I Really Cared About the Issues

MWS

Mitchelle Stephenson, Campaign and Communications Manager
Waterkeepers Chesapeake (Takoma Park, Maryland)

I had the pleasure of meeting Mitchelle Stephenson in 2015, when I began working in Annapolis, Maryland. She was the Chief of Staff and someone I really admired because of her work ethic and her integrity.

Throughout my time in Annapolis, Mitchelle took the time to get to know me which gave me the opportunity to get to know her. During one of our many conversations, Mitchelle told me that she had run for the House of Delegates in District 30B. As a result, this interview was conducted to find out more about Mrs. Stephenson’s experiences while running for public office.

Q. Why did you get involved with politics?

A. I didn’t get involved in politics. I started off at my daughter’s elementary school. When she was in kindergarten, there were a couple of big issues that I was not happy with. The first was the playground- it was located in a terrible place. The second was the open class space- there were no walls between each classroom. It was the 1970s again and they had this open concept and I really wanted them to put walls up. The playground was basically in the parking lot. There were cars coming in and out all of the time; they didn’t have a good climbing structure on the playground which caused the kids to return with skinned knees. Finally, it faced two main thoroughfares: Routes 2 and 214. Someone could have snatched a kid and been out of sight in a second.

What ultimately got me act was the DC sniper that caused the kids to be put on lockdown. I thought to myself if this guy came to our school he has the perfect target. If the kids were on the playground, you couldn’t see them from the office. He could drive right in off Route 214.

Q. What elementary school was your daughter attending?

A. She was attending Central Elementary School in Anne Arundel County, right outside of Annapolis, Maryland. It is one of the larger schools in Anne Arundel County Public Schools.

So I started out just talking to my daughter’s principal and talking to my daughter’s teacher. I eventually got involved with the Parent Teacher Association (PTA) doing the newsletter. Then I ended up doing some outreach to the community to get people engaged. Halfway through my first year of being involved in PTA, the president had to step-down and she asked me to takeover the rest of her time. I didn’t accept at the time because I didn’t want to be the president and I really liked doing what I was doing (the newsletter); communicating is my strong suit.

Ultimately another person took over. When it became time for him to run again, I ran against him for president and won.

I was able to grow the PTA. I doubled the membership in a year and we really did a lot of community outreach. We spent a lot of time reminding people that PTA was about more than just what happened inside of the school building because people viewed PTA as a “clique.” They assumed that if I was a part of PTA that meant my kid was getting something special, which has never been the case. PTA is a national organization. So, when you pay your $5 or $8, you get advocacy at the state and federal level for all kinds of issues like testing or special education. There were a lot of initiatives PTA worked on. I wanted to let parents know that whether they joined or not, they benefited from PTA services.

PTA is the largest child advocacy organization in Maryland. I started to get more involved and when my term as president at the local school was over I became the Legislative Chair for Anne Arundel County, representing 81 schools and advocating at the state and local level. Then, I had to go to County Council meetings, Board of Education meetings, and hearings in the General Assembly.

Q. So you didn’t see yourself as being in politics? You saw your self as an advocate.

A. Totally saw myself as an advocate and I had no intentions of running for County Council, School Board, House of Delegates, or anything for that matter.

Q. So why did you run?

A. In my professional life, I was also a reporter- that was my real job. Over the course of my reporting, I covered Anne Arundel County for ten years. I got to know so many people: people at the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau, volunteers in the schools, the principals of the schools, etc. When you’re doing that type of reporting, you slowly build a lot of contacts and people actually call you when there are things going on.

I was writing about four stories a week for the newspaper and then I founded a Patch/AOL news site so sometimes I was writing about 20 or 30 stories a week. I basically had my finger on the pulse of what was happening in Anne Arundel County. I was very interested in a couple of troubling issues in my rural community. Mind you, these weren’t very “sexy” issues.

