Black Student Alliance and Second Year Council hosted a roundtable discussion with Virginia State Senator Jennifer McClellan and former Congressional candidate Dr. Cameron Webb Monday evening. The event, which lasted from 6 to 7 p.m., encompassed topics including Black identity, voter suppression, minorities in politics and youth engagement.
Anisa Mohamed, vice president of Second Year Council and second-year College student, moderated and organized the virtual panel.
McClellan, Class of 1997 alumna from the School of Law, holds a position as state senator in Virginia’s 9th District and has been active in both the Democratic Party of Virginia and the Democratic National Committee. McClellan is currently running for governor and says the decision to run for the position began with her parents and family.
“Growing up listening to their stories about what it was like living under Jim Crow, living through the New Deal was the first time the government really used all of its power to help make people's lives better and respond to crisis, but it also left a lot of people out,” McClellan said.
Webb, Class of 2005 alumnus and current director of health policy and equity at the School of Medicine, fell to representative Bob Good in the November 2020 election for Virginia’s 5th Congressional District in the U.S. House of Representatives. On Jan. 16, Webb was announced as a COVID-19 senior policy advisor for President Joe Biden’s administration.
Dr. Webb’s political passion grew out of his interaction with civil rights activist Dr. James Farmer who mentored him during a scholars program he was a part of in seventh grade.
“I think that for me was what told me that no matter who you are, no matter where you are, you have a job to do, a role and responsibility,” Webb said. “You can use your capability and your brilliance to effect societal change.”
MaKeenie Robinson, special events chair of BSA and second-year College student, was the first student to pose questions to McClellan and Webb and asked about how each defines Black identity both broadly and in their own experience. In response, both Webb and McClellan spoke to the nature of raising children and the role that identity, especially Black identity, plays in that.
“To me, the Black identity is the sum total of our family and our community’s experiences and how they shape our present and ourselves,” McClellan said.
As the panel continued, Donavon Lea, political action chair for BSA and third-year College student, asked the guests where they thought that the United States stood in terms of voter suppression.
Lea pointed to the 2018 governor race in Georgia — where Stacey Abrams, former minority leader of the Georgia House of Representatives, fought to win the position after believing that then-Georgia Secretary of State Brian P. Kemp had employed deliberate suppression tactics — and historic 2020 presidential election turnout as well as the newly passed Georgia voting laws passed that limit voting hours on Sunday and new ID requirements for absentee voting.
McClellan said these recent events are another manifestation of voter suppression that will continue the cycle of oppression of marginalized groups.
“The first step is acknowledging and recognizing that pattern,” McClellan said. “John Lewis said democracy is not a state, it's an act. We have got to do everything we can to engage, register and turn out people to vote.”
Webb reflected on how many people do not see a difference in their daily lives after elections and therefore can become discouraged from participation.
“I think that the restoration of agency in the electoral process is so critical, and it starts with local activism,” Webb said. “The biggest impact people can have politically is at that local level here in Charlottesville.”
Mohamed went on to introduce the next panelist, Sophia Liao, president of SYC and second-year College student. Liao asked questions regarding how political solidarity can be built across races.
Both Webb and McClellan focused on the importance of allyship in their responses.
“If we focus on our common humanity and then celebrate our differences, rather than using them to divide and conquer, then that is how we can create that pan-ethnic solidarity, but it also takes all of us asking ourselves some pretty uncomfortable questions,” McClellan said.
To wrap up the panel, Chris Kunze, SYC speaker chair and second-year College student asked the guests to offer one piece of advice for young people looking for a career in politics.
Webb reflected on the importance of having a “why” and that why being motivation for something more than just personal gain.
McClellan echoed Webbs point and also included the importance of knowing history and finding joy in the process.
“I think we are all building on the work of generations that came before us,” McClellan said. “So we really need to understand that work and where their challenges were and how we can overcome them.”
McClellan concluded with one last tip for students looking to participate in politics after acknowledging that a career in the field comes with many challenges and often discouraging results.
“Finally I would just say, be sure to just get some joy in there. I think sometimes we get so focused on whatever it is we're trying to do that we forget to just stop and take a moment for ourselves and just find the joy of life” McClellan said.