As part of the Obama campaign's "Greater Together" initiative to reach young voters, on Tuesday the team hosted a student summit at North Carolina Central University. The event marks the first of more than 28 others that the campaign will hold throughout the next two weeks at historically black colleges and universities, including Morehouse College, Norfolk State University, Bennett College and Florida A&M University. But in addition to the usual suspects, such as Campaign Manager Jim Messina and White House Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett, in tow at the Durham HBCU campus was actress Gabrielle Union.
"I stood by [President Obama] in 2008, and that election invigorated me in a way that I'd never really been before about being part of the process," Union told The Root on why she's lending her voice to his re-election effort. "I take a lot of pride knowing that my president understands that we are our brothers' and sisters' keepers, and we have a responsibility to each other. He understands that America prospers when we're all doing it together, when everyone does their fair share and plays by the same rules."
For Tuesday's event, Union planned to talk specifically about the president's record on education, health care and job creation. Her reminders for black students included the Affordable Care Act's expansion of health coverage to 2.5 million more young adults, thanks to provisions allowing them to stay on their parents' insurance up to age 26 and creating special plans for adults with pre-existing conditions. On education, the president more than doubled Pell Grants (which half of HBCU students receive, compared with 27 percent of students at other institutions) and passed a new tax credit for tuition expenses.
"As we're bombarded with a 24-hour news cycle telling us everything that the GOP believes is wrong with our president, it's important to drive the point home what exactly he has accomplished, separate the truth from fiction and also mobilize voters," she said, adding that engaging African Americans is critical. "I think the second you start taking people for granted is the second you start losing people, and that goes for every aspect of life. On the world's biggest stage for the most important job there is, we cannot afford to take anyone for granted."
Messina also underscored the importance of African-American youths in a statement on Tuesday. "In 2008 we saw an unprecedented number of young African-American men and women put in countless hours to elect Barack Obama president of the United States," he said. "We knew it was important to incorporate HBCUs early because they will play a pivotal role in mobilizing their networks and continuing to build this campaign both on and off campus."
Union told The Root that she is particularly interested in the matter of higher education as she pays for her niece's college education. "Not everyone has my job, and I want to make sure that all of my niece's friends and cousins are also able to get the same education," she said. "She started out with three roommates in a dorm last year, and now she's the only one left. If that's happening with just her suitemates, I know what's happening around the country, and we have to stop that negative trend."
As an advocate for women's issues through Planned Parenthood, as well as the National Advisory Committee for Violence Against Women (to which President Obama appointed her last year), Union is also concerned about equal access to health care and birth control. "I feel like every week, something else happens that makes me outraged and want to dig in," she said, referencing a recent congressional hearing in which an all-male panel argued against contraceptives in employer health plans. "But in everything I do, I'm hoping to get people involved and mobilized. Their voices make a difference."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.