"We are bringing down some of those mental barriers."
At age 34, Delegate Sam Rasoul has the resume of someone twice his age. He has a Master’s in International Business from Hawaii Pacific
University, has started several businesses, is married with two children and also happens to be state delegate for the 11 th District serving Roanoke.
His family came to the United States in the late 1960s, fleeing a region in Palestine marred by war. He was born in Ohio and came to Roanoke at the age of three. He started from humble beginnings, as a child growing up in a one-bedroom apartment with his family in downtown Roanoke. Fast forward to today: he’s traveling internationally, serving as chief operating officer of Kissito Healthcare’s international philanthropic arm, as well as garnering a large following of constituents in Roanoke. Currently, he runs a consulting business specializing in strategic planning and organizational change, as he also serves as delegate. He finds many parallels between his professional and political life.
Q: How did you get involved in politics?
A: I got involved right after the 2006 mid-term elections when Congress changed hands. I thought that the nation was coming to the center and
I wanted to bring a different type of politics to the table. Me and my supporters like to focus on millennial values. These are values not of a particular age group, but values that can connect a generation with values of transparency, openness, collaboration.
Millennials care a lot less about issues and are trying to assess the content of the character of the individual who we are trying to do business with or the candidate running for office. It fundamentally is going to change politics, it’s just a matter of how quickly are the Democrats and Republicans going to change business as usual. That’s the kind of politics that I believe people are looking for.
It’s been helpful for my supporters for me, someone who doesn’t necessary look like a whole lot of folks in this area, olive-complexion skin, child of immigrants, last name Rasoul. We had to build bridges by bringing a new type of politics that had to bring people together, instead of pitting people against each other. My campaigns were so positive that it drove party people crazy. When we say positive, we’re not sitting around singing “Kumbaya.” We are aggressive, but we all have a stake in the game and we all need to come together and find the solution.
I went from winning by 44 votes to having no challengers on the Democratic or Republican side, which is a real testament to what we’re doing here in the Roanoke Valley.
Q: Why do we not see more people of color running for office?
A: Barriers still exist and I know some would like to think that they don’t, but with that said, the reality is that in our country it is possible. It is tougher for me than for some others, but in the U.S., unlike in Japan for example, I couldn’t run for office in Japan, even though it’s very developed and a “democracy,” but in the United States, this nation built by immigrants, there is the opportunity. There’s a good ol’ boy mentality that is still out there so we need to recognize that, but also appreciate that it’s possible. Who would have thought ten years ago we would have had a black president? That’s what I mean by dreaming and thinking big and thinking things are possible. Now I feel as though we are bringing down some of those mental barriers that have existed for a long time.
"Understand your community and get involved"
Of the 23 years Councilman Sherman Lea has lived in Roanoke, 17 of those he has spent involved in some kind of public service. His career with the Virginia Department of Corrections brought him to Roanoke in 1992 with his wife and children, and he started his public service career on the Parent Teacher Association at his children’s school.
Q: How did you become interested in becoming an elected official?
A: Because of my involvement in the PTA, I began to follow school issues and within a few years I was appointed to the Roanoke City School Board. I served five years on the Roanoke City School Board and I’ve always had the philosophy if you can contribute to your community, do it. I grew up around a father who was very active in community affairs. He was active in making sure local citizens were registered to vote and felt that everyone needed to participate in the voting process, not only from a spiritual standpoint, but also from a civic standpoint. So that really inspired me and stayed with me. After I was on the school board for a few years, which I think is one of the highest civic callings you can have, people asked me about running for Roanoke City Council. I ran in 2004 and had a four-year term. In 2008, I was elected vice mayor and I ran again in 2012. I’m on my 12 th year as a member of Roanoke City Council.
Q: What are some of the highlights of your career?
A: One of the highlights of my career was that I was selected to be chairman of Total Action against Poverty [TAP, now Total Action for Progress] Board of Directors for several years and while on the board and being on city council I decided we needed to deal with our dropout rate. Because I was on the school board I knew we had students who were dropping out and in my professional career with the Department of Corrections I knew a lot of young men and women who did not have a high school education. So what I decided to do was to use my influence and ideas to bring the city council, administration, public schools and TAP together to say, what can we do to solve this problem? What we did is we got the Department of Education to say “if kids go back to school, whether it’s through a program in TAP or GED, we’ll give your city credit for that from that program.” We brought over 900 boys and girls back to school and through the Western Virginia Education Classic football games raised over a quarter million dollars for TAP.
