AAC Board Member, Tonya Banks, makes a difference.

Banks joined the Art Academy of Cincinnati (AAC) board this year and is excited to help nurture and support a diverse student body. She brings insight from years of deep community engagement across Greater Cincinnati and is now completing a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling.

How Passion Was Sparked

Tonya Banks first discovered a love for the arts while serving as a parent volunteer. At the time, her oldest daughter, who is now 30, was studying technical theater in Over-the-Rhine.

“I didn’t know that I loved the arts until my daughter went to the [School for Creative and Performing Arts.] And then I started loving musicals… I used to turn the channel on musicals!” Banks laughs. “Being a parent volunteer there sparked my passion for the arts.”

But what defines Banks’ community engagement more than anything is a love for serving others. Over time, this has translated into a variety of settings, but always with the same desire to see individuals connect with the resources they need to achieve their goals.

While working with Future Leaders of Over-the-Rhine, Banks brought after-school activities to low-income, single-parent families. She has also served on the Greater Cincinnati Food Policy Council, helping families in impoverished neighborhoods access healthy food options. As a case manager for the Talbert House, Banks assisted individuals coming home from prison. This meant providing wrap-around services for those struggling with mental illness, substance abuse, and HIV. As a staff member at the Xavier University Health Center, Banks supported students in health and wellness, striving to create a supportive “home-away-from-home” environment.

“I think we’re born with these gifts of service,” says Banks. “I became more intentional in my service to others when I began to campaign in 2013. Because it was advocating for someone who I felt would serve the people of Cincinnati and give us what we need. [Then in] 2016 I thought of creating vision boards— for myself, for one, but then I would begin hosting those vision boards for women, churches, [and] Bootcamp Cincinnati.”

Banks has since launched an initiative called Suga in the City, which finds creative ways to inspire others along their journey. She interviews local couples about their marriage, creates videos relating to social justice, and brings vision boards to Cincinnati Public Schools. This has students—young girls, in particular—thinking about goals as early as second grade. Whether it’s something practical they can do to help out at home. Or goals for the academic year. Or a bigger dream for the future.

“I believe that if we start our youth in impoverished neighborhoods, if we start them thinking about goals earlier in life then there will be a greater chance of success.”

Banks also draws insight from her own experience as a minority student in a predominantly white school. “I think a lot of times some resources are hidden from us. We don’t have access to the resources that we need to be successful. And I think that on a larger scale, you know,  the majority has to be aware that they need to be intentional in opening doors, because of how systems have been put in place. So yea, just assisting individuals who are struggling in finding the resources that they need to be successful.”

As Banks completes her Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling, she looks forward to the next phase as an independent professional licensed counselor, equipped to support individuals with neurodevelopmental differences.

“I really look forward to just giving my input about diversity and inclusion. Because my question is, what if we didn’t have to be intentional with diversity and inclusion because it just happens to be already in place? I’m interested in working with the students with autism and working with just everyone for their success. I’m excited!”