The work on the tapestry that will be LBJ School student Angela Simms’ life has only just begun, but already one can see the rich textures and bold hues that will make it into a unique, intricately woven piece.
Selected to receive the two-year $25,000 Barbara Jordan Scholarship at the LBJ School in 2004, Simms has become an advocate for the ideals that Barbara Jordan stood for. These are, as Simms put it, to achieve social, economic and political equity and “make sure we’re speaking as a common voice to understand the interdependence of each one of us.”
One way Simms is trying to achieve this goal is by co-chairing this year’s Barbara Jordan National Forum on Public Policy with fellow LBJ School student Masharika Prejean. The two have selected the theme of Barbara Jordan’s speech at the 1976 Democratic political convention in New York City, “Who will speak for America?”, as their own theme for the 2006 Jordan forum, which will be held at the LBJ School on February 23-24. Simms also plans to salute Jordan in a more permanent way—by using her as “a mentor who demonstrated that developing and articulating strength of character is a lifelong process and that strength of character is good for the individual and society.”
According to Simms, receiving the Barbara Jordan scholarship award was an “almost unbelievable” honor, but the selection also carries responsibility. She recalled that one of the first things she did after being named a Jordan Scholar was to read Barbara Jordan: American Hero, the biography written by Mary Beth Rogers.
"I felt I had to learn who Barbara Jordan was beyond her captivating voice, moral exhortations and commitment to the U.S. Constitution before I could honor her properly,” she reflected. “Acquiring a sense of her character and how time and place influenced her life enabled me to see my life’s work in the context of an almost 400-year struggle to ensure that all women and men gain their fair share of the American Dream."
Born and raised in Woodridge, Virginia, Simms was involved in a variety of extracurricular activities in elementary, middle school and high school that ranged from children’s theater, to ballet, to basketball and track. She also was a Girl Scout, a member of the high school debate team and the editor of her high school student paper. In high school and in college, Simms was involved in student government, working closely with student body presidents in planning activities and acting as their communications director.
“Virginia, like most states, was going through a period of fiscal crisis, so we were constantly trying to make sure that student voices were heard when it came time for budget allocations,” she said. “We even had a group one year who went to talk with the representatives and senators about how important it was that we not lose some of the basic funding we needed for our academic as well as our cocurricular programs. I helped facilitate some of the preparation—the talking points and the research—for that.”
At the College of William and Mary, where she was a Sharpe Fellow and a William and Mary Scholar, Simms majored in government because she saw government as the primary institution where many disciplines—psychology, sociology, ethnic studies and other social sciences—converge and where their tensions are acknowledged and resolved, at least temporarily.
“I’ve always been interested in ways in which people reach consensus, and I think I saw government as the formalized way in which they do that,” she said. “I like the idea of being in a place where we vet ideas and we have the power and the resources to make actual change. I wanted to see something done, and so I thought a government degree would give me the necessary background to be successful in my endeavors.”
But this was not enough. Very quickly Simms realized that a variety of factors can create interesting dynamics that influence opinion and perceptions. From this perspective, she concluded that a sound appreciation for history was vital for understanding how the distribution of power affects outcomes and generates discussions. Ultimately, this realization led her to pair her government major with a minor in Black studies.
“I contend that given our history in this country, how power tends to be reinforced and how individuals tend to adapt to their environment, race is at the core of understanding how and why the U.S. has evolved to the point it has, and perhaps how this country can transform itself from its hyper-race-conscious past,” she said.
Simms has not decided on her final career track, but she talks about a number of options. One of them is the possibility of running for public office, perhaps in her home state of Virginia. She also talks about her interest in education and social policy and the possibility of working for a nonprofit, or in another capacity that will permit her to advocate her beliefs. Meanwhile, she’s applied to the Presidential Management Fellowship Program, which was established to attract promising students from diverse backgrounds to federal service.
But before she hits the workforce, Simms is busy doing what she has always done energetically--getting involved in special learning opportunities. This includes study abroad and a variety of internships that have exposed her to Capitol Hill. In summer 2005, as part of her LBJ School internship, she worked for People For the American Way (PFAW), a nonprofit group founded in 1981 by movie producer Norman Lear, Barbara Jordan and a group of distinguished business, religious, political and entertainment leaders to counter what they saw as the growing clout and divisive message of right-wing televangelists.
