She's Made of Fire

Several years ago, my husband told me that someone was stopping by to drop off some plants. He wasn't going to be home, so he wanted to make sure I would be there to meet her. I didn't know much about Tanja, except that she was one of Tampa’s best plant advocates. At the time, she was a mother of two and had a home in Sulphur Springs. She regularly opened her home and yard to anyone who wanted to participate in a garden swap.    

This is the plant Tanja brought us, the Leaf of Life ( Bryophyllum calycinum ).

This is the plant Tanja brought us, the Leaf of Life (Bryophyllum calycinum).

True to form, Tanja was stopping by to trade some plants with my husband. Sam is another plant and garden enthusiast, and they had met through the Tampa plant scene. He told me that not only was this woman committed to sharing her love of plants with others, but she could also really make things happen. She had just recently worked to get real fruit trees in Lowry Park. (Why are fruit trees not automatically planted in parks???) It was a project that others had tried to execute, but they couldn’t get through the red tape. 

When I met Tanja, I wondered how she could make what seemed impossible happen. She had short red hair and a small child by her side, and passion flew off of her in sparks. I think my heart lit up a little more that afternoon. Though we had just met, we  talked for probably 45 minutes about plants, the neighborhood, and life. I felt like I was catching up with a good friend that I don’t see often enough. At one point I stopped to ask her, “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a firefighter,” she said. 

Of course you are. 

There are some jobs that only special people can fill, and fighting fire is one of them. Tanja talked about how much she loved helping people, being one of the first people on the scene when people were hurt or scared, how her passion for people fueled her work in a profession that even some of the toughest men don’t dare attempt. Honestly, I was in awe. I decided I had found a new hero. 

Tanja with her three daughters.

Tanja with her three daughters.

Tanja is a living example that someone can be a mom, excel in a male-dominated profession that is physically and emotionally taxing, and love her life so much that she still has more to give to her community.

There are some people whose light burns so bright, others can become blinded by it. Maybe that’s what happened. 

A few years later, when Tanja was pregnant with her third daughter, she began to experience discrimination and harassment at work. This was not the first time; it occurred during her first two pregnancies, and she just dealt with it. This time, Tanja decided she would fight it by filing a federal lawsuit. She was promptly fired from the job she loved the very next day. After a two-year battle in court, Tanja won her case, which included an order by the judge, allowing her to go back to her job. 

Anyone else might just say, "Fuck it," and decide to not go back to an environment that treated them with disrespect and hostility. But not Tanja. She doesn’t want her daughters to live in a world where their future is dictated by manipulative men. I don’t blame her. Actually, more than that, I am in awe of her again. 

She went back to her job in February, but she has continued to receive the same treatment as before. Now, in early August, she had to go back to court AGAIN because the fire department is investigating HER for creating a hostile work environment. There was a protest outside the courthouse with family and friends. Though I couldn’t make it, I am reeling in reading the details. 

So, I am writing the mayor and the entire city council. Tanja is being harassed, and disciplinary actions are being charged against her. But those who are harassing her aren't receiving anything except encouragement that this behavior is OK. At this time, there has been no third-party investigation, everything has been handled in-house, and we all know what that can mean. 

The issue extends beyond Tanja. Did you know that there is currently a lack of female bathrooms in fire stations and currently NO pregnancy policy? 

Most importantly, we are all spending our tax dollars on this. 

Here’s the part that gets me: Tanja is someone that is going to make magic in the world because, as far as I can tell, that’s just who she is. I trust that in the long run, that means something good will come out of all of this. Tanja’s daughters will remember how hard she had to fight for her right to do what she was passionate about: helping others. Perhaps another female firefighter won’t receive this treatment. But what other amazing things could Tanja be doing for all of us if she didn’t have to deal with this? 

Despite the hostility and discrimination, Tanja is determined to keep fighting. She wouldn’t think twice about running into a burning building (real or metaphorical)—to help save someone in her community. We need to do the same for her, to stand up and fight for her now. 

I impel you to take action with me. Write the mayor and the city council and tell them how you feel.