© 2021 WKSU
Public Radio News for Northeast Ohio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

'Black Campaign School' Trains New Generation Of African-American Candidates


Roughly 90 percent of elected officials in the United States are white. Enter the Black Campaign School. It's an effort to train a new generation of African-American candidates. It's backed by the Democratic establishment, and it's bucking that establishment. NPR political correspondent Asma Khalid reports.

ASMA KHALID, BYLINE: Francys Johnson had never run for political office before, but the former Georgia NAACP president says the backlash he's witnessed under President Trump changed his mind.

FRANCYS JOHNSON: I knew that it was not going to be enough for me just to register my family and others to vote, that I needed to do what Barack Obama said. If you don't like what you see, get up, get your clipboard and go out and run for something.

KHALID: Johnson is now the Democratic nominee in Georgia's 12th Congressional District. We meet at the second annual Black Campaign School in Atlanta. There are over a hundred people here - candidates, future candidates and campaign staffers, from Texas to New Hampshire. Quentin James started this makeshift boot camp last year in part because he felt like nobody else was doing this work.

QUENTIN JAMES: If we aren't preparing folks on how to run in a heightened, almost racist environment, then we're doing them a disservice.

KHALID: There are sessions with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Planned Parenthood and Emily's List. But this pop-up class is also fundamentally different than the typical Democratic campaign training. The school's mission is not just wins but black political power. It's about workshopping through problems, and it's about creating a place where campaign staffers and candidates can get real. At one point, a group breaks into a spontaneous song.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Singing) It's the skin that I'm in, and I love being black. I love being black.

KHALID: And there are lots of questions from the crowd. How do you deal with an incumbent? How did you deal with the media? How do you deal with your hair? One woman in the back questions some advice she's heard.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Don't go back and forth between having straight hair and wearing your hair natural. Black women - we change our hair all the time, so why do I have to...


UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: ...Why do I have to live any differently because I'm running?


KHALID: You can hear people agree with the woman asking the question and then Jessica Bird, the campaign strategist running this Q&A session, steps in.

JESSICA BYRD: Y'all, we got to fight respectability. We're never going to build the things that we want to build if everyone has to look a carbon copy of each other.

KHALID: Byrd is the main teacher this weekend. She walks the class through sessions on stump speeches, opposition research tactics and media strategies and then passes the mic for discussion on fundraising.

BYRD: We're going to come back at 11:46 because we going to talk about the money.


BYRD: And I know y'all want it and we got to have it. And it's out there for us, so we just got to clear the path so we can get it.

KHALID: Candidates at the school tell me raising money is by far their biggest challenge.

ERICA CRAWLEY: So I knew fundraising was going to be difficult, but I didn't know how difficult it was going to be.

KHALID: Erica Crawley is running for a seat in the Ohio legislature. She won a competitive primary, but she says spending hours calling people asking them for money is harder than she thought. Myya Jones tells me a similar story. She's running for a seat in Michigan's state legislature.

MYYA JONES: Not only am I black and I'm female, I'm young. I'm 23 years old, so it's like, what does this 23-year-old know, you know?

KHALID: Jones says her goal is not just to win but to get more young people involved in the process, but that is tough.

JONES: I get discouraged a lot. I'm not even going to lie to you. You know, it gets discouraging because when you don't have the funding, when you don't have the help, it's like, OK, then why am I doing this?

KHALID: Quentin James, the man who started this all, says the Democratic Party has taken black votes for granted without investing in black candidates, and that problem can't be ignored anymore.

JAMES: Look; the elephant in the room is Donald Trump, and he has really inspired a heightened level of white supremacy and white nationalism in our country. And unfortunately, a lot of our progressive trainings and Democratic trainings don't center the experience of racism in this country.

KHALID: And James says that's where this school can help. It's here to invest in black candidates that might feel overlooked by the establishment. Asma Khalid, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.