Meet The Young Black Woman Working To Elect Indiana Republicans

Whitley Yates
Indiana GOP director of diversity and engagement Whitley Yates.

Photo by Tony Valainis

The Indiana Republican Party’s director of diversity and engagement is trying to help the organization appeal to voters of color, an uphill battle. Read below her interview with Adam Wren, from our October issue.

Because so few Black voters are Republican, your job seems like a tough one. What interested you about this position?

What interested me was a candid conversation I had with Indiana Republican Party chairman Kyle Hupfer about the work he had been doing in communities of color. He was very clear to me that he didn’t want to build any type of transactional relationship, because that’s what had been done in the past. I didn’t want to lead communities of color into a party by saying, “Vote for me and I’ll do this for you.” I wanted authentic relationships, and I wanted the Republican Party to be a palatable decision for them. It was a risky job to take. The community could have rejected me because a lot of times, Black conservatives are ostracized. But when the announcement of my hiring came out, I had friends on both sides of the aisle support me.

Your position seems more relevant than ever, given the second civil rights movement that’s unfolding. What’s it like going door to door campaigning for Governor Eric Holcomb, given this moment?

When I talk to people, it doesn’t always come from, “I’m a Black female Republican.” A lot of times, it comes from, “What experiences have you had and what experiences have I had?” And finding common ground and connecting there, and then moving into what they want to see happen and what’s wrong with our system currently. I ask, “What problems are you experiencing in your life? How do you think the political system plays a role? Where do you think we have failed as a party? And where do you see room for us to grow?”

Were you raised in a political family?

I wasn’t raised in a family that was super political, but I was raised in a very Christian household. My mother is a pastor and my father is a deacon, and we spent a lot of time in church. My parents are Democrats and my grandparents are staunch Democrats. Although they’re conservative, they identify as Democrats. When I was in the real estate industry, I got to travel all over the country and live in different cities, and what I noticed was that in the cities that were led by Democrats, the Black communities were in the worst shape. I couldn’t understand why that was. Then I moved to California, where I was able to see how broken the system was and how the Democrats’ ideas weren’t serving the people. I developed a political ideology based on the foundation that my parents set for me, the religion they instilled in me, and my own perception of the country and where we’re headed.

What aspects of the Republican party resonate most with you?

Self-determination and hard work. From age 12 to 15, I lived at the Indiana Soldiers and Sailors Children’s Home that was funded by the General Assembly. I know what it’s like when a governing body is responsible for making sure you have what you need. I was adopted by my grandparents at an early age because my biological parents just weren’t ready to be parents. My grandmother passed away from cancer when I was 12, and my grandfather didn’t know what to do with a little girl. He said, “I need her to know that she has to be independent in life because I’m not going to be here much longer.” So he sent me away to that  boarding school to get a military upbringing. I was ultimately able to graduate from North Central, get a scholarship, and graduate from Indiana University. I’m an entrepreneur. If I believed that because of the conditions I was born in that my life was never going to amount to anything, then I wouldn’t be here. It’s that drive and self-determination that have kept me afloat.

What are your thoughts on the Black Lives Matter movement?

I think being a conservative and being pro-life means valuing all life. Of course Black lives matter—the phrase, not the organization.

But what about the organization and movement?

In a time as unstable as this, I really try not to say things that would deter other people’s progress. I’m going to reserve personal feelings for the movement and what things have turned into because I don’t want to offend people. I understand what they’re fighting for.

The Black Caucus in the Indiana Statehouse has put forward some ideas about police reform such as an anti-racial-profiling law. How do you feel about those policy items?

I haven’t seen everything they put out. What I’ll say is, when attempting to create policy, I think it should be a bipartisan effort. A lot of times in politics, legislators are siloed. They sit in an echo chamber, and then they come up with policies they believe will help people. The more challenging thing is to come together with people from different perspectives and say, “Let’s all talk about what we think we should do for the state, because that’s what we’re tasked with.” I don’t think that happens enough.

In July, the GOP announced the Indiana Republican Diversity Leadership Series aimed at training more diverse senior leaders. You’re overseeing that effort. What has the reaction been like so far?

Some people didn’t think there was going to be a lot of interest because of the distrust between the Black community and the Republican party. But I’ve been overwhelmed with the number of quality applicants. I’m getting emails from people who identify with what we’re doing and who are saying, “I go against the grain. I’m conservative and I need help navigating the dichotomy between being a 26-year-old Black man and a Republican.” We have an advisory board. I can send him people with those same viewpoints and experiences. 

You’ve mentioned a lot about what Indiana Republicans and Governor Holcomb have done for diverse communities. From your perspective, what has President Trump done for them?

Whenever I get emails from people who disagree with my views, they always take it to the national level. It’s not that I don’t want to talk about President Trump, but I’m really focused on Indiana because this is where I was born and raised.

There are people in the millennial generation—particularly people of color—who are fairly certain that the Republican party has no place for them. What is your pitch to them? Why should they give the Republican party a shot?

For so long, we’ve been hearing political platitudes on both sides of the aisle without any type of progress. So I would tell them not to listen to what we’re saying, but to watch what we’re doing. I understand there’s a distrust, and our problems aren’t going to be fixed in a single election year. But over time, what I hope they’ll be able to see is that the Indiana Republican Party is authentically interested in representing them. We’re going to continue to make these connections long after the election is over.