Wife, daughter, sister and advocate for change don’t even begin to describe Xula Alum Alisha Shelton, who – in this 21st century – is only the second woman of color to run for United States Senate in the state of Nebraska.
Shelton is the fourth child of eight and was born in Staten Island, New York. Her parents divorced when she was a young girl and her mother moved the family to Omaha, Nebraska. At a very young age, life’s circumstance forced her into a lifestyle she had never known.
“We moved into subsidized housing – which are known as the projects here. I know I was born in Staten Island, but I had never been exposed to so much violence until I moved to Omaha,” she said.
Shelton knew she wanted to attend college as a way to escape the confines of her neighborhood. She was always recognized as the smartest black girl in the room, largely because she was oftentimes the only black girl in the room. She felt immense pressure to represent an entire race before she had ever figured out who she was.
“One night, I was watching BET Nightly News and it said Xavier University of Louisiana is #1 for sending African American students to medical school. That’s when I knew. I started doing my research and Xavier offered me a partial scholarship. I was on my way,” she explained.
Shelton left her small home in Omaha to travel to the “big” city of New Orleans, Louisiana. She had never visited New Orleans, or even traveled alone before she attended school at Xavier. She moved into her dorm room with most of her personal belongings in black garbage bags.
She left a place where she was the only black girl in the room, and arrived to learn and live on a campus where there were more black people in the room than she could count. She was thrust into a community of like-minded individuals who wanted each other to succeed. She had one black teacher her whole life and now she was on a campus full of students, teachers, and staff who looked just like her.
“Xavier was special to me. I was challenged on every level and held accountable by everyone – my teachers and my friends. Xavier taught me everything about my culture and who I am. I went natural and I learned about my identity as a black woman,” Shelton said. “My teachers believed in me on a level that I had never experienced before. Xavier provides a safety net where you can feel comfortable venturing out and discovering yourself.”
Shelton started out as a mental health practitioner in her community in Nebraska. With St. Katharine’s philosophy of education and philanthropy instilled in her, she began training members of her community to reach out to their legislature. She taught them how to write letters and draft talking points to send to those in positions of power. She began digging deeper into politics when she learned of corruption in Washington D.C. Shelton, now with her own agenda, would set up meetings with representatives and although they confirmed, she usually arrived to find an intern instead of the representative.
“As a member of Delta Sigma Theta, I was taught to serve, but I was tired of teaching people how to reach out to their representatives. I knew that the person receiving the letters, talking points and questions needed to be me if I was going to make a difference,” said Shelton.
After making the public announcement that she had decided to run for U.S. Senate, many of her peers believed she was the first woman of color to do so in Nebraska. It wasn’t until someone left a comment on Facebook that Alisha realized something wasn’t right. This person claimed that a woman of color had run years ago in the 1970s. Reverting back to her Xavier background, Shelton did extensive research and found that she was not the first woman of color, but the second. The first was in 1976 when Lenore Etchison ran for U.S. Senate in Nebraska. She made it her number one priority to clarify that she was actually the second woman of color to seek the office as she desired for Lenore Etchison to be recognized as the forebearer she was.
Running on a platform that prioritizes reducing gun violence, making quality healthcare accessible, strengthening trade and agriculture, and mitigating climate change, Shelton’s main goal is to have a team that adequately represents the population they serve.
“I want to present bills that work for everyone, which is why I want a member of every race on my team,” Shelton explained.
Alisha Shelton has advice for young people entering politics. She recommends that students find their passion or the things that matter most to them and become thought leaders. She encourages students to ask questions of local leaders and representatives, write letters voicing concerns, and volunteer with campaigns. These are the kinds of practices that foster change.
“For women in politics, never ever let anyone tell you to stop. We got stuck on Shirley Chisolm’s seat at the table – well now we are the table,” explained Shelton. “Now, we can have those conversations. There’s a victory in every attempt, if you can see it through.”
Shelton graduated from Xavier in 2003 with a bachelor’s degree in psychology pre-med and a minor in chemistry. Her unique experience at XU has shaped not only her life, but also her political career. She credits the university with allowing her the freedom for self-discovery and the confidence to believe in herself.
“One thing I loved most about Xavier was the prayer we’d recite while studying and before a test. I had one teacher who taught organic chemistry, Dr. Ray, and he allowed us to pray before each exam and we would always try and stretch that prayer out,” said Shelton. “But, attending Xavier really helped me understand who I was. As an African American with no connection to your ancestors or history, a sense of belonging is very important. Xavier was like a warm embrace for me.”