by Lisa Gregory | photography by Kelly Heck
Myneca Ojo became Hanover’s first African-American mayor in October, stepping into public office for the first time. Ojo, who is the director of diversity and inclusion at the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission, has lived in Hanover since 2010. Originally from Tulsa, Okla., she moved to Hanover when she started a job with the Maryland Statea Highway Administration. Only the second woman to hold the office of mayor for Hanover, the borough council selected Ojo to fill the vacancy left after the departure of former Mayor Ben Adams, who resigned after moving out of Hanover.
Why did you want to become mayor?
I felt that I wasn’t giving back enough. I had this yearning that there was something else I should be doing. I thought, how can I give back with the skills that I have and be effective? In terms of administration, coordinating, strategic planning — those types of things are my strongest suits. So I happened to be reading the paper and saw that the mayor position was open. This is the community I love. And I thought to myself, why not go for this?
How do you feel about being Hanover’s first African-American mayor?
I really don’t think about it much since I am African-American. I didn’t know until I was sworn in that I had made history. The feedback I’ve gotten from the community has been interesting because I didn’t know Hanover’s reputation for intolerance and not being diverse or accepting of others and their culture. I believe my appointment is important to Hanoverians, and people are expressing some relief that the previous stigma no longer applies. They are proud that the borough has moved forward. People are ready for change and certainly are capable of it. They are excited. It’s like, “Wow, we did it! We’re finally moving on.” It’s important to me because it is important to everyone else.
As you come into this position, you have mentioned that you want to focus on public safety, downtown revitalization, creating more affordable housing and addressing the opioid crisis. Are there any other issues you want to focus on?
A fairly new initiative for me is having a higher education presence here. We’re the 14th-largest borough in the state, and only one of its size with no college presence in the entire Hanover area. Like all of Central Pennsylvania, there is concern of retaining all types of talent in Hanover. Only 8 percent of the borough population is between 18 and 24, and that means we’re giving them a wonderful education in our school system. Then they leave for college and often do not return.
Hanover High School has a wonderful relationship with the manufacturing industry, which accommodates those in the vocational and technical skills. Students choosing not to go to college can get jobs right away in the borough through these programs. But there are major corporations, some international, here in the area that also need college-educated talent. Most don’t think of Hanover as having a lot of professionals. But we do. Corporate offices are here — Utz, Snyder and Hanover Foods. We want these corporations to stay in the area because they can find the talent locally for both the corporate office as well as the factories.
Additionally, a higher-education presence brings other opportunities, too, and will make us a more vibrant community with such amenities as art, lectures and events colleges tend to bring to an area.
Last summer you made national news following an incident at Grandview Golf Club, when your group was asked to leave because you were told you were playing too slowly. You and your group felt you were being discriminated against both as African-Americans and as women and, in fact, the incident led to Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission conducting hearings. Would you talk about the incident and its impact on you?
I will tell you it impacted me in ways I didn’t think it would. You want to believe that if you do the right thing and carry yourself with a certain demeanor you will never be treated like that. Even though I’m a diversity and inclusion professional, and I look at this type of stuff every day, you never think it would happen to you. Then out of the blue it does. It impacted me to really realize people have these biases and that these biases can be very dangerous. I think I am way more aware now than I have ever been of those that are expressing some type of negative biases against me or other people.
However, it never changed the perception of how I was treated here. And it never impacted what I wanted to do [applying for mayor]. If you are marginalized like African-Americans and women are, you have to continue to move forward, no matter what. You don’t let them get away with it. But you have to move on and achieve what you need to achieve. And you don’t put that level of behavior on everyone. You don’t stereotype. That’s what you don’t do. Instead, you continue treating people like human beings and you continue to move forward.