Chris Praedel was born and raised in Kalamazoo and became one of the newest Kalamazoo city commissioners in November. At 34 years old, he is also the youngest commissioner.
“Because of the people who came off and because of me coming on the City Commission, its average age went down almost a whole quarter of a century in one election,” Praedel says.
When Praedel’s not downtown, he’s at Western Michigan University, serving as the director of events, or at home with his family. During his campaign for the commission seat, his wife, Erin, and their two young boys were integral in door knocking and connecting with the community.
“I love the idea of my boys growing up seeing their dad doing something good for the world,” Praedel says. “You know, it’s kind of like teaching through doing. It’s really easy to just look at your kids and tell them, ‘Be good people, and do good things for the world.’ But I think in most instances, the greatest teachers teach us things by doing.”
What’s kept you in Kalamazoo?
Since I was a young kid, I’ve always just been drawn to this place. It’s a special place. You know, we definitely have our challenges, but it’s a community that’s always trying to do and make better.
I think it’s a place where people can make their own thing if they don’t see something that they can be a part of or fit into. It’s a community that seems abundantly open to creating something yourself. It’s also a community where, if you want to advocate for something, if you want to have your voice heard, then you know that there are those venues to do it.
I knew from a young age that I wanted to spend the rest of my life here. I was in a program called Teach for America and did my student teaching in Los Angeles and taught my own third-grade classroom for two years in South Chicago. Don’t get me wrong, Chicago is an awesome, cool city, but it just made me want to come back home even more.
Getting that out-of-Kalamazoo experience resolidified for me that this is home for me and this is where I always want to be home.
How does your deep knowledge of Kalamazoo benefit you in your position as a commissioner?
I think that there’s something special and, in some ways, more challenging when you grew up here, because everything that I do, everything I vote on, I’m being watched by the people who helped get me to this point.
When we had a really heavy issue come up recently, my mom was texting me, lobbying me. If I had moved off to a different community and sought elected office, I’m not saying I wouldn’t give it the same passion, but I know that (for) every decision I make (here) I have to think about the people who helped raise me and the people who helped teach me. And I want to make them proud too.
It changes the way that you think about things. I’ve got two young kids at home. I attended every single City Commission meeting in 2019, from start to finish. So, even before the campaign, if it (the meeting) started at 7 p.m. and ended at 1 a.m., I was there. They had some difficult votes, and I would sit in the audience and think, “How would I vote on that tough issue? What will be my North Star to decide whether I’m making the right decision?” I just kind of had an epiphany one day: When I’m walking out of the house and saying goodbye to my kids for the day, I’m going to look down at them and think about what’s best for them and their future. That’s going to be my guiding principle to decide if I’m making the right choice or not.
How do you split your time between Western, your family and the city?
The best way I can explain it is I’ve learned to do a good job of compartmentalizing those different portions of my life. Tonight is boys’ night. My wife works late, and the second I get home my phone’s gonna go on the counter. I’m going to detach from work, detach from City Commission, and my boys are going to get my unfettered 100 percent attention. Likewise, after the kids are in bed, then I go into full-fledged City Commission mode, responding to emails and reading my packet; I want to be 100 percent focused on that. It is really hard to juggle it all, but I love each thing very independently, so it works.
Why was it important for you to be a young voice on the commission?
I’m 34 years old, and I’m the youngest person on this commission, and I don’t feel that young anymore. But I’m still the youngest person, and the largest demographic in our community are people 18 to 30. It’s so important that there’s young voices at the table. But even more importantly, I felt that it was important that our young parents have a voice at the table. There’s a lot of families in our community who are juggling a lot more than I am — multiple jobs, being a single parent, struggling to pay their bills. For there to be a person at the table who is struggling to balance all that stuff who is thinking about them … I think it’s important.
— Interviewed by Zoe Jackson and edited for length and clarity.