“Whenever you break the mold and you do something different or you stand for something, you’re going to get pushback. You’re going to get people who want to shun you and shut you out,” said Sophia Nelson during a moderated discussion with Assistant Professor of Government Chryl Laird in Kresge Auditorium on Tuesday evening. “That’s America, though.”
Nelson—an author and political strategist—and Laird discussed politics, race, identity and patriotism in front of an audience of students, professors and community members. Before engaging in conversation with Laird, Nelson addressed the audience on her political views, stressing that they are rooted in the history of the establishment of the United States.
“A lot of people find it strange that a black woman would write a book about the founding fathers and about the founding of this country, and say that there is something good that we ought to reclaim from that,” she said. “The greatest story of America, however … is that we perfect this union. That it goes on. And we correct those things that were wrong, hopefully, and we make those right.”
When asked by Laird about her entry into the Republican Party, Nelson explained that she joined while in college after hearing a speech by Jack Kemp—a former professional football player who had become a politician—in 1988, when Kemp was running for the Republican nomination for president of the United States.
“I thought, ‘I must be one of those Republicans,’ and that’s kind of how I landed and have been there ever since,” Nelson said. “Now there have been moments of utter despair, disbelief—being a woman of color in the Republican Party for the last 25 years has not been easy, and if you google, I’ve been very open about it. It gets me in trouble sometimes, but I so don’t care. Because that’s the way you make change.”
Laird and Nelson also discussed healthcare, white privilege, reparations and the Trump administration’s lack of racial diversity.
“I don’t want white people to apologize and be sorry for something that happened 300 years before they were born. That gets us nowhere,” said Nelson. “Reparations have to be about getting equality of opportunity, equality of access, equality of education … the things that … we were marginalized out of, stripped from. You gotta begin to give access to those things in a way that lifts people up so that they can contribute, so that they can have a good life—the American dream.”
Nelson’s visit was co-sponsored by the Bowdoin College Republicans, Bowdoin Public Service Initiative, the Lindsey Fund for Guest Lecturers, the Office of the Dean of Student Affairs, the SWAG Center, Student Activities, the Student Center for Multicultural Life and the Women of Color Coalition. It was a cross-campus, collaborative actualization of a vision that Ben Wu ’18, a co-leader of the Bowdoin College Republicans who is now abroad, initially had in 2017.
“[Wu] had followed her—he had read her columns,” said Francisco Navarro ’19, leader of the Bowdoin College Republicans. “He thought [she] was an interesting person to bring to Bowdoin, specifically being a moderate Republican and her view on race within the party and within the country would’ve been good for the campus to hear.”
Rayne Elder ’21, the third student organizer of the event, explained that she had become involved in the planning process after an initial meeting with Navarro and Wu.
“I did find it fascinating that she is a Republican, especially because she came from a mostly Democratic family,” Elder said. “It’s just that you don’t see a lot of black Republicans. I kind of wanted that to be shown more in the sense that we don’t have to fit into one ideology.”
Elder reached out to Laird about serving as a moderator for Nelson’s visit. After taking a first-year seminar with Laird called Women of Color in Politics, Elder thought Laird’s specialization in politics and intersectionality made her a good fit for the event. Elder also reached out to the Student Center for Multicultural Life and the Women of Color Coalition to sponsor the event.
“I really wanted to get a lot of women of color in this event,” she said.
In addition to the speech, Nelson’s visit included a talk at the Career Planning Center on Tuesday afternoon that focused on how women can go about building a career when they have multiple interests. She started a career as a lawyer, transitioned to freelance writing and then changed paths again to become a political commentator. Nelson spoke about the importance of finding a career that is a source of both financial stability and personal fulfillment.
“[Nelson] said you always need something that makes you money and something that makes you happy,” Elder said.
Both Elder and Navarro were excited about how Nelson’s visit went, noting that audience members had engaged in dialogue with Nelson even if they did not share her views.
“It was predominantly more leftist questions, which I thought was great,” Navarro said. “That was the whole point of bringing her—for people to have the opportunity to ask questions or make them think in a way that wouldn’t happen if they didn’t step in the room.”
Elder agreed, emphasizing students’ willingness to engage.
“Personally I’m not Republican, I’m not Democrat, I’m independent, but I really enjoy how the questions were respectful and there was no bias coming in towards her just because she was a Republican,” she said.
Marcus Williams ’21, who attended the talk, appreciated Nelson’s openness about her opinions and experiences.
“I definitely, definitely do appreciate the fact that she was so willing to just come out about her viewpoints and didn’t feel as if she had to hide,” Williams said. “I would definitely look forward to future engagement with these types of things and having more conversations.”
Both Navarro and Elder viewed Nelson’s visit as part of a larger project of increasing opportunities for public debate at the College. More importantly, Navarro and Elder also appreciated Nelson’s approach to patriotism.
“I think what came across is that you can be very proud of this country and love this country and understand that the reason to love it is because you can still change it,” Navarro said.
Elder agreed, appreciating Nelson’s nuanced perspective.
“She’s not tribalistic in a way that ‘America’s great, America has always been great,’” Elder said. “She acknowledges the fact that we got demons, but we gotta deal with them. And that’s the only way to move ahead.”