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A Novel Approach to Building Culturally Responsive Political and Civic Leaders in Virginia

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU Wilder School
February 4, 2022

Minoritized and underserved communities’ rights continue to be at the forefront of the United States’ political and civic landscape, and states across the country continue to address and work toward an equitable society. In recent years, we have seen policies changed, laws passed and bills presented in an effort to increase equity. This social justice initiative has drawn interest in and called for an increase in culturally responsive and representative political and civic leaders.

Although minority individuals make up a large percentage of Virginia’s population, the overall percentage of minority political and civic leaders is low. In an effort to address this disparity, the VCU Wilder School’s Minority Political Leadership Institute (MPLI), hosted by The Grace E. Harris Leadership Institute and the Research Institute for Social Equity, is working to identify, shape and produce culturally responsive future leaders in Virginia.

MPLI is recognized as a premier resource in Virginia for developing culturally responsive leaders committed to addressing minority communities’ policy needs. MLPI’s intensive eight-month experience promotes leadership development for those interested in issues important to minority communities. Emphasis is placed on enhancing participants’ understanding of historical and contemporary issues affecting communities of color by providing insight into the relationship between race and policy outcomes in Virginia. Through the MPLI experience, future leaders receive insight regarding:

  • leadership skills necessary to empower others and adapt to different approaches as they move through various spaces effectively
  • the critical role race plays in shaping access to political processes and outcomes
  • the formulation, implementation and critical evaluation of public solutions and promote civic responsibility
  • shared leadership processes that affect transformational change in communities

Designed for leaders in nonprofits and local and state government, the program focuses on issues impacting Black, Hispanic/Latino, Native American and other underserved communities. MPLI participants are afforded multiple opportunities to apply lessons and concepts learned throughout the program. Each program year, participants engage and interact with communities across Virginia and learn about unique strengths and issues facing different regions of the Commonwealth.

Over the course of the program, participants also engage with the community to create a team project designed to examine the racial impact of proposed or passed legislation from Virginia’s General Assembly. Examples of these projects include:

  • Grocery investment program and fund. This report provided a legislative racial impact analysis of legislation that proposed the creation of a fund to catalyze public-private partnerships to expand access to Virginians residing in food deserts. Through the creation of the fund, underserved communities would see the construction, rehabilitation and expansion of food retailers in their communities to help reduce and eliminate food deserts. The group went on to have their results published in the Journal of Public Management & Social Policy.
  • Virginia Fair Housing Law; unlawful discriminatory housing practices. This report provided a legislative racial impact analysis of Senate Bill (SB) 909, a proposed bill in the Virginia General Assembly, to expand the Virginia Fair Housing Law to include lawful sources of income. Specifically, this report examines state and county source of income laws and their variances by race and ethnicity.

In addition to engaging with the community, MPLI participants interact directly with current political leaders. MPLI has a collaborative relationship with the Virginia Legislative Black Caucus Virginia legislators, noted state leaders and experts from the community and national arenas. These collaborations allow for MPLI participants to not only learn from these entities but also establish their own network of resources and supporters for their own projects and initiatives.

Since its inception, MPLI has 176 alumni. These political and civic leaders are diverse in race, gender, age and politics. MPLI alumni hold various positions in Virginia state agencies, universities, for-profit corporations and nonprofit organizations. This level of diversity is consistent through each cohort, thus lending the MPLI to be characterized as a “community leadership development program focused on the leader and leadership development of early and mid-career professionals at the intersection of race and policy/politics.”

As the Commonwealth continues to move towards inclusive excellence, MPLI continues to build the capacity of culturally responsive leaders in Virginia’s political and civic landscape. The biennial, eight-month experience will soon welcome a new cohort of aspiring leaders—and a few returning 2020 cohort members due to the global pandemic—to explore the spectrum of leadership challenges and opportunities facing Virginia’s future. MPLI is eager to expand new political and civic leaders’ understanding of the nature of leadership, public policy and community change and gain inspiration and practical guidance from seasoned leaders and professionals through a series of intensive sessions.


Author: The Office of Research and Outreach at VCU’s Wilder School aims to enhance, promote, and celebrate the research of Wilder School faculty and students. The Office also oversees the Wilder School Commonwealth Poll, as well as research from the Wilder School’s Centers and Institutes. Twitter: @VCUWilderSchool

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