"Every city, big or small, should truly matter to us all."
Mitchell Whitley '21 is on a mission to meet every mayor in his home state of North Carolina. Since starting this project two years ago, he's visited 215 out of 521 cities to show townspeople in every single community that their voice matters.
"It's not just people from Raleigh or Charlotte whose opinion matters," Whitley said. "It's not just about the small towns either. Visiting every city and town is important in helping people feel heard regardless of their background or where they're from."
During his time at Samford and after graduating with a Political Science degree, Whitley worked for campaigns, federal and state legislators and even the U.S. Secretary of Labor in Washington, D.C. Through these experiences, he discovered small towns weren't being prioritized on the campaign trail because there's an assumption it won't make a difference. He said the focus traditionally revolves around bigger cities. This revelation concerned Whitley and made him want to take action. That's when he came up with the Mitchell's Mayors project.
"It's really important, especially for our small and rural communities, to feel like they have a voice and that somebody's on the road learning from them," Whitley said. "And it's meant a lot to the small-town mayors when I've shown up. They've been surprised by how young I am."
At just 22, Whitley sent an email to every mayor in the state. The response was slow at first. Many mayors thought it was a scam because they'd never been approached by an outside person seeking to hear their personal story and tour their community. But, when they spoke to Whitley, they realized he genuinely cared and wanted to know more about their town, even if their population size was less than 20 people.
"It's crazy for those mayors to think that somebody wants to visit and learn about their community and what it means to be a person in their town," Whitley said.
Many people his age might be intimidated to take on a project this size, but not Whitley. Having been a member of student government and a political science major, he said Samford made him a better leader and speaker.
"I had a lot of great opportunities, especially in SGA, sitting down and meeting people from different organizations around campus, being able to hear their perspectives and what was important to them and what could be changed in the constitution to help make the school better for all types of people," Whitley said. "Opportunities like that helped me be a better speaker. Before that, I was deathly scared to speak in front of people. Now, I have many opportunities to speak in front of rotary clubs in the coming months across North Carolina to talk about my mayor's project."
Whitley has learned a lot from his talks with the mayors, including pressing issues. From infrastructure problems to finding more affordable housing, he plans to compile his findings in a book to raise awareness and, hopefully, encourage lawmakers to act.
"Infrastructure, specifically water and sewage, are two of the biggest things I've been trying to raise awareness about to help teach people that we got to take a step back on certain things and put emphasis on our towns in North Carolina to make sure everybody can have access, at the very least, to clean drinking water in 2023."
Rather than being labeled as a politician, Whitley hopes to become a statesman. He wants to advocate for North Carolinians, regardless of political affiliation or background.
"I'd love to lead our state and make a positive difference for every North Carolinian," he said. "Not just one side or the other."
Read Whitley's story in the 2023 issue of Seasons magazine.