Presidential Candidates Struggle to Lure the Young Black Christian Vote

Presidential Candidates Struggle to Lure the Young Black Christian Vote

Video Courtesy of CBS46 Atlanta


It’s no secret that the Democratic Party cannot win national elections without the black vote. Less well understood by major Democratic candidates and donors is that black voters are not a monolith. Particularly in the black church, we fall along a wide spectrum of conservative and liberal social values. Our intersections related to race and gender are complex and nuanced.

When black people say that they are tired of our votes being taken for granted, we are referring in part to this lack of understanding. Gaining our vote requires gaining more than a cursory understanding of who we are as a people. Candidates will need to be able to speak to a full range of issues and concerns and, just as importantly, feel comfortable engaging directly with a range of African American people.

Three years ago, the Black Church PAC was formed to give our historically critical voting demographic a greater voice before we go to the polls. On Friday and Saturday (Aug. 16 and 17), the PAC held its first candidate forum, with an audience of 5,000 African American Christian millennials from 42 different states at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta.

Seven of the top-tier candidates were invited, and five attended: Secretary Julian Castro, Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sens. Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at the Black Church PAC forum during the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab

The forum not only gave candidates an opportunity to make their case for why black voters should entrust them with their vote; it tested the candidates’ ability to connect with young black churchgoers who lean in a socially conservative direction — a voting bloc that is not necessarily well acquainted with long-established Democratic politicians and that has not necessarily bought in to the traditional progressive talking points.

Candidates got a chance to address the full conference but also met with small groups of voters and engaged in spirited dialogue about critical issues ranging from gun violence and the criminal justice system to student loan debt, immigration, education, health care and reparations. These sessions tested candidates’ expertise on critical issues but also revealed how comfortable they were listening to and being challenged by those with experiences very different from their own.

During the meeting, we ran a survey of close to 800 conference attendees to gauge their opinions about the candidates and issues, in addition to gathering qualitative responses. We plan to have a briefing with candidates to share these results before we make them public, but some quick takeaways include:

  • Candidates who attended experienced a significant bump in their support; candidates who didn’t experienced a significant drop in their support.
  • Close to 10% of respondents are unfamiliar with the candidates who were listed.
  • The most important issues among those to take the survey: jobs/economy, gun violence, white nationalism.

A critical finding here is that most candidates have simply not broken through to young African American voters. This is alarming because, if this vital demographic is not actively engaged in selecting the eventual nominee, Democrats may end up with a nominee who fails to engage a significant voting bloc in the general election.

Sen. Cory Booker addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab

Compounding this problem is the fact that Democrats have a miserable record of investing in black grassroots organizers, black community-based organizations and black political consultants, who are often best equipped to mobilize black voters.

Steve Phillips, the civil rights lawyer and founder of the website Democracy in Color, has described at great length the billion-dollar blunders Democratic and Allied Progressive groups continue to make in their political spending. The lessons to take from these unforced errors, he has said, are clear: Political spending in the Democratic ecosystem must be early, often and targeted to groups who register; and we must educate and mobilize black and brown voters, especially for turnout on Election Day.

When these types of investments are made, the results are dramatic. It was the targeted mobilization of black churches and historically black college students by black organizers and black political strategists that provided the margin of victory in the historic election of Democratic Sen. Doug Jones in Alabama in 2017.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, left, takes questions from moderators the Rev. Leah Daughtry and the Rev. Michael McBride during the Black Church PAC forum at the Young Leaders Conference on Aug. 17, 2019, in Atlanta. Video screengrab

The same kind of results could be achieved in swing states throughout the country if, rather than centering their campaigns around convincing white “Reagan Democrats” to stay blue, candidates doubled down on turning out reliably blue African American voters in places like Milwaukee, Detroit and Philadelphia.

We suspect that when candidates and their teams forgo this approach, it is because they do not have either the cultural proficiency or the willingness to make the black grassroots investments required to pull off this type of strategy. No one expects large numbers of blacks to vote for President Trump; however, operating as if African American and other voters will come out in droves simply to vote against Trump — without giving them someone who is compelling to vote for — is a risky and reckless approach.

