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When Kamala Harris is sworn into office on January 20, 2021, she will be able to claim more ‘first evers’ than any other national politician — first female vice president, first Black vice president, and first South Asian vice president.

Jacques Gilbert, mayor of Apex, N.C., knows something about being first.

Growing up in subsidized housing, Gilbert’s ambitions were more about supporting himself and helping others. Leadership, especially government leadership, seemed out of reach. 

“I never thought I would be sitting here,” he says. “It was like a Black person would never be the mayor of Apex, a predominately White town. It’s never going to happen.”

But in December 2019, Gilbert was sworn in. From the beginning, he approached the office with a perspective that was different from the mayors who had come before him. As the town’s only Black police officer for roughly eight years, he understood the need to build bridges in the community. And as a man whose faith is foundational, Gilbert knew the value of compassion. 

“I literally open the door in my office; it’s an office where the door has been closed for many years,” he says. “There were people who had felt for years that they couldn’t walk through the door of the mayor’s office, because they were not welcome.”

In June, two college students walked through that door and asked to hold a Black Lives Matter protest in downtown Apex. 

“I knew at that moment, it wasn’t going to be well-received by community members,” Gilbert says. “It’s looked at as, ‘We don’t have problems here. Why would they want to do that?’ The reality is there’s a lot of things that we don’t know about, and we have to provide people an opportunity to share their concerns.”

The demonstration went forward with his blessing. 

“It was probably one of the most amazing experiences I’ve had so far as a mayor,” Gilbert says. “Me and my family in the middle, and I have a few police officers on my right, and then protesters on my left, and then a sea of protesters behind us.”

That walk of solidarity was a symbolic gesture, showing that town staff were committed to making things better. Frank discussions followed, leading to more diversity and inclusion training. While many supported the protest and his decision to march, Gilbert received criticism from police officers who saw his participation as betrayal — that he had crossed “the blue line.”

“That’s kind of frustrating, but it doesn’t stop the momentum,” he says. “It actually gives it more legs, because we now can see where the problem is, what the problems are, and we have work to do.”

Black Lives Matter demonstrators seek to highlight systemic racism and police violence in particular, which is disproportionately directed towards Black people. While some see the slogan as calling for special treatment, it is rather a call for equality. 

Gilbert says he was put in the right place at the right time, in order to facilitate real change. The mayor is confident the same goes for the new vice president, and when prompted, he offers some advice.

“The people put you there, and they put you there for a reason. Don’t hold back.”

 

Amber Keister is a writer and editor who believes in the power of story to bring people together. Her work has appeared in Cary Magazine, The News & Observer, and other local publications.