NAACP Convention galvanizes Black women to run for public office

On Day 1 of the 110th NAACP Convention, about 40 people gathered for an illuminating conversation tailored to Black women interested in running for public office. The roundtable drew activists, public servants, NAACP chapter officials and entrepreneurs. At least seven women said they were planning to launch campaigns within the next year. One noted that she planned to enter the 2020 presidential race next month.

“I’ve been through a few campaign training programs … but this [roundtable] was really impactful because it came from other Black women who train Black women,” said Jenell Mansfield of Detroit, who plans to run for Michigan’s 7th Congressional District seat but had been reluctant to announce her candidacy. “It was really useful as a confidence boost. There’s power in our unity.”

Glynda Carr, co-founder of Higher Heights and the #BlackWomenLead hashtag; A’Shanti Gholar, activist and political director of Emerge America; and L. Joy Williams, speaker and political strategist, served as featured speakers. Sheila E. Isong, the NAACP’s national political director for civic engagement, facilitated the discussion.

“It’s not an easy fight,” Isong explained. “There are going to be attacks, whether it’s from the administration, or from your opponents or from life. But one thing we know as Black women is that we are resilient. We have community. This is really just an introduction to running for office successfully.”

Although the most recent election season brought five Black women — the largest class ever — to the House of Representatives, the leadership gap for Black female representation in public office still yearns. Carr, who has worked to successfully elect 11 Black women congressional representatives, detailed the scope of the problem.

According to Carr’s organization, Higher Heights, Black women make up about 8 percent of the population but only 4 percent of Congress, with one Black woman in the Senate and 22 in the House of Representatives (two of whom do not have voting power). Of 1,875 women currently serving as state legislators, 275 are Black. Of 74 women serving in statewide executive public office — that’s governors, attorney generals, secretaries of state, and so on — four are Black. There has never been a Black woman governor: 2018 Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams would have been the first.

“We’ve made major gains. In 2014 there was only one Black woman serving as mayor of a top 100 city. We now have seven,” said Carr. “We celebrate the wins, but we still have work to do for adequate representation.”

She also offered inspiration via mid-campaign confessionals from today’s most recognizable Black women in politics, including 2020 presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif), Rep. Lucy McBath (D-Ga.), and Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.), who explained, “We are not a fad. We are here to stay. And we’re here to stay not because we’re trending, but because we’re damn good.”

L. Joy Williams and A’Shanti Gholar outlined key steps to running for office, including preparing yourself and your family for a campaign, analyzing and growing your network, fundraising and asking for donations, and creating a political brand.

“The biggest piece of advice I give to people when they decide to run for office is to work backwards from their election days,” Gholar advised. “These are the three things every campaign has ... time, money, and people. You can always work to raise more money. You can always work to find more people. You only have a limited amount of time.”

The panelists also stressed that aspiring candidates must deeply understand their own goals.

“One of the first questions you want to ask yourself is not only why are you running, but why you’re running for that particular office,” Williams said, adding that not all offices can address goals. “That’s important in the development of your message. You might think, ‘My message is for everybody.’ That’s cute. But your message is for voters. You may have a universal message, but you are speaking to a particular group.”

Recent and upcoming elections have seen an increased focus on Black women voters, with presidential candidates reaching out via Black media, hosting town halls at Black-centered events in early voting states, and hiring Black women to shape their campaigns. More than 10 Democratic presidential candidates are expected to speak at the Presidential Candidates Forum during the NAACP Convention this week.

There are more than 500,000 elected offices across the United States, ranging from liquor boards and wildlife commissions all the way up to the office of the president. Black women in particular are seeing public office as a more viable option.

“We know that so often, we like to be in the background. We want to be the campaign manager for the elected official. We don’t have time for that [any] more,” said Karen Boykin-Towns, vice chair of the NAACP Board of Directors, during opening remarks.

“We have to continue to step out and step up because we know what we know. We know … what our communities need. We have to trust in ourselves that we can get up there and speak, and represent those who need us the most.”

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