ON THE RECORD/Seasoned leader, new leadership position
Next month, the Washington-based National League of Cities (NLC) will induct first vice president, James Hunt, councilmember for Clarksburg, W.Va., as the organization’s new president. As a native of Clarksburg and 15-year member of NLC, Hunt is involved with the organization’s “Undoing Racism” campaign and is co-founder of “The Unity Project,” an organization dedicated to fighting racial intolerance and promoting civil rights through community education programs. American City & County talked with Hunt about his goals as NLC president, influences and greatest accomplishments.
Q: How did your interest in the “Undoing Racism” campaign develop?
A: It’s kind of been a lifelong thing but where it started to become an [important] part of my life was in 1999 when Clarksburg elected [its] first African American mayor, and the Ku Klux Klan decided that they would hold a rally [there]. Pastor David Kates, who was the mayor and a good friend of mine, took a different approach in working with the Klan. Instead of creating this big opposition, he said, “I’ll go to the city limits and welcome the Klan to town, but I also want the opportunity for the city, the people in the community to show their unity and respect, and we will hold an alternate rally.” I coordinated the rally, and after that, Pastor Kates and I talked about what had happened. We felt that our community was totally unprepared to handle what happened and that you can’t wait until an incident occurs and then figure out your strategy. So then we created the Unity Project, which is an organization that [educates communities] on issues of civil rights and racial justice.
Q: Do you want to expand the “Unity Project” program to other cities?
A: We had the “Undoing Racism” topic years ago, and that was a very large step on the National League of Cities’ part. We addressed an issue that many people [might not address], and we brought it out to a national discussion. It was kind of unique and groundbreaking that a national organization took on a subject like undoing racism. We [do not] need to preach a certain standard or the way you have to be to be inclusive. Communities have the strength to come up with it on their own. In many cases they need tools, and my goal this year will be to provide those tools.
Q: What is NLC doing to assist cities with developing their emergency response plans?
A: Long-term, we have to be better prepared, whether it be hurricanes, terrorism, natural disasters and so forth. As local officials, what was pointed out with the hurricanes was that we always seem to be preparing for the last event. We’re not necessarily preparing for the future. Local officials have to be better prepared to lead their communities as opposed to managing their communities. The most inspiring things that have come out of the hurricane disasters have been where people have stepped up and assumed leadership roles in many cases where it was against the norm.
Q: What is NLC doing to encourage cities to become more involved with the organization?
A: It takes that national organization advocating for cities to be able to cover these issues that are national in nature. Just like my community in West Virginia, a small community [that does not] have a paid lobbyist even on the state level, when a national issue comes down that affects us greatly, our voice is through the National League of Cities. That’s one of the primary ways of reaching out and letting communities know the value of belonging to a national organization that represents their interests.