Rep. Alma Adams’ address at HBCU Symposium
U.S. Rep. Alma Adams, a Congresswoman from North Carolina, has been an uncompromising advocate of Historically Black Colleges and Universities for many years – including her 20 years as a state legislator and in the last five years since she was elected to Congress in 2014.
As product of an HBCU (North Carolina A&T, two degrees), a 40-year art professor at Bennett College, and the strongest voice for HBCUs in Congress, Rep. Adams was a highly anticipated keynote speaker at the 9th annual HBCU Philanthropy Symposium hosted by Delaware State University.
Held at the Dover Downs Hotel and Casino near the Delaware State University campus, below is the address given by Rep. Adams to an audience of HBCU institutional advancement professionals from 29 schools across the country as well as participating funders, corporate partners and stakeholders:
“Thank you all for being here for what I know will be an exciting and scholarly exchange and a formulation of networking and strategies with a common goal, as our Congresswoman just said, bridging advancement and student success. While you are bridging, you’re forming necessary bonds to not only support our schools and our institutions with whom you have invested and are affiliated, but you are helping to sustain them well into the future to ensure that not only HBCUs survive but that our schools thrive.
I always have to say that I don’t ever want to hear folks ask me, why do we need HBCUs? So, I change that around and ask the question. What in the hell would we do without our HBCUs?
I want to commend you for your service because it is the rent that we pay for living on this earth. And I want to thank (U.S. Rep.) Lisa Blunt Rochester (who introduced her to the audience)… she represents this university and the state extraordinarily well. She keeps Washington on its toes, so I do gently and fondly call her “Little Lisa.”
I do bring you greetings from my district in North Carolina, the 12th Congressional District in Charlotte and Mecklenburg. I also as well bring you greetings from the 116th Congress, our speaker Nancy Pelosi, and all of our leadership team. And from the 55 members of the Congressional Black Caucus. We are known as the conscious of Congress and know if you’re watching, we need a conscious right now in the Congress.
I bring you greetings as well from the 90 members of the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus and my co-chair Bradley Byrne, and we still argue, he and I, about which of our states have the most HBCUs; he says Alabama, and I say North Carolina.
We have gathered today for a necessary and unique exchange, for collaborative networking and for dialogue we must have. Each of you in your respective field of philanthropy, whether corporate or academia, you embrace a similar audience – students and a common purpose – education.
And you are believers in that fundamental right that WEB DuBois talked about. Of all of the civil rights the world has struggled and fought for 500 years, the right to learn is undoubtably the most fundamental.
So, my appreciation is for each of you, and particularly to our schools and presidents, to our commitment to that fundamental right.
You know times are critical right now. And as I continue to pay close attention to the national climate and to the environment in HBCU land, I am convinced HBCUs are under siege and I believe absolutely it is time now for a “Come to Jesus meeting.”
Traveling over here yesterday in the automobile from Washington, I read a familiar warning that we see in our sideview mirror of our cars every time we get in there. And it says that:
The objects in the mirror are closer than they appear. And reading those words, I was reminded what is ahead for our institutions if we don’t, as the young people say, “stay woke.” And if we fail to be proactive as stakeholders and caretakers of our schools. Because the objects in the mirror, the objects of funding and equality, of discrimination, of diminishing endowments and enrollment, of institutions shut down, they are all indeed closer than they appear.
And because they are so close, as your conference theme suggests, bridging advancement and student success will be necessary to collectively build the bridges and form those bonds for HBCU sustainability.
Because failing to do so puts our institutions and the students we serve in serious harm’s way, and our nation’s future in peril.
And so, I am very appreciative to Delaware State, Dr. Pickrum and for its president for their leadership in hosting and organizing this event to help Historically Black Colleges and Universities become stronger in the fundraising and the institutional advancement arena, and the friend raising too.
I am a proud two-time HBCU graduate, and HBCU blood runs through my veins, because I know what HBCUs do, because I know what my HBCU did for me.
To all the graduates here, you know what your HBCU did for you. To the faculty, to the advancement staff, the CEOs and presidents, you know what you are doing for the students you are serving right now
I know that in this audience today, there are institution advancement folks who do this work every day. But I’ve got to tell you that the objects in the mirror are so very close, the sustainability of our institution HBCUs is not just the business of the advancement experts. Institutional advancement is all of our business. It is the responsibility for HBCU sustainability and philanthropy; all of those things belong to each of us.
