In 1986, Sen. Kamala Harris got her bachelor’s degree at Howard University, the historically black university in Washington, D.C., established 152 years ago. Like many Howard graduates, she has maintained close ties to her alma mater ever since and calls her experience there “one of the most important aspects” of her life. Now that the 54-year-old senator is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, she has stepped up that connection in an effort to “mobilize students and graduates of historically black colleges and universities—known as HBCUs—as well as the country’s nine black fraternities and sororities,” the Associated Press reports. She herself is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha, the nation’s oldest sorority founded by and for black women.
Included in this effort is a section on her campaign website designed to give Americans connected to these educational institutions an easier way to build support for her in the Democratic primaries. This especially matters in South Carolina, where there are eight HBCUs, and 27% of the population is African American. On February 29, 2020, it will be the first state to hold a primary or caucus in which black citizens make up a significant portion of the electorate.
Missayr Boker, Harris’s national political director, says, “As we look to realize the promise of the first African American female president, we must be intentional about organizing these communities to ensure they feel part of this campaign and incentivized to take political action going forward.”
Although other candidates—Cory Booker, Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke—have also campaigned on HBCU campuses as part of their run for the presidency, Harris has visited more of them by far.
In February, just two weeks after she announced her bid for the nomination, Harris was on hand for the Thurgood Marshall College Fund Congressional Fireside Chat to discuss her experiences at Howard. She addressed issues of sustainability and competitiveness of HBCUs with representatives of TMCF’s 47 member institutions.
“I often say there are two things that shaped who I am today: my mother and my family and Howard University,” Harris said. “Being at Howard University meant I knew I was interested in public policy.” […]
“You could do all of these things and it was expected of you,” she said of the HBCU experience. “There were no other barriers other than yourself. That’s very empowering.”
During her fireside chat, Harris spotlighted legislative priorities she’s working on or plans to. Among them are preserving and upgrading historic buildings and sites on HBCU campuses; increasing Pell Grant awards that she says are capped well below what it costs to attend college these days; and pushing for new funding that is part of her plan to raise salaries of American teachers by an average of $13,500. She did not say how much of her estimated $315 billion, decade-long teacher plan would go specifically to HBCUs. Some of the funding would go to help HBCUs and other institutions with large enrollments of students of color reduce the underrepresentation of teachers who look like them.
Thanks in part to Harris’ longtime advocacy, the Senate omnibus budget bill passed in March would increase funding for historically black graduate institutions by 14%, from $63.3 million to $72.3 million. Other majority-black institutions will receive a raise from $9.9 million to $11.4 million.
“HBCUs are critical to the foundation of our higher education system, and provide opportunities for some of the nation’s most promising and deserving students,” Harris said at the time. “I am pleased funds in this bipartisan budget agreement will be invested in the future of these young people. Ensuring HBCUs have the federal support and resources they need to thrive for generations to come is one of my top priorities as a proud HBCU graduate.”