Fighting for Opportunity in Southwest Va: The Story of Penny Franklin
Penny Franklin had had enough. Her children were being harassed in Montgomery County public schools. She was no stranger to hard work or adversity; she’d supported her family for decades by working on a loading dock. She was no stranger to leadership, either; she served as president of IUE/CWA Local 82160. But when it came to her kids, she thought she needed to step up.
NDP caught up with Penny on a recent visit to Blacksburg. A lifelong Montgomery County resident, she recounted her journey with both pride and purpose. “I came into public service because my children, in public education, were not being treated fairly,” she recalled. “That’s something you just don’t mess with, is my children.”
In response to her children’s experiences, Penny became the president of the local NAACP. Soon, she was asked to run for school board. An African-American had never been elected to public office in Montgomery County, but Penny was not daunted. She won handily.
She remembered that she became the “first African-American ever elected in this county in 1999 and took office in 2000, the turn of the century.” She paused to emphasize the point: “The turn of century, first African-American. That’s sad.”
What did she learn? How did she go about serving her constituents? “My experience has been folks didn’t know what to expect,” she remembered, smiling. “But for me, the goal and the purpose is very clear—to speak to those injustices, to help folks understand ways we can change this educational system.”
She had some tough battles. She played a role in hiring the first African-American superintendent, who became controversial, with “everything she did … magnified nth degree to the negative.” But Penny stood by the superintendent, working to educate local folks about the policy goals and process of the superintendent’s office. Ultimately, Penny said, “she became the best superintendent we’d had.”
Penny also took a stand against a Native American mascot, educating the community about how the choice of mascot impacted that community.
Her message of opportunity, diversity, and inclusion has worked, she explained, precisely because she has taken on the “backward” approach of some folks in Montgomery County. She explains that some behavior seems as if “folks [are] coming from some cave.” She’s been able to overcome prejudice and stalemates simply through “educating folks”—because “this is what we should be doing, this is how Montgomery County is supposed to look.”
Throughout her service, increasing opportunity has been Penny’s overarching aim—fighting for the middle class, which she sees as key to building a strong Virginia and a great America. She explained that coming from a working family helps her to help folks “understand the importance of the middle class that helped build this country and will maintain this county.”
She expanded: “If we do not elect politicians who will undertstand and support that, the United States will become a two-class county…. It will be a sad day in the United States.”
For more about Penny Franklin, see this article.