Steve Jobs famously once said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” He might have based his definition on Indianapolis Deputy Mayor of Neighborhood Engagement Judith B. Thomas ’90.
Nearly a year in, Thomas still sounds surprised at being chosen for the position.
“I got a call right before Christmas: ‘Can you see the mayor at 2:00 tomorrow?’ My heart dropped. It was like somebody said, ‘Judith, you can take Oprah’s job.’”
Mayor Joe Hogsett ’87 knew what he was doing. The city needed someone who could address hyper-local social issues, such as food insecurity and mental health, and knew what the city had to offer. Thomas had spent her life championing Indianapolis and underserved groups.
And it all began at Butler.
From Student Union President to Deputy Mayor
Thomas says she got her first taste of community work as a Bulldog. She volunteered, served as President of the Black Student Union, joined the Student Foundation Board, and spent hours at the Diversity Center.
“The Center exposed me to what I’m doing now. They brought in great speakers, and I went to every lecture. That got me ready for a lot of things I’ve faced in my career.”
That career has included more than 15 years in the city’s convention and tourism sector and nearly two years leading the Madam Walker Legacy Center. She started her own firm in 2020, Judith & Co., to “build robust relationships through listening and understanding,” she writes on LinkedIn.
“I was creating ideas for people, helping them build something new. For example, I was going to a range of city leaders to talk about the history of what’s happened to people of color and how we can change it,” she says.
Since Butler, Thomas has been building what now seems to be an almost encyclopedic knowledge of Indianapolis entities.
“I’m in alphabet soup with all the acronyms,” she laughs. “But when someone says they have a need, something triggers in my head. Yesterday, we came up with three or four ways to take a project to the next level. We just needed to connect the person who identified the need with a police department commander and a person who’s creating a community to serve certain people within a neighborhood.”
She spends much of her time out in those neighborhoods, meeting people and hearing their stories.
“Haughville is the closest neighborhood to downtown that’s not developed as it should, and it’s because it hasn’t gotten the resources the residents deserve,” she says. “All they want are paved streets and safety. Why can’t they have the basics? It breaks my heart.”
An inclusive Indy is a safer Indy
The root of many neighborhood challenges is clear to Thomas.
“It’s always been about race. We saw that in 2020 with the pandemic, but those of us of color have always known that. It’s the frustration of maybe not having a job, not having opportunity, not having access to education—when you see violent crime, it’s people who are frustrated,” she says. “If we can connect folks, we can reduce the frustration.”
Thomas’ goals rely on people getting to know one another. Making connections.
“Safety for everyone. Neighborhoods getting what they need. Connecting citizens to services and funders and grassroots organizations. Celebrating everybody and getting services to those who need them.
“I’m learning and meeting people and trying to have some influence. That’s my thing: connecting people for collaborating and partnering. The city doesn’t have a bunch of money to give out. But I can connect you to funders or another program you can partner with.”
Photo by Caitlin Sullivan