On Jan. 1 of this year, Frank McGehee and Dean Dafis were sworn in as Mayor and Deputy Mayor of Maplewood, New Jersey, replacing former Mayor Vic DeLuca, who was in the role for 14 years. Dafis is the town’s first openly gay elected official.
Dafis is first-generation Greek-American and grew up in the heart of Philadelphia in a working-class family. He has a background in law, spent time working on Wall Street and was very active in New York City communities. He currently does advocacy and policy work. McGehee hails from Chicago, Illinois, holds an MBA and has a background in analytical marketing, specifically managing logistics for million-dollar marketing budgets. He works for the music streaming platform TIDAL.
When Dafis served as a township committee member, he wanted to do something visible and meaningful in the spirit of inclusivity. In 2018, he had rainbow-colored crosswalks installed at a four-way intersection of major roads in front of the Maplewood Town Hall.
“The idea was that this is about equality for all; it wasn’t just for LGBTQ [people],” Dafis said. Since the installment of these crosswalks, Dafis heard from community-members that this symbol of inclusion has led to positive changes.
“I’ve had parents come to me discreetly and say, ‘When you put that thing up, it really meant a lot to my daughter, who is suffering with her identity. She’s transgender, and she’s having issues with it. At school they’re not always so nice to her. Now she goes over there, and she feels like she belongs,’” Dafis said. “She can actually cross over her doubt.”
Some of the significant issues that Dafis and McGehee plan to tackle in the town of Maplewood include housing affordability, instances of police brutality, integrating schools that have disparities in funding and demographic attendance and facilitating the ongoing conversation on diversity and inclusion in the community.
“I ran on a platform of greater equity, and I really believe that,” Dafis said. “I do believe that we have yet to really be who we claim we are in that we are a town for everyone. Maplewood has had some issues with policing, and we’ve had issues of Black people moving out, and we know that there are some Black people not moving in.”
McGehee also emphasized the importance of diversity and inclusivity for the town of Maplewood.
“As the town continues to grow and change, making sure that the residents that move here with the ideation that we are a welcoming and inclusive community,” he said. “You have to step out of your comfort zone. Take the time at the train platform and talk to another person who may not look like you or talk like you or act like you, and get to learn and establish relationships.”
While Maplewood is rife with people of diverse backgrounds and points of view, there is still work to be done to make the town more inclusive in terms of everything from board memberships to zoning and development, Dafis pointed out.
He highlighted the South Orange/Maplewood Community Coalition on Race, whose mission is “to build and sustain a community that is racially, socially and culturally integrated and truly inclusive where there is equity and equality for all.” Dafis served as a trustee to the organization and has stayed engaged in their initiatives.
“Not many towns are doing this, we’re doing that, and we get a lot of blowback for it,” Dafis said. “It’s emotionally exhausting talking about defeat, and all the -isms and hardship, and lack of mobility. But if you don’t confront it and own it and have conversations with people about it, how are we going to get over it?”
The fact that Dafis is Maplewood’s first openly LGBTQ elected official is a step in the right direction in terms of fighting for and celebrating inclusivity in the town, McGehee said.
“It means that we’re not just talking, but we’re actually walking — that we are actually embracing and expressing the values that we talk about,” McGehee said. “We talk about being a welcoming, inclusive community, but now it’s proven in leadership. Dean is a good friend of mine, and I’m just so proud of him for being who he is, and being who he is while he’s serving others.”