They’re not just students, they’re also MCC’s newest (unofficial) Capitol Hill lobbyists

March 02, 2023 | Tim Engle

MCC delegation with U.S. Rep. Cleaver

Congressman Emanuel Cleaver (third from right) with MCC-Maple Woods President Larry Rideaux Jr. (from left), Trustees Ellen Martin and Jermaine Reed, students Victor Harris and Robert Blann, and Trustee Barbara Washington.

We saw a photo on social media recently of Metropolitan Community College Board of Trustees members in Washington, D.C., with two MCC students. What were the students doing there? Did they lobby lawmakers on the College’s behalf? And do they have political aspirations themselves?

The students who attended the Community College National Legislative Summit in February were Victor Harris and Robert Blann. Victor, 19, is at MCC-Penn Valley studying engineering. Robert, 40, was an electrician for almost 20 years before enrolling at MCC-Maple Woods to pursue a second career. After graduating in May with an A.A.S. in small business, he plans to start a loan closing firm for escrow officers and titling companies. Both are also student workers: Victor in the PV President’s Office, Robert in the MW math and science lab.

Victor: ‘I took it as a networking opportunity’

The students were among an MCC group that met with U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver. Victor’s initial impression? “He’s a big man.” But “what I thought was more impactful was his position, seeing someone in a position where they could make change immediately happen just by word of mouth,” Victor told the Board of Trustees after returning to Kansas City.

In D.C., the MCCers were pushing for funding for the planned Agriculture Annex at Maple Woods and the expanding automotive program at Longview. Cleaver seemed especially interested in the auto program, Victor says. At the summit, Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg had talked about electric vehicles.

In the Cleaver meeting, Victor told us, Trustee Jermaine Reed asked the students to say a few words about any higher-ed challenges they were confronting. Victor mentioned the high cost of books and school supplies — like his Western Philosophy textbook, with a price tag north of $100.

While in Washington, Victor also had a “riveting conversation” with the president of another community college. He learned that colleges aren’t just competing against one another — they’re also competing with companies that will train employees on the job.

And what was it like to hang out with five of the six MCC trustees? Victor says they seemed warm and relatable. They wanted to get to know the two students as people, then learn more about their experience at MCC. Victor was impressed by Trustee Ellen Martin’s vast knowledge (as a former employee and now trustee), and said she looked out for him and Robert on the trip.

Political aspirations? There is one position Victor is interested in: Penn Valley Student Government Association president. He has some ideas to “make things better for fellow students,” including fellow student workers.

Robert: ‘It was an eye-opening experience’

The highlight for Robert was a Q&A session with the U.S. secretaries of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, and transportation, Buttigieg. Those areas happened to coincide with MCC’s needs, so hearing the two officials discuss their budgets was helpful. “We later used that knowledge when lobbying for program funds for MCC,” Robert says.

As for the aforementioned Fifth District representative, Robert found Cleaver to be “an inspiring man” who showed a genuine interest in MCC’s requests for support. He also asked “how as students we came to be in the positions we were in.” The congressman spoke with candor about how the legislative process works when it comes to funding, Robert says. His group also met with a staffer in U.S. Rep. Sam Graves’ office.

“Spending time with the trustees was a lot of fun, actually,” Robert says. “They are very supportive and seem to take a real interest in helping students understand how (the trustees) contribute to the district and our community.”

Robert is the SGA president at Maple Woods. He wasn’t initially interested in a political office off campus, but he is now. If Missouri state Rep. Ashley Aune, whom Robert knows, ends up moving over to the Missouri Senate, he might run for her House seat.

When they weren’t chatting up legislators or networking at the summit, Victor and Robert saw the sights, including several Washington memorials, the U.S. Capitol complex (on the day of President Biden’s State of the Union address), the Supreme Court and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture.

This was the first time MCC took students to the legislative summit, presented by the Association of Community College Trustees and the American Association of Community Colleges. Victor and Robert “represented MCC so well,” Chancellor Kimberly Beatty said.