Even within the more conservative bloc of the black church, Trump’s message is repulsive to millennials and their black elders. Unlike white evangelicals, whose support for Trump still hovers above 80%, socially conservative-leaning black church members detected very clearly the racialized rhetoric and dangerous policies of Trump and overwhelmingly do not support him. With meaningful engagement, these voters can be activated to vote for a candidate who promotes a compelling vision of belonging, justice and opportunity for all.

Through this election cycle and beyond, we will continue to give candidates opportunities to make their case and truly listen to black voters.

Presidential candidate Mayor Pete Buttigieg addresses the first day of the Black Church PAC presidential candidate forum at the Young Leaders Conference in Atlanta on Aug. 16, 2019. Video screengrab

(The Rev. Michael McBride is pastor of The Way Church in Berkeley, California, and national director of Faith in Action’s urban strategies and LIVE FREE Project. The Rev. Leah Daughtry, former CEO of the Democratic National Convention Committee, is presiding prelate-elect of The House of the Lord Churches and a founding board member of the Black Church PAC. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Rise & Shine: Could church vans inspire a solution to student absenteeism?

Rise & Shine: Could church vans inspire a solution to student absenteeism?


This story was originally published on Chalkbeat.


Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti was driving through the city early one Sunday morning when the sight of church vans picking up members to take them to services gave him an idea for combating absenteeism in the district.

The vans, he realized, were a way for church leaders to overcome barriers that prevent members from attending services.

“I thought we needed to do the same thing as a district,” Vitti said last week.

The district now plans to purchase six 10-passenger vans that will serve dual purposes: In addition to providing transportation for special education students who require door-to-door service, the vans will also be used — likely by attendance agents — to pick up chronically absent students and take them to school. The vans would be assigned to schools with particularly high rates of chronic absenteeism.

It’s an unusual tactic that could help the district address a staggering problem: Seventy percent of district students were labeled chronically absent during the last school year, meaning they missed 18 or more days of school. Improving attendance is key to turnaround efforts in the district.

“I’ve never heard of another district that’s tried this,” said Hedy Chang, executive director of Attendance Works, a national organization that helps schools improve attendance.

She cited some research released in 2017 that looked at whether the ways students get to school influenced whether they attend. The findings: Children who took the school bus had fewer absent days and were less likely to be chronically absent.


Video Courtesy of SXSW EDU


“This is why I think it could be helpful,” she said of the vans.

But Chang noted that it’s important to use the vans as part of a “larger, comprehensive approach” that includes a lot of outreach and the work of attendance teams who address absenteeism issues and pore over data.

The vans will be part of a pilot and will add to efforts already underway to address absenteeism. This year, the district made a significant investment in combating chronic absenteeism, spending $9 million to put an attendance agent in nearly every school. The district has also tried to address issues that might impact attendance — such as improving school culture, improving customer service, and ensuring every school has art or music classes.

Meanwhile, community groups such as United Way for Southeastern Michigan and Skillman Foundation (which is a Chalkbeat funder) have brought resources to the district through an Every School Day Counts initiative. As part of that effort, staff at 27 of the district’s most struggling schools meet regularly to share ideas and best practices for combating chronic absenteeism. 

It’s not the first time vans have been used in Detroit to address chronic absence. Chang cited an experiment launched by some church leaders that lasted for a little more than a semester back in 2012. One of those leaders, the Rev. Larry Simmons, who now heads up the Brightmoor Alliance, said that after that short experiment, the group decided the problem was larger and more complex than anyone realized and it needed a more systemic approach than their small effort could address. He said that systemic approach is now happening through the Every School Day Counts initiative.

There are signs the current work is having an impact. Vitti has cited lower chronic absenteeism rates across the district as well as improved daily attendance rates.

Vitti raised the idea of using the vans to address chronic absenteeism during school board committee meetings last month. His original plan had been to purchase nearly a dozen of the vans, but board members who heard the plan suggested starting smaller and expanding if it’s successful. The pilot will cost about $200,000.

The district will work with attendance agents so they can get a chauffeur’s license, which Vitti said is required to use the vans to transport students. In cases where the agent doesn’t receive a license, the district would hire someone specifically to drive the vans.

