On a recent Sunday afternoon, Tierra Williams and Rich Biever co-hosted a “politics and poetry” event at the Tudek Park in State College.
“The purpose of this event is to gather in the name of change,” Biever announced.
Both Biever and Williams are candidates in this year’s municipal elections. Williams is running for a seat on the Ferguson Township Board of Supervisors and Biever is a candidate for the State College Borough Council.
They’re backed by Central Pennsylvania United, a local advocacy group trying to bring candidates with progressive platforms to local office. The organization partners with Pennsylvania United, a PAC based in Pittsburgh.
“We looked for candidates and folks who were interested in running that also supported the progressive platform that's at the heart of the work of Central Pennsylvania United,” coordinator Tim Johnston said. He said after the group helped elect President Joe Biden in the 2020 election, it pivoted to hyper-local elections.
The group is campaigning for four candidates in Centre County. Rather than focusing on candidate personalities, Johnston said Central Pennsylvania United centers its work on creating a coalition of people who are behind a set of values, like increasing affordable housing and diversifying representation in government.
“It's not that we have an exact dogmatic policy position that we are going to push forward no matter what,” he said. “The work that we're doing right now is meeting with community members to say, ‘Hey, we have this vision of a more equitable community. What is your vision for our community and how can we work together to realize that?’”
Tierra Williams said she wouldn't be running without the backing of the group. The Black 29-year-old activist is a co-chair of the 3/20 Coalition in State College, a group pushing for policing reform after a Black man with mental health issues was killed by local police.
“Being an activist, a lot of the times I'm yelling, I'm in the streets, I'm screaming, sometimes people don't listen to you that way,” Williams said. “But by getting elected to the Ferguson Township Supervisor Board, I would be able to really have a way to touch and influence and speak for people not just in my ward, not just downtown, but all of Centre County.”
She said she agrees with the long-term vision Central Pennsylvania United puts forward, including to support equitable policies for poor and working class people.
“I am one of those poor and working class people,” Williams said. “I am a single mother, who is trying to get by here, who is trying to be respected in an area [that] seems to only respect those who have a master's degree.”
Gopal Balachandran said it’s especially important to talk about the needs of working class people in a university town. Balachandran is another candidate for the State College Borough Council that Central Pennsylvania United is campaigning for.
“If you're living in State College, it can seem like, ‘Hey, you know, everyone is doing fine.’ But if you scratch the surface, you kind of see that a lot of the people who end up working in the dorms or working in different parts of the university infrastructure, they can't really afford to live around here,” he said.
Balachandran moved to State College in 2017 to teach clinical law at Penn State. The 46-year-old is a former public defender, and said he and his slate mates hope to bring their own diverse backgrounds to the table.
“People are really interested in having different perspectives, and not just from a person of color perspective, but from a generational perspective, where I have two elementary school kids, right? I mean, right now, no one in Borough Council has two elementary school kids,” he said.
One of his slate mates is 38-year-old Divine Lipscomb, who studies rehabilitation and human services at Penn State. Lipscomb said he wants to address the racial tensions as well as economic inequities that have had deep influence in his own life as a formerly incarcerated Black man.
“One of the purposes of younger adults running for these offices is because the lived experience that's currently governing us is not representative of ours,” Lipscomb said. “So we are here looking for our space in politics.”
Younger generations like Millennials have experienced economic and racial barriers differently than many of those in government today, said Candis Watts Smith, an associate professor of Political Science and African American Studies at Penn State.
She said having candidates with a wide range of identities is symbolically important.
“But also, substantively speaking, we might expect that people from different groups have different experiences. And we want to make sure that people with different experiences are represented in our policymaking bodies,” Watts Smith said.
She said the group’s strategy of finding commonalities among different racial groups is reminiscent of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Poor People’s Campaign.
“I think what these PACs are trying to do is to say, ‘Hey, like, we are all in the same boat, we all face similar challenges, and we're not going to get distracted by this business of racial hierarchy.’”
There are three open seats on the State College Borough Council. Besides Balachandran, Biever and Lipscomb, the three other Democrats running, Catherine Dauler, Ron Filippelli and Katherine Yeaple, are either on or have been on the council in the past. Jacob Werner is the sole Republican on the primary ballot.
Lipscomb said, for him, change comes from local government.
“This borough, whether we want to believe it or not, influences the other municipalities around it,” he said. “What this borough does directly impacts the rest of the municipalities.”
The primary is on Tuesday.