While her brother worked to save money to buy video games, Whaley would get excited about the newspaper delivery process and seeing her neighbors on her route.
For her, it wasn’t about the money.
“I’ve always been motivated by making sure that the work I’m doing is really meaningful to me personally, and that’s my strongest piece,” she said. “The pay, it’s not about that. Even going back to when I was 10, 11 years old.”
That attitude has stuck with Whaley, who graduated from Wright State University in 2009 with a Master of Public Administration degree.
Whaley remains involved with Wright State, teaching a course on Women and Leadership, and working with university administrators and faculty on an effort to cultivate women leaders throughout the community.
She describes herself as a working-class kid whose father worked for GM and mother was a realtor and the town’s clerk-treasurer. She is motivated to work for causes she is passionate about, including Dayton, education, and women in leadership.
That has led Whaley to work her way up the political ladder—all the way to her current position of mayor of Dayton.
Whaley came to Dayton to study chemistry at the University of Dayton. She says she fell in love with the city and its people and has remained ever since. She got involved in local, state, and national campaigns; served on the Montgomery County Board of Elections; and worked as a deputy to the Montgomery County auditor.
When she was elected to the Dayton City Commission in 2005, Whaley was 29 and the youngest woman ever chosen for a commission seat. After serving on the commission for two terms, she was elected mayor in 2013.
A year and a half into her first term, Whaley says she loves serving as mayor. “It’s not every day that you get to get up every morning and do something that you’re very passionate about,” she said.
As mayor, Whaley works hard to set, and be the voice of, a vision and a strategy to grow Dayton and the region. “To be the person who moves the message for the region and spreads that vision is a really fun job,” she said.
That vision involves ensuring Dayton and the region are an open and inclusive community in an effort to spark growth. This includes creating Welcome Dayton, an initiative designed to attract immigrants and encourage those already in the city to stay; supporting same-sex marriage; providing opportunities to people in extreme poverty; and celebrating, as Whaley put it, that “people come from different places even if they’re in the same city.”
“We see that companies and businesses want that diversity of experience, they want communities that are not at all homogeneous but have a diverse set of ideas and a diverse set of people, and Dayton offers that,” she said. “You want to do some work, you want to make a difference? You come to Dayton.”
Tony Ortiz, associate vice president of Latino affairs at Wright State, says the Latino community holds Whaley in high regard because of her outreach efforts and attention. In addition to her work through Welcome Dayton, Ortiz said, Whaley has been especially active with El Puente Education Center, a tutoring program that helps young Latino children succeed in school.
“We know Dayton is a good area, and with people like Nan leading the way, it makes it even better,” Ortiz said.
Other Wright State faculty and staff are actively involved in Welcome Dayton, including Kimberly Barrett, vice president for multicultural affairs and community engagement and a member of the Welcome Dayton Committee; Jack Dustin, interim director of the Office of Service-Learning and Civic Engagement; and Jennifer Subban, associate professor of urban affairs and geography.
As evidence that Dayton’s growth strategy is working, Whaley points out that last year the city experienced its first population increase since 1963.
Whaley says she is most proud of the Dayton’s City of Learners initiative, an effort she launched to create a culture of lifelong learning among Daytonians. The initiative seeks to ensure that students graduate from high school prepared to continue on to college, seek advanced training, or join the military.
“We need our citizens to take one extra step and mentor that child who doesn’t have an adult in their life, or the community to provide quality pre-K,” she said, “so they can go to Wright State and be successful and have a good experience there.”
Whaley says Wright State can play a significant role in Dayton’s future. “I think Wright State is key for the city,” she said. “A lot of our kids go to Wright State, and for us it’s a key part in this cradle-to-career-learning piece.”
This fall, Whaley is teaching a course at Wright State, Women and Leadership, examining leadership qualities, gender and social identity, and how systems hinder women in leadership.
She also taught the course in 2012 and has updated it for the fall semester. “I learned a lot from the students,” she said, “and I think that’s a sign of a good class—that it’s refreshing.”
Teaching the course was her idea. Like so much of her work, Whaley wanted to teach a course on a topic she deeply cares about. “Supporting women into leadership roles is a big passion of mine,” she said.
That is also the idea behind Whaley’s other Wright State initiative: working with Kimberly Barrett, vice president for multicultural affairs and community engagement, the Women’s Center, and the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Program to launch the Dayton Leadership Collaborative, a community effort to cultivate and support women leaders in government, academia, nonprofit organizations, and business.
The collaborative’s advisory group includes a who’s who of leaders from the region, including representatives from Wright State and other area universities, health care organizations, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base.
Whaley approached Barrett and Wright State President David R. Hopkins about running the collaborative out of the university.
“For it to be housed at Wright State is very important to me,” Whaley said. “I think the Women’s Studies Program, the commitment to that kind of leadership is something that Wright State can demonstrate across the community and the region.”
Barrett acknowledges that leadership organizations are plentiful, but what sets apart the Dayton Leadership Collaborative is its goal to identify and support latent leaders, or women who may be leaders but are not necessarily recognized for it or are working in uncommon areas.
“In order to create a pipeline for more women’s leadership, you do have to look at those people who are not the usual suspects,” Barrett said.
Whaley admits that the region not only needs more women in leadership positions but also women who can be groomed to take on future leadership roles.
“I stand on the shoulders of other great women and people who did break the glass ceiling. I’m not a ceiling breaker. People came before me,” Whaley said. “The whole point of shattering it is not to be the only one—but to have more women in those roles because I think it helps the conversation and again gives that diversity of perspective.”
Whaley’s plans include running for re-election in 2017.
“I never imagined I’d be the mayor of Dayton, but I’ve always tried to live my life and be prepared for whatever opportunity will come,” Whaley said. “You do your very best in the job you’re in, you show great leadership skills there, you do good work, and then you see what opportunities come from there.”