People interact at a table in the Capitol on Black Policy Day. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

A bill to allow concealed carry on college campuses has advanced to the House floor even after dozens of people spoke against it.

But first, today was Black Policy Day at the statehouse and organizers called for lawmakers to address disparities that affect Black people and other marginalized communities.

Black Policy Day gathers advocates and lawmakers

Staysha Quentrill (left), the only Black midwife in West Virginia. Photo by Will Price/WV Legislative Photography.

“Say It Loud!”

“I’m Black and I’m proud!” 

“Say It Loud!”

“I’m Black and I’m proud!” 

It only took a quick round of call-and-response for Del. Danielle Walker, D- Monongalia, with a booming voice and a boot on her foot, to set the tone for an early morning crowd gathered at the Capitol for Black Policy Day. 

“Understand that all 134 of us — including the Governor 135 — we work for you,” she said. “When we are on one accord, they can’t stop us.” 

The day-long event, held for the first time last year, served as a chance for a diverse group of advocates, policy experts, students and concerned citizens to gather and uplift the needs of Black West Virginians and to convey those needs to state lawmakers. 

That included calls for legislators to take substantive action to address a range of disparities in the state that disproportionately affect Black people and other marginalized communities. 

“We live in the shadows of the most affluent in the state of West Virginia,” said Rev. Matthew Watts, a pastor at Grace Bible Church on Charleston’s West Side. “Yet we have the poorest performing schools and one of the more undereducated neighborhoods.”

Others argued that there has been a deliberate lack of focus on the needs of Black people in the state, and that this negligence has had dire consequences. Staysha Quentrill, the only Black midwife in West Virginia, noted that this is particularly seen in the range of health issues Black communities face. 

“Those are not health disparities, they are health injustices,” she said. “Those things are done.”

Advocates made a point of highlighting specific legislation that lawmakers could tackle, particularly the passage of the CROWN Act, which would ban discrimination based on hair texture and style. As the day went on, Black West Virginians were clear about their goal: not only should the state act to address the needs of Black communities, they should prioritize the solutions set forth by the people most affected by the issues.

For that to happen, organizers involved with Black Policy Day say that the most important thing is that Black West Virginians recognize the power of using their voices. When it comes to advocating at the Legislature “there is so much more to learn,” said Katonya Hart, one of the organizers of the event. “Part of that is getting people to decide that they should come up here and realize that this building belongs to them.”  — P.R. Lockhart

Campus carry advances to House floor over vocal opposition

Sam Green, a social work student at Marshall University, at a public hearing on Wednesday. Photo by Perry Bennett/WV Legislative Photography.

After an hour-long public hearing where West Virginians overwhelmingly opposed a bill that would allow public university students to carry concealed guns on campus, lawmakers have advanced the bill to its final step in the process. 

The Campus Self-Defense Act passed the House Judiciary Committee Wednesday afternoon, and now goes to the full House. 

This morning, people crowded the House chamber to speak about the bill. Of the 40 people who spoke, just two supported the bill, and both were representatives from pro-gun lobbying groups. 

Zach Campbell spoke as a representative of one of those groups, the West Virginia Citizens Defense League. He said the bill’s opponents were misrepresenting its potential effects. He emphasized it wouldn’t allow “random students” to get guns, just those with concealed carry permits. He then listed multiple requirements for obtaining a concealed carry permit, including mental and criminal background checks. 

But other students, university administrators and representatives from health-related professions, such as pediatrics and social work, disagreed with Campbell. They cited research showing that places with more guns have more gun deaths. They expressed concern about making it easier to carry guns on college campuses, when an increasing number of young people are experiencing depression and dying by suicide.  As Mountain State Spotlight’s Ian Karbal reported last June, the majority of West Virginians killed by guns die from suicide. 

“I wouldn’t have felt safer whenever I was stalked if I had had access to a gun myself,” said Sam Green, a social work student at Marshall University. “It won’t be the students that have been assaulted, stalked or raped who keep guns with them. But this will cause the students who’ve experienced this to walk with a fear that the students who harmed them can now seek to have a gun on campus.” 

Students who have already been affected by gun violence were also afraid. Keeley Wildman, a graduate social work student at West Virginia University, read a statement on behalf of her sister who lived through a school shooting in 2015. 

“I looked out of the window of my freshman Spanish class to see armed police officers in riot gear sprinting toward the school. The next thing I know I’m in a closet surrounded by strangers in their most terrified, vulnerable state,” Wildman said, her voice breaking as she tried not to cry. “We were receiving texts and calls from our families telling us they loved us because no one knew what would happen next.” 

No one was killed, but Wildman’s sister developed PTSD and eventually withdrew from college to focus on her mental health.

“I’m pleading with lawmakers to vote no on Senate Bill 10,” Wildman said on her behalf. —Ellie Heffernan

P.R. Lockhart is Mountain State Spotlight's Economic Development Reporter.

Ellie Heffernan is the community watchdog reporter for Mountain State Spotlight.