Akron, Ohio — ``When your daughter goes through the same school system you did, you kind of want to get involved in your community, to have some input into how decisions are made,'' Vernon Sykes observes, adding a little milk to the Cream of Rice on the stove top and stirring. ``For us the way to do that has been politics.'' At one end of a dining room table that is used for campaign meetings, Barbara Sykes bounces nine-month-old Emilia, their younger daughter, in her lap. ``If there were never any blacks or women representing the mass of opinions, things would never improve,'' she says with feeling. Barbara is the only woman and one of two blacks on the 13-member Akron City Council. She recently ran for, and won, a spot as councilmember-at-large - representing the whole city, and not just one ward. Vernon represents Ohio's 42nd district in the state legislature.
Outspoken, self-reliant, and capable of seemingly endless hard work, both Barbara and Vernon grew up in families that struggled with pride and determination simply to make ends meet. Both are deeply committed to personal achievement while making a stable home life for themselves and their daughters, Stancy and Emilia.
``My parents' divorce was a terrible, tragic kind of thing,'' Vernon recalls as he carries the cooled cereal into the dining room, takes Emilia in his lap, and offers her a spoonful. ``My grandfather always thought you needed to control a woman, and my father tried to act like that. It didn't work.''
His marriage with Barbara is a partnership, a precarious balance between the opposing demands of their work and family life. When Vernon is home they share the family responsibilities: He cooks, buys groceries, and drives Stancy to school, and Barbara washes clothes, cleans, and cares for Emilia, who is breast-fed. ``He was the oldest child in his family, so he's had a lot of responsibility,'' Barbara says. ``He knows how to do a lot of things.''
Barbara has worked continually since she graduated from high school, and when Vernon first ran for office her income was the family's sole support. She was his first campaign manager, and they still help each other campaign.
Together they remodeled the Tudor-style house they bought in 1980, replacing all the interior walls and ceilings and sanding the floors. They make decisions together about Stancy's schooling.
At times, however, Vernon's ambition and commitments strain the alliance of their marriage. For the six months that the General Assembly is in session, he spends Tuesday through Thursdays in Columbus, driving home Thursday night to teach an economics class Friday morning at the University of Akron. Barbara is left to juggle family responsibilities with her political duties.
Last year Vernon commuted four days a week to Massachusetts, where he earned a master's degree in public administration from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
His absence was difficult for Barbara and Stancy, Vernon acknowledges, looking both contrite and determined. ``Harvard is the most prestigious,'' he says simply. ``My district is 65 percent white. Most voters see color first; some never see anything else.''
Barbara sighs, ``I wouldn't tell him not to do that because I wouldn't want him to tell me not to do something.'' But she has not always felt so understanding.
Last year, while Vernon was studying in Boston, she heard what sounded like Stancy taking a long shower. ``I walked out in the hall and water was pouring down where a pipe had broken. It was December. I was eight months pregnant. I called up Vernon and told him everything I could think of ... he was up there competing with the best, and look at me.'' Her anger ignites like a yellow flame, bright but not smoldering. ``It's not the first time we've discussed it,'' she adds with a laugh.
Barbara depends heavily on her sister Ressie to babysit while she attends council committee meetings, which she tries to schedule during Emilia's afternoon nap. This year, Vernon keeps Emilia during the day on Monday.
``I always want to keep a job so I don't feel like I have to depend on my husband, in case something happened to him, and it did, because when he was first running for office we had to live on my salary, and that was OK,'' Barbara says. ``That's what I want for Stancy and Emilia, that they know how to take care of themselves.''
On the hardwood floor between the dining room and the living room, Emilia rises to her feet, and with sudden determination heads for the hall door.
``She's been walking now for about three days,'' Vernon says admiringly. ``Emilia, wait. Wait.'' The baby's short braids, bound with red and blue and green rubber bands, bob with her jolting steps.
Thirteen-year-old Stancy, fashionable in straight-leg jeans, a pink sweater, and silent suede sneakers, appears in the hallway and swoops her little sister up in her arms. As Emilia reaches for her glasses with sticky fingers, Stancy shyly explains that she goes to Riedinger Middle School and likes to read Judy Blume.
``I kind of made up the name Stancy,'' Barbara admits with a grin. ``They both have the middle name Strong, my family name. Stancy Strong Sykes, Emilia Strong Sykes. As long as they have the name, they'll remember that we're two families together.''
Both families taught self-reliance at an early age. Vernon was 10 years old when his mother moved him and his four younger sisters from rural Arkansas to a ghetto in inner Akron. ``I recall the factory smell, the asphalt playgrounds, the buildings dingy, even the school buildings were dingy brick, the street gangs, and nobody knew you. We had to go on public assistance, which was demeaning for a lot of reasons,'' he says. He didn't see his father again for 15 years.
His mother got a job as a neighborhood aide under the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act and went on to become the first female and first black supervisor of the Akron metropolitan transportation system. Vernon attended Ohio University on a scholarship from Eastern Ohio Gas.
Barbara remembers that her parents, Arkansas farmers with a small piece of land, didn't have time to explain things to their eight kids. ``I tried to stay out of problems and things because if we did something wrong we got whupped. But there wasn't much time for talking. When I asked a question I got an answer like, `What d'you want to know that for?'''
At age 20, Barbara came to Akron, where her sister lived. She was a single parent; Stancy was two years old. At a vocational training school she met Vernon, who was an instructor, and five months later they were married.
Both were the first members of their families to go to college. Vernon earned a master's degree in economics from Wright State University in Dayton at night, after working full time in Akron during the day. Barbara worked to put herself through the University of Akron, from which she holds an associate degree in social work. She is still a few hours short of a bachelor's degree.
``I majored in social work because I didn't feel like my parents talked to me enough,'' she says. ``I learned a lot of things about poverty that explain why things are the way they are, that parents don't explain.'' She continues, ``I want to finish my degree for Stancy and Emilia, just to set an example for them.''
Their experiences have given the Sykes a sensitivity toward the rights of women, children, blacks, and the poor, who have historically had little power in government. Vernon has introduced five bills in the Ohio General Assembly strengthening laws against child abuse, as well as sponsoring legislation to compensate people who have been wrongfully imprisoned. These bills have all been signed into law. Barbara recently persuaded the city council to decrease fines for those who are late paying their water bills because of poverty.
``I feel a special responsibility to those who have not normally had the ear of government, who don't know how to work within the system,'' she says.
Of their household, she concludes, ``I think we have very good communication. That's probably what's kept us going. We have a lot of respect for each other. We love each other. Sometimes with the kind of life we live we have a hard time keeping everything together.''