I am a living testament of what HBCUs have always done for students who simply need an opportunity, just like the opportunity I needed 51 years ago. Having taught for four decades at an HBCU, educated twice at an HBCU, I was a first-generation college student who grew up walking the ghetto streets of Newark, N.J. and now I am able to walk the halls of Congress.
I am convinced that where you start out in life doesn’t have to determine where you end up in life and how just far you can go.
Many of you in this audience today have invested your life’s work in these campuses. And I know that you know firsthand what I am talking about. So, excuse my grammar, but that ain’t fake news.
Our institutions need you, so continue to do the great work that you are doing. Founded out of necessity and historical exclusion from majority culture institutions of higher education, HBCUs – our schools – have been providing pathways to educational opportunity and upward mobility for more than a century.
We have nurtured generations of leaders in fields of science and law, and the arts and letters and civil rights and more.
One in five African American college graduates
50 percent of black professionals
40 percent of all black engineers
47 percent of all female black engineers
50 percent African American teachers
40 of all black health professionals
70 percent of dentists and physicians earned their degrees at an HBCU.
So even though HBCUs only make up three percent of our nation’s institutions of higher education, tell me who else can boast of success like these? Who else has been about to do so much with so little?
What is all of this about, some people might ask, what are these places?
Well let me tell you, it’s about affirmation, and it is about that black joy. It is HBCUs affirming your fullness and your wholeness as a person.
I had the privilege of having dinner with the DSU President Wilma Mishoe and we talked about that special sauce we have. The most proven measure of increasing the quality of life and improving income and upward mobility incomes are HBCUs.
Whether public or private, we are in the business of education. The two greatest assets that HBCUs have are our students and our alums. Students are our customers, alums our products. And so you see, our students are why you exist HBCUs and
they show you the value of what you have done. And seeing the real accomplishments of HBCU graduates, the value of our schools is readily apparent to anyone who will take the time to look.
They say if you see something, then say something. Ladies and gentlemen, as I look around this room, I see the power and I know we are HBCU strong, because of the dedicated mission of institutional advancement, of talented students and professors that walk our halls, and the leadership, our presidents and chancellors like Dr. Mishoe and the others here, who set the course for our institution. And again, we do this despite the gaps in the level of investment and resources compared to our white counterparts.
Even the most untrained observer can see the cracks in our foundation, both figuratively and literally.
The fact is that over our nearly 200 years of existence, the government has made deliberate choices that put our school behind the curve. Those choices could only have been made because far too long our government has not been accountable or concerned with the unique interest and needs of our HBCUs.
I’ll get to government’s role in a minute, but if you will indulge me for just a minute, I just want to mention the names of some schools you may not have heard of in quite a while:
Avery College, St. Paul’s College, Bishop College, Campbell College, Daniel Payne College, Friendship College, Guadalupe College, Kittrell College, Leland University, Lewis College of Business, Mary Holmes College, Mississippi Industrial College, Morristown College.
This is a list of some of the HBCUs that have closed, a list that goes back as far as 1943.
And it ends as recently as last year.
Five HBCUs have completely closed since 1989.
Several others including Knoxville College, Barber-Scotia College, Morris Brown College remain open with small enrollments after having been stripped of their accreditations.
So, when you look at these schools, what did they have in common. They closed, not because they were deficient in educating our students, not because they weren’t preparing our young people for the workforce.
They closed because of financial difficulty. That is what you are doing here today and over the next day or so. And that’s why it’s so important.
They close because of a lack of investment, because of dollars and cents.
When I came to Congress and I founded the Bipartisan HBCU Caucus, I did so with three purposes in mind: To start a national dialogue, to educate members of Congress and their staffs about the issues impacting HBCUs, and then to pass bipartisan legislation to address those concerns.
The reason I started the caucus and dedicated my career to the issues and concerns of HBCUs is because never again do I want to see an HBCU close because of a lack of money. That should not be.
Like me and Fannie Lou Hamer, as HBCU presidents, and those who are supporters, CEOs and institutional advancement officers, I know you’ve got to be sick and tired of being sick and tired of hearing that our schools are slowly diminishing. And as the wealthiest country in the world, it is unacceptable to me that 17 HBCUs have closed and the doors still remain cracked.
We’ve got to be concerned about that.
For too long HBCUs have been forced to do more with less. But I tell you, time is up for that.
So, when we look at the last couple of years, we’ve seen some successes in Congress. Since 2018 we’ve seen a collective increase of $109 million for HBCU line items across the federal budget. That includes Plus-Up and critical infrastructure programs, such as the HBCU Historic Preservation fund and the capital financing program.
