Small business ownership. Student discipline. Peace officers. These are a few of the issues that Colorado Representative James Coleman advocated for in his freshman year at the state legislature. James is a longtime purpose-driven advocate who is “a voice for the community, a voice for people for people that don't always feel like they're being heard.” When he’s not at the Capitol, he is a husband, dad to twins, and Vice President for Community Engagement at ACE Scholarships. He says that he drives change by listening to his community: “If you want to be in a position to make a difference and make an impact, how can you make a difference by assuming you know what someone else needs? You can only know that if you ask them.”
Where do you get your inspiration?
I am a man of faith, first and foremost. I got my ministers’ license when I was thirteen. I was raised in a church. So, from a faith-based perspective, I look at how people should be treated. What I'm going to do is treat people as I would want to be treated. A lot of it has to do with my upbringing, but a lot of it also has to do with the experiences I've had, where I just didn't feel like I was being heard.
The reality of it is I've been very blessed growing up here in Denver, in Colorado. There are places in this country where if you're a black man, you're treated differently. There's this idea there's a conspiracy that black people are treated differently because of skin color, and well, you know in many cases there's empirical evidence to show that. And for me, I know what that feels like in some cases. Because of those experiences, I ask myself, how many other people are treated this way or feel like they're treated this way because of their ethnicity, because of their sexual orientation, because of their religion, because of whatever it may be; and at the end of the day, being in a position like this allows me to be able to speak on behalf of all those folks.
You mentioned also that your mindset was formed by your upbringing. Is there a particular person or experience that stands out in your mind when you think about that?
My mother, first and foremost.
It is interesting, I have to make a disclaimer, please put this on the record: I do have a father. My father and I reconnected when I was eleven years old. He was there when I was born, and my mother and I moved away when I was eight months old from Colorado to Nevada. I came here back in fourth grade to live with my grandparents, who have been here for over fifty years. And my grandfather was in the Air Force, which is how our family came to Colorado. But I permanently came back to Colorado when I was eleven, and that's when I reconnected with [my father], and he's taken me under his wing.
So that being said, my mother has been here the whole time, and I think the intelligence that she has, I think any complaints that I could ever make about how difficult life is, when she's a double minority and gone through so much, make my complaints seem minor. She's a woman, and she's a black woman in America. Things were very challenging and difficult for her. And everybody has challenges, but I think the morals, the values, the integrity, the tenacity to be really aggressive and assertive and respectful of other people at the same time. She taught me that if you want to be equal you had to be twice as good. So I think you push yourself beyond what a lot of people do in order to be perceived as effective in this country.
She's someone who, more so than anyone, lives on very faith-based principles. And she's real. You can talk to her, you can reach out and shake her hand. She's not some spiritual, religious person that’s holier-than-thou. She's very much a genuine person, and her authenticity is something that I really appreciate about her.
I noticed that your legislation has a particular focus on police officers and wondered what drives your interest in working on that issue?
When we knocked on doors in our community, public safety was one of the top three issues. It’s mostly driven around the distrust between the police department and our community. It's not as bad in our community as it has been in other places across the country, yet we are all impacted. We all wonder, is our police department capable of doing the things we've seen? That would break the trust we have with them? How do we prevent that from happening?
I went to the community and I said: "Look we need to make sure that, not only do we hold our police officers accountable, but we have to provide them with the resources in which we need them to be effective." And part of the way we do that is by making sure that we understand that they have traumatic experiences and that they need counseling for that. If you're a police officer, what're you talking about when you go home? You go home and you're talking about somebody you found dead in an alley or you found a baby that was left by their parents. Some really traumatic experiences. Then we ask them to just deal with it and move forward? So I want to make sure they have the support they need.
The second piece is to alleviate the actions that are happening in some crime scenes, which may be a little volatile and more volatile than others, by having mental health experts go along with police officers to help de-escalate at the scene of the crime. [Read more about HB17-1215 Mental Health Support for Peace Officers.]
And I was proud to support police officers, especially as a black man. There's a lot of folks who didn't think that a black man would introduce a piece of legislation to support law enforcement officers across the state given what's been going on across this country between the relationship with African-American folks and police officers. But I think it aligns with my values and at the end of the day, that's why I've been blessed to be in a position of leadership because of that mentality.
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