History Professor and Councilman Uses His Past to Teach About Politics and The Future of America

Students in Professor Lisa Phillips’ Feature Writing Class were assigned to profile people at the forefront of change:

Rennie Scott-Childress, history professor at SUNY New Paltz and majority leader councilman, spreads awareness about the roots of confederacy after the Charlottesville shooting. He speaks about his experience, political knowledge and position and how the future of America will be shaped.

In the wake of the Charlottesville tragedy, Rennie Scott-Childress agreed to give a speech about the bitter roots of Confederate legacy in the 21st century. It’s one of the annual panel series hosted by SUNY New Paltz and this year’s theme is Citizenship.

Soft and measured, Scott-Childress’ delivery spreads across the audience like a calm wave rolling onto the shore before the storm. He is very much in the educator mode, but his extended scholarly analysis forged a strong relationship with his approach to complex political realities.

“It’s a sort of E pluribus unum in reverse,” he speaks precisely, combining intellectual ideas with wry, unfaltering humor that often falls under delayed reaction. “Instead of out of many one, it’s a cantankerous confederate individualism that says, ‘I’ll be part of this union, but only on my own terms and if I don’t like it, I’ma pick my toys and go home.’” He pauses for a moment, letting the audience chortle over the bit of irony. For him, excessive individualism hinders a sense of equality in the modern American culture.

Reynolds J. Scott-Childress, 58, is a majority leader councilman in the City of Kingston and a U.S. history professor at SUNY New Paltz. His political career didn’t follow what one might call a linear path. In April 2016, Scott-Childress was appointed by Mayor Steve Noble and took over after Alderman Brad Will, who resigned early. After the expiry of the residue term, Scott-Childress ran on the Democratic, Working Families and People’s Party lines. Elected by the residents of his district this past January, he now serves a two-year term as a city representative.  

He likes to joke that the only reason he had children was so he could start conversations with people. “I would just hold up a baby,” he raised his hands, “and they would say, ‘Oh, what a cute baby.’” Displaying intense curiosity, he playfully peeked out from behind the imaginary child.  “Now both of my children are grown, so I had to go into politics,” he concluded with a feigned boredom echoing in his voice.

Scott-Childress spent the first year and a half in the temporary position responding to crises, whether it was change in the political landscape or local matters like infrastructure and immigration. This period created a buffer; without betraying his roots, he learned to do his job before he ran for it. “The point was that I hadn’t made any campaign promises,” he told me. I could be true to myself and vote for what I believed was right.”  

Just before the elections came around, he wasn’t so confident about the grassroots campaigning. “I didn’t think I was gonna like the walking around part and knocking on people’s doors because of my shyness.” Instead, it turned into a rewarding experience of connecting with people in Kingston, “who are doing minor things that are majorly making things better.”

Now that he won the elections in his own right, Scott-Childress wants Kingston to redirect its attention; instead of continuously responding to one problem after another, it needs to focus on building strong, forward-looking citizenry – a foundation that will serve the common good. I’m talking to a lot of people to create a ten-year plan, craft legislation and reach the ideal situation… Develop art community, bring more business, lower taxes and create affordable housing,” he said.

Although somewhat idealistic, his ideas don’t stay entirely conceptual. In spring 2018, he drafted a memorializing resolution, urging federal and state legislators to push for tighter regulations on firearms. While the document didn’t have legislative power, it served as an active statement. Apart from a few polemical points, Scott-Childress avoided stepping on the opposing end of the political continuum; instead, he took a prudently diplomatic approach, mainly focusing on a problem of the firearm violence and its consequences for the nation as a whole.

I was very careful to stay away from things that pro-gun enthusiasts are looking for, like repelling the Second Amendment or banning all guns,” Childress said, as a histrionic hint of a sly smirk disappeared from his face. “But they didn’t read it that way.”

At the discussion over adopting the resolution, one of the speakers accused Scott-Childress of grandstanding. “It’s not grandstanding when you’re offering facts and making a reasonable argument,” Alderman replied.

As an intellectual in politics, Scott-Childress envisions the “beloved community:” inclusive, interrelated society that radically transforms individuals. Rather than taking a self-righteous, declarative position, he chose an open-minded conversation as a method to build his reputation in politics. “I am not a full throttle partisan,” he said. “I am somebody who really believes in finding places to connect even with people who you don’t see eye to eye with.”

For Scott-Childress, the psychological underpinnings of how people connect to one another in different contexts date back to his childhood. He was born in Charlotte, N.C. in 1960. In 1971, authorities started transferring black kids to white schools and vice versa in order to match the 70 percent white to 30 percent black mandated ratio. “We were in a big social experiment, a very powerful thing in my life.”

Growing up during the breakthrough years of school integration, he had changed four schools in four years. “Sometimes I was in a white area school, sometimes I was in a black area school, which was also complicated by the fact that my family moved twice.”

For the final few years, Scott-Childress went to West Charlotte High, a historically black school. While across the country there were more failures than triumphs, the Queen City, crowned with West Charlotte High, became a nationally renowned model of successful integration. In high-school, Scott-Childress decided to go to what was then called an “open school,” an alternative program that taught in a non-traditional way. It fostered innovative ideas, perspectives and actions by putting students in power of democratic decision-making.