“This recommendation is related to our strategy to try to go deeper into the neighborhoods to try to reach out to parents,” Vitti said.

Board member Angelique Peterson-Mayberry asked during the April 29 meeting whether transportation is the reason students aren’t coming to school.

Vitti replied that attendance agents already are using their own cars to visit the homes of students who are chronically absent, and often bringing students to school.

“Sometimes parents are just overwhelmed and not sending their children to school,” Vitti said. “So, when the attendance agent visits the home and talks about attending school, often they’re taking that child to school in their own car.”

“We know that in Detroit, transportation is huge,” Chang said. It’s huge, she said, because students often have to deal with unsafe routes to school. She noted that one California school district found that the students with the most chronic absence were those who lived closest to the high school who were afraid to walk to school.

In Detroit, the district already provides school bus transportation to K-8 general education students who live more than three-quarters of a mile away from their neighborhood school, and for high school students who live more than a mile and a half from their neighborhood school. Transportation for students with special education needs is determined on a case-by-case basis.

Jennifer Erb-Downward, a senior research associate at Poverty Solutions at the University of Michigan, said transportation is also a problem for a particularly vulnerable group of students.

“Transportation is a huge issue for many families in Detroit, but particularly for families experiencing housing instability,” said Erb-Downward, who has done research on chronic absenteeism in Michigan. “That’s because they’re moving from place to place.”

She said her gut reaction is that the vans could benefit students struggling to get to school.

“You need a transportation system that’s flexible in some way,” she said.

Southern Baptists Confront Tough Cultural Issues

Southern Baptists Confront Tough Cultural Issues

SBC President J.D. Greear speaks on a panel discussion about racial reconciliation during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 11, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill.

At their annual meeting, Southern Baptists re-elected their president, adopted statements on their views about major cultural issues, and discussed how to deal with sexual abuse and racial discrimination in the church.

They also brought to center stage questions about church leadership roles that are appropriate for women in the church.

North Carolina pastor J.D. Greear, who was elected Tuesday (June 11) to a second one-year term as president, had emphasized a “Gospel Above All” theme for the meeting. He said that message was linked to multicultural worship music throughout the meeting and the inclusive approach Baptists took in appointing leaders to the convention’s various committees.

“We’re not where we need to be on those things, but I believe a signal has been sent that we believe that’s where we need to go,” he said at a news conference at the conclusion of the meeting on Wednesday.

“Now it’s on us to take the right steps at the right time and to move in a way that shows that it’s not words or virtue signaling but it’s something that we mean because we believe the Bible teaches it.”

Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President R. Albert Mohler Jr. said that in the past, issues of diversity were usually discussed mostly in hallways among small groups of church delegates, known as messengers. At this meeting, the conversations were held on the main stage of the gathering, which drew more than 8,000 messengers.

A Wednesday panel discussion on the value of women talked about whether a woman could be pastor (no, since the SBC’s doctrine limits that role to men) and whether a woman could one day become a president of the Southern Baptist Convention (maybe, since nothing in the SBC’s governing documents precludes women from that role).

A messenger speaks to a motion during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019 in Birmingham, Ala. (RNS Photo/Butch Dill)

Panelists in a Tuesday discussion on racial reconciliation addressed how the issue affects both local congregations and the larger church. A pastor on the panel mentioned how a church member left his congregation when the congregant disagreed with the minister’s support of Baptists’ vote several years ago to repudiate the Confederate flag. Another mentioned how people of color are not likely to get to executive meeting rooms until they are in the same dining rooms with influential white leaders.

“It was definitely a different convention,” said Mohler. “There were more women’s voices and, by intentionality, more voices from African Americans and others who we very much want to be a part of the future of the Southern Baptist Convention.”

Pastor Dwight McKissic, a Texas minister who has advocated for more minorities and women to be placed in positions of leadership, agreed the issue of inclusion was highlighted at the meeting.

“It was clearly a move in that direction, stronger than I’ve ever seen, and I welcomed it and celebrate it,” he said.

Still, McKissic was concerned about a lack of diversity in the leadership of major Southern Baptist entities. He noted that the trustee chairman of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary told messengers the search committee had considered several minority candidates when hiring a new president. But McKissic was disappointed that the board chair of the Executive Committee declined to be as forthcoming about details of its recent hiring process for a new president.


