Missouri councilwoman uses Dr. Seuss book to be sworn into office

PHOTO: Kelli Dunaway, right, gets sworn in as a new St. Louis County councilwoman by Diann Valenti, left, acting county council clerk. It is not required to be sworn in on a bible and Dunaway chose to use the Dr. Seuss book, "Oh, The Places Youll Go!"PlayHillary Levin/St Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris
WATCH News headlines today: Nov. 19, 2019

Kelli Dunaway knows her decision to be sworn in on a Dr. Seuss book pushed back against tradition.

That is, in part, why she did it -- and it's the same reason why she wanted to run for a seat in the St. Louis County Council election: She wanted to try something new.

"I think we need to do so much of that in our politics and in our policy," she told ABC News Wednesday. "Just because we've done things the way we've always done them is no reason to keep doing them that way."

Dunaway, a Democratic activist, was elected Aug. 6 as a councilwoman for District 2 on the St. Louis County Council. A week later, she had her swearing in ceremony, accompanied by her two children, 7-year-old Bella and 5-year-old Liam, and the Dr. Seuss 1990 classic "Oh, The Places You'll Go."

In the days after she was sworn in, images of her holding her right hand above the book with her left hand on it flooded the internet. The St. Louis Post Dispatch first reported on Dunaway's swearing in.

PHOTO: Kelli Dunaway, right, gets sworn in as a new St. Louis County councilwoman by Diann Valenti, left, acting county council clerk. It is not required to be sworn in on a bible and Dunaway chose to use the Dr. Seuss book, Oh, The Places Youll Go! Hillary Levin/St Louis Post-Dispatch/Polaris
Kelli Dunaway, right, gets sworn in as a new St. Louis County councilwoman by Diann Valenti, left, acting county council clerk. It is not required to be sworn in on a bible and Dunaway chose to use the Dr. Seuss book, "Oh, The Places You'll Go!"

Her decision wasn't met without backlash. In a Facebook post thanking her supporters and speaking on her decision to choose Dr. Seuss, a slew of commenters said she was making a mockery out of the position because she didn't use a Bible. There is no law in Missouri that requires council members be sworn in on a Bible.

Doug Moore, the spokesman for St. Louis County Council, confirmed to ABC it's not a requirement to use any text, though many use the Bible, and elected officials just have to raise their right hand to swear in. Still, he allowed, "It's unusual to use Dr. Seuss, for sure."

Another Facebook commenter pointed out criticism Dr. Seuss and his books faced in recent years over his portrayal of people of color.

Dunaway ignored most of the disparaging comments, but thanked the woman who made her aware of the criticism. She told ABC News she believes it's important for the country to understand and accept "how we have all been influenced by a racist society," an issue she plans to make a priority as a councilwoman.

"The only way to truly face a problem and deal with it is to admit you have one, and I think that's where we're stuck right now," she said. "I think so many of us don't want to even admit that racism is part of the problem, but it's the biggest part of a lot of problems."

She plans to address racial inequity, especially in a city that she described as suffering from widespread racial segregation, during her time in Council.

I believe we are better than our current political climate might suggest and I will always be working to make that better, and I'll do the work. That's the message of the book, right?

"There are certain parts of St. Louis County that have been left behind, while other parts have really had great growth and development and I want to focus on some of those left behind areas," she said.

About 9.8% of people in St. Louis County are living under the poverty line, according to 2017 data from Data USA. Of that 9.8%, black people make up the majority of those living in poverty despite only accounting for 24% of the population.

The book, she hoped, would resonate with the people of St. Louis County with its message, paired with her effort to carry out that message.

"I am going to do my best every day to do what's right for everybody. I believe we are better than our current political climate might suggest and I will always be working to make that better, and I'll do the work. That's the message of the book, right?" she said. "If you have brains in your head and you have feet in your shoes, you do what you do"