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Black female officials tackle social issues

COLUMBIA — The influence of the state's black women in elected office has been called a sleeping giant that will prove to be a powerful force in conquering social ills.

Together the women have put forth a statewide action plan to address health care, economic development and educational issues, and staked out a strategy for leveraging their influence.

"We do have a strong voice," said former state Rep. Lucille Whipper, the only black woman ever to represent Charleston in the Legislature and one of only 13 black female members to serve there.

"When it comes to lobbying for poor, black and low-income people, there's no stronger voice," Whipper said.

Black women, a cornerstone of church and family, are credited with pushing forward social movements by rallying their communities and drawing on their unique perspectives.

About 85 of the black women in elected office assembled to outline a statewide action plan to address health care, economic development and educational issues during the first-of-its-kind Circle of Influence Leadership Summit held earlier this month.

The women crafted 14 strategies to deal with problems they agreed permeate the state, said Wendy Brawley, chairwoman of the Richland 1 School Board and publisher of IMARA Woman magazine. The magazine established the Circle of Influence, a series of events aimed at empowering women, in 2006.

Two of the most significant and timely strategies involve calling for the Legislature to raise the state's cigarette tax to expand Medicaid coverage among the poor and educating communities about tax on cigarettes, which is the lowest in the nation. The biggest debate is how to spend the additional revenue.

The Legislative Black Caucus, whose members are all Democrats, also supports raising the tax to help offset health care costs. Many Republicans, though, refuse to support any tax increase, and some don't want to use cigarette tax revenue for recurring expenses because it's a declining revenue source.

The summit attendees also will try to combat what many view as deceptive language used by voucher proponents who advance the idea of using tax dollars toward private school tuition as school choice, Brawley said. Voucher or tax credit opponents say that sort of school choice would damage public schools and stretch already limited resources too far.

The leadership summit was designed to help the women network, disseminate information, share ideas and unite to confront struggles within their communities, Brawley said. The summit will have lasting influence because the women will get behind the issues and mobilize their communities, therefore leveraging their influence as they push for change, she said.

Brawley said the women also would like to establish an African- American Elected Women Leadership Institute as a nonprofit organization devoted to advancing the summit's agenda.

Colleton County Clerk of Court Patricia C. Grant said gathering with peers was empowering. The women built relationships that will provide a network for support and change, she said.

"It was an extra boost to go back to your community and know you're making a difference and know you can make more of a difference," Grant said.

Rep. Gilda Cobb-Hunter, D-Orangeburg, said the experience was moving. She helped organize the summit and many of the attendees view her as a role model.

"It was a great experience for me to be with a group of women who are so dedicated to public service and so thirsty for knowledge," Cobb-Hunter said.

Of the almost 3,000 elected officials in South Carolina, excluding special-purpose district representatives, about 240 are black women. That means black women make up about 8 percent of the state's officeholders; according to the 2000 census, though, they made up nearly 16 percent of the population.

The plan

At the Circle of Influence Leadership Summit, black women in elected office outlined three key areas for confronting pervasive social problems: health care, education and economic development.

Here are a few of the plans:

--Recruit financial support from local businesses for community-based wellness programs such as walking trails, green space and playgrounds.

--Support increasing the state's cigarette tax to expand Medicaid coverage to more children and adults.

--Raise community awareness of the language used by proponents of school choice through private school vouchers and tax credits.

--Back adherence to the state- required African-American history curriculum in public schools.

--Push local governments to annually quantify the assistance given to small and minority-owned businesses.

For more, check out the upcoming issue of IMARA Woman magazine due out on newsstands Jan. 10 or visit