Q: What advice do you have for people of color who want to run for office?
A: I’m about doing things; a lot of officials get elected and are supportive, but I like to get out and roll up my sleeves and get involved.
I try to cultivate an environment where my children and those around me get involved to make our community better.
I think to start small. I see so many young people who have good ideas and they want to serve but they want to jump out and take on a larger office before they’re ready. Please stay involved in your community but get involved with a board or commission and work your way through. Every now and then you see someone elected and that’s their first time in office. Understand your community and get involved. We need people for advisory boards; planning commissions, we get very few people involved, we need more people to get involved. I encourage them to aspire to be on city council, to run for delegate, because it’s needed. They need to prepare themselves and I think they can do that better on boards and commissions to understand how the community operates. Become involved and learn as much as you can.
"We bring a different perspective."
Roanoke City Councilwoman Anita Price has passion in her voice. As the oldest of five children and the daughter of hardworking parents, this passion was developed at a very young age.
“My parents were my first teachers because they instilled love of family, a love of service and a love of giving and in everything putting God first, so those are some of the values that have shaped me for 60 some years. You can edit the age part out!”
She likes to joke about her age, but it’s very important to her past. She grew up during segregation and remembers seeing the hardships that
her parents and siblings went through during that time.
“Having grown up in total isolation from white folks and hearing the slurs and the horrific things my parents went through, we experienced
firsthand the prejudice and the injustice that racial boundaries created. I mean, my Dad and his brothers wanted to start a small business and
they were laughed out of the bank.”
Price, a public educator for 35 years, came to Roanoke in 1977 with her husband Charles Price, who is now the executive director at the Harrison Museum of African American Culture located in the Center in the Square building. In 2008, she gained the Democratic nomination and was the first African American woman to be elected to Roanoke’s City Council. She was elected again in 2012.
Q: How did growing up during segregation shape how you lead and govern?
A: My biggest takeaway from growing up during that time is, get to know people for who they are. You can’t paint all black folks the same way, you can’t paint all white, Hispanic and Asian folks the same way. Each individual person has to be met by their own individual merit.
Q: With racial tensions at a high in our nation today, what is the cause?
A: We don’t take time to get to know each other. Here in Roanoke I would not go so far as to say those are the kind of problems we have existing here because, thank God, we do have factors that recognize how important it is to have communication, to build relationships and I have seen firsthand how diligently people around the city have worked to do just that. I would say in a heartbeat take our model and apply it to the rest of the country. That’s not to say we don’t have problems, we’re human. I love Roanoke, this is home to me. As a city we are very caring, very supportive of those who are less fortunate and from that aspect we are very blessed.
Q: What is the current state of the African American community in Roanoke?
A: It’s important that we have conversations about our past because when I was growing up a sense of black pride surrounded you daily. Even with the struggles my parents went through, they went out of their way to make sure me and my siblings knew that we had so much to be proud of. If families don’t make it a point to really instill that, it’s something we will lose.
Q: Are there concrete ways that African American communities can continue to build hope?
A: We are a caring community and there are so many groups and organizations that go about intentionally to instill an important sense of black pride. It can be done by teaching African American history or more subtly like showing examples of black professionals or other role models. The Renaissance Academy for young men and the Alpha Kappa Alphas (http://www.aka1908.com/) and Deltas (deltasigmatheta.org) are doing great things in schools to instill that pride.
Q: For anyone of color who is thinking about running for office, why is it important for people of color to run for office and to be represented in important political positions?
A: It is imperative that we have people of color in elected positons because we bring a different perspective when it comes time to make decisions. People may get discouraged sometimes, but you have to maintain that hope and stay encouraged because you may not win the whole battle but you might make an impression.
Ceasor T. Johnson
"You have to tell your own story."
Lynchburg Vice Mayor Ceasor T. Johnson is a native of Jackson, Mississippi, but has lived in Virginia since 1989. He has been civically minded most of his life, watching his mother and father support their community through church and other events, so he always had a sense of giving back.
