Harris pick as VP helps build momentum for HBCUs

WILMINGTON — Debbie Harrington and Dina White Griffin — Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority sisters — went out Wednesday afternoon to catch a glimpse of the flurry of action that brought Kamala Harris, who was officially tapped to run as vice president on the Democratic ticket, to Delaware.

“We all said, ‘This is history. If we don’t even do anything but see them, we just need to go out and be a part of this history,’ so we went out,” said Ms. Harrington.

Sen. Harris was alongside Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden at A.I. DuPont High School in their first joint appearance together as she officially joined the race as vice president.

Ms. Harrington, a member of the Delaware State University board of trustees, and Dina White Griffin said they were proud.

“I thought it was important to go out today because it’s a historic moment, a historic moment in this democracy to have an African American woman of Asian descent as a vice presidential candidate,” Ms. Griffin said. “And she’s a member of our sorority. That was just the icing on the cake.”

It’s that sisterhood that truly captured Ms. Harrington.

“It makes me proud from the standpoint of she’s an HBCU [Historically Black College and University] graduate, it makes me proud [that] she is a sorority member,” Ms. Harrington said. “If my biological sister was becoming the nominee for the vice president, let me tell you, I would be bursting with joy and pride, and all of those things. I feel the same way about Kamala, and she’s not my biological sister, but she is very much my sister in terms of a sorority member.”

With Ms. Harris’s name on the Democratic ticket — representing a number of firsts, in and of itself — the role of historically black colleges and universities finds itself at the center.

“I think this is incredibly significant,” said Donna Patterson, chair for Delaware State University’s Department of History, Political Science, and Philosophy and director of Africana Studies.

If you look around, she noted, you see graduates from HBCUs in many high level positions — in the Senate, like Sen. Harris; in Congress; as CEOs; and a number of professors. Now HBCUs could be represented in the nation’s highest office.

“I was very excited, as an HBCU professor to learn of the announcement and I think what it means for HBCUs,” she continued. “There’s been a lot of momentum around HBCUs recently. My hopes are that momentum continues.”

For that momentum that HBCUs are gaining, she pointed to recent developments, such as the fact novelist and venture philanthropist MacKenzie Scott donated unrestricted funds to HBCUs including Tuskegee University, Howard University, Spelman College (among numerous other organizations).

The deep examination of social justice within the country — stoked by the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis and subsequent protests — have also turned many to HBCUs.

“The current 2020 racial reckoning is significant that it has led to a number of changes in a short span of time. Of course, there is much more to achieve full racial equity in this country but the momentum is there,” she said. “HBCUs — along with local community organizations and groups that focus on race, gender, policy, economic and health equity for all — are key to bridging this divide. Sen. Harris, as a Howard University grad, helps to illuminate the significance of the long legacy of prominent HBCU alumni. They have contributed widely to the American fabric.”

Sen. Harris and Joe Biden — who completed his undergraduate studies at the University of Delaware — also comprise the first Democratic ticket in nearly 40 that come from non-Ivy League educations.

In some ways, she believes that will make the ticket more “relatable.”

“If you look at the country as a whole, in many ways, a lot of those who hold not just political positions but very high economic positions are Ivy League graduates, much more than, for instance, an HBCU graduate or someone just from a public school,” she said. “So I think the diversity — the diversity in terms of access and the diversity in terms of background — is very important because the U.S. is a very diverse country. People come from all different spheres of life.”

Sen. Harris’ spot on the ballot alongside Mr. Biden is another push for a shift in the last decade — even the last four years — for who is viewed as eligible to lead.

“We’ve had more women who ran in the democratic [party] this last election than we’ve ever seen,” Dr. Patterson said. “We had Hillary [Clinton] before — Hillary being the first woman who was ever a Democratic presidential nominee. Looking at kind of this recent history and the impact on other women and girls, I think, is very powerful.”

It comes back to Delaware, too.

“I think that is important for the state’s citizens to continue to see the possibilities of not only the state’s most well-known son (Joe Biden) but also the possibility for women of all backgrounds to achieve additional positions of prominence in leadership,” she said.

For Ms. Harrington, “the thought of it takes your breath away almost.”

“We must achieve equity and justice and fairness, and when you include — and when you can see the diversity in the top part of our leadership — you know that you can then believe the values that we go around touting, that we really have those values. That we value every person, regardless of skin color, or regardless of sex, or regardless of religion. We value every person,” she said. “To see her in that position, an HBCU graduate, that says someone is finally seeing just how great we are, and so I am just extraordinarily proud of her.”