There are also wins our schools secured in the 2018 Farm Bill. You saw the end of a discriminatory practice where the federal government took back 80 percent of HBCU agriculture extension money, when the 1862 (Land Grant) schools could keep everything and they weren’t required to turn anything back.
Due to the effort of the HBCU caucus, the efforts of the Congressional Black Caucus, advocates like your congresswoman who sat on the Ag Committee with me, our 1890 land grant will have the certainty that they can carry of over their funding from year to year. And you know that is the way it should have been from the very beginning.
The Farm Bill also included $80 million for scholarships and 1890 land grants, like Del State, who will create the next generation of black agriculture leaders.
And millions of dollars for our schools to create Centers of Excellence on HBCU campuses that will produce groundbreaking research and global food security and nutrition.
We’ve also got to interact more with our state legislatures and make sure they understand what is happening and they need to do and what their responsibilities are.
But it is clear that that our schools will not be able to thrive for another century and a half through government action alone, because you never know who’s going to be there, you never know what they are thinking about, and I don’t think they are always thinking about what they ought to be thinking about, and that includes me too.
It takes a collective partnership, it takes this type of approach which includes business, corporate partners, our foundations and private partners as well.
And one of the initiatives I created through the HBCU Caucus was the HBCU Partnership Challenge. And the Challenge was created with the recognition that strengthening public-private partnership investment in HBCUs is necessary. Not only for the schools, but for the future career prospects of the students as well. And it also benefits the companies.
The Challenge is a public pledge, a stated commitment that your organization is willing to create strategic partnership with our nation’s HBCUs.
I always tell folks, we’ve got the pipeline. If you are looking for diversity, this is where you’re find them, at an HBCU.
I hope that the companies who have not taken the pledge will take advantage of this opportunity and accept my personal invitation on behalf of the HBCU Caucus to come aboard and take the pledge. It won’t hurt; it’s a good thing.
Since 2017 we have been about using government’s other capacities to convene and create forums where industries and HBCUs can build ongoing relationships.
Because we all know for our schools to survive and most importantly thrive, they must have multiple streams of investments. Old tradition models of funding must be supplemented with new modern opportunities for HBCUs to make their endowments work for them.
The conversation you are having today and tomorrow is all about philanthropy for HBCUs. Which means promoting the welfare of our students and their schools through the donation of money. More than a worthy cause.
But when I think of the private sector and the corporate titans driving our economy, I cannot help but think that they are donating to HBCUs is not purely philanthropy. Because when they need a workforce that looks like America, when they need a workforce that looks like the people who buy their products and access their services, they turn to HBCUs.
So, it is not a coincidence that although our schools educate only three percent of all college students they produce, half of all black professionals in this country (are produced by HBCUs).
So, when these companies engage with our schools, they are more than getting a return on their investments. But that engagement cannot be just the same old job fairs and summer internship. You have got to think of strategic and sustainable partnership that includes infrastructure investment.
Our schools already produce top talent. Think what could be achieved with updated facilities that incorporate modern technologies. And that includes investment in curriculum development. There is no reason under any circumstance why our schools shouldn’t be able to teach to the needs of the today’s workforce
And once our students enter the workforce, that includes ensuring that the company culture is one that values their perspectives and input. And that can only happen if investment is sincere and engagement is enduring. And it can only happen if commitment goes beyond being concerned.
There’s a difference between being concerned and being committed. When you are concerned about something, you usually talk a lot about it, you meet a lot about it, and usually your position is negotiable, but you don’t do anything about it. But when you’re truly committed, you don’t just talk about the problem, but you do something about it. You act and your position is never negotiable
It’s kind of like the chicken and the pig. The chicken that provided the eggs for the meal simply made a contribution. But the pig who provided the bacon and thus gave his life, he made a commitment
Commitment exceeds that of providing minimum substance and it goes far beyond what is required.
Earlier in my comments, I said the two greatest assets that HBCUs have are our students and alums, and I still approve that message.
There’s no way as a proud HBCU graduate, two times, and one that has toiled in this vineyard for more than 40 years, that I could leave this podium without saying a collective word about our institutional responsibilities and the responsibilities of my brother and sister HBCU alums, the graduates who like me are beneficiaries of an HBCU education.
As we talk about giving, as we talk about finances, let me just say a word about America’s wealth, because it is important to think about the fact that there is a financial divide. The top one percent of households own more of the country’s wealth than the bottom 90 percent.
That gap between ultra-wealthy and everyone else has become wider in the past decade. And as institutions, we need to do something different – create new and inclusive paths of opportunities and investments.
