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Candidates Stacey Abrams, Andrew Gillum Draw Upon their HBCU Experience

An energized and evolving electorate, well-executed grassroots organizing and exhaustive networks among historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), among other factors, are responsible for the historic gubernatorial candidacies of Georgia’s Stacey Abrams and Florida’s Andrew Gillum, according to scholars and experts in political science and African-American studies.

“What we’re seeing is a departure from politics as usual,” said Dr. Khalilah Brown-Dean, an associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University.

Brown-Dean attributes Abrams and Gillums’ ongoing momentum to their campaigns’ clear messaging and the fact that the candidates have “taken it back” to grassroots-level organizing, something mainstream Democratic candidates have gotten away from, she said.

Dr. Ravi K. Perry, an associate professor of political science at Virginia Commonwealth University, added that a spur of Black Democratic progressive mayors throughout the South – from major cities such as Richmond; Charlotte; Atlanta; Tallahassee; New Orleans; Birmingham; and Jackson, MS – has had an “indirect” effect on the emergence of candidates like Abrams and Gillum.

“We’re already seeing a very enthused Democratic base” that is a “more progressive bent” in the party, said Dr. Clarence Lusane, a professor of political science at Howard University. “That spectrum is disproportionally women, people of color and young people.”

Lusane agreed with Brown-Dean’s observations that candidates like Abrams, Gillum and Ben Jealous in Maryland have articulated their stance on progressive issues such as increasing minimum wage, extending and expanding Obamacare and Medicaid for all, and advocating for a more fair distribution of government resources.

“Those agendas aren’t necessarily different, although the strategies for winning might be different,” Lusane said. Additionally, the candidates’ base of supporters varies; Abrams has to mobilize a broader African-American base, while Gillum has to mobilize African-American and Latino voters in Florida, Lusane added.

Dr. Melanye Price, an associate professor of Africana Studies at Rutgers University, noted that Abrams and Gillum already have an “excellent ground game.”

“They really understood the need for a strong ‘get out the vote’ in African-American communities and that it was going to be pivotal in their elections,” said Price, who recently penned an Op-Ed in The New York Times about the rise of the Black political left in recent elections.  “If you look at them, they both – even before they started to run – were people who were actively involved in voter registration campaigns.”

Abrams and Gillum’s extensive network – both as graduates from HBCUs and in their own communities – has played a crucial role in their momentous campaigns.

Abrams garnered support from Collective PAC and advocacy organizations such as Democracy for America, Planned Parenthood Action and the Human Rights Campaign. Similarly, Gillum recently aligned himself with the Dream Defenders and he has received backing from organizations, including Planned Parenthood and Moms Demand Action.

The national Spelman alumnae network has come together to raise money to augment Abram’s local campaign, Price said. Where Abrams has a mission to “Turn Georgia Blue,” Price continued, Spelman alum reaffirmed the message with t-shirts, saying, “Turn GA Spelman Blue.”

HBCU students from Florida are already sporting buttons and t-shirts in support of Gillum, with many planning to canvas and volunteer with his campaign over the next few weeks, Lusane added.

Abrams and Gillum’s status as HBCU graduates also sheds insight into the role the institutions have played in Black political life for generations. The candidates’ service to their constituencies reflects HBCUs’ larger charge to their students to serve and uplift their communities.

Spelman president Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell called Abrams brilliant, fearless and a pioneer, just as other Spelman alumnae have been, including Marian Wright Edelman, Alice Walker and Starbucks COO Rosalind G. Brewer.

“Stacey Abrams represents everything we value at Spelman College,” Campbell said in a recent interview with Diverse. She is “the epitome of a Spelman woman.”

Abrams led political activism in college where she also served as a student employee in former Atlanta Mayor Maynard Jackson’s Office of Youth Services. Gillum, the Mayor of Tallahassee, got his start by serving as president of Florida A&M University’s (FAMU) Student Government Association in 2001.

“HBCUs train their students to be public servants and to help them understand the calling that they have to connect their education to empowering the communities who have nurtured them,” said Brown-Dean. “So whether that’s politics or business or community-based leadership, connecting young people to a strong core is something that we all should be doing, and that HBCUs have led the way” in.

“There is a long history of activism from students at HBCUs politically, whether it’s the Civil Rights Movement, whether it’s the anti-apartheid movement … even movements like Occupy [Wall Street],” says Lusane.

Many Black students engaged with the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, observers point out.

“Some of that is translating into these campaigns of, essentially, the first Blacks either in governorships or in other races where you have not had African-American candidates or African-Americans who have won,” Lusane added.

At Gillum’s alma mater, the recently re-chartered FAMU College Democrats will host voter registration drives and hold seminars to inform students about the constitutional amendments that will be on the ballot in Florida’s midterm elections.

Perry said that the current political era is an opportunity for departments at HBCUs and other institutions to embrace this moment of “citizenship responsibility.”

HBCUs are making their students aware of how funding shifts will affect local resources and how changes in policies will affect their job prospects, said Brown-Dean. Institutions will host election “watch nights,” require students to help on Election Day and support them as they engage with the community in the summer or school year around meaningful political and advocacy issues.

“That’s being replicated around the country at different HBCUs where political science departments, but other leaders on campus, make a very strong effort to have students continue the tradition of political involvement,” Lusane said.

Price challenges those that do not see the relevance of HBCUs today, which she says have long been spaces that create Black teachers, Black doctors and Black scholars, but also Black political leaders for generations.

Abrams and Gillum are “a prime example of that,” she said.

Now, the candidates’ efficiency in mobilizing students and other voters will determine their campaign outcomes this election season.

Brown-Dean said one reason the nation is seeing a resurgence in gerrymandering and voter suppression is because “people realize the strength of young voters and the strength of communities of color when they come to the polls.”

Take for example, the Shelby County v. Holder case that affected Texas voters around Prairie View A&M University, Price’s alma mater. It was Prairie View students who helped in the effort to ensure college students could vote in the location they went to school, Price said.

For locales that have seen voting power gains, and particularly for HBCU students, “there needs to be an effort to ensure that those students are registered, but also that their vote is protected,” she said.

It will be important for educators and community organizers to inform their voters about voting laws, voter rights and the types of identification college students need to vote, for instance.

“That kind of grassroots pressure can help people navigate that complex maze of laws that are meant to discourage voter turnout,” Brown-Dean said.

Beyond voting and challenging voter suppression efforts, the scholars see a continued need for comprehensive civic education at HBCUs and other higher education institutions.

“It’s absolutely critical,” Lusane said. In his Political Science department at Howard, a Community Development program encompasses classroom and community engagement. Students study the history of engagement and they work with community, international, federal and non-governmental organizations such as the Department of Energy, Human Rights Watch, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, Congress members’ offices and more.

“That is a part of what we would consider a full spectrum college education,” Lusane said.

And once this civic education reaches beyond the students in the classroom to the larger community and public, VCU’s Perry said, the candidacies of people like Gillum, Abrams and Jealous will no longer be seen as some surprise or an “anomaly.”

Tiffany Pennamon can be reached at [email protected]. You can follow her on Twitter @tiffanypennamon.

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