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The Bay State Banner
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Symone Sanders and a presidential campaign

Carole Bernard
Symone Sanders and a presidential campaign
Symone Sanders (Photo: Photo courtesy Symone Sanders)

At first glance, the 25-year-old Symone Sanders seems to have little in common with Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, more than 50 years her elder. But when the presidential candidate tapped the budding communications professional to serve as national spokeswoman for his campaign, she jumped at the chance.

Raised in Omaha, Nebraska, Sanders has worked as a community organizer and communications manager for the Empowerment Network, a nonprofit that advocates for better policies for North Omaha, a predominantly African American part of the city.

She has been involved in the BlackLivesMatter movement and is the immediate past chair of the National Coalition for Juvenile Justice National Youth Committee, and a former member of the Federal Advisory Committee on Juvenile Justice. In both positions, she worked to ensure the voices of system-involved young people were an integral part of criminal and juvenile justice policy conversations. She held listening sessions with judges, community leaders, and lawyers about the state of the juvenile justice system, particularly for young people of color in this country, and she drafted recommendations for change.

These experiences have prepared her, she says, to work on the national level for Senator Bernie Sanders. Connections, according to Sanders, is one of the key ingredients to being effective in grassroots advocacy, as well as in the national arena.

Sanders says Senator Bernie Sanders’ messages resonate with hard working American people, whether they are Black, White, Latino, Asian American or Native American. “It is about doing the work of meeting people where they are in their communities – whether we are in the beauty shops, the barber shops, or the bible studies, or out there in the neighborhoods, or holding town halls or small group sessions,” says Sanders. ”Connecting with people really makes the difference.”

The following excerpts are from an interview the Banner conducted with Sanders:

You could have taken that your advocacy work to any presidential candidate. Why Senator Sanders?

Symone Sanders: I really love the things that Senator Sanders is talking about and the issues he is advocating for — economic inequality, hardworking American people, standing up against disastrous trade deals, criminal justice reform — those are the issues that were personally important to me. I like that Senator Sanders stands up to the private prison industry and stands up for criminal justice reform while not taking money from the private prisons. I believe his discussions about the disastrous trade deals that have decimated communities of color across the country in cities like Baltimore, [ones in] Michigan, Boston and Wilmington, Delaware, are important. His willingness to take on the billionaire class and Wall Street is critical. When Wall Street brought America to the brink of its collapse in 2007 and 2008, it was black and brown Americans that really lost the most. When the housing market crashed, lots of wealth was lost for lots of black and Latino families, and that gap still has not been closed. I believe now, and I believed then that Senator Sanders is not only talking the talk, but also walking the walk on these issues.

Have you faced any challenges being the National Press Secretary?

SS: I have never been a National Press Secretary before, but Bernie Sanders makes it easy. (Laughing) Senator Sanders is an authentic candidate that unabashedly speaks out on behalf of the overlooked and underserved in this country.

It is challenging, however, to have a substantive candidate when sometimes all that people care about are catchy and flashy headlines. Last year, the campaign issued a release on the “Bernie Blackout,” citing how the media spends hundreds of minutes on Donald Trump. In 2015, some media outlets only spent 10 minutes covering Senator Sanders. We’ve been fortunate that our campaign is people powered. The American people have really gotten behind Bernie Sanders and have gotten our message out there.

Some African Americans feel the campaign is focusing too much on criminal justice reform. How does the campaign expand and broaden its issues to really hit home with African Americans?

SS: When we say criminal justice reform, it is the entire spectrum of the criminal justice system – whether we’re talking police brutality, police community relations, or the mass incarcerations of African Americans. I think that is an issue we definitely need to talk about. But I also think the Senator has unabashedly talked about the wage gap in America and how it especially affects the black and brown people in this country.

The African American community has not yet actually recovered from the imminent Wall Street crash for a number of reasons. We talk about trade. Trade is an issue that disproportionately has affected black and brown communities in America. Many hard working American jobs that families could earn great livings off of, or people could send their kids to colleges off of, are no longer here because trade deals have snatched these jobs out of communities like Baltimore, like Detroit, like Boston, parts of Illinois, out of places in North Carolina and shipped them overseas. And there has been nothing to replace those jobs.

What does the campaign do to strengthen its message in the black community?

SS: I think there is a misconception when we talk about presidential politics, specifically in the Democratic Party — the South equals all black people. As a black person from Nebraska, that is absolutely not true. The black community is not monolithic. There are black people all over America, and we have to actively work for every single one of those votes in various capacities.”

I believe the Senator’s campaign policy issues on income inequality, education, and criminal justice are important to people of color in this country. Under Senator Sanders’ college affordability plan, he believes someone who wants a quality education should receive it regardless of zip code or what their economic status is. As the price of college rises and the wage gap widens, many lower income and middle class families are working 40-60 hours a week and faced with the challenge of putting food on the table. Many of those families are black and brown.

There have been too many instances in America over the last year, particularly for black men and women, where they have been gunned down in the streets, have lost their live at the hands of police officers, have lost their lives in police custody, according to Sanders. Kudos to the Senator; he has not been shy about shining a light on these issues before they were popular. We’re not just saying Black Lives Matter, and that’s it. We’re saying Black Lives Matter, so we need to invest in education. We’re saying Black Lives Matter, so we have to end the disgrace of racism in the incarceration of African Americans. Black Lives Matter, which is why we need to invest in jobs and education for our kids, not jails and incarceration. And that is why he’s put forward a plan to create 1 million jobs, specifically aimed for black and brown young people in this country. When we talk about going into communities and speaking with people, those are some of the issue we need to talk about and really break it down for folks.

Senator Sanders has met with residents affected by the water crisis in Flint, Michigan before it was popular and before they brought in the cameras. In Chicago, he has met with community organizers, young people who have been on the front lines of recent protests, and with community leaders who have been doing the work for years. The Sanders campaign hosted a roundtable to bridge the gap between the two and to discuss the issues facing the people of Chicago and the greater state of Illinois. Dr. Jane Sanders, the Senator’s wife and an educator, held an education panel to discuss the importance of investing in education, especially in communities that serve predominantly children of color. They also discussed the need for suburban schools and inner city schools to have similar resources to ensure quality education. He has spoken out about HBCUs and has reached out HBCU presidents.