You know, what happened at Morehouse (University) during their 2019 Commencement was more than extraordinary. And I applaud Mr. Smith for his huge commitment to education and to our institutions and the financial gifts to the students.
I know every development officer here would love to find some Mr. Smiths.
But I am convinced that those actions will motivate others and further set a tone to elevate creative incentives and substantial giving to HBCUs. People like giving to success.
Enormously big gifts like the one we saw at Morehouse will change the trajectory of students’ lives, their families, and their institutions and our communities.
And while we celebrate big gifts, we should celebrate small gifts and their potential impact and influence of our alums.
Sometime small gifts we forget about, but they can play an important role and can make a big difference.
When I think about large amount of money President Barack Obama raised just on the internet in small donations during his campaign, I am convinced of the enormous power of small.
Philanthropy is not always about money, but it is about value and giving time and talent and service that build relationships. Time and talent can secure the treasure that we need.
Don’t discount time, don’t discount talent among the philanthropy giving that comes to our institutions, but put an in-kind value on it. Our golden rule at HBCUs has got be inclusive. You’ve got to celebrate everyone’s giving, and kind of lean on what Maya Angelou said:
“People might forget what you said, might forget what you give, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”
So, we always need to always acknowledge and celebrate the gift and the giver.
I will be the first to admit the significance of the importance of big foundation giving.
But as HBCU alums we need to be important to us, to our institutions too.
And we need to show it. While some individuals might not be in the wealthy one percent of the population, we don’t need to self-eliminate. You know what that means – we say I don’t have it, I don’t have much so I am not going to do anything. So we self eliminate.
We are wealthy enough regardless of how much you have, the little, the big, to give.
I did a commencement address once, and I said, to get it and go, but get it and give back and make sure we help make a difference for someone else who is coming along.
As I close, I want to encourage our schools to devote a little bit more time to find out who your alums are. But more importantly, who they know and where they work. Many work in private corporations and they have contacts. Our institutions may not know the contacts, and sometimes the alums don’t know about them either.
But it’s not always who you know, but who you know that knows somebody.
As HBCUs continue to forge these partnerships of trust, we can then ensure the sustainability the institutions, so that they not only survive, but that they thrive. And we have got to be the example.
The more we can show that we are doing for ourselves, the better position we are going to be to leverage the external investment to secure our sustainability
That is why it is important to have the conversations you are having today and that you are having tomorrow.
Ladies and gentlemen, let me remind all of us the urgency is now, tomorrow will be up to us. So, the sustainability of HBCUs will require our input today along with the partners we have brought together today for this symposium and those we can bring to the table.
It is imperative that HBCUs are at this table of philanthropy, because if we are not at the table, we are probably on the menu, and then our institutions cannot then have the resources they need.
I believe in the mission of HBCU, and I am convinced that together we can bridge advancement and student success, and that we can then sustain our HBCUs, because a mind, especially a black mind, is a terrible thing to waste.
As an HBCU community, unity must be our strength. The fact that we have come together at this time, at such a time as this, for a purpose so worthy, unity will be our strength.
I believe none of our institutions will be free until all of us are free and we are all safe.
So when I think about our survival, I would like share this African proverb with you.
It is about a band of elephants who were traveling across the terrain and came upon a river.
The big elephants didn’t have problem stepping into the rough waters, but there were some very small elephants who were afraid to step in.
We know elephants are known for their stellar memory. They are very smart.
Someone in the middle of the river shouted to the front of the line to those who had crossed over, we have some sisters still standing on the banks of the river who haven’t made it into the water to cross over.
Viewing the situation, the leaders looked back, they didn’t call a town meeting, they didn’t write a government grant, they didn’t seek any Congressional legislation, and they probably didn’t have a symposium.
The larger elephants took responsibility. They turned around and got back in the water, stood shoulder to shoulder, allowing their bodies to create a dam that parted the waters to allow those little sister elephants to cross over to dry land.
HBCU leaders, stakeholders and partners, we have a responsibility to keep the ground dry so that other HBCUs can survive and safely cross over to the other side.
It is not about your school entirely, it is not just about your HBCU making it. You might make it right now. You might be on the other side right now. Remember the door is still cracked out there. Don’t forget to turn around and get back in the water and help other institutions to cross over to dry ground.
For more than a century, founders of our HBCUs made it possible for students to safely pass through their halls and get a good education. HBCUs have been our students’ bridge over those troubled waters for more than a century.
Thank you and God bless you.”