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Pontiac Proud: Khalfani Stephens—Deputy Mayor of Pontiac

“I am a true liberal arts student; I haven’t met a subject, a person, or a new thing that I don’t want to learn more about.”

Khalfani Stephens photoMany people who decide to pursue politics or civil service prepare themselves by training in political science or the law. But Pontiac’s Deputy Mayor Khalfani Stephens? He studied Medieval History and Linguistics. “I knew that I wanted to go to a liberal arts college and there were a couple of different tracks that I assumed I would take: History, Fine and Performing arts, and Poli-Sci. So when I went to the University of Michigan, I took all the introductory level courses in those subjects, one of which was in medieval studies. At the end of that course, the professor pulled me aside and told me that he was offering a graduate-level course the following year and he’d thought I’d be great for it. And I was like, ‘you know I’m going to be a junior, right?’ and he said he’d thought I’d do well. So I took it, and I rocked it, and then kept taking more classes in that era of history.”

As a child, Mr. Stephens was exposed to a wide array of topics and subjects by his parents. “That liberal arts approach, it’s just how I was raised. I was a bookworm! I spent a lot of time at the Pontiac and Detroit public libraries or exploring the Detroit Institute of Arts. I was interested in all of it. I even loved math and science, but I knew I didn’t want to be a doctor, I just loved learning about it.” 

Mr. Stephens attended Pontiac Public Schools for his entire K-12 education, graduating from Pontiac Central High in 1995. “The English program there was truly foundational for me—it prepared me at such a level that I was able to take that graduate course as an undergrad—and my history teachers taught me how to synthesize ideas, while the math and science classes helped me hone my comparative analysis skills.” After graduating, he went to the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, on a full academic scholarship, where he complemented his double majors in Medieval History and Linguistics with a minor in French. “I studied abroad in France, and eventually taught English there, and I thought that I would be a History or French professor, but instead I decided to return to Michigan and I got my MBA at Wayne State University.”

He first did some work in the automotive industry, but that didn’t speak to him, so he decided to pivot to working in the government and fell in love with it. “I started at the City of Pontiac, then moved to the State of Michigan, and then had an amazing opportunity to start an economic development agency in metropolitan Atlanta, so I went down and created that. After a few years, a friend in Michigan told me about an opportunity to help manage a Kellogg grant in the City of Flint, so I returned to Michigan and did that. The original grant was for four years and I actually managed it so well that they gave us a fifth year, so I left them in a really great position when I was tapped by Greimel’s team to consider being deputy mayor, and that’s how I got here.”

Growing up in Pontiac has shaped Mr. Stephens and how he approaches his place in the world. “For all of the bad that anyone might say about Pontiac, I had a college professor who summed it up beautifully for me. He said, ‘you know, I have all of these kids who came from extremely privileged backgrounds, and if I don’t tell them everything they can’t competently finish the assignment. You came from a situation where all you had was exposure and you  learned how to dive deep and find the things that you need to  finish the assignment.’ I had never really thought about how Pontiac shaped me like that before then. But it’s a core part of who I am.”

And his studies in medieval history and linguistics? He uses those skills every day. “With history, it’s about root causes, trying to understand the what, why, and how something happened, and that’s essential in public service, too. You need to be able to look at these issues deeply and understand all of the facets in order to understand how you might be able to enact effective change. And linguistics is just, like, the key to everything; I don’t think I truly understood English until I started studying Latin, and it enabled me to understand all kinds of people at a different level and to meet them where they are.”

As far as advice for Pontiac’s current students, Mr. Stephens recalls some wisdom that he learned in his own youth. “What is it that the old folks used to say? ‘Just keep living.’ And it’s so true. Stay open to new ideas, stay open to the world. Your first assumptions might not be true. So, just keep living, and learning.”