DeKalb County School System Superintendent Michael Thurmond challenged Newton County’s leaders Friday to expand their comfort zones across racial, economic and geographical barriers and to listen and concern themselves with the welfare of all their constituents. He asked leaders to join him in his "bold, new vision" for a Georgia that isn’t separated by race, location, style of living or even political party, but is instead unified.
Thurmond, the state’s former labor commissioner and a former state representative, spoke to several dozen area leaders at the annual Legislative Prayer Breakfast, an event designed to bring the Newton County community together in prayer. It was held at First Baptist Church and was sponsored by the Covington Kiwanis and Rotary clubs.
The annual event started as an offshoot of a weekly men’s prayer group started by local superior court judges and other community leaders. Thurmond is a colleague of Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson from their days together at the University of Georgia’s law school.
Thurmond said thos e attending were there to celebrate the power of leadership, but more importantly to recognize that all things are possible through prayer, including the uniting of people at the local, state and federal levels.
"I think public service is the most noble of all professions, because as a public servant you don’t get to choose the people you serve," Thurmond said. "One you accept the mantle of leadership, you must serve all the people in your district or county."
True leaders must serve those who voted for them and those who did not, and that’s why listening is the most important trait for a great political leader, beyond being articulate or courageous, Thurmond said.
"You can’t hear the word of God unless you listen," Thurmond said. "So, listen to the voices in this county, not just those of people who have power, privilege and opportunity, but to those who don’t."
Despite all the positions he’s held, Thurmond said none has been more important than his current role of school superintendent, a position he called a "pure" ambition.
"When I walk into a kindergarten class, I can’t tell which one of those 5-year-olds is a Republican," he said. "And one thing you come to understand is it doesn’t even matter.
"(Children) represent 25 percent of the population, but 100 percent of our future."
Thurmond talked about developing an enlightened self-interest through prayer, through which parents can focus on their children’s education, but also on the education of other children in their neighborhoods, schools and on the other side of town and in different cultures.
For business owners, unemployed or unemployable residents are less-frequent consumers and less-profitable employees, he said.
"If I have to go to a hospital tonight … I pray the nurse that comes to my room has the ability to read and write," Thurmond said.
He said about 10 percent of the leaders in any given community were actually born and raised in that community, meaning that many of the children a community educates will end up as the cream of the crop in another community, and vice versa.
Thurmond said one of the most important roles of a successful leader is stepping outside of his or her comfort zone to communicate with all constituents and learning to work with leaders from different parts of the state or country who have different cultures.
Thurmond told of his efforts to become the first elected African-American state representative from Athens-Clark County in more than 120 years. The first two times he ran, he lost, barely. It wasn’t until the third time that he finally began asking white voters for their votes, too, and he won.
"My dreams are more powerful than my fears, and my desire to serve the public is more powerful than my fears," he said.
Thurmond said his "bold, new vision" was to have a united Georgia and a united country moving forward together.
"That is my hope and my vision; let it be out common prayer," Thurmond said.