DeKalb Elects African-American Man To School Board For The First Time

May 10, 2019

Four new DeKalb school board members were elected in last month's consolidated elections. One of them, David Seymour, became the first black man elected to the board. In this week's Friday Forum, WNIJ's Peter Medlin spoke to Seymour about his election, the importance of representation, and how his faith influenced his run for office.

Last week, David Seymour was sworn in as a board member of school district 428; so go ahead and add "DeKalb school board" to the ever-growing list of his responsibilities. He also works as a counselor at the "CHANCE" program at NIU where he teaches and works in campus ministry. But that's not his only ministry. He can also be found behind the pulpit on Sunday mornings at Logan Street Baptist Church in Batavia.

Seymour says he was raised Baptist, growing up on the South Side of Chicago.

"I attended Antioch Missionary Baptist Church on 69th and Stuart, under the leadership of Carsey Earl Barnes, Jr," said Seymour. "And (I'm) Baptist born, Baptist bred, when I die I'll probably be Baptist dead."

Seymour says his faith influenced his desire for public service, but it wasn't clear to him right away.

"I fought probably longer than I should have. But in the end, God wins. So fortunately enough, I believe I pastor a church that is supportive of me being able to offer myself in public service -- not only supportive, they kind of push me in that direction," he said. "But ultimately, I see this as an extension of my ministry."

The uncertainty he felt about running for office lasted even into his campaign, when he'd already formally declared.

Seymour joins the board in electing new officers.
Credit Peter Medlin

"I wasn't really sure that I was going to go through with it," said Seymour. "But I was standing in my pulpit in the middle of a sermon preaching about faith, and here it is. I'm trying to preach to my congregation and I get this, like, email from heaven, like, 'Yeah, you know, you've got to practice what you preach, right?' And so having had that experience, I put aside all my fears and I just went forward no holds barred."

The election process was still stressful for Seymour as a first time candidate for public office.

"Local elections don't produce high turnout, and so that was nerve racking there," he said. "And so myself and some of the other candidates tried to hit the ground really hard to canvas. And it was important to be at every open forum -- every public forum that was offered -- just so we can get our name, our face, and our platforms out there."

It wasn't until about a month before the election that Seymour discovered that if he won he'd be the first black man ever elected to the DeKalb school board.

"It's an honor, to a great degree. But I'm more humbled by it because I know I wasn't the first black man to ever run," said Seymour. "And so a person like myself who's been a resident but hasn't been really involved quite so directly -- I'm humbled. Because I feel that in recent history there have been more qualified individuals and myself."

Seymour says diversity and opening new opportunities for people of color was a main point of emphasis through his campaign.

"Having been here for quite some time, I've noticed the complexity of DeKalb changing. And I know that over the last -- well, I would almost say historically -- the school board has been challenged with how they address and deal with issues related to diversity," said Seymour. "And I feel like I could be somebody that can help be a voice to speak and represent not just black people but people of color, and people who feel marginalized."

He believes he has the unique experience that allows him to be able to communicate and work with people of all different backgrounds.

"So one of the things that people laughed at in jest but I meant very seriously is: Although I speak English, I speak multiple languages," he said. "I speak the urban language of the South Side of Chicago. I speak the language of a person who grew up in multiculturalism in Schaumburg. I've been in DeKalb a total of about 20 years, so I know how to speak with a DeKalb accent. And so I think that's very important to be able to have on our board somebody who can translate between the various languages that are present here in DeKalb now."

Representation on the board, but also inside DeKalb's schools, is a crucial issue for Seymour. 19% of DeKalb school district students are black, however only 2% of DeKalb teachers are black. That disparity exists nationwide, not just in Illinois.

"I completed my doctoral studies some time ago, and one of the themes that has been consistent in my studies -- which is informed by my teaching, which is informed by my experience being a person of color in the Schaumburg area -- you are more likely to be what you see," said Seymour. "And so as a teacher, I know that my presence in the classroom for my students of color made a difference. I know, having been a chaperone for my son on a field trip that my presence mattered."

Seymour says he is optimistic about the work DeKalb is doing to start alleviating those issues. For one, he says the board's diversity plan includes positive strategies for the future. He says that will be all the more important because the school district has been minority-majority since 2017, meaning minority students now make up more than 50%.

He's not exactly sure what to expect as a new member of the board, but says it's part of his duty to go into the experience with optimism.

"I know what I've heard about and how this board has run in the past, and that's a concern," said Seymour. "But at the same time there's more important work to be done. So what I'm most hoping for is that the issues that need to be addressed are addressed, and we don't spend unnecessary time trying, or spending unnecessary time dealing with things that really aren't important. The kids are most important, the students are most important, and providing them the best quality education is what should be at the forefront of everybody's mind. So anything else outside of that is irrelevant. It's a waste our time, waste of taxpayers' money."

Seymour, along with the other new board members, will take part in their first regular board meeting later this month.