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Pittsford Town Board's first-ever African-American member sworn into office

Kevin Beckford (WHAM photo)

Pittsford, N.Y. - He's a businessman, a first-generation immigrant and has been sworn-in as the first African-American to sit on the Pittsford Town Board. But there’s even more significance to his story.

Kevin Beckford was born in Kingston, Jamaica but grew up in the Bahama Islands. His mom and siblings moved to the United States when he was 18-years-old for better opportunities and education.

"When we were moving here,” Beckford said, "the plan was that we were going to come up first and, ultimately, my dad was going to follow."

But the welcome mat in the Town of Pittsford was pulled out from beneath his late father, a manager for an engineer group in the Bahamas.

“The recruiter said to my dad, 'You have two strikes against you Mr. Beckford: One, you’re black. Number two, you have an accent,'” Beckford said. "My dad, at that point, said the American dream maybe OK for my kids, because they don't know what I’ve enjoyed: Where people don't question me because of my accent or my color. They look at my capabilities, education and what I do."

This split the family.

"He decided not to move here," Beckford, now having to live his adult life with only birthday and holiday visits from his dad, said.

“It shows you how structural racism, implicit bias could affect lives," said Beckford.

Now, the same town that once rejected his father has elected him as the first African American board member - and the first Democrat in roughly 80 years.

"I believe very strongly in servant leadership,” Beckford said. “That's one of my overall fundamental leadership styles in the corporate world, and hope to bring that to governing."

Beckford decided to run for Pittsford Town Board in 2016 after white supremacy fliers were distributed in Pittsford. He helped to create PittsFORWARD, a group designed to combat racism.

But little did the Caribbean native know he, too, would experience the ugliness his father once did: Being turned away because of his skin color.

This happened while knocking on doors to get signatures that would put his name on the ballet in the September 2017 Democratic primary. The strategy was to walk with white volunteers, so more people would answer their doors.

"The person signed the petition,” Beckford said. “And [the volunteer] turned around and said, 'Let me get my husband, cause he's also a registered Democrat.' And, [the voter] said to the volunteer, which was my wife that day, 'At least I know I'm not being robbed.' Here I am in my suit, at the end of my work day. It was very painful hearing that."

So far, Beckford has already affected change in Pittsford by having the public comments at board meetings recorded, giving voice to residents. He also wants board meetings live-streamed.

"Sometimes, how you drive change in the world is very simple," he said.

Beckford is also hoping to improve diversity within the town's workforce, and to improve socio-economic housing in Pittsford.

“We are building these neighborhoods that only appeal to folks who have that income level, but indirectly are getting less diversity,” Beckford said. “You want to have homes that you can have a CEO living next to a restaurant owner. Forty-percent, I would suggest, could be starter homes for seniors and young families. The next 40 percent the next size up for the supersize or larger homes.”

Beckford was sworn in Tuesday as a Pittsford town board member along with Democrat Stephanie Townsend.

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