In addition to being the elected Common Council member from Buffalo’s Ellicott District, Darius G. Pridgen is the president of the Council. He’s also the senior pastor at True Bethel Baptist Church, where he serves the 3,000+ mostly African American congregants.
Pridgen, 52, holds a BS in criminal justice from Buffalo State College and a Masters in organizational leadership from Medaille College. Before he went into politics, he was in the U.S. Air Force.
How did you come to believe so strongly in education?
I grew up in Buffalo; my dad didn’t go to college. My kindergarten teacher told my parents that they should spend their money on educating me. So they did. (My parents are still my greatest cheerleaders!) They sent me to private school in Clarence. I begged to go to Bennett High School in the city; they allowed me to because my grades were good.
What do you do as a council member and as president?
An elected council member’s job by charter is mainly to enact legislation, and to approve the budget. However, their constituents consider Buffalo council members as a “one-stop shop” for almost everything—from asking about health services to wanting cracked sidewalks fixed, to “What do I do about a rowdy neighbor?”
Those are really the function of the Mayor’s administration, through services like 311 and the Dept. of Public Works. But most council members will hear constituent concerns—even if they’re county issues. I try to be a liaison between the administration and my constituents.
The chief official job of council president is to run the meetings; to ensure that the council is operating according to charter. You are not the “boss of the council members.”
You’re on the board of several economic development organizations, like the Buffalo Urban Renewal Agency and Erie County Industrial Development Agency. What is your role there?
Every board that I’m on which utilizes taxpayer money or incentives, I push for diversifying the projects—from the work force to the residents. “Inclusionary zoning” deals with creating mixed income neighborhoods. Buffalo is still very segregated. The surprising thing is that I’ve found a great deal of support, from unlikely people.
You are the pastor at a very active church—how does that play into your larger role?
People ask how I handle wearing the two hats. The answer is: it’s all the same to me. Both the jobs that I have the privilege of holding are about helping people, and about making change for the better.
Buffalo is home to tens of thousands of refugees and immigrants from countries around the world. How are you making sure they are welcomed in Buffalo?
I was supportive when the Mayor established the Office of New Americans. I’d like to see it grow, to be enhanced, connected with other levels of government.
Although I’m a Buffalonian, I know what it’s like to be an outsider: I’m a black kid from the east side who went to school in Clarence with probably 85% white kids. I know what it’s like to “swim in unknown territory.”
How are you responding to the changes in Buffalo?
We’re working towards making government communications available in more languages. Buffalo doesn’t just have black, white and Puerto Rican any more; there are so many languages here now, I doubt if there’s one person who can speak all of them.
How does change come about?
It’s difficult to like what you don’t know, or to appreciate what you’ve never experienced. Without working towards change on purpose, most people—including me—will never do it. We gravitate toward places where we’re comfortable. The government needs to be involved in diversifying neighborhoods, schools, places where people shop and enjoy.
I’m excited, and starting to become more proud of how Buffalo’s people are embracing diversity. At Tops on Niagara St., there’s a whole aisle, with items that keep changing depending on who is coming to the area.
Then I noticed something recently, in the line, there was someone who appeared to be from Africa, next to someone from an Arab country, next to a black and a white person. It’s becoming a norm; that’s what I want to see all over Buffalo. We have the opportunity to set an example for the whole country. K
Jana Eisenberg is a consulting editor for Karibu News, and a frequent contributor.