Commentary: Building a diverse presence

Reflections on the second annual Black Policy Day in West Virginia

By Betty Rivard 

The Second Annual Black Policy Day that was held during the recent regular session was one of the most significant events that I have seen in my over-30 years of being around our state legislature. It felt really right to me to see such a diverse presence at the Culture Center and the Capitol with everyone focused on the best interests of our state and our people.

I also saw what may be the strongest contingent of Black staff working during the regular legislative session. The proportional representation felt truer to our population than it did during the time between 2008 and 2014 that I worked at the Capitol as per diem staff.

Black Policy Day at the West Virginia Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia on Feb. 15, 2023. Photo by Perry Bennett

During that earlier time, we were blessed, as we are now, with Black legislators who had an extraordinary insight into the mechanisms of power, even when they have not been not able to wield a lot of it themselves. This may have been due to watching it all closely and taking it all in through the lens of their personal and cultural history and experience without getting as caught up in the day-to-day game aspects of things. Then, through mechanisms like leading the opening prayer or making a floor speech, as well as their involvement in committees, they shared the benefits of their seriousness.

The very presence of Black citizens defies the approach of those elected representatives and their supporters who are dedicated to establishing that it is “my way or the highway.” To erase the rich diversity of our state’s history. To discourage and suppress our vote to improve their chances to win despite their policies that work against us. 

We cannot let this happen. The health and very survival of our democracy and all of us in it depend on the involvement of each of us in addressing tough issues: inequality, in all of its manifestations; global warming; the structure and rules of our democracy itself. There are no easy answers. Playbooks being imposed from other states are especially dysfunctional for the uniqueness of who we are. 

All of our stories are important to considering how to achieve the best results on the full spectrum of issues. We and those who represent us all need to be at the table to share our insights and views.

In the face of the status quo, building a diverse presence can be a long slow process. There are days when it feels like walking through molasses. We may wonder if our work can ever make a difference or if there is any value in even trying to be involved.

As I write this piece on Mother’s Day, the words that come to mind are from the 1961 Shirelles’ song I remember from high school. The song is about romance but it also seems to apply here: “Mama said there’ll be days like this/There’ll be days like this, mama said.” 

Progress can seem like a slog, two steps forward and one back, especially during this time right now in our state.

More than ever, we are called to keep building on what is already being done. We are seeing extraordinary leadership come forward from across our state to make the changes we need. We also know that lots of forces are working and spending big bucks to try to keep us down and drive us away. 

Our strength is in joining together within our communities, wherever we are, to help each other to get through these times. Seek out and share good information. Do what it takes to keep up our spirits and continue to reach out. Exercise our rights as citizens to run for office. Support candidates with a proven track record of addressing our needs and concerns. Be sure to vote. 

Showing up at the Capitol and local meetings of our elected boards, councils and commissions can only help, in a win-win. We see what is happening first hand and we show others that we care and are following their actions. We can also testify about what we see back in our schools, churches, workplaces, sports events, clubs and other places where we gather.

Figure out what policies best address our citizens’ real needs and join with others to promote and support them. Ask hard questions wherever we can about where our candidates and elected officials stand on the things that we care most about. 

This is already happening. Look to and join in with those who are most involved to help show us the way. 

Whatever our religion, or no religion, the biblical text can apply here: “If you have faith as small as a mustard seed, you can say to this mountain, ‘Move from here to there,’ and it will move. Nothing will be impossible to you.” (NIV)

Above all, keep the faith. As we all know, there is always lots more work to do.

Betty Rivard is an independent volunteer citizens’ advocate in Charleston, West Virginia

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