A Look at Civic Engagement at Historically Black Colleges and Universities

The Dillard University Vote Everywhere team poses with New Orleans Mayor, LaToya Cantrell. Dillard University is one of five HBCUs in the Vote Everywhere network.

At Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), the past informs every fabric of campus culture. First-year students gain a deep understanding and appreciation for the founding of their alma maters. They are introduced to the unique value an HBCU education can bring to their lives. They learn of notable alumni, such as Martin Luther King Jr., Nikki Giovanni, W. E. B. Du Bois, and Oprah Winfrey. By and large, they experience how civic engagement is promoted through the lens of history: How have African Americans created ripples of progress for their communities? In many ways, HBCUs reflect on previous gains and serve as vehicles for students to create change as the next generation of leaders. Students are tasked with a combination of fulfilling meaningful service projects and engaging in thoughtful conversations about the spirit of community, black solidarity, and the struggle for social justice.

Like many other HBCUs, Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University (AAMU), a Vote Everywhere campus partner, holds a powerful story of origin. It begins with William Hooper Councill. Councill was a formerly enslaved person on the land that the university rests on in downtown Huntsville, Alabama. When he became a free person, he returned to that very land, with only a few shirts and one thousand dollars to his name to open the Huntsville Normal School in 1875. Almost a century later, the school was renamed AAMU and remains committed to Councill’s vision of bringing opportunity to the black community by offering staggeringly lower tuition rates than its peers. His vision and story permeate campus life to this day.

Daijha Hilliard, Vote Everywhere Team Leader at AAMU, says that the campus’ rich history dates back to slavery in the United States. “Our quad area used to be a place of entertainment for slave owners. They would watch the horses run around while their slaves were being watched on the hill. This happened up until the point their slaves were sold. Our campus is so full of historical esteem and during our first-year orientation classes, that’s mostly all you learn about.”

Hilliard has capitalized on the importance of the first year by linking learning about former campus leaders with the potential for today’s generation to make their own voices heard. Her team has worked with campus staff to institutionalize voter registration into AAMU freshmen classes. “We feel like if we get students when they first come in they’ll be able to vote throughout their time at AAMU and have a better understanding of the process. That’s why it’s important to catch them when they first walk in the door,” she explains. Recent studies have shown that voting is habit-forming. Voting in one election strongly increases the likelihood of voting in the future. The AAMU Vote Everywhere team’s strategy enabled them to register 1,000 students in the fall before the 2018 Midterm Election.

The entrance to Spelman College (Raymond Boyd / Getty Images, 2015.)

Skylar Mitchell, Vote Everywhere Ambassador at Spelman College, remembers her New Student Orientation (NSO) vividly. NSO is a mandatory week-long program designed to educate first-year students on the history, culture, and sisterhood of Spelman College. During their first year, sisters of the college are expected to perform roughly between 70-75 hours of community service to become a sophomore. In style with the institution’s slogan, “a choice to change the world,” Spelman also provides a database that displays pre-approved projects and organizations in the Atlanta area to facilitate the process. Mitchell says, “the work you’re doing is supposed to extend beyond the gates of Spelman. Spelman has literal gates that also have a second figurative symbolism to them. We are a gated school. In some ways, we are literally blocked off from the surrounding Atlanta area; however, there’s an expectation that the work you do within these gates has real impact beyond them.” Mitchell believes the community service requirement is an excellent complement to the core curriculum. It includes classes such as African Diaspora and the World, which examine the diasporic histories of black people in America and elsewhere in the western hemisphere.

Skylar Mitchell, Spelman Vote Everywhere Ambassador, at the 2017 National Civic Leadership Training Summit.

When Spelman’s campus became hyper-politicized in the midst of the 2016 Presidential Election, Mitchell and her peers delved into civic engagement initiatives. “We were trying to keep people informed of the importance of getting registered, the importance of access, and the politics of voting. But through that, we started to learn about the ways Georgia can be a very difficult place to vote, especially if you’re a part of a marginalized community,” she recalls. Last year, a federal lawsuit was filed against the Georgia General Assembly for passing an “exact-match” law that stalled the voter registrations of roughly 53,000 potential voters. The lawsuit stated that an estimated 80% of voter registration applications affected by the law belonged to African Americans, Latinos, and Asian Americans.

Both Spelman College and Alabama A&M University joined the Vote Everywhere network after The Andrew Goodman Foundation announced a new expansion strategy in 2017. With a commitment to recruiting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs), and campuses with significant barriers to voting, we hope to continue fostering an inclusive participatory democracy. According to the Pew Research Center, there are currently 101 HBCUs in the United States. At a peak, there were 121 HBCUs in the early 1930s. In 2015, nearly 300,000 students attended an HBCU. These students are groomed to make incredible contributions to our democracy. In Mitchell’s view, “After the election, Vote Everywhere became known on campus. It is a blessing to have more resources to expand voting rights to more people. 2016 left a mark on us. It emboldened myself and my fellow Ambassadors to fight more for voting rights and fight more for our democracy.”


About the Author

Kevin Hurtado is the Communications and Development Associate at The Andrew Goodman Foundation. He graduated from Ramapo College of New Jersey with a Bachelor’s in International Studies and a minor in Human Rights and Genocide. Previously, Kevin worked as an Executive Assistant and Office Manager at Newark Charter School Fund, a nonprofit dedicated to promoting educational equity in the city of Newark.