His service to his community started in college where he was senior class president and an active member of the NAACP and Alpha Pi Fraterni-
ty. Soon after college he began his career with the U. S. Department of Agriculture.
Since he’s moved to Lynchburg he has served on the executive boards of Big Brothers, Big Sisters; the United Way; the Campbell County Chapter
of the NAACP; and the Jubilee Family Development Center, a year-round facility where at risk kids come after school for activities and remediation.
He’s also been pastoring the Spring Hill Baptist Church in Brookneal for 19 years. Service is just part of his personality.
This is his 12th year serving on Lynchburg City Council and his sixth year as vice mayor.
Q: Who are some of your political role models or people you look to for inspiration?
A: My pastor Dr. Michael Turner in Staunton, VA; he does a lot for the community. I look to people who have their hands full, but are still willing to take on something else for the little guys or the people who can’t speak for themselves or don’t have the opportunity to be in that kind of leadership role.
Q: What advice would you give someone of color who is thinking about running for office?
A: They can do it. We so often now depend on other people to make decisions that will favor us, but the one thing I’d like people to know is that everybody is not racist or against them, they just don’t have the shared history or background. So if you don’t want to be overlooked you have to step up and let your voice be heard. People are not against you, but they don’t know what you’ve been through so you have to tell your own story.
Q: What are some challenges you face as an elected official of color?
A: There’s always a challenge that a lot of times people don’t think you have the credibility because you don’t have the background or shared history of others. There are some families, like a dynasty in politics, like the Bushes, the Kennedys and the Rockefellers, who have the background. A lot of times people of color are coming from a place where we are the first people to do this and you have to overcome people not taking you seriously or thinking that you are credible and knowledgeable and that you have the will to make decisions at this level. You have to remind people that ever since Reconstruction we’ve had individuals who are willing to step up to the plate. For example, Hiram Revels was the first African American man
elected to Congress after the Civil War. If we dig hard enough we can find role models and inspirational people who have done it before, and so we have to be willing to take that on.
Q: What is your favorite part of being on Lynchburg City Council?
A: Being able to represent the underdog and represent my community. I like being a part of a project and seeing it at the end of the day and being able to say I was part of that change and seeing people overcome challenges with our assistance.
"You want a city that promises smart growth."
Treney Tweedy was born and raised in the Rivermont neighborhood in Lynchburg in a working middle class family. Her dad was a welder and her mom worked on a factory line, and she describes her childhood as “normal,” until she decided during her senior year of high school to enter the Navy as a journalist aboard a naval ship. That was her first introduction to public service and to serving the community.
After serving three years in the Navy she returned to Lynchburg, got married and started a family. While raising her three children she become increasingly more involved in her neighborhood and began to see how her local government played a crucial role in her daily life. She spent nine years working for Lynchburg Public Schools as the public information officer, where she served as the liaison between principals, teachers, students and families and the media.
During that time she sat through every school board meeting, so she learned the roles of city council members and how they interacted with the school board when it came to planning and budgeting. This made her aware of community development and how all the moving parts work together. Tweedy also served six years on the school board; two of those years she served as vice chair. She decided she wanted to effect change on a larger scale and was elected to Lynchburg City Council in May 2014.
Q: Why is it important that people of color run for office?
A: It’s important because all voices need to be represented at the table of budgeting and policy making and I think it’s important to bring different perspectives. We all live in a community together. We all have to share infrastructure and we pay the same taxes. However, we all also have different needs in our neighborhoods and communities, so we need to make sure everyone’s voice is represented so that we can make improvements. Every culture and demographic needs to be represented. It allows us to hear perspectives from that group, experiences they have in the city, and it’s important that we all work together. Great representation makes for a great county.
Q: What are some challenges running for office?
A: Anyone who decides to put their name in needs to know that the public has to have some awareness of who you are, your resume and the type of work you do. Fundraising is important and can be a challenge so you have to network and learn how to be a candidate and the grueling schedule it sometimes has. So you have to talk with your family and campaign team.
Q: What are your favorite things about being in office?
