For communications strategist Krysten Copeland, the pandemic has been a time of reflection about her work and redefining her purpose.
“I broke down my ‘why’ for every single day for six months, and I realized that why I do (political communications) is beyond winning the race,” she said.
Copeland said she embraced her role as a translator – not one that communicates between two languages but someone who can be an effective political communicator to different cultures and communities. She told New York City Council members she could come over and talk to them for free to begin developing those conversations.
“The translator piece is something Black women have to handle innately and it’s something I always think about now as to why I do it as opposed to just doing the work for the heck of it,” she said.
Copeland, who led communications strategy for Rep. Yvette Clarke during the June primaries, was one of several Black female political consultants last year who worked as high-ranking members of successful campaigns.
Recent election seasons featured several campaigns that were led by Black female campaign managers. Mayoral candidate Maya Wiley, a former attorney for New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, hired Maya Rupert, former campaign manager for Julian Castro, as her campaign manager. Milsa Stein was campaign manager for Chantel Jackson, candidate for state Assembly for the 79th District in the South Bronx. Jachele Walker was campaign manager for state Sen. Brian Benjamin’s reelection campaign, among others.
The people running for office – and those serving in top roles in their campaigns – have become more diverse in recent years. The diversification of campaign teams for white politicians and politicians of color has inarguably benefited them on the campaign trail, yet Black women still face challenges of being heard and taken seriously when placed in positions of power.
“I feel like it’s my duty to always send the elevator back down. It’s all about sending those connections down for other people, especially Black women.” - communications strategist Krysten Copeland
“You also have this running narrative of people behind these progressive consultants,” said Tyquana Henderson-Rivers, president of the government relations firm Connective Strategies. “For a long time, Black women were not getting the credit they earned. Even when we were in the rooms, they didn’t want our input.”
Local politicians in many districts in New York are still overwhelmingly white and male, so more representation from communities of color has the potential to shrink the divide between elected officials and the neighborhoods they serve by making use of that translator piece Copeland mentioned.
“When you have white politicians, they don’t know what our struggles are at all,” Henderson-Rivers said. “From 2003, even when I worked for Bill de Blasio in his City Council office, I was the only Black person, and then moving from there into the private sector, I was the only Black person until I brought other Black people into the room.”
For Black women working on these campaigns, getting their foot in the door was not an easy task.
Amelia Adams, de Blasio’s former campaign political director, also recognized the importance of diversity after starting her political career in Albany often being the only person of color in the room. “There’s like a sea of people and it felt like it was hundreds of people and they were all white men,” Adams said. “I was like, ‘I am going to stick out like a fly in milk.’ It was kind of like a culture shock, like, ‘Wow, am I supposed to be here?’”
The feeling of being out of place is a common occurrence for Black women working as political consultants and who set out to open new doors of opportunity in politics and government to get the recognition they deserve.
“I feel like it’s my duty to always send the elevator back down,” Copeland said. “It’s all about sending those connections down for other people, especially Black women, but I do think that it’s getting better. It is, but we have to have more Black women in these rooms.”
“There’s like a sea of people, and it felt like it was hundreds of people and they were all white men. It was kind of like a culture shock, like, ‘Wow, am I supposed to be here?’” - Amelia Adams, former campaign political director for Mayor Bill de Blasio
Being present as a Black woman was often not enough for political consultants and strategists to have their voices heard. Along with feeling the need to work harder than anyone else in the room, there is also the pressure of being there alone.
“There is an unspoken expectation from a client, an expectation that we work harder than our white counterparts,” Henderson-Rivers said. “It is hilarious the fact that Black women have to justify their points for messaging to Black women or Black people. It’s like I hear what you’re saying … but I’ve been Black all my life. We are still fighting, every single day. We have to win all the time to be taken seriously.”
While Henderson-Rivers was working closely with Queens district attorney candidate Melinda Katz, she remembered it as one of the few instances where there wasn’t a fight for space at the table.
“I’ve had some really good candidates that have been really good at diversifying their staff: Melinda Katz and Jeff Aubry,” Henderson-Rivers said. “I didn’t have to go seek them out but they actually sought me out. On Melinda’s campaign she always deferred to me, which is something that a lot of candidates don’t do.”
Lupe Todd-Medina has worked on campaigns in New York and New Jersey, including for Rep. Hakeem Jeffries, and now operates her own firm, Effective Media Strategies, from Brooklyn. Consultants like Todd-Medina, Adams and Henderson-Rivers often have had to create their own firms because of the lack of diversity at other firms.
“I would say that one of the reasons I decided to open up my own shop was because after Jeffries won his election to Congress, I stepped back,” Todd-Medina said. “I took a look in the mirror and I’m working all these races and seeing success and I’m putting money in the pockets of other men. I looked in the mirror and decided it’s time to open my own thing. So I’ve decided to bring my own folding chair to the table like Shirley Chisholm.”
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