Charles Rousseau really never had a choice. Born to a preacher father and a teacher mother, and with grandparents who raised foster children, serving people is in his DNA.
“I fondly and sparingly remember people in our house that we didn’t know, but my parents took them in as people who were in need,” he said. “We always had that sense that people in need were part of our greater extended family.”
From a start in a summer youth employment program in his hometown of Washington D.C. to working for a city council member in Los Angeles to his current role as a member of the Fayette County Board of Commissioner and stops in between, it was always bound to be about service.
Rousseau, his wife, and their children made their way to Fayette in 1993.
“We chose Fayette because of its proximity to the airport and South Fulton where I worked at the time, and as we were starting our young family (that would grow to three kids), we saw that we made a good choice because of the school system.”
Having worked in government for many years and being invested in the community with his family, Rousseau felt the time was ripe to run for office. He ran for county commission unsuccessfully in 1996, and he was successful when he ran again in 2015.
He decided to get in, and stay in local politics with the support of his wife of 34 years, Cheryl.
“She’s not behind the scenes, she’s right there beside me helping me do this thing,” he beamed. “Without your spouse helping you, the time commitment it takes to do this right and sacrifices that have to be made in terms of time, you don’t do it very well if you don’t have that kind of support.”
Their dedication to Fayette made it all the more surprising when, upon his election, some residents thought he was too fresh to know what the county needed.
“When I got elected, I was shocked to hear people say ‘this neophyte, this newcomer’ and I’d been here 20 years already,” he said.
Rousseau knows it’s easy for people to forget that the commissioners are residents, too. Each vote they cast also affects them and their families personally.
“It will impact us because we live here, too. I have chosen to live here, to educate my children here, to entertain myself here, and give my dollars back to the local community,” he said. “I’m vested. (The commissioners) all are to large degrees.”
To talk to residents, a hallmark of Rousseau is his ability to listen and not come into a debate with his mind already closed.
“I think it’s a requirement not to go into deliberations where that is supposed to happen and be very close minded. I have an obligation to hear from both parties,” he said. “I think there’s a reason God gave us the ratio of two ears to one mouth, and it’s because we’re supposed to use them. If we’re thoughtful in our deliberations and considerations, then listening is a key ingredient.”
A true public servant has to put those they serve ahead of self, and it’s easy to lose sight of that in today’s political climate.
“Too many of us in the news for the wrong reasons certainly jades peoples’ view of us, and they don’t see this as a nobel calling anymore. They see it as self aggrandizement and pontificating and being a center of attention,” he said. “The people have entrusted you with their vote. That vote is a vote of confidence saying, ‘I believe you can do the job, and I believe you’re going to do the job, and you’re going to do it right.’”
Rousseau was recently sworn in again, having won reelection for District 4, facing no opposition in both the Democratic primary and the general election. It is an honor he does not take lightly.
“It is a humbling honor and experience for people to endorse you. The first time you win, you feel the proverbial weight of the community on your shoulders that you live up to those expectations and live up to them well, then having been re-elected with no particular opposition certainly speaks volumes as well,” he said. “That’s a tremendous weight that you carry to conduct yourself in a matter that’s befitting the office. There’s a reason they call us honorable, and we have to live up to that.”
His passion burns as brightly as ever to serve his community and repay that trust.
“There’s a reason they call us public servants,” he said. “I’m hesitant to respond as a politician. We’re policy makers, and we provide services.”
Fayette County is at a pivotal point in its history, at a crucial juncture for both its people and its future. Rousseau singles out the biggest challenges facing Fayette in years ahead as recreation, senior services, economic development, and planned growth.
He believes a key point of emphasis should be on prevention, spending more now to save later, be it in proactive court programs, recreation, or other opportunities.
“I would really like to see us place an emphasis on the preventative side of things,” he said. “We need to better reallocate our resources to meet those essential baseline needs of our community from cradle to grave.”
He’s appreciative of efforts like the DUI Court and other programs that prevent an offender from falling deeper into a cycle of crime, and he also sees an investment in recreation as a means to keep youth from ever entering the court system.
“I think we’ve missed some golden opportunities that I’d like to see us change. I think our concern is more after we build something like that for the operating costs, but we spend it in the courts instead.”
Athletics offer structure and life lessons and a positive alternative.
“Athletes can get caught up, but there are thousands upon thousands who avoid it because of their respect for their bodies,” he said. “It doesn’t fit with an athlete’s calling.”
His formative years as an all-around athlete have informed his belief in recreation as a tool to build a healthy and productive community.
