House and Senate candidates from seven districts in Northwest Arkansas met at a public forum Sept. 6 to discuss voting initiatives for policy issues affecting black voters in the upcoming November midterm election.
Representatives from Black Lives Matter Fayetteville, the League of Women Voters of Washington County, the Northwest Arkansas Area Alumni Chapter of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority and the Northwest Arkansas branch of the NAACP organized the forum, which took place at the Agee Lierly Life Preparation Services alternative school campus.
Approximately 60 people attended the event, including members of each organization, registered voters, students and campaigners. In the meet-and-greet period before the forum panel, those who organized the event spoke on the upcoming election.
“[Black voters] are a small demographic,” said D’Andre Jones, a Black Lives Matter spokesperson. “We live here. We thrive here. Our votes matter. We need a candidate who will truly represent us.”
Jones, a UA alumnus, thinks this election will have a large impact on black voters, he said.
“It will impact us economically, it will impact us in terms of the criminal justice system, in terms of mental health, education and childcare—all aspects in which we are marginalized,” Jones said. “When we think about minimum wage policies...now, more than ever, African Americans should be more politically engaged.”
He hopes for a candidate that can empathize with his community, he said.
“If we are able to elect someone more progressive, we could see a major improvement in quality of life for members of our community,” Jones said. “If we lift from the bottom, everybody rises. Tonight is an opportunity for our voices to be heard.”
Tanya Cook, a Delta Sigma Theta alumna, anticipates a higher voter turnout than ever, she said.
“We are in a time where there’s fear of what could come of tomorrow and that’s something that impacts not only [black voters], but the community as a whole,” Cook said.
Cook foresees the election playing a vital role in the improvement of black lives, she said.
“This election is pivotal, because we are in an area where we are unfortunately very alienated. This is our chance to be given a voice,” Cook said.
Seated at the panel were candidates Gary Morris (D - District 97), Gayatri Agnew (D - District 93), Kelly Scott Unger (D - District 87), Jon Comstock (D - District 3), Lou Reed Sharp (D - District 80), Megan Godfrey (D - District 89) and Nicole Clowney (D - District 86). Each candidate answered questions about several policy issues with law enforcement reform at the forefront of discussion.
Much of the forum was geared toward police brutality.
Moderator Noel Sosa asked each candidate to give a statement regarding what changes he or she anticipated in the Northwest Arkansas law enforcement system following the election. Candidates used this opportunity to focus on instances of police brutality Northwest Arkansas has seen in the past.
Clowney brought up the issue of legislators and their role in holding law enforcement officers accountable for their actions.
“There are things that we can do as state lawmakers to make it tougher for police to target people of color,” said Clowney. “We know there are laws that police use disproportionately to target minorities.”
Agnew thinks that people of color are needed in politics, but is worried for minority candidates like herself, she said.
“I am a brown woman, and when I first thought of running in this election I wondered, ‘Will I be safe? Will my family be safe?’” Agnew said.
One thing every candidate agreed on was the need for community members to better educate themselves, their children and their neighbors about social justice.
“Social justice, social injustice, what we have been confronted with in today’s society, in our state, in our nation—deserves more attention in [this area],” said Morris. “When we educate others, we enlighten them.”
Lou Reed Sharp, who has centered her platform around education, said she feels that education is the first and most important step toward effective diversity training.
“Diversity starts in our schools, in the education of our children,” said Sharp.
The general election will be Tuesday, Nov. 6. Precincts and polling locations can be found on the official Washington County of Arkansas website. Polls will open at 7:30 a.m. and close at 7:30 p.m.