Lifting the Voices of Women of Color in North Carolina

18 young women of color standing in front of the seal of Meredith College
Student participants in the 2023 Voices of Change Political Institute, hosted by Meredith College. source: Meredith College

Guest contributor: David McLennan*

In North Carolina, as in most states, women of color are underrepresented in appointed and elected offices—in fact, fewer than five percent of appointed and elected offices in the state are held by minority women. There are many reasons for this underrepresentation, including lack of support by the political parties, biased media coverage, and attitudes—racist and sexist—of some voters. 

The Voices of Change Institute at Meredith College was designed to give women of color the knowledge and skills necessary to seek political office, despite these barriers. (Meredith is an independent liberal arts college for women, founded in 1899 and located in Raleigh, NC).

Our decision to create the institute under the legacy of slavery theme “contested citizenship” was, in part, due to my professional history of running political campaigns in Texas and North Carolina. As a political consultant, I worked primary for women candidates, including several of color. Seeing firsthand the challenges faced by these women and their passion for serving their respective communities made me realize how important it is to continue filling the political pipeline with dedicated and prepared women of color. The decision to create the Voices of Change Institute at Meredith was also a direct outgrowth of our institutional decision to grapple with our racial history. In addition to shining a light on uncomfortable aspects of the institution’s past, the institute allows us to work toward a more equitable future.

We formed the Institute in collaboration with Advance Carolina and the North Carolina Black Alliance, two organizations with missions to build Black political power and institutions across the state. Our first two institutes in 2021 and 2022 were held virtually over eight Saturdays during the summers. Both cohorts were from across the state and were comprised of women with a wide range of ages and experiences. 

Both groups reported being very pleased with the Institute. Several have leveraged their experiences to run for elected offices in 2022 and seek state-level appointed offices over the last two years. One 2021 graduate ran for mayor of the city of Raleigh; over half of her Institute cohort actively worked on her campaign.

Despite the successes of our 2021 and 2022 institutes, we decided to make some significant changes to the program in 2023. We shifted to focus on college women of color from across the state. We also made the program residential. We recruited from two- and four-year colleges and universities from across the state and received far more applications than we could serve.

The nineteen students selected for the program came from twelve institutions in North Carolina, including CIC members Bennett College, Johnson C. Smith University, and Meredith College. They spent four days in Raleigh meeting Black women elected officials, discussing strategies about overcoming structural racism in the political system, and developing skills to advance their public service careers. Each participant rated the Institute as above average or excellent, and almost all of them asked to be part of the recruitment efforts for future institutes.

Some readers may wonder how a white male is able to connect with and mentor women of color, even in discussing racialized issues. To be honest, after meeting each institute cohort for the first time, there is ten or fifteen minutes of awkwardness. I have learned, however, that in almost three decades of teaching at women’s colleges and campaigning in predominantly minority precincts that directly addressing the issue and offering myself as a companion along their journey, not the authoritative leader, works in easing the tension in the room.

Our goal for the Voices of Change Institute is to continue offering the program to college women of color from North Carolina, but also to consult with other CIC member institutions that wish to participate in preparing more women of color for political offices.

*David McLennan is a professor of political science and director of the Meredith Poll at Meredith College in Raleigh, North CarolinaMeredith is a Regional Collaboration Partner in CICs Legacies initiative. The views expressed here are not necessarily those of the college, CIC, or anyone other than the author.