CANTON, Ohio — K. Akbar Bennett has scaled a metaphorical ladder for 50 years.
“I’m the youngest of 12 kids. Six boys and six girls raised by an amazing mom. We grew up very poor. I grew up in the projects in Ohio. I always tell people, growing up I didn't see fire trucks in my neighborhood,” Bennett said. “There were no firefighters in my neighborhood. The first African-American firefighter actually came about in 1982.”
The Canton native has many titles, including son, brother, father, and grandfather.
“My mom would always say, ‘Baby there isn’t anybody better than you.’ That's how I live my life,” Bennett said. “I started appreciating the opportunities to serve and opportunities to make a difference. I've been up and running with it ever since.”
Chief of the Canton Fire Department is the newest title on Bennett’s list of accolades, making him the first black fire chief in the city’s history.
“When I got on, there were no officers. There were no African-American officers. I have failed many times, but I always tell people you can either get bitter or you can get better,” Bennett said. “People harp on the fact that I'm the first African-American Chief, but I was also the first African-American Battalion Chief before that and I was the first African-American Assistant Chief. There are a lot of firsts.”
While his path to success was paved with obstacles at times, the newly sworn-in chief said he’s determined to tear down some of those barriers for those who come after him.
“Making sure that I create an inclusive fire department and take the fire trucks to the inner city,” Bennett said. “These young kids have to understand how to deal with failure and understand that life is going to be tough. You're going to fall down, get up.”
Bennett plans to use his leadership role to diversify the department and promote equality, both racial and gender.
“You have to get more diversity on the department in order for diversity to stick,” Bennett said. “We've never had a female captain, so that's another thing that I want to encourage is creating a culture and encouragement and surrounding every female that we have.”
While Bennett’s biggest supporter wasn’t there to see her son be sworn in as the first Black Canton fire chief, he said his mother watches him serve the City of Canton with an aerial view while beaming with pride from a front-row seat.
“I grew up with nothing, but I had a loving mom and I had encouragement that I was able to climb to the highest ladder in my profession,” Bennett said. “I wanted people to honor the memory of my mother and let them know that her blood beats through my heart and I wouldn't be standing here if it wasn't for her.”
Bennett encourages Canton residents to introduce themselves if they see him or other first responders in the community.
“I am in charge of the most amazing men and women you will ever meet. Every day they lay it on the line,” Bennett said. “Give them a hug, shake their hand, and thank them for the service that they do every day.”