RELATED: Southern Baptist historic gavel a reminder of racist legacy


Abuse victim advocates noted the many actions Southern Baptists took on the abuse issue — including the introduction of “Caring Well” handbooks and video resources. But they still urged the convention to set up a database to help track abusers and keep them from moving from church to church.

Messengers hold up an SBC abuse handbook while taking a challenge to stop sexual abuse during the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention at the BJCC, June 12, 2019, in Birmingham, Ala. RNS photo by Butch Dill

“A clergy database must be established, documenting confessed, convicted or credibly accused abusers,” said advocate Cheryl Summers at a rally she organized outside the Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex on Tuesday. “We have seen some progress, but there is a lot more work to be done.”

On Wednesday, Baptists also passed resolutions, nonbinding statements that give a sense of the views of those gathered for the annual meeting. They included:

  • Urging the Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision that legalized abortion and celebrating “recent bipartisan gains in state legislatures that restrict abortion.”
  • Calling the U.S. government to make religious liberty “a top priority of American foreign policy in its engagement with North Korea and China.”
  • Recognizing critical race theory and intersectionality as “analytical tools” but repudiating their misuse.
  • Urging the president and Congress to not include women in the Selective Service military registration, “which would be to act against the plain testimony of Scripture and nature.”
  • Affirming their “commitment to Christ comes before commitment to any political party.”
Make Fitness a Priority this Summer

Make Fitness a Priority this Summer

Young woman performing warming up exercises

I had the pleasure of speaking to a group of graduating seniors and their families last weekend during a Community Baccalaureate Service. I shared from 1 Timothy about the importance of living godly, persevering, and being people of character.

I have just completed an intensive spring of travels and speaking, which had me thinking about the importance of preserving in every area of our lives. Specifically, I have recommitted myself to physical training and the strength conditioning of my body.

I was once a fit and competitive athlete. While serving in the military I always obtained top scores on my physical fitness tests. After transitioning to a different career, however, it was more difficult to be consistent in my workouts. I fell out of love with running. I didn’t have a goal or fitness test to prepare for, and I had lost the support of a like-minded community. I was suffering from a case of PAM:

PRIORITY – When my schedule got busy (which it often was), my workouts would be the first thing to drop from my daily routine. There always seemed like something else was more important to do. I have been really inconsistent over the past couple of years. I would wake up, attempt to get dressed and discover that I could barely fit into my jeans. I would work out consistently for a few weeks, drop the pounds, and repeat the cycle.

ACCOUNTABILITY – In addition to not prioritizing my workouts, few of my local friends prioritized their physical fitness. There were a couple of friends who I occasionally worked out with, but I didn’t consistently have a partner or workout buddy. No one called to make me get up early or challenged me to make the time in my schedule.

MOTIVATION – I can’t honestly say that I always wanted to work out. I have fairly good genes. Most of the women in my family are at or below the average American weight. I’m taller than the average woman and have always been fairly small. My motivation was never a weight issue. I also eat fairly healthy, and my vitals are always great when I go to the doctor, so I’m not all that concerned with my health. My biggest concern and the conclusion I have drawn is: This is an area in my life where I have become lazy. It is that simple and I don’t like it!

In 1 Timothy, Paul wrote:

Have nothing to do with godless myths and old wives’ tales; rather train yourself to be godly. For physical training is of some value, but godliness has value for all things, holding promise for both the present life and the life to come (1 Tim 4:7-8 NIV).

Paul also wrote in 1 Cor. 9:24-27:

Do you not know that in a race all the runners run, but only one gets the prize? Run in such a way as to get the prize. Everyone who competes in the games goes into strict training. They do it to get a crown that will not last; but we do it to get a crown that will last forever. Therefore I do not run like a man beating the air. No, I beat my body and make it my slave so that after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified for the prize.

In these passages and other scriptures, the Apostle Paul makes the analogy between physical and spiritual discipline. His audience lived in a very athletic and militarized society, so he spoke in a language that they would have understood. He acknowledges the importance of training and disciplining our bodies. He connects the perseverance of this discipline to motivate his hearers concerning their spiritual life. He is basically asking them to consider:

If we are not disciplined in the simple things of this world, like the stewardship of our own bodies (which belong to the Lord), how can we persevere in the more important spiritual matters?

