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A conversation with Erie’s new mayor; ‘groundbreaking’ parental leave measure for state lawmakers

Erie new homes
Luke Runyon
/
KUNC
A sign advertises new homes in Erie, Colo.

Colorado is poised to take an unusual step in granting state lawmakers paid parental leave. The move highlights a legacy of female political representation in the West. KUNC’s Robyn Vincent has the story.

In April, voters in the front range town of Erie, Colorado, elected Justin Brooks as mayor. He’s lived in Erie for 13 years and in that time, helped found a grassroots organization called Being Better Neighbors, aimed at making Erie a more welcoming and inclusive place. That group was instrumental in creating Erie's first Juneteenth celebration last year, just before it was declared a federal holiday.

Brooks is the town’s first Black mayor in its history. He joined Colorado Edition to talk about the significance of the moment, and to outline some of his priorities for the next two years of his term.

Interview Highlights
These interview highlights have been lightly edited for length and clarity

Erin O’Toole: For those who aren't familiar, what’s it like living in Erie?

Justin Brooks: People are flocking to the area like mad. Houses are on the market for a day, it seems -- not much different than the rest of the Front Range, but the growth is extremely rapid. People settle here in Erie because it kind of gives you the best of both worlds. You get to be in a suburban landscape near open space, and it's quiet. Just this morning two hot air balloons went over my house, and I stood on the back deck watching them go over. So you have those unique pieces of solace that you get in in a town like Erie. But if you want to go to a major league sports game, it's really close to be able to get downtown through some mode of transportation and participate in it. So that's why I think Erie has been growing so quickly; and people come from all over. We have folks who are migrating here from every corner of the country, it seems. It's creating a little bit of a melting pot, and it's really changing the demographics and the dynamics of this area, and enriching it.

Justin B_Mayor-blue.jpg
Courtesy of Justin Brooks
Justin Brooks, Mayor of Erie, Colo.

You've been part of the Being Better Neighbors organization that helped create that first Juneteenth celebration; I imagine you're already planning for this year's! What prompted the creation of the organization?

At the beginning of COVID, right at the very beginning of everything [being shut down] in our country, there were some instances of racial injustice where the concerns of Black people about being hunted in our neighborhoods by people who are fearful of our presence, or being unfairly mistreated by law enforcement when encountered. Those were very deep concerns. The town approached me and others in town about having some open dialogue about it. And so I and a few other residents participated in these talks. There was a virtual town hall talk on racism and about race relations. And that was the beginning of this community conversation that really has ensued over the last couple of years.

You know, the town police department and the town government have been really mindful about finding ways to break down those barriers between people, to get people talking about the tough conversations with a goal of improving relations among community members. The Black people who live here don't want a community where we are perceived as outsiders, or that we are visitors to this area. We, too, want to be treated as residents and neighbors, just like everyone else. The town wants a community that is welcoming, that is open, that is accepting of all people. And if people are feeling as if they are unwelcome, unwanted in Erie, then we are failing as a community.

What are some of your early priorities as you begin your term as mayor?

One of the key issues that I am tackling in my administration is the trend of housing affordability. The area, as beautiful as it is and as wonderful as it is and as much as I love living here, I recognize that it is becoming out of reach for so many people. Young families are having a tougher and tougher time being able to live here. Young families are being priced out of our community. The average listing price in areas around $750,000. Now, our average household income is about 116,000. And so those numbers don't close. It means that the average person here could not purchase their own home were it not for the equity that they've accrued. That creates a problem for our workforce in a sense that our small businesses in town have a really hard time recruiting and retaining workers.

This is a cocktail for crisis. I'm working diligently to partner with local and regional organizations and entities to try to curb that trend so that we can have Erie to continue to be a welcoming place. Over the time I've been here, it's largely been a community centered around families. It would be a shame if, as children are graduating from college and getting their first jobs, that they have to move away from this region because they just cannot afford to be here. So, I hope to have an impact there.

I'm very passionate about ensuring that inclusion and equity are a part of the fabric of our town. I see that trend growing and I and I'm proud to be a part of it. So I want to further that.

I am planning to utilize this summer to draw people out into in-person events. I hope the COVID numbers cooperate with this desire. Erie, when I first moved here, was known for all of our community events. I want to get people out and I want to see people in the community. We have a farmer's market on Thursdays. We have a huge Pride event that Being Better Neighbors is putting on on June 5th. I want to see people come out to that and show support. And so this first summer, while I'm trying to figure out how we tackle housing, in the forefront I'm going to be out in the community trying to meet as many people as I can and make sure that they're talking to one another and engaging, because I think that opportunity to meet and greet really helps bolster community.

Erie is a town of about 27,000 people; and according to census data, its population is not very diverse. You are the first African American mayor in the town's 140-year-plus history. How significant is this?

I think that my winning the election represents a voting base that has chosen to select a candidate based on the issues and platform that matter as opposed to just identity think. So, while it is extremely significant that I was elected as the first Black mayor, that wasn't necessarily my platform. It represents that people really listened to what was being said and what was being represented, and they took stock of what was important to them and what they felt needed to be represented in office. And they chose.

Erie, demographically, I think it's 0.19% African American. And we are a family of six, so we're a pretty large portion [of that]. It's not lost on me that that there are not numerically a lot of Black people in this area.

I think it's a sense of progress that says I, for example, represent a different walk of life. I have a different cultural experience than a lot of my neighbors and for the 13 years that I've been here, I've had numerous frank and deep conversations to enlighten others and be enlightened myself about various issues. And that varying perspective, a different life experience and just the expertise that I bring to the area I think makes a difference in my ability to serve. The people who live in this community all have the success of this community in mind.

My quest for making housing more affordable is not just about the BIPOC or minority population that is seeking to be a part of here. It's about everyone. And I think that anyone who works should be able to live and they should be able to feed themselves. These are bread-and-butter types of concepts that that we need to make sure that we are providing to one another as Americans. I have an appreciation for this community. I love being a part of it, and I want others to feel the same way.

Colorado Edition is hosted and produced by Erin O'Toole (@ErinOtoole1). Web was edited by Jackie Hai.

The mission of Colorado Edition is to deepen understanding of life in Northern Colorado through authentic conversation and storytelling. It's available as a podcast on iTunesSpotifyGoogle PlayStitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Colorado Edition is made possible with support from our KUNC members. Thank you!

Our theme music was composed by Colorado musicians Briana Harris and Johnny Burroughs. Other music in the show by Blue Dot Sessions.