As an artist and an activist, I am forever indebted to the confidence instilled in me by my small, yet incredibly relevant Historically Black College & University (HBCU), Johnson C. Smith University. As a first-generation college graduate, my alma mater gave me the opportunity of a lifetime: to become something greater than I ever imagined. It gave me a sense of purpose and a pathway to power by educating and providing me the tools to understand who I truly was, am, and would be.
The economic impact of my school was apparent, literally feeding and keeping a roof over my family’s heads, for which I am forever grateful.
It was at Johnson C. Smith University that I got my start as an activist, as a spoken word artist speaking about the marginalization of my people, and using the university’s facilities to host community events and initiatives. My HBCU also exposed me to the vast network of black institutions and comradery, like my friendship with the late artist/activist Tywanza Sanders (Allen U ‘14), who died in the 2015 Emanuel AME Church Shooting in Charleston, SC. His abrupt death further inspired me to take my music and activism more seriously and is when I began to take on the stage moniker “Prophet X.”
My story is not unique as a young black man born to a single mother struggling to make it in this world. What is unique is the consistent impact HBCUs have on others like me and the ability to serve the marginalized. These institutions consistently turn the most oppressed into the greatest leaders this country has ever seen and create the bulk of black professionals in the workforce today. Much of the magic is actually in the un-learning that happens at an HBCU, where black students get a clearer sense of history that doesn’t glorify their oppressors, but rather unapologetically honors the contributions of their ancestors.
As Tom Steyer’s social impact director, I look back to my roots and dream of a better future for all of us.
I’ve served in various capacities for Tom, beginning as the North Carolina GOTV director for For Our Future, where I specifically organized HBCUs for the 2016 election. In 2017, I became the training director for NextGen Climate, where I began developing a much closer relationship to Tom, while creating the “Activist Training Manual” for each of our 1000+ organizers on the ground. Tom sent me specifically to Alabama and Virginia that year to organize more than 10 HBCUs, work that eventually led to progressive victories. Even then I told Tom that we needed to do more for these institutions and the communities that they serve. In 2018, I transitioned to become the national director of cultural organizing, a position where I developed specific training around HBCU organizing and spent vast amounts of time on the ground listening to the everyday struggles of black college students, particularly in Florida to support HBCU alumnus Andrew Gillum.
The first meeting I had to develop this plan was with black visionary and Senior Policy Advisor Arnie Sowell, who has been the mastermind behind many of California’s progressive policies over the past couple decades. We discussed the importance of crafting policy that would allow these institutions to have autonomy over their fate, increased funding to drive down tuition costs, support for racial justice, and to be a center where future leaders could be cultivated. I knew that we would need to get experts involved, so I reached out to folks I've met over the years who were doing the work, like Dr. Lezlie Baskerville of the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education (NAFEO) and Torrence Reed of HBCU Wall Street. The last meeting I set up was with my former boss and founder of the HBCU Caucus in the U.S House, Rep. Alma Adams (NC-12), who stated “I really like it! It’s thoughtful!” Oftentimes politicians write policy without the valuable input of the black folks well versed in advocating for our communities, but on this campaign, we work hard to ensure that these voices were heard.
Tom’s $125 billion investment will be a gamechanger for HBCUs and the communities that they serve beyond just the student body and faculty.
Folks without college degrees like my aunt will have more opportunities and access to workforce development. Students who need more opportunities and school-funded community initiatives will get them. It means more support for emerging black entrepreneurs who have been cut off from adequate resources. The newly established “HBCU Centers of Innovation” will provide a valuable resource for emerging black scholars to research in science, social justice, as well as the effects of state violence and the need for reparations to bridge the gap from centuries of oppression.
Our plan is radical and part of a broader narrative of reparations for black Americans. It is built on the vision imagined and realized during the $1M #BlackLivesRising program in 2018 that Tom & I started. The program was
aimed at training young black activists and increasing black youth turnout in select black communities and HBCUs across the country. Tom strongly supported the passing of Amendment 4, which restored the voting rights of over 1.4 million people in Florida, and was aided by the activism of HBCU students at Bethune Cookman, Edward Waters, Florida A&M, and Florida Memorial University. Tom’s investment in these communities helped to double turnout in several of the precincts at or around these institutions.
Tom’s advocacy also led to those same young activists (many from HBCUs) joining us in Memphis, TN at the IAM 2018 conference to celebrate the 50-year anniversary of Dr. King’s “Mountaintop Speech.” As an ally to these young revolutionaries, Tom utilized his access to such a space to ensure these young people were able to lead trainings for attendees in the very same church MLK organized in 50 years prior. None of his recent advocacy should come as a surprise when I think about his long-standing commitment to economic justice through Beneficial State Bank, rooted in the heart of Oakland’s heavily black community. His work to level the playing field for individuals who are often kept from resources through things like ending cash bail, private prisons, and automatic sentence enhancements are a big reason as to why I am so proud to support his candidacy for president of the United States.
The plan is a continuation in Tom’s investment in the future of young, black Americans and will change the power dynamic between HBCU leadership and the government.
In the past, there has been a patriarchal system where the government has dictated the funding and measures of success for these institutions. Our plan establishes an HBCU Board of Regents that will give suggestions and preferences in the first 180 days of Tom’s presidency. As an artist and advocate for my people, I am no good if I am not a truth-teller. This is my truth.
In loving memory of Tywanza Sanders (Allen University ‘14).