In some ways, Shion Fenty's campaign is similar to that of many others taking place this year across the U.S. She's a 37-year-old Black woman, a first-time candidate, and is facing two middle-aged white men in the primary. But there's something that sets her apart from the wave of other women of color running for office this year: Fenty is a Republican.
The fact that she's a Black woman and the daughter of immigrants in a Virginia congressional district that recently turned blue would make many think she's a Democrat. But the fashion designer and business owner doesn't resent that assumption.
"They automatically stereotype you: 'Since you're African-American, you must be Democrat.' So I get a lot of shocked faces like, 'What the heck is going on?!' and a lot of people have been ... kind of suspicious," she told Refinery29. "Once people talk to me, and they get to know me, and they understand where I'm coming from — after that they've just been very welcoming and very open."
Fenty's lighthearted, optimistic tone sounds like a contrast with how many other women, typically spurred to action by Hillary Clinton's loss and President Trump's policies, talk about running for office. There's anger and passion in their voices. That ire doesn't seem to exist within Fenty, though she comes across as someone who deeply cares about changing things for her community.
Fenty's parents migrated from Guyana and she was born two months later in Brooklyn, NY. She was the second of seven children, and moved to Virginia when her parents divorced. Fenty said she had "a typical life"; she went to school and worked, even though at times, her family had to rely on public assistance. But what changed her most growing up was seeing her mom take on the American dream by becoming a small business owner. Inspired by her mom, Fenty focused on being a fashion designer and having her own business.
"I've never had any political aspirations," she said, adding that she has always cast a ballot based on "who I felt was right for the moment."
Throughout the years she has volunteered with low-income and foster children. Seeing the problems some of the kids faced — struggling schools, incarcerated parents, abusive homes — spurred something in her. Grassroots work, she reasoned, was not enough.
"There has to be a holistic view of helping out these kids. It's more than just, 'Oh, let's make the schools better.' It's how can we invest in the community," she said. "I realized this issue is bigger than just volunteerism. There are some things that have to be done on a federal level and local level."
When a friend suggested she run for office, Fenty was skeptical at first. She said, "Why would I do that?" But after doing some research and deliberating for more than two months whether it was worth it to throw her hat in the ring, she decided that by running she could "give everyone the voice they need."
Democratic Rep. Donald McEachin currently holds the 4th District seat Fenty is vying for. But before she can face him, she needs to defeat David Leon and Ryan McAdams for the Republican nomination. When she announced her run, Fenty said the federal government "had too much control over our personal, academic, and economic successes," so it was necessary "for policies that will return that control where it belongs: back home to our families and communities." Her platform is based on three components: workforce and small business development, education, and immigration reform. She opposes the No-Child Left Behind Act and Common Core standards, wants to reform the student loan financing system to prevent young people from racking up more student debt, and is interested in helping small business through regulatory and tax reform.
Millennials are the next biggest voting bloc. We're going to be the leaders, and we don't want to do things the way politics have been done in the past.
Fenty said that having a platform aligned with the GOP is the way to fix the issues in her community. And in an interview with Reaching Out with Zack Carter, she said that Democrats have not fulfilled their promises to communities of color like hers. (Her district, however, was under Republican control between 2002 and 2016, when McEachin won.)
But onto the million-dollar question: How does a Republican woman of color feel about certain factions of the Trump base that are known for their racial biases — ranging from micro-aggressions to straight up white supremacy? Fenty responded to that inquiry diplomatically (or totally sidestepped it, depending on who you ask).
"All of this stuff is just based out of fear, and when people are afraid of things they push back, they resist because they don't know," she said, adding, "I take it as a challenge to educate and bring a different perspective."
Fenty has some months to go before she faces her opponents in June's Republican primary. But she's already thinking about what her candidacy can represent in the future for young people and for women.
"Millennials are the next biggest voting bloc. We're going to be the leaders, and we don't want to do things the way politics have been done in the past," she said. "We want to focus on what are the needs now, how can we bring help to people now, and how can we do it with the utmost ethics and transparency possible."
2018 will see an unprecedented number of female candidates in ballots across the country. More than 500 women are currently running for the House, Senate, or governorships — and that's without taking into account the number of candidates vying for local and statewide seats. Refinery29 is committed to spotlight female candidates, but particularly women of color, who have risen up to the challenge to say: "It's our turn."
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