Dontavius Jarrells believes every person has a defining moment in their life that makes them who they are.
His own moment came in middle school. Back then, Jarrells rode along three public bus routes to get from his Hough neighborhood in East Cleveland to the Garrett Morgan School of Science across town.
Jarrells dragged his heavy roller book bag through a crowded bus one afternoon and sat in the only open seat. He wondered why the seat was available while so many adults remained standing.
It became evident when older high school students began insulting a homeless woman sitting next to him. They teased the woman for her smell, her clothes, her shoes.
Jarrells, then around 12 years old, waited for the adults nearby to step in. Not one did.
He realized it was up to him.
‘I was a lucky one’
The Ohio House 25th District has not had a voice inside the Statehouse for the past 18 months. The current officeholder, Bernadine Kennedy Kent, has refused to work at the capitol due to a dispute with the Democratic Party, leaving one of Ohio’s poorest districts without a representative in the chamber.
The wait will go a little longer. Orientation for new lawmakers is being conducted fully online because of the pandemic.
Jarrells, a Democrat and the 25th’s representative-elect, understands the need for caution. His mother has spent recent weeks in the hospital battling the coronavirus. He said her condition is improving and will soon be able to return home.
“She’s a fighter,” he said. “She’s always been a fighter for me. My hope is she will make it through. I’m going to speak into existence (that) she will make it through.”
Jarrells credits his mother for helping him survive a health emergency decades ago in Hough. She began noticing differences in his behavior and decided to have young Dontavius checked out by a doctor.
Tests revealed he had high levels of lead poisoning in his blood. The doctor told them it would have killed him had they not arrived when they did.
“We have a lead crisis in Cleveland,” Jarrells said, reflecting on his own experience. “I was a lucky one, because my mom noticed there was something wrong cognitively. There are some kids who don’t get that … that issue in particular is really important to me because it has such a surreal impact on a child’s development.”
Jarrells, who grew up with eight siblings, was aware from a young age of the structural problems hurting residents in his neighborhood. Lead poisoning, transportation, health care access, food deserts — he saw firsthand how these issues intersected to make life more difficult in the Hough community.
“Where you come from does not determine where you go,” his grandmother would repeat often.
After graduating high school, Jarrells enrolled in Hiram College to study political science and economics. It was at Hiram that his inquisitive nature and intuitive sense of social justice was connected with an understanding of the political sphere in which to work toward solving those problems.
He excelled on the speech and debate team and was named a Garfield Scholar (a nod to the school’s most famous alumnus, President James A. Garfield). The Garfield Scholars program teaches leadership and expertise in public policy.
Jarrells was drawn to policy work, but was unsure of his post-graduation career path. A chance encounter with an academic mentor led him to apply for the Ohio Statehouse Legislative Service Commission fellowship program.
Jarrells got the job and moved to Columbus. He’s kept his 216 area code as a personal reminder of where he came from.
From a fellow to a lawmaker
Democrats held a majority in the Ohio House when Jarrells applied for the fellowship, but the chamber looked much different when he arrived after the 2010 General Election.
Republicans flipped more than a dozen seats in the House that year as well as the governor’s office with the election of John Kasich.
Jarrells worked under a handful of Democratic representatives that term, including House Minority Leader Armond Budish and Assistant Minority Leader Matt Szollosi. Over time, he borrowed a little bit from each lawmaker’s style to develop his own leadership personality.
The early months of 2011 proved to be a pivotal time in the 129th General Assembly. The Republican majority prioritized passage of Senate Bill 5, which sought to restrict public employees’ rights to collectively bargain for better wages and benefits.
Szollosi was the Democrats’ ranking member of the committee hearing SB 5. The close look at how the policy debate played out made a big impression on Jarrells.
“I was like, man, the power of people just willing to work all day, come testify, sit in committee for hours on end to wait for their turn to talk …,” Jarrells remembered. “It kind of just created something in me. I was like, man, I really want to be something where I can have an impact on those families’ lives. I didn’t know it then, that I was going to run for representative for the Statehouse, but over time, I just felt like this was the right thing. I felt like it was home for me.”
