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A Thorny, Painful Path to Public Service

Insults, rejections and other lived experiences can fuel a desire for social change. So can meeting and befriending committed individuals.

Jabari Simama being sworn in to the Atlanta City Council in 1987
Jabari Simama being sworn in to the Atlanta City Council on April 7, 1987, by Municipal Court Judge Leah Ward Sears, who later became the nation’s first African-American female chief justice of a state supreme court. (photo courtesy Jabari Simama)
People take different paths to the arena of public service. There are some who get there from a family tradition, others who are drafted into service by a community or business organization, and then, sadly, those who are attracted by money, power and prestige. My path was thorny and fraught with obstacles that had to be overcome. My story, perhaps, will resonate with those who, like me, came to public service in search of reconciliation and redemption.

I trace the impetus for my service back to 1969 after finishing my first semester at Lincoln University, an historically Black institution in Jefferson City, Mo. My friend Craig, a white student at the University of Missouri at Columbia, invited me to spend the Christmas and New Year’s holidays with him and his family in the swanky town of Westport, Conn. Except for a summer trip or two to Des Moines, Iowa, I had never been out of Missouri and knew nothing about New England or the northern parts of the United States except that I thought they were more liberal than the deep South.

Driving through one snowstorm after the other, sleeping in the car overnight and waiting for the storms to abate, we eventually made it to the New York state line. Once there, Craig pulled over at the nearest phone booth and called his dad to let him know we’d made it safely and would soon be in Westport. He also told him, presumably for the first time, that the friend he was bringing home with him was Black. When Craig returned to the car, he looked embarrassed and humiliated. His face was red like a beet and his shoulders slumped. “When I told him you were Black, he said you could not stay at our house,” he reported.

Looking out the window, Craig paused for what seemed like an hour before concluding that Jack Carpenter, the area director of the Christian youth organization Young Life, might take me in. Indeed, Jack and his wife Judy did welcome me into their Connecticut home that Christmas and, more importantly, they offered me a job with Young Life if I would be willing to transfer to a Connecticut college in the fall. For some reason I no longer recall, this seemed like the perfect thing to do, and at the end of the academic year I transferred to the University of Bridgeport.

The long ride back to Missouri with Craig after the debacle caused by his dad was filled with huge stretches of silence and tension you could cut with a knife. As I reflect, I ponder: Were my expectations that Craig would have told his father that if I was not welcomed in his home then he would not stay there either? Well, that didn’t happen, and Craig has never mentioned or apologized for his father’s rejection of me.

Simama with then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young at the signing of a comprehensive development plan in 1988
Simama, standing third from right, with then-Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young at the signing of a comprehensive development plan in 1988. (photo courtesy Jabari Simama)
I was only 18 years old when this occurred, but my memory of it and pain from it still linger today. Nothing growing up in Jim Crow Missouri prepared me for such naked racism and bigotry. When I hear today’s conservatives talk about how badly whites are treated and how society is rigged against them in favor of racial minorities, I reflect on my experiences of racism and view their statements with a sense of incredulity. When I hear them proclaim that truth-telling about America’s history is injurious to the self-esteem of white children, I recall when my two sisters and I were called “darkies” at a Des Moines amusement park and had no one to report the insult to except our aunt when we returned home.

These are lived experiences, not something I read about in books, and the wounds have not completely healed. Perhaps they never will. I am sure I experienced some trauma along the way but sought to channel the pain from these experiences into something positive like public service. I have not and will not forget, but I attempt to use the rejections and insults as fuel to drive my desire for social change — for creating a better society for all. Public service for me, as both an elected and appointed local government official and as a community college president, has been cathartic, an opportunity to advocate for the less fortunate, pursue good policies in the public interest and use the bully pulpit of elected office to elevate public consciousness and call out those who self-deal and betray the interest of those in greatest need.

Vietnam veteran John David Borgman burning his uniform at the Pentagon
A book cover pictures Vietnam veteran John David Borgman burning his uniform at the Pentagon in April 1980.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said that “unearned suffering is redemptive.” When Craig’s father rejected me because of the color of my skin, there was another white man, John David Borgman, a former Marine Corps fighter pilot who had flown missions over Vietnam and who invited me to stay with him and his family the entire year of 1970, my sophomore year of college. John David was remorseful over his role in the war and was searching for redemption himself. By working for Young Life and practicing his faith through opening his home to me, I believed he was on the right road. In 1980, he trekked to the Pentagon and burned his uniform before settling in South Africa with his wife Barbara and founding a community for orphaned children who had lost their parents to HIV/AIDS.

I often asked myself if I would have been as committed to public service were it not for meeting and befriending individuals like John David Borgman and Jack Carpenter and were it not for my personal encounters with racism. Would I hold so dearly to the examples of civil rights leaders and former elected officials like U.N. Ambassador and Atlanta Mayor Andrew Young, Georgia state Rep. and Atlanta City Councilman Hosea Williams, and Congressman and Atlanta City Councilman John Lewis?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I do know that I am glad some of us took the thorny, painful route to public service. Perhaps someday we will be redeemed.

Governing's opinion columns reflect the views of their authors and not necessarily those of Governing's editors or management.
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