A: My favorite things are the ability to serve people and to affect the future of your community, whether it’s short term or long term, and to be able to have a vote on those types of decisions. Whether it is economic development or zoning, you want to be a part of making sure it all works for the quality of life in your community. That it all makes sense for businesses, residents, that it is environmentally friendly and that it works for the education system and for the taxpayer in general. You want a city that promises smart growth, so being able to affect all that by sitting in a seat of leadership, you’re able to have a full view and get all the information about what the city can grow into.
Q: Who are your political role models?
A: There are so many individual names that come to mind so it is hard to single out one person. I more look at leadership style, whether it’s local government or state officials, previous or current city council members, it’s the leadership style of engaging people. I think it’s being out there and talking to folks; it’s understanding that people watch your council meetings and want to engage with you when they see you in person and talk about some of the issues. Being accessible and present at events and making sure that the public and those that did and didn’t vote for you know that you are on the job and trying to make a difference.
Q: What are some things that you hope to leave as your legacy in office?
A: I hope that I am able to bring the perspective of many residents in our community to the table. When we look in particular in our Lynchburg community, we are looking at the issue of poverty and how it affects our citizens and what does that really mean for our community? How can we create the opportunities to increase our workforce development? Let’s look at our school system and provide resources for students and families so they can be a part of the greater economy in our state. We want them to create lives for their families that they want and help them to come out of poverty and create generational wealth for themselves. So I hope I’m able to look at the system and help the different parts of the system engage to help the most people and enact the change we all want to see happen.
Sharon Brooks Hodge
"Be free to think outside of the political norm."
Martinsville Councilwoman Sharon Brooks Hodge’s journey to settling down in Southside Virginia was an evolution of her life experiences. Hodge spent 25 years in journalism and corporate communications before becoming the executive director of the Black Family Preservation Group, Inc. in Martinsville, a national organization that promotes marriage and stable, two-parent African American home environments.
Originally from Northern Virginia, she and her husband decided to call Martinsville home because of her husband’s deep family roots. His grandfather was Clay B. Hodge, a prominent African American of his time and very involved in NAACP and the Voters League. Hodge decided to get into politics when she discovered the only African American representative on city council wasn’t going to run again. “I said if no one else is going to do it, I’m going to do it.” At first she called herself a “placeholder,” taking the office until they could recruit another African American representative, but she liked it so much she stayed.
Q: Why is it so important for people of color to be involved in public service?
A: I have to be careful because I’m not from here and sometimes I have to watch how I say things. Quite frankly though, I have some issues with the black community not taking ownership and leadership. I’m the first black woman on council, and Jennifer Bowles is the youngest person ever to serve on city council at age 25. We are both UVA grads. This is the first time in the city’s history we have two African American women on city council. We can really make a difference on issues that previously may not have been talked about, because when one person says it, it can be taken as an opinion. When two people can agree on an issue, it can kind of start a conversation. We are a community made up of 45% black, 6% Hispanic, 49% white, so we are a city with a majority of people of color and we still have no representation from the Hispanic community on city council. I did have to prove myself because I have Republican ties, and for some in the black community they would ask me, “Am I just pretending to be black?” Well, during my term I’ve pretty much proven my blackness, but not abandoned my political philosophy of fiscal prudence; I’m a tightwad. I am very much black, now it’s what do I want out of government. It’s taken me about a year for people to stop just looking at me as the black person.
Q: Why do we not see more people of color running for office?
A: In the past there’s been a feeling that they’re not going to listen to me anyway or the government owes me something. My philosophy is save yourself. It’s taken me three years, but I’ve been working with community development programs and churches to benefit the West End of Martinsville, which is a predominately black community. They’ve received a gift from Wells Fargo on the West End, of two vacant buildings, so they’re going to renovate the properties and instead of flipping them they are going to rent the properties and use the money for future development of the West End. It takes someone to champion it and spearhead it and try to give other people confidence to do it.
Q: Who are some of your political role models?
A: I have Republican leanings. I tend to look toward people like J.C. Watts, people who can still be black, but be free to think outside of the political norm and work both sides of the aisles. I don’t have a role model that I emulate so much as I feel like I have my own brand, and I want to have the autonomy to do what people want me to do instead of follow someone else.