Brandon Dean made history this past August when the small town of Brighton, Alabama, voted the 24-year-old into the mayor's office, making him the youngest mayor in the city's history and the second youngest in the state.
The rural city is a short drive outside of Birmingham and faces a variety of issues that can be seen throughout central Alabama. Blight and poverty have overrun the once-thriving city, and a third of its 2,945 residents live below the poverty line. The city's government struggles to pay employees and fund both the police and fire departments.
The city's financial deficits were one of the first things Dean discovered his first week in office on Nov. 8. "I had to call an emergency meeting to cover payroll for the month of December because we don't have any money," he said.
Dean, a fifth-generation Brightonian, was familiar with his hometown's problems. But it was the call from his grandmother Juanita two years ago that shook him.
"My grandmother called me and she was very devastated by a shooting in the community. People were riding in the community and aimlessly firing heavy artillery and it was frightening to her," said Dean. "I could sense the panic in her voice and how traumatic the event had been for her."
Shootings and gun violence have become frequent in Brighton. Just this August, a shooting during the "Love Thy Neighbor Day" celebration killed one Brighton resident and injured six others, including a toddler.
The conversation with his grandmother was the pivotal moment that Dean began to carefully consider mounting a movement of change.
"I knew if I was to involve myself in something like this, it's going to be the most selfless and exhausting thing I probably would have ever done in my life. I knew that I couldn't sleep. I knew that I couldn't take a break," Dean said.
He also knew that he wouldn't be able to do it without the support of his community. He started first by hosting town halls to give residents a place to voice concerns and gauge citizen involvement.
"I had seen them growing up but I had never had an involved, intimate relationship with them and it was surprising that they were showing up."
Despite this budding support, Dean knew he faced an uphill battle. The race for Brighton's mayorship was a five-way contest and his ambitions were immediately called out as premature by folks who had known Dean his whole life.
"The most prejudice I experienced in my life even as a Black man was because of my age in this race," Dean said.
Despite his lack of experience holding office compared to his opponents — including the 74-year-old incumbent Brighton Mayor Barbara Watkins — Brandon counted on his service in college, knowledge gained from interning for two terms in the office of Alabama Congresswoman Terri Sewell and a network of political mentors to guide him.
"I spent a lot of time in school helping other people, helping people stay in school, helping people figure out creative ways to pay for their education and better understanding the processes for qualifying for federal assistance," he said.
The young mayor graduated from Howard University in 2014, where he spent his time serving in several capacities — from class president to financial aid adviser to student elections commissioner.
The experience as a student leader may not be a primer for public service, but Dean understands the unpredictability of the real world and politics.
"You're never really prepared for a job, because you've never done it before so you don't know everything you have to do. But having the empathy and humility of knowing you don't know everything and knowing that you can learn so much from others and their experiences and being willing to do that is extraordinary," he explained.
Dean is serious about learning from others. His mayoral transition team includes former D.C. Mayor Sharon Pratt Kelly, political operative Richard Dickerson, who worked in a similar capacity for past Virginia Gov. Doug Wilder, and Alabama native and former Harvard Dean Brenda Dickerson. He also calls current D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser a mentor.
Looking to these seasoned politicians, Dean ran on a progressive platform to tackle the multitude of issues Brighton faces including gun control, marijuana decriminalization and education where he hopes to "work closely with our county school system to introduce cradle to college curriculum."
With such a progressive agenda he faces another political fight against the Republican trifecta in Alabama with GOP majorities at the state level.
"I'm in one of the most conservative states in the country. The Democratic Party in my state is probably one of the most dysfunctional," Dean said. "So that's not going to be a resource for me in the policy that I want to develop but that doesn't make it any less important to me to have that progressive agenda."
Dean cites criminal justice reform as one of the hallmarks of his agenda and he hopes to craft policy that recognizes the disparities among people of color and other groups. "Recidivism is a huge problem in our county and in our city where you have largely young African-American people committing petty crimes and the way the system works they are introduced to criminal justice in a way that's not justice, it becomes a lifestyle."
The disparities in the justice system have been on the forefront of the social agenda this year with the help of movements like Black Lives Matter. In July, former President Bill Clinton apologized at the NAACP's annual convention for the 1994 omnibus crime bill that he said "made the problem worse." President Obama also made significant efforts to right criminal injustices, this year alone granting clemency to 590 inmates serving extended sentences for nonviolent drug offenses.
Brighton's new mayor has his own policy ideas to cut the pipeline to prison by decriminalizing recreational use and possession of marijuana.
He has had his own legal hang-ups during the election. In August, the secretary of state's office began a voter fraud probe into the Brighton mayoral race after two candidates filed civil election contests citing absentee ballots applications listing the same address, Dean's home.
"It's alarming to have your first experience with running for public office tainted by such a serious allegation," said Dean, refuting the allegations. "I'm relieved that the complaint, which initiated the investigation into potential fraud, was dismissed. There was no fraud. But there was a great deal of miseducation on the part of our opponents about what options existed to ensure that every eligible citizen had the opportunity to vote."
Excited about starting with a fresh slate, Dean hopes to build a new brand for the city of Brighton that will attract investment in the future.
"My greatest fear was that I would be limited and that people would exercise a great deal of resistance because they didn't understand or were not familiar with what I was trying to accomplish. But that has not been my experience and that has been reassuring."