Howard University women react to alum Kamala Harris’ historic win

EXCLUSIVE: theGrio spoke to Black women from Howard who say Harris's ascent to the vice presidency has become a game changer for the prestigious HBCU

With the election of President-elect Joe Biden came almost the vindication that Black women had been waiting for: After carrying the Democratic Party on our backs for generations, there would finally be one of us in the White House.

Sen. Kamala Harris’s ascent to the United States vice presidency is a momentous moment for women everywhere, but it is particularly special for Black women, for Caribbean women, for women of South Asian descent. For women who were chided for their choices to attend historically Black colleges and universities, and especially for those who chose Howard University

Read More: The Black women who made Kamala Harris’ historic win possible

“I cried,” said Brittany Bell, a media professional and Howard University alumna who is also Harris’s sorority sister. 

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris delivers remarks at the Chase Center before President-elect Joe Biden’s address to the nation November 07, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Photo by Andrew Harnik-Pool/Getty Images)

“And I even get emotional now talking about it. Because it felt like a win for Black women in the many struggles we face — I’ve personally faced — in jobs, in society, where often people will recognize that we are qualified and we’re capable but they won’t quite hire us for that position, the highest level position.”

Bell, who was initiated into the Alpha chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. in the Spring of 2005 — nearly 20 years after Harris — said she feels like the win for Harris is like a win for a close family member she’s never met.

“Going to Howard, pledging the same chapter, there is, it feels like a lineage, like it’s my aunt,” Bell said. “I put more sweat equity and money behind my vote than I have in any other election.”

“I think Black women will just kind of see the price go up on their work, and I was really excited about all of the Black women that have been given their just due for the work they have done organizing on behalf of not just Joe and Kamala, but on behalf of the Democratic party,” she said.

Kamala Harris with her sorority sisters of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. (Photo: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc.)

Read More: Widow gifts Howard University with $2.5 million worth of art

Ashley Hagans-Laing said Harris’s election was another reminder to her that “this is what we do (at Howard): We build leaders.”

“It feels validating. I really want people to shut up about questioning whether HBCUs are still useful and more than a party. We do our work here,” said Hagans-Laing, who graduated from the university in 2007. “Whatever you choose to do, you do it well. That’s how we operate. We have to. There’s no room for Black mediocrity in America, but there definitely isn’t on Howard’s campus, or at any other HBCU.”

For Taylor Thibodaux, a current senior at Howard, the election was a reminder of what it means to be a Howard graduate, and inspired her to reach high once she leaves campus. “Just being a Howard student, it means everything. She really represented what it means to walk in truth and service,” Thibodaux said, referencing the university’s motto.

“I think the public’s opinion of what HBCUs are — they’re very misinformed. They teach you to be the best that you can be, to serve your community, to show up with excellence without excuse. Now they see in Kamala Harris, they see everything that HBCUs prepare you for.” 

Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) speaks to Amos Jackson III, Executive President of the Howard University Student Association, and Mara Peoples, Executive Vice President, after announcing her candidacy for President of the United States, at Howard University, her alma mater, on January 21, 2019 in Washington, DC. Harris is the first African-American woman to announce a run for the White House in 2020. (Photo by Al Drago/Getty Images)

Tashni Ann Dubroy currently serves as chief operating officer and executive vice president at Howard, and though she is not a Howard alumna — she graduated from Shaw University, where she also served as president from 2015-2017 — she said to say she is “immensely proud” is an understatement. 

Dubroy, who was born in Jamaica, said her friends and family immediately embraced the vice president-elect as their own. “Jamaicans are immensely proud of her, and there’s friendly competition among islanders to see who can be the best ambassadors of the Caribbean,” she said. “We started sending around photos of young Kamala in Jamaica in her teenage years, and that was enough for us to say, ‘oh yeah, she’s one of us.’” 

Kamala Harris held by her great-grandmother Iris Finegan in Jamaica. (Photo: AP)

“It’s really a proud moment for me, because Black girls, little black girls everywhere are so enamored with her. And I think that’s to be expected because we saw how impactful it was to have Michelle Obama,” said DuBroy, whose own 11-year-old daughter, Marli-Jolie, has been “just elated” to see a Black woman from her mom’s home country rise to the second-highest seat in the land.

“It’s really opened my child’s eyes even further to the possibilities. Even as I see other women who are role models around her … you can’t get any better than this, in terms of having woman representation in the White House,” she said, noting “clearly there’s one more office we have to aim for.”

Hagans-Laing’s twin daughters, now three, have been wearing Howard University paraphernalia since birth, because both she and her husband are Howard graduates.

Ashley Hagans-Laing with her husband Keith Laing and twin daughters (left to right) Nadia and Anaya . (Photo: Courtesy of Ashley Hagans-Laing)

“For them to see people on the screen that look more like them is powerful, representation does matter. It’s hard to be what you can’t see,” she said. “I’m excited for them to move into a space where there’s not a question of what they can do, what they’re allowed to do anything beyond their own merit and desires and skills and strengths.”

The women all agreed on one thing: There’s (still) so much work to be done. But that doesn’t stop them from celebrating.

Ashley Hagans-Laing’s twin daughters Nadia, Anaya on the night Kamala Harris delivered her victory speech on Nov. 7, 2020.

“Howard students brag from the moment they get accepted, and they continue to brag as alumni. I think their brag just became louder, and it’s less humble now. They are having a great time, and they’re really supportive of her,” said DuBroy, who also noted that Howard breaks its own application records year over year, but they may have to attribute spikes in coming years to a “Kamala effect.”

“I think it’ll be bigger than any celebrity placement that we’ve had in a series on television, on celebrities coming to campus,” she said. 

“It is engrained to use Black women and then to discard them after their use. I’m hopeful that that trajectory will change,” and Black women will start to be the recipients of “all the recognition and honor and real-life concrete ways that you can appreciate people and recognize people,” said Bell.

Autumn A. Arnett is a national voice on issues of equity and access in education, and an unapologetic advocate for historically Black colleges and universities across the country.

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