One of the issues was Rural Broadband. There are a lot of federal workers in Anne Arundel County and a lot of people still on dial-up. The companies will run a line down the main highway, but if you live a mile off of that highway, no company is going to drop a FIOS line to reach you. After 9/11, a lot of federal agencies stopped allowing dial-up because they had firewalls and security installed. So, that was one of my big issues.

The other big issue for Maryland, I thought, was that there is no flood recovery or evacuation plan. If you go to New Jersey, when you’re coming in and out of those islands, there are a ton of signs for the evacuation routes. They have an emergency plan in place and Maryland doesn’t have that in the same way. Each county is technically responsible for its own plan. So, if you live in southern Anne Arundel County, Rose Haven for example, your assigned emergency shelter is Annapolis High School, which is a 40 minute drive – crossing two bridges – so, you’re probably not going to go there. Essentially you’re going to shelter in place. People have actually died sheltering in place in floods. When the water rises to your roof and you’re in a place that sits four feet below sea level, you’re toast.

So I ran for office because I wanted to elevate these issues and I also wanted to elevate business issues, farmers issues, and issues around sustainability. I really saw things unfurling in a way that was very detrimental to our community. For example there was a local hardware store that had been around for about 35 years. A Home Depot opened down the street and that local store went out of business. That location is still vacant to this day.

Q. So lets talk about the campaign. What did you enjoy the most?

A. I loved canvassing – talking to people and learning about the issues that were important to them. Canvassing really informed so much of my messaging because as I was on doorsteps, I would learn about new things. I learned about things, that my neighbors cared about. I met a lot of really great people along the way.

I enjoyed my volunteers. We had great volunteers. We had a volunteer bank of 70 people – old, young, Hispanic, black, and white. They were a really dynamic group of people. You know when you’re the candidate, sometimes it is hard to separate the fact that they are doing this for the mission. You begin to feel responsible for those people because they’re doing this for you but really they are doing this work for the greater good.

Q. What didn’t you enjoy about being a candidate or campaigning in general?

A. Losing. But besides that, I didn’t like to fundraise. I got better at fundraising over time because my campaign manager sat with me and made me do call-time. In the beginning I hated it but it got better over time because I began to see that people believed in what we were doing. The more people got to know about our campaign, what we were about, they were willing to cut a $50 check or a $100 check.

I mean you get a lot of “no”, “call me back”, “if you win the primary”, and then you get the people who say, “I didn’t know you were a Democrat, and I don’t give to Democrats but I’ll give you $35 because I know you.” So the reassurance was very helpful.

Q. So highlight the diversity of your volunteers. How important was diversity to you throughout your campaign?

A. I think it’s really a personality thing. I pushed for diversity on my campaign. I wanted the campaign to look like what southern Anne Arundel County really looked like. South County is not a bunch of rednecks; there are people of all types. The community; however, is still pretty segregated but it’s not always about black or white. I valued having some socio-economic diversity as well.

Q. So do you think it is important to have diversity in our electorate? How important do you think it is do have more women run for office?

A. I think it is very important because it provides a different perspective. As for women, we are 51% of the population yet the guys are calling the shots.

I do think you have to be purposeful about it. Typically, women aren’t as ready to run as men are. I didn’t dream of growing up and running for office some day. I got here through a very organic, grassroots path. To be honest if you had asked me whether I would be running for office, three years before my name appeared on the ballot, I would have told you no but that I would go and knock doors for someone else.

You really have to believe in yourself more than anyone else and I think for a woman that is particularly hard sometimes. You don’t want to come off as if you’re bragging. You have to stand up and tell people how great you are and I didn’t want to do that. I wanted people to be attracted to the issues and understand that I was investing in them.

Ultimately, you have to be ready for the work. It is hard, hard work and that’s why I think you really have to be purposeful about running for any office.

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Remembering Michael Brown

Courtney Harris

Courtney Harris
Oakwood University (Huntsville, Alabama)

I had the privilege of meeting Courtney Harris in 2015, at an annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Breakfast. Commissioner Robert “Bob” Harrison (Madison County Alabama, District Six) introduced us and described her as “the young lady who was instrumental in coordinating the “March in Memory of Michael Brown,” an unforgettable event for the people of Huntsville, Alabama.