“I was fortunate enough to be an intern in the public policy department, and I worked specifically on civil rights, affirmative action, voucher and education issues,” Simms said. “One of my particular assignments was to write a newsletter for one of the organization’s coalition partners, an update on what transpired on the Hill.”
As part of her internship, she also attended such conferences as the Take Back America Conference, which has been involved in issues like Social Security, education, energy independence and congressional accountability. At another conference, Simms became involved with a coalition that was working on the Voting Rights Act, another Barbara Jordan cause.
“The legacy of Barbara Jordan lives on through people like myself, who champion the causes she fought for,” Simms said. “She was a standard bearer for integrity, thinking about the collective and the common good. I can only hope that my life will be filled to the brim with similar pursuits.”
Previously, Simms has interned with the American Highway Users Alliance and at the Center for New Black Leadership.
Simms has also expanded her horizons by studying abroad. Her most significant international experience took place during her junior year in college, when she enrolled in the American Institute for Foreign Study and subsequently spent a semester at Stellenbosch University, which is located just outside of Cape Town, South Africa. There, she enrolled in classes on African political history, African voting behavior and South African literature.
“My coursework was interesting not only from an academic perspective but also in terms of how it contrasted with the class structure and expectations of U.S. classrooms,” Simms said. “In the U.S. we are less deferential to our professors and are willing to challenge professors to provide evidence . . . for verifying what they assert. South African students and professors did not seem to appreciate these kinds of exchanges as much as I seemed to, though I tend to be one who likes to push the envelope.”
Outside the classroom, Simms volunteered through the International Students Association to tutor poor children at an all-Black township called Kayamandi. In addition, she wrote for the international students newsletter and played on the varsity women’s basketball team.
Simms also found herself caught in two worlds because of her race and her personal socioeconomic background.
“By the average standards of the country, I was wealthy, upper middle class, to say the least, but as a person of color, well, it was almost like being in the U.S. in the 1940s or 1950s,” she said. “So to be there, and to talk to an Afrikaner male, look him in the eye, make clear arguments and have the expectation that we would engage each other as equals was, well, off-putting to someone like him because he wasn’t accustomed to that kind of interaction with a person of color.”
Looking back, Simms says that her time abroad was useful because it forced her to step back from her Western upbringing.
“I think we tend to believe that Western norms, philosophies and values are value neutral, that they don’t have any assumptions behind them, only objective truth,” she said. “By stepping outside this paradigm, I was forced to consider the importance of context, timing, and how the process of determining the relative balance of political issues affect the justness of the results. If nothing else, I think that international exposure helps Americans to be a bit more humble.”
As for her LBJ School experience, Simms said that she’s acquired tools that will help her navigate through “a huge slough of information” and extract what would help her make wise decisions. Listing some of her classes—economics, public administration, public financial management, quantitative analysis—Simms said that each informs the way one can approach issues and tackle ambiguities.
“Whether the information I encounter is in government or in nonprofit or the private sector, the classes I have taken give me a lens through which to review what I read so that I can filter out the salient points that should guide good public policy decisionmaking,” she observed.
At the LBJ School, Simms has served as co-chair of the Graduate Public Affairs Council’s Academic Policy Committee as well as a student representative on the Dean Selection Committee. In the Austin community, she has worked as a mentor at the Barbara Jordan Elementary School since spring 2005 and as a tutor with the Juvenile Justice Alternative Education Program since October.
What is ahead? Simms says her overall goal is to make a contribution and that the LBJ School has prepared her for her role as a public servant. “I think I heard Professor (Robert) Auerbach say that we (LBJ School students) know enough to inform somebody, but we’re dangerous enough to cause a small country to collapse,” she laughed.
On a more serious note, she answered the question by saying that she intends to stay focused on the “perennial issues surrounding the definition and application of justice, equality and liberty in a democracy.” It is an answer that even Barbara Jordan would agree with.
By María de la Luz Martínez
© Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs
5 December 2005
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