In the alternative program, Scott-Childress met Glenn Reynolds who to this day remains one of his best friends. Together, encouraged by the freedom of choice given by the open school, they started publishing an underground political and literary newspaper with content ranging from news articles and editorials to a serial story about a wizard. It was a low rent, photo-copied paper guided by a liberal approach with nearly no editing involved. “We had a locker where people could just stuff things that they have written,” Scott-Childress said. “We published virtually all of it.”

Between busing and frequent family moves, Scott Childress had a completely different experience and a new set of friends each year. But what stayed the same was the interracial navigation in which both sides struggled “to find organic ways of relating to one another.”

In 7th grade, Scott-Childress met Joe Williams, an African-American boy, who one day gave him a little button with a plastic cut diamond in it. “There was something about the gesture that I adored.” In memory of the endearing exchange, he wore it around his neck for the next 15 years.

There were other pivotal moments. He recalled how in high school, white kids would hang out with black kids; together they would skip classes and gather at a parking lot, together they would go to local restaurants that served traditional soul food. But on the bus back home everything would turn around: all of a sudden, the same white cohort would start exchanging racist jokes.

“It took me a long time to figure out that these kids had a much more difficult time negotiating difference,” he said. “They had to move from being egalitarian at school to a supremacist at home.”

At this school, one of the teachers encouraged him to apply to Columbia University. “I read about the riots that he’s gone on while there in the ‘60s, and it appealed to me to be going to a school with that kind of political awareness of the world.”

Sure enough, in college Scott-Childress got involved in student activism. First, it was an anti-nuclear movement where he volunteered to raise money for the cause. Then, there were protests against the CIA. Finally, as part of the last all-male class, Scott-Childress, along with his friends, organized Man’s Feminist Union with an aim to increase equality. Taking gender discrimination issues to heart, they read Gyn/Ecology: The Metaethics of Radical Feminism, by Mary Daly and works of other influential feminist philosophers.

But a lot has changed since then. From the radical anti-government stance, Scott-Childress is now in the position where he wants people to think about government not as an alienating, tax demanding machine, but as a primary liaison for creating a sense of fellowship.

“Too much of this conservative way of thinking is a focus on individualism, but not individuality,” he said. “They give up on the other crucial part of American political thinking which is equality.”

With the corporate attention increasing and young artists moving in, Kingston’s community became engaged in a dynamic discussion over equitable revitalization. The problem lies in the delicate balance between welcoming creative development and ensuring longtime residents have a good foundation for life in the community grappling with gentrification.

RUPCO, Hudson Valley’s premier provider of affordable housing programs, has recently proposed to redevelop the Almshouse, Kingston’s historic site that has been vacant for over 20 years, into a housing facility for the homeless and elderly. The initiative was met with strong opposition from locally residing neighbors. While some fear sharing districts with the underprivileged population, others worry about their property values and tax money.

Scott-Childress designed his own way of working through different opinions. He starts by listening to them; inviting citizens through Facebook and word of mouth, he runs a series of informal sit downs at local cafeterias where anyone who’s interested in the issue can come and talk about what affordable housing means. “To some people it means the forcible relocation of mentally ill murderers into the house next door,” he chuckled with a glee. “Other folks see it as a crucial aspect of social justice.”

In line with these priorities, Scott-Childress aims to find “uncommon commonalities among different groups,” so people in the community can rely on one another instead of hiding in their own homes “armed to the teeth and worried about who’s knocking at the door.”

The other part is in understanding what the initiative would do for the city as a whole and not just one neighborhood. Built and owned by the county since the 1870s, the Almshouse has never generated income. Under RUPCO, the private organization, this building would finally be on the tax roll. “There are a lot of people in Kingston who want to make things better, but they don’t want anything to change,” he said. “So, what I’m trying to do is get a lot of people to be thinking ahead and trying to create that better world rather than prevent the bad one from coming.”

Read more about #ChangeMakers here:

David Wilkes, self-taught artist and vice president of Roost Studios and Art Gallery, opens up about how his journey with photography led him to go to Ghana, West Africa.

Ellie Condelles, president of Democracy Matters, spends each Thursday informing her peers about the importance of political involvement, especially in the current political climate and their ability to make a change.

Bryan Sison, a photography enthusiast at SUNY New Paltz, creates thought-provoking images on his Students of New Paltz Instagram page.

Billie Golan, the head organizer of the farmer’s market, has managed it every Thursday for the past three years and strives to create a sense of community.

Caleb Sheedy, theater major at Syracuse University, single-handedly organized a walkout at New Paltz High School after the Parkland Florida shooting to create a platform for change on gun violence.

Helene Strong, a Holocaust survivor, dedicated her time at the VA hospital to help recovering soldiers reintegrate into civilian life and give back to the military community.

Brianna Knight, co-president of Melodía and Movement, strives to educate people about diversity through her poems and hopes to become a teacher.

Victoria Precise, an alumna and drag queen, educates the Hudson Valley on drag and inclusiveness, while maintaining mentor relationships with students.

Liam Neubauer, event coordinator of rush week for Alpha Phi Omega uses his fraternity to help others through service work and recruits others for volunteering.

Emma Ward, zine enthusiast and activist uses her position in society to advocate for human rights and other issues prevalent in America.

 

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