With backing from major Democratic organizations, the Collective PAC’s three-day program helps budding politicians advance in a system “that was not designed with us in mind.”
It was midway through a sticky Georgia Saturday, and Jessica Byrd was dispelling myths about the way black women are supposed to run for office in 2018.
About 120 candidates, operatives, and candidates of the future—both men and women—sat on green plastic chairs inside a building that normally houses an environmental nonprofit in east Atlanta. This was the second annual Black Campaign School, and these were its students—all aspirants in a fledgling project to increase black representation in a country where 90 percent of all elected public officials are white.
The three-day training program was backed by the major Democratic campaign committees and allied groups like Planned Parenthood and Emily’s List. But it was also, in some ways, a challenge to them. The school offered a forum where up-and-coming black politicians could share their common struggles of trying to advance in a political system that, as one candidate put it, “was not designed with us in mind.”
“What this space does,” Byrd told me during a break in the sessions, “is it allows us to get very real and very transparent around the decision points they’re going to face as they’re out on the campaign trail. And those decision points aren’t just about the math or the strategy. It’s also about all of the historical and cultural things that have kept black people from political power.”
A few hours earlier, Byrd was handling a question on a hot topic among several of the woman attendees: hair. An effervescent 31-year-old, Byrd brought to bear a decade-plus of campaign experience across 43 states.
“I remember hearing,” began a woman seated near the window, “this was years ago—you can’t change your hair while you’re running. ‘Don’t go back and forth between having straight hair and natural hair.’”
“I just really want to have a conversation about that,” she continued. “Because black women change their hair all the time. Why do I have to look any differently because I’m running?”
Byrd often paused before answering inquiries from her class, clutching her handheld microphone close to her chest as she searched for the right response to what were frequently complicated questions of political strategy.
This was not one of those tough questions.
“No, that’s bulls–t,” she replied quickly, breaking her self-imposed rule against cursing. The class laughed, and a few clapped. “We have got to fight respectability,” Byrd went on. “We’re never going to build the things we want to build if everyone has to look like a carbon copy, like each other.”
Byrd has never run for office herself—yet. She might someday, she told me. But she had plenty of personal stories to share about her experiences in politics—from her upbringing as the daughter of a poll worker in Columbus, Ohio, to getting her start on Capitol Hill and working on the Barack Obama presidential campaigns, to finally starting her own political-consulting firm. Her title is “founder and chief doer” of that firm, Three Point Strategies, and she both advises campaigns and runs candidate-training programs, like the Black Campaign School.
“I was told I needed to play golf. I was told for years not to get tattoos,” Byrd told the students. “By other black women.”
She recalled the African American congresswoman who told her she was “too nice for politics,” that she should be a social worker instead. “I’ve been social workin’ all over this country!” she laughed, as the class joined in and cheered.
Byrd then turned serious for a minute.
“Y’all, it’s fake,” she said, referring to the received wisdom she was now telling them to ignore. “We made it up. It’s fake.”
“It doesn’t mean that our folks, especially our elders, our community leaders who believe these things, are wrong,” Byrd continued. “It means that it is a new day. It is 2018. Everything has been building to the point where we get to rewrite what we want it to be.”
SOURCE: RUSSELL BERMAN