Five candidates running in the Nov. 5 general election participated in the RISE organization’s debate Friday in the Louis Spilman Auditorium of Waynesboro High School.
“This debate is really about understanding that you understand or knowing that you all understand the real problems that are being faced in the black community,” said RISE co-founder Sharon Fitz, who served as the debate’s master of ceremonies.
Fitz said the community has children in the public school system who need individuals to “care about them because they are children.”
“We’re losing children to hopelessness,” Fitz said.
The debate began after singing the Negro National Anthem and each candidate was given an opportunity to give three reasons why they are running for election.
Jennifer Kitchen, a Democrat running for the 25th District in the House of Delegates, said that youth need to be encouraged to stay in the community, and opportunities need to be created to encourage them to stay; otherwise, communities will die.
Lewis said communities need more black people in leadership positions in schools and the community.
Sheila Ahmadi, a moderator in the debate, asked the candidates what should be done to plan for an affordable health care system.
Kitchen said everybody should be covered by health care.
“Health care is a right, it’s not a privilege,” Kitchen said.
Lewis said a need exists to expand mental health accessibility in local communities
Sen. Emmett W. Hanger, R-Mount Solon, represents the 24th District in the House of Delegates. He said that free market health care does not work.
Jennifer Lewis, a Democrat running for the 20th House District, said she is focused on health care, education and protecting the environment.
Lewis said she was recently endorsed by the Teachers Association. She is also a member of RISE and the NAACP.
“I spent my summer going door to door, talking to folks and listening,” said Lewis, who lives in Waynesboro. “I hugged voters and cried with them as they shared their very personal stories. That’s the kind of representative that you’ll get from me. Someone who shows up at your door, at your church, at community events and forums like this.”
Lewis pointed out that her opponent, Republican John Avoli, did not participate in Friday’s debate.
Janice Lee Allen is running as an independent in the 25th House District. She said her focus is on putting more money in her constituents’ pockets and “stop the foolish government spending,” as well as preserve everyone’s history and heritage.
“I’m running to stop the hardships and killings of the young people,” Allen added.
Allen said that when she ran for U.S. Congress in 2008, young people were being sent to the War in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Kitchen said her campaign is about rural healthcare access, funding rural public schools and encouraging the Green New Deal.
“The reason that I’m running for the House of Delegates is through my work as a community organizer and a field organizer I’ve had the opportunity to have conversations with thousands of people in my community and have realized that rural communities are being forgotten in Richmond.”
Annette Hyde lives in Madison County and is running for the 24th District seat in the Virginia Senate. Her top concerns are fast, reliable internet for rural communities, funding public schools back to pre-2008 levels and expanding health care options.
“The reason that I am running is because this district needs a senator who not only works within Richmond but works in the community side-by-side with the people they represent,” said Hyde.
Hanger has served the 24th District since 1996 as a Republican. Rural economic development, health care improvements and redistricting reform are his priorities.
The first question for the candidates came from moderator Dr. Amy Tillerson-Brown, a professor of history at Mary Baldwin University.
She asked the candidates to explain the difference between being an advocate for and being a spokesperson for the black community. She also asked each candidate which they would choose to be for the black community.
Lewis said that she is an advocate, because as a white woman she can never “be the voice of people of color.” Advocates provide support for a cause and for the spokesperson who is the voice for the cause.
Allen said that advocates write, and a spokesperson speaks.
“My heart has always been toward the black people,” Allen said.
Kitchen said she would be an advocate by “standing and lifting up voices.”
“Black people need to be able to tell their stories, and, as advocates, we need to use our privilege to lift them up so that their voices can be told,” Kitchen said.
Hyde said she is also an advocate.
“And, being a spokesperson, I think you really need to experience what the black community is facing in order to be an effective spokesperson. As a person not of color, I don’t feel that I would be impactful as a spokesperson, but I am more than willing to advocate and support the spokespeople for the black community,” Hyde said.
Hanger said an advocate is someone who understands the issue and then advocates for positions that would be favorable for causes in the black community.
As a member of the Senate, Hanger said he has a responsibility as a spokesperson.
Moderator Crimson Solano asked the candidates how they would dismantle prejudice of students in public schools.
Kitchen said more funding is necessary for programs.
Hyde said more extensive study of African-American history for all students would alleviate prejudices.
“Right now in our schools, the African-American experience is not taught in detail,” Hyde said.
Hanger said is “education is helpful.”
“I don’t think it’s natural, it’s learned within our culture and within our society,” Hanger said of prejudice.
Fitz said for everyone to keep in mind that adults are operating a system that is broken, not the youth.
Electing more blacks to local city councils and school boards is the answer to fixing a broken system, according to Lewis.
“That’s, I think, how we start,” Lewis said. But she said she would also advocate for getting displays of hate out of the schools
Allen said “a big issue” is the lack of leadership that is taught in schools.
Hanger said the American school system has been integrated for a local time, but assimilation in culture is still needed.
Ahmadi asked why the black vote is important although incarceration of blacks continues to increase.
Kitchen said the black vote is important, “but we need to get people in office who are willing to stand up and fight, and solve this problem of mass incarceration.”
“We fail to address the foundation of the call, and that is racism is systemic,” Hyde said.
Lewis said that individuals elected to office need to walk the walk, not just talk the talk.
King Salim Khalfani was the debate’s fourth moderator, and he asked: “What does Black Lives Matter mean to you?”
“Clearly, all lives matter, but, I think, the rallying call for now which is Black Lives Matter really is calling attention to the fact that in some instances, I think, members of the black community, perhaps others as well, recognize that in some instances it seems that a lesser value is placed on black lives than others,” Hanger said.
Lewis agreed with Hanger.
“All lives can’t matter until black lives matter,” she said.
Lewis cited recent news stories of a white man committing a violent crime but receiving a lesser punishment than the punishment a black man received for a lesser crime. The black individual is often severely injured or killed by police.
Allen said she is “100 percent Black Lives Matter.”
John Avoli of Staunton, Republican candidate for the 20th District declined RISE’s invitation for Friday’s debate. Chris Runion is a Republican running for the 25th District and was scheduled to participate in Friday’s debate, but did not make an appearance.
After a break in the middle of the debate, Allen did not return to take questions in the second half.