After his fellowship term ended, Jarrells began his policy career working in public health. He primarily focused on mental health and addiction treatment, noticing the gaps in access for certain Ohioans.
“When you have to drive 30, 40 miles in a rural county or Appalachian county to get to a hospital that provides treatment for drug addiction, that is a public health crisis, right? Or, you know, you can’t find a dentist in your local community and you have to go to a neighboring county to find a dentist, that is a public health crisis,” he said.
At the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, Jarrells worked with county health officials to better engage with communities which may not feel connected with the health care system.
He described wanting to “open up space where we can really see people for who they are, and all their cultural identities. I think that is how we begin to unravel the complexity of public health and address it from an equitable lens.”
Opening doors of opportunity
When Jarrells settled in Columbus a decade ago, his opportunities snowballed from one to the next. He thought most about his family and the kind of world he wanted for them.
“I just kept saying to myself, ‘I’m not just doing this for myself, I’m doing this for a whole bunch of people. And I’ve got a lot of people on my back, and I need to take them with me,’” he recalled.
The years since graduating from Hiram have involved a flurry of activity. He spent several years as president of the Ohio Young Black Democrats, working to engage younger voices and break down barriers to get them more involved in the political process. He’s also served as an executive committee member for the Franklin County and Ohio Democratic Parties.
Along the way, Jarrells founded the Columbus African Council to bring together the various ethnic cultures in Central Ohio. He put his own high school robotics team experiences to use as a volunteer coach, with a goal of encouraging students in urban areas to be more involved with S.T.E.M. opportunities. One of these robotics teams was nicknamed the “Gobodies,” a play off of the word nobodies, with Jarrells’ mantra in mind: Where you come from does not determine where you go.
In 2018, Jarrells was chosen to serve as political director for Democrat Steve Dettelbach’s campaign for Ohio Attorney General. He said the campaign made it a stated goal to be “culturally reflective” of all voters, reaching out to communities not normally engaged with during a campaign.
Jarrells recalled one meeting on the campaign trail with 100 residents of Bhutanese and Nepalese descent. They sought Dettelbach’s help with the issue of capacity in funeral homes, with their cultures featuring large-scale, multi-day celebrations of life.
He said the campaign’s slogan of “A better Ohio starts with all of us” served as a “calling cry, if you will, to be really intentional about how we engage people from every walk of life.”
Though Republicans swept all the statewide races in 2018, Dettelbach earned the most votes out of the five statewide Democratic candidates.
Deciding to run for office
Jarrells’ decision to campaign for the 25th House seat was paved through a decade of public service and policy work, but it also followed an unusual set of circumstances involving the holder of the seat.
Bernadine Kennedy Kent won election to the Statehouse in 2016. During Kennedy Kent’s first term, a dispute with other Democrats caused her to be banished from the House Democratic Caucus. The conflict came to a head in May 2019.
According to reporting from the Columbus Dispatch, Kennedy Kent was prevented from entering a room where House Democrats were meeting. Ever since then, she has refused to come back to the Ohio Statehouse. It has been 18 months of missed committee hearings and floor sessions since that day.
Kennedy Kent, who endorsed President Donald Trump, did not file for re-election. After Jarrells won the Democratic Party primary in April, residents of the 25th District started reaching out to him with constituent needs — despite Kennedy Kent still remaining in office. Jarrells said he fielded questions about unemployment benefits and concerns about littering at a local apartment complex.
Jarrells said the confusion about the 25th District seat exemplifies a broader issue of the Statehouse feeling distant and inattentive to the needs of Ohio residents. Drawing from his previous work and campaign experiences, he said a priority in office will be to connect Ohioans to their government. He wants to teach and encourage residents to testify in committee hearings to make their voices heard.
“Those are the types of engagement strategies I want to bring to the table as a legislative leader so families know their voice matters,” he said, “and there’s a place for them to hold their elected officials accountable, to say, ‘this is what I want to see.’”
