By Eric Feldman
While prior iterations have honed in on specific policy themes, including mental health and criminal justice, BSU President Artrice Shepherd approached FIU in DC with a different vision for this virtual edition: meeting the nation’s prominent Black leaders from across policy and business sectors, and examining what generational barriers exist to Black leadership in both policy and business.
"In May of 2020 the racial unrest in our country had reached a boiling point. However, from that we saw a resurgence of Black leaders speaking up and speaking out about injustices. We saw Black entrepreneurship in a way that we have never seen before,” said Shepherd. “We're shaping Black leaders by exposing them to the ones that are leading us now because eventually our Black students will become those leaders shaping the next generation.”
The seminar kicked off with an open-to-the public executive leadership session, featuring C-suite leaders of some of the most influential organizations in town: Tonya Veasey, president & CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation; Gloria Blackwell, senior vice president of AAUW; and Angela Sailor, vice president of the Heritage Foundation.
Fly-In participant Amber Robinson, an English and economics major, appreciated the candid and inspiring nature of the conversation.
“This session fostered a sense of genuine optimism and discipline. I feel beyond grateful to have so much unfiltered knowledge bestowed upon me. Ultimately, the panelists reminded me that there is much more growth to be had in pursuit of my purpose,” said Robinson.
This session highlighted the reach of the university’s alumni network in D.C. During the event, Andrea Martinez and Helena Ramirez Richardson, alumni at AAUW and Heritage respectively, were recognized; the event was moderated by Charlyn Stanberry, chief of staff for Congresswoman Yvette Clarke.
The seminar was the perfect opportunity to incorporate FIU’s current Equity Action Initiative (EAI) into the larger context of higher education policy’s role in fostering Black leaders. El pagnier “EK” Hudson—FIU’s senior vice president for Human Resources and vice provost for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion—led a discussion with policy experts from the Association of Public and Land-grant universities, the Education Trust and the Leadership Conference on Human and Civil Rights.
Every FIU in DC Fly-In Seminar covers how to engage in policy advocacy and prepares students for D.C.-based careers and internships. Thursday morning’s “Hill visits” with the offices of Representative Frederica Wilson and Senator Elizabeth Warren were the first time that many of the group had engaged with congressional staffers. The interactions covered substantial policy topics, including the role of the Federal Reserve in promoting racial economic equity and the newly-formed U.S. Commission on the Social Status of Black Men and Boys, championed by Representative Wilson and Senator Marco Rubio. Each visit closed with information about congressional internships, which is now a goal for several participants.
“The Hill visits were the most intimidating sessions initially. Now, the insightful exchange with the congressional staffers is my most cherished memory from the program,” said Chloe Little, majoring international relations. “Devin Wilcox from Representative Wilson's office was very open to listening to our concerns. I was motivated to apply for a congressional internship before, but now I am morally compelled to become as immersed as I can in congressional affairs.”
The eight students who participated in the three-day seminar were selected by the Black Student Union, and now have the opportunity to earn FIU’s DC Advocacy, Communications, and Careers Digital Badge. The members of the cohort had intersecting interests, including starting businesses, launching artistic pursuits and attending law school to help advance civil rights causes.
The session on business and entrepreneurship provided guidance to participants with business ideas, including Dujuan Jenkins, a sustainability major planning to launch a cartoon series to teach children about the importance of sustainability and the environment, and Danaika Jean Baptiste, international relations major, who is exploring how to develop an app to assist drivers in finding safe and affordable roadside assistance, especially women and out-of-town travelers who may be taken advantage of by traditional services.
“This seminar has helped me know the difference between choices [and] aspirations. I can’t have choices if I don’t complete the work. There is a major difference between the two,” said Jean Baptiste.