When we make daily decisions about the priority, accountability, and motivation concerning our physical training, we are disciplining ourselves and learning to persevere in the simple things of this life. This is good steward of the gifts of a healthy body and able limbs that God has given us.

I have decided to defeat PAM. I made some changes this year, particularly over the past two months:

PRIORITY – I thank God that I have been able to join a gym that offers classes. When I am not traveling, I schedule gym classes into my day like I would a meeting or a phone conference. Once the workout is on my calendar, I don’t miss it unless I have another option in the day that will work better.

ACCOUNTABILITY – The gym classes offer a great deal of accountability because I know when I am supposed to show up. We can call this self-leadership. When I get there, an instructor has prepared and motivates me to push myself along the way. I see the instructor as my accountability partner, he or she will not allow me to rest too long between sets or quit on myself.

My husband also bought me a Fitbit for Christmas. This helpful tool gives users the ability to track daily steps, sleep, food and calorie intake, heart rate, etc. I primarily use it to track my steps. So much of my work requires that I sit in a chair. My progress (or lack thereof) on the Fitbit lets me know when I have sat too long or when I need to get up and get moving around. It is recommended that we walk 10,000 steps a day to maintain weight on the average American diet. That is my daily step goal. Entering step competitions (which can include walking or running) with friends also keeps me accountable to this challenge.

mcopelandwillwhatiwant-resizeMOTIVATION – I wish I could tell you that the Word of God convicted me and motivated me to change my slothfulness in this area of my life. The truth is female soloist at American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland, was my inspiration. I follow @mistyonpointe on Instagram and am constantly motivated by her strength and physical stamina. I will never have Misty’s body, but she has motivated me to work hard for my best physical self.

My five favorite exercises right now are:

Squats

Lunges

Bicep Curls

Chest Press

High Knees

The instructors always put push-ups at the end of the workout when I am weak, but I am working my way back up to proficiency in this area that used to be a strength.

In St. Louis, ‘Grill to Glory’ deploys churches (and hot dogs) for community renewal

In St. Louis, ‘Grill to Glory’ deploys churches (and hot dogs) for community renewal

Arlene Mckenzie, left, handles the cooking at a barbecue hosted by her church, Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist, on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger

James Clark has a perfect recipe for getting to know your neighbors.

Set up a grill.

Light some charcoal.

And put on some hot dogs.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Clark, vice president of community outreach at the nonprofit Better Family Life, was offering hot dogs to passers-by at Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist Church in North St. Louis.

Even the mailman dropped by to see what was going on. He joked that he planned to stop by for hot dogs at five other churches having similar cookouts for neighbors that day.

“That’s what I am talking about,” Clark responded and laughed.

The cookouts are part of “Grill to Glory” — a partnership between local churches and Better Family Life to build community in North St. Louis, an area plagued by violent crime.

In 2016, almost 70% of the homicides in St. Louis occurred in North St. Louis, according to an analysis of St. Louis Metropolitan Police Department data done by the news organization The Trace and the Missouri School of Journalism.

That chaos creates a sense of hopelessness among people who live in that area, Clark said. And he thinks churches are the institutions best positioned to host barbecues and in doing so, change the psyche of residents who might otherwise be drawn to crime.

“It becomes a neighborhood magnet and conversations begin. Members of the church are there, and they are not aggressively trying to push the Bible. They are just saying, ‘We are the church. We’re here. Come fellowship with us. And if you are free tomorrow morning, why don’t you come to service?’” Clark explained.

Grill to Glory aims to bond North St. Louis through community outreach and fellowship. Photo by StockSnap/Creative Commons

So far, Cook has helped organize events at more than 60 churches around North St. Louis.

Grill to Glory is an offshoot of Better Family Life’s “neighborhood opioid triage,” in which the group tries to help addicts in open-air drug markets by handing out toiletries and Narcan (used to revive someone who is overdosing from opioids), offering to take them to treatment centers and grilling hot dogs.

