“I don’t hide who I am. I don’t assimilate to white supremacy. I lead with joy. I lead with laughter, and I lead with a fierce commitment to protecting the most marginalized communities through my campaign.”
That’s the pitch from Tiara Mack, who was elected to the Rhode Island State Senate for District 6 in November 2020. Mack was the first openly queer Black person ever to serve in the body and also as part of what the 28-year-old calls “a new wave of Rhode Islanders” steadily taking over leadership in Providence from lawmakers “who’ve been there since before I was born.”
Asked how she was received when she first arrived in the state capital, Mack tells LGBTQ Nation rhetorically, “How am I still being received.”
Now running for a second term, Mack remains the atypical candidate she was two years ago, when she knocked out her seat’s Democratic incumbent in the primary after a 35-year run as rep. and senator, and won a whopping 90% of the vote in the general election.
“I am an unapologetically Black queer person. I am young. I am a fierce advocate for many social issues that many ‘quote unquote’ Dems won’t say loudly and proudly, or support loudly and proudly, like our trans community, abortion rights and access, formerly incarcerated and currently incarcerated people, advocating consistently for a $25 minimum wage, advocating for the ending of cash bail and the defunding of police so that we can reinvest in our communities,” Mack says.
“So I’m not the traditional candidate in Rhode Island, but I am a better representation, I believe, of the communities that we serve.”
Mack’s opponent in the general is Republican Adriana Bonilla, a self-described job coach at a Providence-area high school. Mack says her only interactions with Bonilla have been on social media.
“Admittedly, I don’t know much about her,” Mack said, “besides that she is homophobic, racist, and someone who does not have the best interests of our young people, our communities of color, is a climate denier, is a science denier, and would be a real threat to the health, safety and livelihoods of many Rhode Islanders.”
Mack’s district is not the Rhode Island of Newport mansions and “Providence Plantations,” as the state is still officially described, but a mix of middle-income Black, white and Latino communities and wealthier constituents in downtown Providence. “It’s a pretty diverse neighborhood,” says Mack.
The incumbent herself is a mix of socio-economic influences. She was raised in the South with a Christian upbringing and a large family in a low-income household, a queer Black girl who read the Gossip Girl books and dreamed of going to Brown University, where she landed in 2012.
“In true Brown fashion, I studied a lot of things,” says Mack. “Started off in neuroscience, went on to Comparative Literature, studied German and then eventually found myself in Public Health.”
She also played rugby, a sport that she says taught her the value of teamwork. “You have 15 people on the field and no one is a standout. It is 15 people working together to win a match. I’m happy to still be able to play rugby and honestly, it’s the only thing that keeps me sane, because I get to hit people who are willing to be hit,” she says laughing.
Mack joined a group at Brown that taught high school students comprehensive sex ed, leading to a year of teaching after graduation and an internship in Public Policy and Advocacy at Planned Parenthood, where Mack says she embraced the power of activism.
As a citizen-advocate, Mack spent several years working the corridors of power in the state house for reproductive rights, helping pass Rhode Island’s landmark Reproductive Privacy Act, which codified the federal protections of Roe v. Wade into state law three years ahead of the Supreme Court’s decision in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization overturning that ruling. That work inspired Mack to run for public office, and now she represents a district with the only two abortion clinics in the state.
“I had been working in this field for a decade and saw the writing on the wall,” Mack says, “and saw the slow movement and building of the GOP and anti-human rights campaigns that were centered and targeted towards people’s access to bodily autonomy. I knew that this was a decision that was in the works. And the fact that many people were shocked and devastated and didn’t see any hope? I was like, ‘Well, there is so much hope. Rhode Island codified the right to abortion in 2019.”
Nevertheless, after Dobbs, Mack saw the need for more expansive legislation protecting a woman’s right to choose both in Rhode Island and around the country. So she went on offense, setting up a TikTok account to bring awareness to an issue in which she was an expert.
“The goal was to go viral, and well, I accomplished that, and some,” Mack says with a smile. A video of the senator twerking on the beach on Block Island blew up after internet scowl Chaya Raichik reposted the footage on LibsofTikTok, her anti-LGBTQ Twitter account. The reaction on the right was ugly, but Mack is fiercely unapologetic.
“While there has been some negative attention, there has also been overwhelmingly beautiful support and solidarity and community building,” says Mack.
“I’ve been proud to receive hundreds of messages from other young people who are like, ‘I didn’t know that there was someone in politics who looked like me. I was never interested in politics until I saw that.’ You can twerk upside down, be a rugby player, say f**k a lot, have tattoos, and still be unapologetically yourself,” she says.
“And so I think it was a net positive overall, and it just further shows that when you are unapologetically yourself, and you stand firmly in the beliefs that are grounded in people and rights and equity, you can’t lose and there will be a community of people who will embrace you wholeheartedly.”
At home, which she shares with a fellow rugby player and her rabbit named Moonlight Mahershala, Mack is a sci-fi and fantasy nerd. She reels off the names of favorite authors like Tamara Pierce, Jean M. Auel, and Afrofuturist Octavia Butler, who imagined, as Mack describes it, “worldscapes that often mirror our own, but often imagine a world that’s better than the one that we are.”
But on this afternoon in Providence, Mack declares, “It’s a nice fall day, the leaves are changing, so no complaints.”