MERIDEN — Democrat Sonya Jelks, less than midway through her second term on the City Council, assumed a new role earlier this month when she was appointed the group’s majority leader.
Jelks is the first Black woman appointed to that role. In fact, the current council, with four women and other councilors who identify as Black or Latino, is perhaps the council’s most diverse, in terms of gender, racial and ethnic makeup.
“I’m gonna just be very clear, I’ve never really had political aspirations,” said Jelks, 48.
In fact, Jelks, who spoke during an interview inside the council chambers, said she considers herself to be more of a community leader than a politician. During her first few years on the council, she familiarized herself with the process of governing. Jelks served as a deputy majority leader before stepping into her new role.
“Over the last few years, I’ve been learning how to use my voice to speak up for those folks who aren’t represented in the room and who sometimes may not necessarily have a seat at the table,” Jelks said. “It is through that experience, I started to take on more leadership.”
She and others described the transition to a larger leadership role as a natural progression. She succeeds David Lowell as majority leader after Lowell resigned from the council this month citing family obligations.
Jelks said she has the “exact same love for the city and I have the exact same love for being at the table and that decision making process” as her predecessor.
“Even more importantly, I have the same level of leadership qualities of anyone else at the table,” Jelks said.
She assumes the new role during a time when the council is conducting most of its business remotely, due to restrictions on public meetings and indoor gatherings as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The City Council hasn’t always been as diverse as it is now. It’s not the first arena Jelks stepped into that had been largely male-dominated.
Jelks was a first generation college student when she enrolled at Syracuse University. It was there, through Jelks’ various jobs, she found she had a love and knack for technology. She would enter the information technology sector of the corporate world. As she explains, she was the only Black female IT manager in a sector where most other managers were white men.
“Many times I was sitting at tables where it was mostly male certainly, mostly white males, and not a lot of women in the building much less at the table,” Jelks said.
The experience, she said, trained her to be resilient, particularly in situations that are not always comfortable or welcoming. Jelks said it helped give her drive.
“It taught me to be blunt and honest with people. And I think that it taught me well,” Jelks said. Seat at the table
Jelks said having individuals who bring varying perspectives at the same table is not meant to cause division or to generate contentious discussions.
“We really just want to make sure we have folks in the room who can speak to the various experiences that people have throughout our community. And for us just to remember that we’re not a homogeneous community. Certain things will impact certain things in our community differently,” Jelks said.
A perspective and voice Jelks brought to the table were those of a mother, balancing multiple responsibilities.
After years in the corporate world, Jelks moved on to state government and the nonprofit sector. She is now the Connecticut director for the nonprofit Corporation for Supportive Housing.
“We’re balancing quite a bit of challenges as mothers,” Jelks said, acknowledging that during her first two years on the council, she had to learn how to navigate and balance her multiple roles.
When Jelks joined, there was only one other woman — fellow Democrat Cathy Battista — on the council.
“Now there’s four of us sitting on the council,” Jelks said. “That’s groundbreaking as well. And in addition to that diversity, you also have diversity in terms of racial makeup.”
The impact of diversity on the council can be seen in its decision-making and thought process, Jelks explained. Such change, she believes, is a good thing. Representation matters.
“And having an opportunity to sit at the table where decisions are being made for people who live in the community, it’s incredibly important,” Jelks said.
“The trend that I’m seeing, that I am very happy and proud to see, is that we have more women than we’ve ever had on the council before,” she said. Agenda setting
As majority leader, one of Jelks’ new roles will be setting the agenda for council deliberations.
Democratic Councilor Michael Cardona, the deputy mayor, was elected to the council in 2015, the same year Jelks joined.
Cardona described Jelks as driven and willing to bring difficult issues “to the forefront.”
“I think that will make for good leadership,” Cardona said, describing the perspectives Jelks and other councilors bring as “something we need at all stages.”
Battista, the former councilor, said she thinks Jelks “will do an outstanding job and grow in that position. It’s a high pressure position.”
Battista said she is encouraged by the council’s makeup, describing the women who now sit on the council as competent, intelligent members of the elected body, who are highly responsive to their constituents.
Battista described recent actions, like the resolution the council adopted declaring racism as a public health crisis as a first step in a long and overdue process.
“I think the council did right when they passed that,” Battista said.
Nicole Tomassetti, a first term Democrat on the council, said because of Jelks’ background, she “is going to bring things” to the majority leader position that the council didn’t previously have.
“She’s got a strong focus on equity and racial justice that we’ve never had before. It’s something I’m extremely excited about ... She represents what Meriden can be, I think,” Tomassetti said.
The racism resolution, for which Jelks had strongly advocated, is one example of that focus. Another is improving the city’s perception.
Tomassetti noted Jelks’ council district is Area One, the downtown. Jelks, she said, “has a focus on really celebrating the downtown and working to improve it. She is adding a light on an area I think is maligned a lot of times.”
Democratic Town Chairwoman Millie Torres-Ferguson described Jelks as a strong leader who is not scared to take on new initiatives. While the leadership title might be new, leadership itself is “not something new” for Jelks, she said.
“It’s great to have a woman and a person of color in a high ranking position such as this. That hasn’t always been the case,” Torres-Ferguson said. “She brings a new perspective and it’s long overdue. There was a time, when there was one woman, and no minorities on the council. So Meriden has come a long way.”