Q&A: Darius Pridgen

Darius Pridgen, who was unanimously elected Buffalo Common Council president this year, and is also celebrating his twentieth anniversary as pastor of the thriving True Bethel Church on East Ferry Street, had every advantage growing up, to hear him tell it. Though they lived in the Perry Projects for a time, Pridgeon’s blue-collar parents regularly dispensed their solid work-ethic ideals like so much philosophical cod-liver oil. Young Darius, an only child, felt a call to the ministry from an early age, but never really dreamed of a future that included highly visible community leadership. After years of long bus rides from Buffalo’s East Side to suburban Christian schools, where his parents believed he would get a better education, he successfully petitioned for permission to attend public high school in Buffalo. Pridgen graduated from Bennett at age sixteen—he recalls trailing friends to their summer school make-up classes, earning extra credits he didn’t need (and didn’t really qualify for, as he was not a failing student), but used as a get-out-of-high school early card. He enrolled in the historically black Livingstone College in North Carolina, where he studied business for a time. After returning to his hometown briefly, he left again, this time as an Air Force recruit. At twenty-two, by then a staff sergeant, Pridgeon opted against reenlistment and came back here for good. Every roll of the dice since then seems to have landed him on the road to prominent public service. Despite his solid upbringing and prodigious personal effort, Pridgen says he is amazed every day at how his life has turned out.

MS: You have worked hard all your life, and now, at forty-nine, you seem at the top of your game, a respected community leader. Your name is being floated as the next mayor of Buffalo. Are you really surprised?

DP: I am surprised, and humbled, whenever I hear my name in the conversation for mayor. Three years ago, when I took over the Ellicott District Council seat, I was the first pastor elected to a public office in this city. It was not my plan to use [that office] as a stepping stone to the next level. And I love my job on the Council—I thought I would like it, but I love it! Here is my purely political answer to that whole mayoral question:  I will never close a door on opportunity. And here is my answer from the heart—I once said I could not be a pastor, but at age twenty-nine, I did agree to take on the job I have now had for twenty years. So I say, "God, wherever you lead, I am fine with that."

Speaking of God, how does your ministry inform your broader public service?

I operate from the same platform, whether it’s True Bethel or City Hall, and that is love. Ours is a God of love, fairness, and opportunity. Be fair with the poor as much as the rich. Listen to the concerns of all. When you operate from love, it’s a level playing field for all. I am well aware of our constitutional separation of church and state in this country. But some of our founders were clearly men of God! I did ask my church for permission to run for office—the only concern raised by a congregant was for my health, that I not overextend myself. And I have a great staff, both at the ministry and at City Hall, to make sure it can all be done well. My goal as a pastor is to effect change in people’s lives for the better.

I had an earlier public office experience, serving one term on the Buffalo school board, that I found most frustrating. I wanted to see the change in our educational system here, but a single member has very little power or leverage to facilitate real change. I was only one vote; it was very difficult. Now I believe the state of education in our city is better because more are aware of the issues—there are more parents involved. Even Carl Paladino—with whom I don’t always agree—brings a different viewpoint that is important.

Do you think you can help the public schools now?

Look, half of the city budget goes to education. On the Common Council, our job is to fund it, but we have no control over it. Buffalo is a dependent school district—the final say is from Albany. I do try to use the bully pulpit to highlight issues, but it’s not enough. The people desire a good public education system here, and they should have it, because they are paying for it. That issue is our biggest challenge, and I would say taxes are second.

I am happy about Canalside, thrilled about the medical campus, but again, there is the issue of education. We need to know the emerging fields [where jobs will be], so we can coordinate with elementary and high schools, as well as colleges, to prepare our young people for promising futures. There is a plan to canvass Fruit Belt residents in the medical campus area regarding their skill sets. We are working with Erie Community College. These kinds of coordinations have to happen. As I often preach, "God will help you by guiding you to places where you can help yourself."

Buffalo is still one of our country’s most segregated cities. Any thoughts on that?

Yes, we are geographically divided. Some races are afraid of other races. But we are not only segregated in where we live; there are a host of other racial divisions. Look at who gets arrested. Look at sentencing. You can turn all that around through education.      

My mom worked in the engineering department of the phone company; my dad for Dresser Steel. Their focus was on their kid and his education. This is why it is my life’s mission to try to help people, whatever their color is, to achieve their dreams. If I had a magic wand, I would wave it and there would be equal opportunity for everyone. It would start in school. There would be great parents involved in their children’s education and great teachers for all. I would die happy if I had that. In the meantime, as a pastor, I had one year in which I buried a third of the homicide victims in this city. To look out at a congregation and try to give folks hope, when there is a young father in the casket in front of them, somebody’s son—well, I do try to give them hope, a hope based on a challenge: let’s dig in there and do the work, do some community building, and that all starts with building of the individual.

You are a divorced dad of five. Two of your children are adopted. Though you still live in the city, some have questioned your choice to live in very nice digs on the waterfront. How do you respond?

I am not thin-skinned. I try to do what is best for the people I serve, and in my personal life. But I have some understanding of how people judge a successful African-American negatively. You are going to have to defend success. Years ago, I was asked by a dying mother to take care of her son. I thought I was taking him in temporarily, but he became a part of our family, and I adopted him. Then it happened again with another child. I am proud of all my children and our family life. Why do people always look for the negative without any proof of negativity?  I have never been arrested. I have served my country; I am a veteran of a foreign war [Pridgeon served during the Grenada conflict] and belong to the American Legion. I earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice from Buffalo State College and a master’s in organizational leadership from Medaille College. I have been a working stiff all my life. Why is that a liability more than an asset?  In my ministry, I have buried the dead, gotten jobs for people, helped build housing. Have I not proven myself? But I know that regardless of how pure your heart is, and how hard you work, there are still people who impugn your motives and look to find fault. I just wake up every day amazed with my life.                  

Former Buffalo News reporter Maria Scrivani writes about local history and people who make a difference.

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