Young people, advocates celebrate Black Policy Day at the Capitol

By Joe Severino, RealWV

Black Policy Day drew hundreds of people to the West Virginia State Capitol on Wednesday for a robust hands-on experience on the process of lawmaking.

The third annual gathering of Black constituents, lawmakers, advocates and students again brought attention to legislation that has an outsized effect on Black people. These topics cover racial health disparities, community and economic development, criminal justice reform, educational issues and more. 

Young people from all across West Virginia were represented, with middle and high schoolers traveling to Charleston to become engaged in the civic process. These included students traveling nearly five hours from all six high schools in Berkeley and Jefferson counties – Hedgesville, Jefferson, Martinsburg, Musselman, Spring Mills and Washington.

Organizers featured a handful of Black mayors from West Virginia towns, as well as the state’s three Black state lawmakers – Delegates Anitra Hamilton, of Morgantown, Sean Hornbuckle, of Huntington and Hollis Lewis, of Charleston.

Sydney Bostic, a junior from Spring Mills High School, spoke to a crowd of supporters in the Capitol’s lower rotunda on Wednesday about the significance of becoming involved in the civic process at a young age.

“As youth, it’s crucial to recognize the timeless impact we can have on our state’s legacy,” said Bostic. “Often, we are the most effective advocates because the laws being passed will shape [our] future.”

Young people have the opportunity to become more aware of legislative procedure and the policies that shape their lives and the communities, she said. For Black youth, it’s especially important to understand diversity, equity and inclusion, ”which are essential pillars for fostering a just and inclusive society.”

One of the students’ activities included finding and talking to their local delegate and both of their senators. These students were seen throughout the day roaming the halls of the state’s historic Capitol building.

“With the recognition of this power, it is imperative for us as a collective to prioritize educating ourselves regarding the pressing issues that directly impact our lives,” Bostic said. 

Bostic is the one of many talented young West Virginians working toward creating that better future. In August, Bostic was recognized by the Berkeley County School Board for participating in the Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fair in Texas. Her project focused on using facial recognition to identify different snakes as a way to help farmers identify their animals.

Kenny Matthews, an outreach coordinator for the West Virginia Drug Intervention Institute, spoke to students and community members at a pre-Black Policy Day gathering on Tuesday about the importance of learning about government and taking part in the civic process as a young person. 

“People tried to get me engaged,” Matthews recalled of younger days. “I didn’t think it mattered.”

As an older teenager and young adult, Matthews served many years in prison for criminal convictions. After his last release from Mount Olive Correctional Complex, Matthews turned his life around and became an advocate against voter disenfranchisement. He fights today so that people with certain felony convictions can vote again.

Matthews cautioned students against ignoring what happens in government, as that’s how you lose all power to make change. Currently, Matthews spends a lot of time advocating for lawmakers not to take rights away, rather than restoring rights to people.

“We’re scrambling just to keep things somewhat together,” he said.

Other issues highlighted by advocates was the CROWN Act, which prohibits discrimination based on hairstyles. The bill has failed to become law despite a years-long effort to draw prevent this discrimination. A top legislative Republican, Sen. Charlie Trump of Morgan County, has now become the lead sponsor of the bill, but said he was still unsure if fellow Republicans would vote to pass the bill.

Health advocates also drew attention to Black infant and maternal mortality, as Black babies are twice as likely as white babies to die during their first year of life.

This year’s Black Policy Day lead organizers were Shanequa Smith of the Black Voter Impactive Initiative, Katonya Hart of the Partnership for Furthering Arts and Education, and Crystal Good, founder of Black By God: The West Virginian, which is West Virginia’s only Black newspaper.

Good and other volunteers distributed hundreds of Black By God’s latest print edition at the Capitol, which was published this week to celebrate Black History Month.

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