July 23, 2020

ALUMNAE EMPOWERING CIVIC ENGAGEMENT

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By: Ore Oluwole

Amelia Wilks, Lauren Harper and Lyric Swinton are three University of South Carolina alumnae working to empower civic engagement in the city and state through CityBright, LLC.

Harper founded the firm in 2018 when she was working in Mayor Steve Benjamin’s Office as then Policy and Communications Advisor.

“Working for a visionary and impactful mayor like Steve Benjamin, I realized he had staff like me who were able to do meaningful projects and I was looking at other cities around South Carolina and saw not everyone could do things we were able to do and that was largely because some offices did not have the staff available to create exciting and innovative projects,” Harper said.

That need brought forth the original idea of CityBright to provide the extra support for offices across the state who wanted to do more but did not have the people or the manpower to do so.

The focus then pivoted after Harper served as the South Carolina State Director for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign in 2019. Coming off that experience, Harper realized campaigns are also another place where people need extra support to achieve their goals in public affairs and advocacy.

“We’re all public servants and we want to make sure the people who are running for public office truly have the help they need to accomplish their goals,” Harper said.

Now CityBright serves as a political and public affairs consulting firm to empower and enlighten the strategies of leaders and fill bandwidth gaps existing in the public, political and voluntary sectors.

To be more efficient, Harper invited Swinton and Wilks to join CityBright as associates.

Swinton and Wilks are recent graduates and Columbia, S.C. natives. Diving into this new endeavor has been rewarding on several fronts.

“What keeps me motivated in this position is being able to see things from start to finish,” Wilks said. “It’s almost the same as my work in student leadership and it’s the same motivation I had in college.”

For Swinton, it’s a full circle moment.

“I grew up here in Columbia in a very low income predominantly African American neighborhood and so a lot of the work I do now directly pours back into my community,” she said. “I chose to stay here because I want to impact the place where I grew up and the place where I found my home.”

That sense of home comes from the University of South Carolina. Each alumna can recount a meaningful experience at South Carolina that set the trajectory for their careers.

Harper served as Chief of Staff for then Student Body President, Lindsay Richardson which prepared her for her work in the Mayor’s Office and her work now.

“You work for these great people that have a vision and it’s like, ‘You have an idea? Let’s get it done,'” she said.  

Now as the CEO of CityBright, Harper acknowledges her leadership style developed from her time in Student Government and the Mayor’s Office.

A meaningful experience at South Carolina for Wilks was working in the Office of Multicultural Student Affairs (OMSA).

“This was the first time I was doing work on campus that mattered and got to see it impact students,” she said.

Wilks gained mentorship and a support network within the office and grew as a student leader as she had more opportunities to meet others that looked like her and shared similar experiences.

Student Government is where Swinton found her voice and grew into a strong and ambitious leader.

“Student Government was one of the most transformative experiences,” she said. “Everyone that I met, I either work with them directly or we’re colleagues in the same industry. Through that experience, I was able to tap into such a great alumni network of student government alumni, especially black alumni. Everything I was able to accomplish in school was connected to that experience.”

Working in political and public affairs in the capital city, all three women recognize that Gamecock connections are just as strong after graduation. Through clients, elected officials, students and supporters, there is almost always a Gamecock connection somewhere.

“A Gamecock bond is a bond that will never be broken,” Swinton said. “People take those bonds to heart and are always willing to help each other out.”  

As three young Black leaders, these alumnae are also working to uplift young and underrepresented voices through the firm and through other initiatives like The BlueLab SC and Secure the Ballot.

Investing in young people as the next generation of candidates and campaigners, The BlueLab SC, powered by CityBright, is a program affiliated with The Blue Lab out Boston that trains young people to effectively do the work that’s impactful for people running for public service by learning how to manage a political campaign. Some of the students from the inaugural cohort are already helping to manage campaigns for CityBright’s clients.

With Secure the Ballot, these alumnae work to make voter registration accessible and understandable while investing in young people, especially young people of color, by organizing in various community settings to empower a new generation of voters.

“For us it’s all about presenting opportunity,” Wilks said. “Once you are intentional for plugging people who look like you in, it opens doors. We strive to be the catalyst to propel others in the community for that next step. “

The work towards representation and inclusion comes from past experiences and paying it forward as others guided and opened paths for them that might have seemed inaccessible at the time.

When Harper began her role as South Carolina State Director for Beto O’Rourke’s campaign, she recalls how she was welcomed by many Black women in the field.

“They taught me so much and were naturally kind, which goes a long way in politics,” she said.

Swinton also works to serve as a resource for the community she is striving to uplift.

“It’s important for me to bring people to the table, not just for people that are underrepresented, but for those that don’t know the table exists,” she said. “It’s important to make things seem accessible.”

Together all three alumnae seek to create entry ways and knock down barriers while strengthening their city and state.

“We want to make sure people understand what’s going on so they can use their collective voices to implement real change,” Harper said.

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