This interview was conducted to find out more about Ms. Harris and what it took for her to put together a March in Memory of Michael Brown, who was killed by police in Ferguson, Missouri.

Q. Tell me a more about Courtney Harris. Who is she?

A. I am originally from Augusta, Georgia. I currently live in Huntsville, Alabama and attend Oakwood University, where I am a junior English major. I’m 21 and most of my interests revolve around art and it’s different faces, traveling, reading, learning, music, etc.

Q. Do you think civic engagement is important? Why or why not?

A. Civic engagement is definitely important because of the influence it has over those who may not know how to use their voice or if it will even be counted. It is supposed to be a catalyst for inspiration and serve those that are underrepresented.

Q. As you know, I was made aware that you organized the March for Michael Brown here in Huntsville, Alabama. Why was this March important? Who helped you learn how to organize such an event?

A. My friend sent me a text message the night Darren Wilson [the police officer who was acquitted of killing Michael Brown]. Her message simply said, and excuse the language, “I’m sick of this shit.” I just answered saying, “we’ve got to do something.”

Ultimately, she and I organized this march in all of two days. Neither of us really had a set plan about how it should and would go, but we were feeding off of each other’s energy, anxiety, anger, and hurt.

In my opinion, this march was needed for the black community in Huntsville to vent. Even though this town is relatively peaceful, racism is still blatant and/or swept under the rug, leaving those affected either fearful or just plain tired. To be honest, we weren’t even expecting a good turn out due to the time it took to organize, where we were, as well as who it was coming from – two young black girls who have the tendency to be very sensitive when it comes to our skin. We needed this. It was like the nap you take after a good cry.

So many people showed up to the march. So many people yelled with us, cried with us, stood with us. It was literally unifying.

Q. Did you experience any challenges when trying to organize the march?

A. There were so many challenge – from our School Board officials, to the campus police department, to the from Huntsville Police Department, and finally the Mayor.

The day before the march, our school told us if we continue with this march, we would be expelled because they did not want the school to “look bad.” Did I mention we attend a historically black college? But I digress. We told them we were still going to do it and we went from dorm to dorm making announcements about the March. We later learned that some of the deans in the dorms had made statements after we left, telling the students that if they were arrested it was their fault because they protested. They also told students that they would sit in jail through the weekend. Basically the deans were instilling fear and trying to keep students from participating.

By this time, our buzz on social media had increased. People were commenting on news articles about the march, sharing on Facebook, and event tweeting about how they couldn’t wait to run us over. They were threatening to “kill us, inconsiderate niggers”.

The morning of the march, I received a call from the campus PD saying that Huntsville PD would arrest anyone who stepped into the street. I was also told that my friend and I would be arrested for inciting a riot. They suggested that we didn’t go forward with the March. We assured them that the march would still take place. They eventually called again and told us that they would close a section of the road for us, but we had to fill out a form and that it would take 24 hours to process. We told them no thanks and that the March was still taking place as planned. We even told them that we would be onto the main road. This is when the Mayor got involved.

The Mayor eventually said that we could have our way and we marched down Wynn Drive, only to find out that they blocked off University Drive to Rideout Road.

Q. If you could do this again, would you? Why or why not?

A. I would do it all again, in a heartbeat. I still love the rush that I got from seeing that many people, of many different colors, marching together for the same cause. I loved to see so many people who were willing to help so that we could get our message across.

Q. How have people around you reacted since the march?

A. The March is what birthed our blacktivist group, Salaam, where we work with the community us to mentor, educate, and provide outlets for creative expression. The community also holds town halls where they discuss plans of action as well as other ways we can improve our place, as students and young people, within the community.

Q. What do you hope to do in the future (e.g. career ventures or volunteer ventures)?

A. For me? I would like to become a writer as well as a professor of African American Literature. I also want to participate in volunteer work in other countries, for the experience as well as for the learning opportunities and inspiration.

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