At one such drug market near a liquor store on North Grand Boulevard, police were called “104 times in a 12-month period for assaults, shootings, drug use, fights and unruly behavior,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported in March 2018. Crime analysts and community leaders have linked the growth of such drug markets to increased gun violence in recent years.

In January 2018, Leonard Missionary Baptist Church, located near a drug market, started to hold barbecues on Saturdays.

Some 60 guests would come each week, Clark said.

After seeing the growth, he thought, “what would happen to the neighborhood if we could get the collective church body to buy into this model? And it’s low-hanging fruit. The ask of the church is relatively small.”

So on May 4, Better Family Life, which is not a religious organization, launched the program.

The group has received a few $1,000 donations and has spent about $3,500 so far on grills, lighter fluid, charcoal and food items, said Clark. It’s also asked the churches to contribute supplies such as tables and tents.

Grill to Glory organizer James Clark, right, is greeted while visiting different church barbecue sites on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger

Clark, who has worked for Better Family Life since 1997, received the 2018 Nonprofit Executive of the Year Award from the St. Louis American Foundation, which runs the newspaper that covers the local African-American community. President Trump met Clark at a national conference and thanked him for his efforts to reduce violence.

Around 11 a.m. on May 18, Clark and BJ the DJ, the assistant program director for iHeartRadio’s local hip-hop, R&B and gospel radio stations, left the Better Family Life headquarters in North St. Louis with the goal of stopping at as many barbecues as possible.

BJ had been promoting the effort on his morning show on Hallelujah (1600 AM).

“James and I talked about it, and we saw that the churches were not connected to the community,” said BJ, who has invited clergy to talk about the program on air.

“A lot of times you go past the church and you don’t see any activities,” he said. “It’s like they are there but they are not there.”

At the first stop, Christ’s Southern Mission Baptist Church, Arlene Mckenzie stood over the grill; she’s the church’s culinary specialist.

She’s 63 years old and started attending the church as a young child. She now lives three houses down.

“My heart is for feeding the people. I pass out food up and down the neighborhood, and it’s just a vision of mine. I believe it’s really coming true,” she added.

Another longtime church member, Deborah Mason, said she thinks this is one of the church’s first such efforts since it moved into the neighborhood in 1960.

“People want to know that you care, especially the church. If we are supposed to be models of Christ — that’s what he did. He got up with the people. He was a party animal,” said Mason.

Cheryl Collins, right, chats with fellow attendees at Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church’s Grill to Glory event on May 18, 2019, in North St. Louis. RNS photo by Eric Berger

At the next stop on Clark’s hop, Cheryl Collins, a member of Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church, offered a hot dog to a young man walking by. He declined.

“How about a prayer?” Collins said.

He stopped and came over.

Church members were all smiles as they embraced Clark and BJ the DJ. Clark hopes to enlist 112 churches around North St. Louis.

“I’m having a ball, man,” said one church member. “This is where it’s at.”

Ike Ghee, a homeless 70-year-old man, said he was unable to bring anything to the barbecue — the church already had the necessary supplies — but wanted to participate.

“I had a divorce and things kinda turned but I’m still God’s child,” he said. “He’s showing me that he’s still here.”

First ladies in Africa: a close look at how three have wielded influence

First ladies in Africa: a close look at how three have wielded influence

Former First Lady Grace Mugabe representing Zimbabwe at an Organization of African First Ladies Against HIV and AIDS summitEPA/Khaled Elfiqi

The role played by the wives of heads of state in Africa has been largely ignored. In a bid to contribute to this under-researched area we analyzed the political role, influence, and activities of First Ladies in a number of countries on the continent.

We put together the African First Ladies Database to analyze the functions, roles, strategies, and agency of some of Africa’s most influential First Ladies. Our focus was mostly on southern Africa. But our research also covered East and Central Africa. We included first ladies in our database based on their proximity to the executive and other decision-makers.

Three emerged as particularly influential. These were Janet Museveni, wife of Uganda’s Yoweri Museveni; Grace Mugabe, the wife of Zimbabwe’s former president Robert Mugabe; and Denise Nkurunziza, wife of Burundi’s President Pierre Nkurunziza. All have been politically ambitious and actively supported their husbands’ rule.