“It’s a powerful medium, not just for high competition, but for what our recreation departments around the county can do,” he said. “They bring people together. Whatever age group they’re in, that’s my teammate.”
It’s why one of his biggest goals for Fayette is building a recreation center. He saw the impact one could have when he ran the largest recreation department in the state for Fulton County.
“I think that’s a dereliction of duty. We talk about ‘what is the cost?,’ which is greater when we don’t prevent,” he said. “We can build jails, or we can build ball fields and recreation centers.”
He sees it as an investment that pays back into the community, both in team sports for the youth and in healthy opportunities for adults and the aging population. Teaching baseline skills and offering different sports can also help a young athlete carve a path towards a college scholarship and a better education.
“We talk about our health all the time in various ways, be it physical, mental, or quality of life. All are vital components of a healthy community,” he said. “I see great value in that.”
Among the key tasks with preserving and expanding vital resources for the aging community, like Fayette Senior Services.
“The Atlanta Regional Commission says were are an aging-in-place county, and, if that’s true, we need to be out in front of it,” he said.
“I think it’s a combination. We don’t want to recognize it, and we don’t know the severity of it. Obviously it’s not a huge number, but nonetheless it’s a number and it needs our attention, especially if we call ourselves servants. We must try to meet the needs of all populations in our county.”
At a crossroads of preserving the history of the county while embracing the future, Rousseau believes the path forward is for the county to eschew controversial politics and instead focus on what they’ve been elected to do.
“We can do that if we keep politics out of it. The moment we operate from a political posture, we’re already at a disadvantage,” he said. “We need to forget the national debate about walls and all that other kind of stuff that’s going on because it doesn’t correlate to the local level.
“It’s not about political philosophy, it’s about being of service in your community.”
The key is understanding that change will happen. You can’t slam the brakes on progress without the county withering away.
“Change is inevitable, and you can tell by my gray hairs it’s going to happen,” he joked, noting that the county has been successful to a degree, including keeping the southern area of the county as rural as possible. “You have to steer it.”
He thinks an added emphasis on the arts in schools could be a powerful tool in securing the county’s future.
“We have an opportunity here to use the arts for economic development, and I don’t think we capitalize on that enough.”
The bottom line is being proactive, not reactive.
“We’ve got to develop a blueprint, not a better one, just a blueprint,” he said. “We have to decide what is our vision for the future. We can’t always say no to everything, we have to know what are we saying yes to. That’s a challenging question for all of us.”
It’s no small task, but it can be done with cooperation, not just among the county commissioners, but by working with surrounding municipalities.
“We can do it if we’re collectively committed to being partners in this and working to keep the quality of life in those communities as wholesome as we can without violating somebody’s property rights. Instead of us having some acrimonious fight, let’s start to do some planned growth.”
A prime example of where the entities need to work together is the Pavilion shopping center. Even though it is within the city of Fayetteville, its future impacts every resident in Fayette.
“We all are impacted by the advent of online shopping and big box stores going away,” he said. “We need to be forward thinking on how to repurpose a facility of that magnitude, otherwise it’s just sitting in the middle of our community.”
Securing Fayette’s future is a daunting challenge, but a thrilling one.
“We’ve got some work ahead of us, but it’s good work, it really is. It’s a calling, and it’s why I sit here and my four colleagues sit here, along with our countless municipal partners.”
As the future looms along the horizon, it’s appropriate to take a look back to get perspective. Black History Month is important to Charles Rousseau because it is important to America. It’s why you see him taking part in parades and educational programs. He’s echoing the history passed down through generations, and he’s pointing the lead to younger generations to learn what brought us to today.
He shares a poignant quote from Marcus Garvey that says, “A people without the knowledge of their past history, origin, and culture is like a tree without roots.”
“It is critically important that we let each generation know the importance, the legacy, the contribution the world over, not just here in the Americas, that our people made,” said Rousseau. “It’s on us, and it’s incumbent on us to keep that going.”
For Rousseau, it starts with the basics of civics for young citizens.
“One of the things our young people need to understand is that this thing we call government impacts every single dimension of their lives,” he said, pointing out it dictates how they get to school, the building of a school house, the salary of a teacher, and so much more. “We need to do a better job of explaining that to them and getting them engaged sooner.”
Perceived dirty politics across all levels of government can leave the youth jaded, but that perception can be reversed.
“We need to do a better job of letting them know this is a noble calling, that we have the power to impact the lives of people,” he said. “How I impact my community should be the calling card.”
It all comes back to service. He has a passion for it, and he wants to pass that down for generations. It’s all about building a better Fayette County now and for the future.
“I continue to be excited about the prospect of serving this community.”