By Calvin Pynn, contributor
Before moving to Harrisonburg in 2006, Laura Dent had known the Friendly City for most of her life as the halfway point between her hometown of Montgomery, Ala., and her alma mater, Harvard University. And when a job as a technical writer for Rosetta Stone brought her to town, it felt like the culmination of two lifelong passions – her decades-long career as a technical writer and a fascination with international language and culture after multiple trips abroad.
“It was my dream job and my dream location because I loved the Shenandoah Valley and the Blue Ridge Mountains, and I knew someday this would be home,” Dent said.
A 2012 round of layoffs at Rosetta Stone brought that dream job to an end, but Dent knew she wanted to stay in town. To help make that happen, she approached then-city council member Kai Degner.
“I asked, ‘What can the city do for us who just lost their jobs and want to stay here?’” she recalled.
Though he can’t recall the first time he’d met Dent, Degner said by then she’d become a familiar face.
“I just remember her as being involved in all of the major community conversations,” Degner said.
Working with Degner and other city leaders, Dent and other Rosetta Stone alumni launched a networking effort that resulted in collaborations and job prospects for the recently laid-off employees. For Dent, that meant an adjunct position in James Madison University’s Computer Science department.
Dent also began freelancing as a technical writing consultant while teaching at JMU, and eventually returned to Rosetta Stone part-time in 2017. Earlier this year, however, another round of layoffs struck – a turn of events that nudged her to run for campaign for city council.
“It was right about the time that somebody had just asked me to run for city council and I said: ‘no, I don’t have time for that!’” Dent recalled. “But then I was laid off and I thought: ‘gosh, well, maybe I do,’ and that sort of opened the door for me to run now.”
Seeking a first term on council, Dent is one of five candidates running for three seats now up for election. Along with incumbent Mayor Deanna Reed and fellow newcomer Charles Hendricks, Dent is one of three Democratic nominees running against Independent incumbent George Hirschmann and first-time Republican candidate Kathleen Kelley.
As a self-proclaimed “pragmatic progressive,” Dent is running a campaign focused on economic equity and environmental sustainability. That includes championing collaborations with local groups such as 50 By 25, which does local climate action and sustainability advocacy.
Dent’s first campaign for public office follows her own efforts campaigning for other Democratic candidates for more than a decade.
“I believe we have a ‘forward to the future’ approach,” she said. “It’s an interesting shift going from campaigning and activism to actually being a candidate, how I can bring those progressive values on the city council to make the improvements in the city that we do need.”
More than a decade of activism
Dent’s first experience volunteering for a presidential campaign came in 2008 when she canvassed for then-Sen. Barack Obama. That included a walk through Harrisonburg’s Northeast neighborhood, where she was inspired by the hope she sensed in some of its African American residents as they considered the possibility of the country’s first African American president.
She has also participated in multiple protests around Harrisonburg on issues ranging from environmental awareness to women’s rights. One particularly memorable one was a recent immigrant rights rally in Harrisonburg, where she carried a two-sided sign that read “Liberty and Justice for All” on one side with it’s Spanish translation on the other: Libertad y justicia para todos.
“It’s hard to argue with the pledge of allegiance and for all, we mean everyone,” Dent said.
Her activism has also been paired with involvement on a number of community organizations and boards in Harrisonburg, earning her a reputation around town as someone who “shows up,” according to Degner.
“If there’s a campaign or a rally to fight for people’s rights, she’s there,” he said.
That sentiment was echoed by Mary Lou Bourne, JMU’s Director of Innovation and Economic Development, who has served alongside Dent on the Shenandoah Valley Innovation Coalition. According to Bourne, Dent attended meetings as a local entrepreneur before officially joining as a member.
“Laura was one of those community members who showed up the most,” Bourne said. “And you know, entrepreneurs are very busy people, the rest of us in higher education or other business would have to borderline our jobs to dedicate our time to that. But she was one of those who continued to come and help.
Dent and her husband, Noel Levan, were also part of the founding team of the Friendly City Food Co-op, helping to develop the store’s initial concept. Ben Sandel, then president of the board of directors, remembers Dent approaching decisions with an analytical mindset, with a willingness to ask for input from other groups.
“At the time we were thinking about all the challenges of starting a business we know nothing about,” Sandel said. “And [Dent] was connecting us to, or encouraging the group as a whole to not do this ourselves, like, ‘let’s get outside help and learn from the experts.’ That was very helpful.”
Dent had taught at JMU since 2015, but decided to put all of her attention into campaigning this year. She plans to return to teaching for the Spring 2022 semester.
Alabama to Harvard to both coasts to Harrisonburg
Dent grew up in Montgomery, Ala., raised with her siblings by her mother after her Navy pilot father was killed in a plane crash when she was one. Being brought up by a single mother shaped her views on women’s empowerment.
“From my mother, I learned a fierce independence that a woman can do whatever she wants,” Dent said.
Dent graduated cum laude from Harvard in 1981 with a Bachelor’s Degree in Russian Literature, having studied abroad in the Soviet Union as an undergrad. She then moved to San Francisco and worked as a paralegal as she considered law school; eventually, she decided against it and moved into technical writing.
Dent later returned to Massachusetts, where she spent 20 years as a technical writer for companies including D.E. Shaw & Co. and JP Morgan Chase.
After a brief period in Newport News, Dent settled in Harrisonburg in 2006. While she didn’t then know that two layoffs by the same employer less than ten years apart lay ahead, Dent said it’s a reality she had come to expect working in the tech industry.
“The hot tech industry is just so incredibly volatile that you just learn to roll with the punches,” she said.
That difficult personal experience, she said, helped her build resilience and also informed the values of her campaign. One of her areas of concern is the fact that 60 percent of Harrisonburg’s population is classified as ALICE – that’s short for “Assets Limited, Income Constrained, Employed” – and many of them have lost jobs due to the pandemic.
“That’s why it’s so important to have those safeguards in place – to prevent evictions during the pandemic, rental assistance, food even,” Dent said. “We’ll be recovering for a long time to come.”
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