This focus on public service and engagement is what first caught the attention of Rep. Terrence Upchurch, D-Cleveland, when he met Jarrells a few years ago. It’s what excites Upchurch most in welcoming Jarrells as a colleague starting in January.
Upchurch called Jarrells a “dynamic leader” who will help bring a “fresh voice” to the Ohio Statehouse. As a fellow 32-year-old Black lawmaker, Upchurch said the two also share a “deeper responsibility” to serve as role models to their communities and to all of Ohio.
Jarrells welcomes that responsibility and said he will strive to represent all constituents.
“I’m not just here because as a Black man I’m going to support just Black issues, right? I’m supporting everyone’s issues,” he said. “I even represent Republicans as a legislator. Even though they didn’t vote for me, I represent Republicans. It is important to make sure there is an open door and open access to hear the concerns from all of my constituents.”
The representative-elect said he sees his legislative role as being “an investigator.”
“I’m peeling back the onions, layers of policy that didn’t work for people,” he said, “and I’m replacing it with policy that does work for people.”
Jarrells inherits a 25th District facing many of the same socioeconomic inequities he’s highlighted over the past decade.
There are 10 Ohio House districts representing residents of Franklin County. Of these 10, the 25th District has the lowest median household income and the highest poverty rate. It has the highest percentage of residents without health insurance as well as the highest amount relying on Medicaid, according to U.S. Census data compiled by the Center for Community Solutions.
The 25th District is one of the most diverse districts in Ohio, and is one of just two in Franklin County with a majority of Black constituents.
Jarrells describes the district as being historic and eclectic. Located on the northeast corner of Columbus, it includes John Glenn Columbus International Airport, Easton Town Center, the Ohio State Fairgrounds and Ohio Dominican University. In between are a smattering of historic neighborhoods, from North and South Linden to Milo-Grogan and Strawberry Farms.
“There’s been a call about racism being a public health crisis,” Jarrells said. “I think right now we’re experiencing a wide array of crises across multiple communities. What folks are beginning to realize is that the root of it is; we don’t have access.”
Not everyone feels safe or comfortable turning to medical professionals for help, Jarrells noted, which may keep them from getting adequate care. He plans to fight to maintain Medicaid expansion and look at policies in place that are keeping Ohioans from having proper medical coverage.
Jarrells is also concerned with the number of constituents evicted from their homes. Most residents live in unaffordable housing, defined as being when a person’s housing costs exceed 30% of their total income.
The district is also being disproportionately affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
“While I believe wholeheartedly that residents of the 25th House District are doing their best, they are also living with a stacked deck,” he said. “They have to be outside. They have to work. Because, you know, there’s no virtual version of being a waiter at a restaurant. Or a person who is restocking the grocery, there’s no virtual version of that. … This is a difficult, difficult, difficult issue to navigate partly because it heightens the reality of inequities across our system.”
Jarrells urges people to keep taking the virus seriously.
“To see her and what she’s experienced, it gives me all the more energy to really stand up and talk about how this impacts communities all across Ohio. We can’t take this as a joke,” he said. “It is absolutely real. It is absolutely real. I’ve seen it with my own eyes, the oxygen levels that my mom was fighting to get at so that she doesn’t get intubated. I see it. It is personal for me.”
The Cleveland native thinks often of that moment on a public bus decades ago, watching teenagers make fun of a homeless woman sitting next to him with no adult willing to stop them.
Jarrells eventually had enough.
He pointedly told the older students to leave the woman alone, leading the bullies to turn their attention to him. Before a bigger argument could break out, the driver kicked the teens off the bus.
A few passengers patted Jarrells on the back. He wasn’t in the mood for praise. Instead, more questions: Why did everyone else stay silent? Why did it take a 7th grader to stand up to them while more mature adults did nothing?
The woman said nothing until they exited the bus together. She wept and thanked him.
The lessons from that day have stuck with Dontavius Jarrells ever since: A life of service is about advocating for those who may not be able to advocate for themselves. That one should be considerate to the needs of all people.
To act, and to lead.
“Those are the types of memories that carry with me,” he said, “and those are the memories I’m carrying into the Statehouse.”