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Finding his voice

Incoming student body president Lamar Richards is majoring in School’s new HOLD program
Lamar Richards

Lamar Richards has found his voice.

And, as Carolina’s rising student body president, he’s using it.

Earlier in life, Richards had something that made him keep his mouth shut: a stutter. It was slight and not very noticeable to others, he says. But it was enough of a stutter that made him quiet.

Those days are gone.

The HOLD program is one of those opportunities that is for students who aspire to be leaders in organizations or who aspire to have those talents and abilities to be very versatile in what they’re doing.
Lamar Richards, talking about the new Human Organizational Leadership and Development program

“I’ve spent so much time not saying what I wanted to say,” Richards said. “It’s why I’m so outspoken now.”

His voice already has been heard on campus, in conversations around equity and diversity issues as he worked as chair of the newly formed Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity. Students responded, electing him to lead Carolina’s student government even though he’s only a sophomore. Who can recall if that’s ever happened?

He’s breaking ground in other ways. He’s among the first students to join the UNC School of Education’s new undergraduate major: Human Organizational Leadership and Development. HOLD fully launches in the fall.

“I joke that this degree program was made for me,” Richards said. “I do believe that this program was created for students who want to be outside of the box, who want to push the needle in the right direction and who aren’t afraid to go against the grain.”

Against the grain

Richards is Black. He’s also gay. And he’s an out-of-state student, coming to Chapel Hill from South Carolina.

What does it say that Carolina students elected him?

“That we’re making progress,” Richards said. “From the student body perspective, we are making progress in the right direction in that we are not as resistant to change and to things that are different than we were before.”

Students’ willingness to elect him speaks to their resilience, Richards said.

“I do think that after the year students have had — and the last several years we’ve had even before the pandemic, where bigotry and hate based on one’s race or ethnicity or sexual identity or orientation was so prevalent in the news and throughout the country — our willingness and ability to elect someone who has an intersection of all these different marginalized identities shows that our student body is ready for change.”

‘I, too, am Carolina’

While Richards said he knows that a significant portion of his work in the coming year will be to encourage students to vaccinate and to protect each other from the coronavirus, his main objectives center around making sure student government more fully represents students, especially marginalized ones. He said his experience as a marginalized person himself and his work with the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity has made him more open and sensitized to the needs of people who may feel unwelcomed or disengaged.

Richards says he sees his role in the coming year as building a foundation for other under-represented students who follow him.

He said he’ll start that work over the summer by seeking to establish and re-establish connections and relationships with student organizations and student communities that have not felt represented.

“I think that is really, really crucial and important, especially for me because that’s the platform that I ran on. ‘I, too, am Carolina’ was my slogan. And the reason for that was because I felt like an outsider when I got here, and that’s the way a lot of students feel like because of some portion of their identity.”

Richards said he leans on his experiences when he works for his fellow students.

“I think having a stutter and persevering through that allowed me to say, ‘I will never be voiceless again,’” he said. “I didn’t speak out. I overcame that. I had the ability to speak clearly. People understand what I’m saying.

And so now I have this platform. I plan to take full advantage of that.”

More with Lamar Richards

Following is a bit more of our conversation:

Among your leadership and service posts you’ve already held here at Carolina, you’re also chair of the Commission on Campus Equality and Student Equity. Equity issues are often at the core of problems in education. How do you expect your work to help the University make real and lasting progress?

I think that my experience chairing the commission is probably one of the most applicable experiences that I will use walking into the office of president. Serving in that role has allowed me to even become educated on issues that I wasn’t educated on.

I think a lot of my knowledge rather was centered on who I am. So, being Black or gay or an out-of-state student and not largely on the experience of a Muslim student or a Jewish student or a trans student who are also representing marginalized identities.

I think that my ability to always be a lifelong learner is really important. People sometimes get to places of power, positions of leadership, and they are resistant to learning new things or resistant to being educated about things they might not be knowledgeable about.

I can happily say that that they will never be me. I do enjoy learning new things, especially becoming more knowledgeable about ways to make our University more equitable. I think that begins with opening up the student government in a way that we have never seen before.

Why HOLD? What do you expect to gain from this program?

The HOLD program is one of those opportunities that is for students who aspire to be leaders in organizations or who aspire to have those talents and abilities to be very versatile in what they’re doing.

You don’t have to be a CEO or a chancellor or school president. Maybe you’re doing something else. Maybe you’re running your own business. The beauty of this program is that it allows you to do virtually anything that you want to do. It gives you the skillset to be very versatile, very diverse.

That’s what attracted me to this program, and that’s also the reason I’m telling all my friends to apply for this program, is that I do see that this program has value in that it doesn’t just give you a bunch of classes and credits and a transcript. It gives you skills, professional skills, and a knowledge set that you can use in virtually any career path.

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By Michael Hobbs