.”
Sharon got married to Paul shortly after leaving school. They’ve been married for 30 years, and they moved to Akron in 1984. After the move, she spent her first year recovering from back surgery, so there wasn’t a lot of exploring done. At that time, Sharon spent the better part of 15 years working as a school librarian and secretary and exploring Akron for fun activities for her two daughters.
Still, she admits it wasn’t until 1995 that she became deeply involved in local politics. At that time, she was driving around Akron, intentionally getting lost, “discovering how fun it was.”
“Akron was, when you compared it to other rust belt cities, it was hanging in there. It wasn’t falling apart at the seams like people wanted you to think,” she says.
In 1995, then Ward 10 Councilman Jeff Fusco asked Sharon to run as councilwoman to replace him as he ran for an at-large seat. Sharon was competing against councilman Bruce Kilby, and convincing neighbors to vote for her was harder than ever.
“I would knock on people’s doors and I would get, ‘Oh, honey, I really like you, but I vote the way my husband tells me,’” she recalls. “All the middle-aged people, when Goodyear did the layoffs, left. So, you either have really young people that are busy chasing their kids and raising a family, or really old people who vote the way their husbands tell them. And you have nobody in the middle.”
After losing her second election, Sharon decided to “wait until those people in their 30s are now people in their 40s and 50s.” She also says people didn’t recognize her abilities at the time, and she wanted to wait until she could retire from Akron Public Schools.
“I fell through the cracks in both races because people didn’t know my abilities. They only knew my disability,” she says.
Between 1997 and 2020, Sharon spent the time getting to know her neighbors, volunteering at community events, writing grants and “making personal connections.” She founded the R.I.G.H.T Committee (Residents Improving Goodyear Heights Together), which was able to install 10 little free libraries all over Goodyear Heights. Most recently, the R.I.G.H.T Committee won the Akron Parks Challenge, securing $100,000 in funding for Reservoir Park. The funding was used to install a walking path, a new playground and an outdoor entertainment space.
When I ask her why she felt it was so important to become councilwoman despite already doing so much work for the neighborhood, she says she felt she’d gone “as far as I could go on a neighborhood level, and the next step was to go to city council.”
“Part of it was the stubbornness of, ‘I’ll show you. I’ll win this one day.’ And part of it was I was still doing good things in my neighborhood,” she says. “Once you start that path of doing good things in your neighborhood, you want to do more good things.”
Right now, Sharon is only a few months into her term in office and is more excited than ever. She’s currently working on increasing connections between neighbors through regular ward meetings and promoting local events on social media. She’s also working on finding creative ways to bring in money to restore and upgrade the neighborhood.
For Akron as a whole, Sharon says she’s hoping to continue pushing for more conversations surrounding equity. Her biggest disappointment at the moment is a divide between the eastern and western sides of the city.
“You see that most of the people that show up and most of the people that are moving and shaking are all from the west side,” she says. “I find that interesting. And maybe it’s just a perception, but it’s still a perception that a lot of people have. Being a person from the east side, I have always championed that both sides of the city have a lot to offer. All sides of the city have a lot to offer.”
Outside of the community, Sharon enjoys reading and spending time at home. It doesn’t take long to get her talking about her love of children’s books, most notably pop-up books. At home, Sharon has a huge collection of pop-up books and a bookshelf of games and toys for kids.
One of her favorite children’s books includes “Fortunately, Unfortunately” by Michael Foreman, as well as “Caps for Sale” by Esphyr Slobodkina. One of Sharon’s favorite things to do is share books with kids. She even has a little free library in front of her home.
“I can talk about books all day,” she says. “I love books. Even in this era of e-readers, which have their place, there’s something really cool about having a book in your hands.”
In 10 years, Sharon sees Akron continuing to grow, both in population and opportunities for local businesses and artists. She also hoped for a more equitable playing field.
“I see a more level playing field rather than [the divisions between the] have/have nots, young/old and east/west,” she says. “I think as we continue to share experiences and ideas, we break those barriers that have been entrenched in our neighborhoods. Piece by piece, those walls are coming down, and we will all be better for it.”
Contact Sharon by going to akroncitycouncil.org/council-members/sharon-connor/. Meet Sharon at one of her online board meetings, which are held on the second Tuesday of every month at 6pm. Right now, all council meetings will be held virtually due to the COVID-19 situation. For more information, go to akroncitycouncil.org.
Noor Hindi is The Devil Strip’s Senior Reporter. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.