We’re making sense of the midterms. Subscribe to our daily newsletter for election context and analysis.
GREENSBORO, N.C. — Makaela Reed, 21, says she’s always believed in being the change she wants to see. This year, she’s voting for that change — but is also thinking about what she’s voting against. For Reed, that’s politicians who want to limit access to abortion and other reproductive health care.
“We’re voting against people who want to take us back,” said Reed, whose family is from Houston.
Reed is a sophomore at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, one of only two historically Black women’s colleges in the country. (The other is Spelman College in Georgia.) Bennett is an institution with deep roots in the civil rights movement, where students are taught to be civically engaged.
Reed was one of dozens of students who on Tuesday gathered to walk from the Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel on campus to the polling place at Reid Memorial CME Church. Some had already cast their ballots during the early voting period, but they still showed up to make the 15-minute walk with their classmates on Election Day. They were voting not just for themselves, but for one another. Their sisterhood was palpable as they joyfully marched together.
North Carolina is a key battleground state this year, home to a handful of competitive House races and a key Senate race — as well as state legislative races that could determine the future of abortion access in the state. Democrat Cheri Beasley is vying to become North Carolina’s first Black woman senator at a time when there are no Black women in the Senate.
For the students going to vote at Bennett, it’s not just candidates, but also education, health care and reproductive rights that are on the ballot.
Zakyha Jones-Walker, the current Student Government Association (SGA) president, helped spearhead this year’s march. She said being a student at Bennett has played a huge role in motivating her to vote and be civically engaged. One of the first mottos she heard when she arrived at Bennett was “Bennett Belles are voting Belles.”
“As a Black woman in society and in the community, I’ve learned that it’s super important for us to share our voice and opinions and voting really is a form of letting your voice be heard,” Jones-Walker said.
This awareness is one that Bennett’s faculty is deeply committed to instilling in students. Alma Adams, a former member of the state legislature and then Congress, was on the faculty until recently and coined the voting-related catchphrase, said Gwendolyn M. Bookman, the chair of the Department of Political Science and Sociology at the college.
“When we get our students on campus, we start from the orientation, talking to them about the essentialness of being politically active,” Bookman said.
During her tenure at Bennett, Adams was “at the root” of ensuring that students were registered to vote once they arrived on campus and that they gathered together on campus each Election Day to cast their ballots.
Ja’Nylah Johnson, a senior who serves as Miss Bennett, said the school has always been about advocacy and justice. “Us marching to the polls allows us to continue the tradition. We are not only lifting ourselves up, but other Black women as well,” she said.
This year, a number of students were excited about the potential election of Beasley to the United States Senate, a position that only two other Black women have held. Several students noted that the election can determine where North Carolina stands on critical issues like abortion access.
“Even if it is a small vote, at the end of the day, it will make a big difference”, said Michelle Nelson, a freshman originally from Orlando, Florida. She is passionate about issues including health care, especially right now with abortion on the line. “Everyone deserves a choice no matter what that choice may be,” she said.
Sarah Mason, a 20-year-old junior, is also motivated by reproductive health issues, as well as by environmental issues. She serves on the college’s environmental justice advocacy group, called Green Team.
“We only have one Earth. Where are we going to go if we don’t have it anymore?” she asked, noting that climate change is also on the ballot.
Gabrielle Crockett, a graduating senior from Woodbridge, Virginia, said that even though she voted early, she joined Tuesday’s march because having a large group gathered has impact. During much of the march, Crockett was taking photos of her Bennett sisters.
For her, getting civically engaged at Bennett “ignited the power and motivation to go forward in the future,” Crockett said. “We are the future.”
This is a sentiment that was shared by Bennett College President Suzanne Walsh, who marched with the students and reminded them that Black women “have not even been able to vote for 100 years.” She told the students that they were making history with their votes.
“The issues that are on the line this year are critical,” she said.