Our paper addressed their political agendas, roles, influence, and accountability. We found that they were influential political actors who were active domestically, regionally and internationally. This enabled them to influence relationships and to extract political support, as well as financial gain through tenders and government funding.

Our findings raise questions about the accountability of first ladies and the transparency of their public duties and private interests. But Africa’s first ladies aren’t on their own. Similar accusations have been made against others elsewhere. For example, during the presidential tenure of her husband, Hillary Clinton was often described as interfering with White House politics and Capitol Hill decisions. Similar accusations were made against, among others, Imelda Marcos of The Philippines.

First Ladies as political activists

We found that the first ladies acted as power brokers and members of an inner circle. They actively mobilized support for their spouses. They used strategies such as their personal narratives, their country’s liberation history, religion and culture. They supported their husbands’ campaigns and downplayed, denied or simply remained silent on the failures of their husbands’ governments.

Grace Mugabe: Her political career spanned a mere three years (2014-2017) when she was elected as the President of the ZANU-PF Women’s League. This role meant that she automatically became a member of the party’s Politburo. She was successful in gaining support for her husband’s tenure as well as her own political ambitions from religious leaders, youth and the Women’s League, traditional leaders, and minority apostolic churches.

She made some noteworthy claims of support for her husband. For example, she publicly stated that even if he were to be incapacitated, Zimbabweans would vote for him because he was God-ordained.

Besides addressing religious rallies, she used nationwide “Meet the People” tours to brand herself and the President.

Grace Mugabe often welcomed and hosted foreign Heads of State and Government at her Harare home, and at State House. Her close proximity to the President gave her access to influential political networks that she exploited to buy properties and run businesses.

Denise Nkurunziza: She led the Burundi ruling party’s Women’s League (the Abakenyererarugamba). Like other African First Ladies, she used religion to endorse and support her husband’s rule. She is also an ordained Reverend.

Christians are a significant audience for the Nkurunzizas. They often hold prayer groups and wash the feet of members of the congregation. In 2017, the ruling party promoted President Pierre Nkurunziza as the “Supreme Everlasting Guide” (“Visionary”), adding to the personality cult that had been emerging around him. In 2018, Pierre Nkurunziza established Thursdays as a national Burundian Day of Prayer devoted to Christ and to fasting with prayers “without exception” for the ruling party.

Another key constituency for Denise Nkurunziza was influential women who held senior positions across the political and military spectrum.

The office of the First Lady was also used to bolster diplomatic relations between Burundi and the international community.

Janet Museveni: She was appointed as Minister of State for Karamoja by her husband in 2009. The Karamojong saw the move as a sign of the President’s affection for them.

She also served as a member of Parliament representing Ruhaama County in Ntungamo District between 2006 and 2016 and is currently the minister for education

Beyond her career in politics, she is revered by some as the “Mother of the Nation” thanks to her social outreach on maternal health.

In 2014, the Global Decency Index (GDI), invented by Decent Africa, an African fashion brand, announced that she was “the most decent African First Lady”.

Her pious, nurturing image contributes to her husband’s credibility locally and internationally.

Like her counterparts in Zimbabwe and Burundi, Janet Museveni believes that Museveni was ordained by God – as does he.

Patriarchy still rules

Despite their own political experience, ambitions and influence, we found that the three women we studied remained subordinate to the patriarchy in their societies. A few gender biases were evident.

One was in expectations of the role of the First Lady. They were expected to be spouse, mother, caregiver, and nurturer of the sick, young and elderly. Another was that the Offices of the First Lady were fully directed from within the President’s office. This meant that the flow of information about them was skewed to project as ideal woman, trophies and a trailblazer for issues stereotyped and associated with women.

In addition, none of the constitutions of the countries we examined referred to the position.

This, in our view, reflects an impression that the role isn’t important – because it is, by and large, held by women. It also undermines democratic accountability.

We believe there should be constitutional clarity and accountability – which would herald accountability – on the formal role, powers, and functions of First Ladies.

Arina Muresan was a co-author of this piece. She is a member of our team.The Conversation

Jo-Ansie van Wyk, Professor in International Politics, University of South Africa and Chidochashe Nyere, Lecturer, University of Pretoria

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.