United State of Women Summit 2016

I was excited to be invited to attend the United State of Women Summit as a member of the AAUW delegation. The summit was organized by the White House and focused on women from all walks of life working towards gender equality and fighting for women’s rights. The day consisted of plenary sessions which featured high-profile speakers like President Barack Obama, Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey, Joe Biden, Valerie Jarrett, Loretta Lynch, Mariska Hargitay, and Kerry Washington (!!!), as well as less known but equally, or even more, impressive speakers such as Jaha Dukureh and Joanne N. Smith.

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Violence Against Women breakout session

In between plenary sessions, attendees signed up for three breakout sessions. The breakout sessions were smaller panel discussions on a particular topic. I chose “From the Margins to the Center: Solutions to Stopping Violence in All Communities” and “Creating Pathways Towards Equity: Advancing Opportunity for Women and Girls of Color.” There were some panelists doing great work and I was glad to learn about it, but I would have preferred  more personal workshop-style sessions where women can speak to each other in small groups and make personal connections.

Throughout the entire day, there was an expo which included organization tables, a booth for free headshots, and musical acts. I stopped by to listen to Mariachi Flor de Toloache– a Latin Grammy winning all-female mariachi band and a new favorite of mine.

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My best friend in my head, Kerry Washington, spoke about financial abuse

Overall, I was glad to have been able to attend this one of a kind summit. I kept thinking throughout the day how this type of event would never have happened under any previous administration. There were logistical issues like the event running long, which can be blamed on the sheer number of attendees and on Joe Biden not being able to stop talking. Even though the summit was far from perfect, it was a step in the right direction. There were a wide range of identities represented- race, religion, gender identity- but there is always room to make those voices even more visible by putting them, literally, on the main stage. There was one instance of direct talk about intersectionality from Joanne Smith. Though this is the only direct mention that I remember, I did appreciate how intersectionality was shown in the speakers present and the topics discussed, even if intersectionality itself was not explicitly referenced. Of course, there were problematic statements made by some, including Joe Biden, and people who have made problematic statements in the past, like Patricia Arquette. However inevitable problematic statements may be during a summit of this magnitude, that doesn’t make it excusable. It just means it’s even more important that minority women are present and their voices are amplified. I feel like their, our, voices were heard at the United State of Women Summit and I hope the event gets better every year.

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Michelle Obama and Oprah

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Why We Need Intersectionality Week

This blog post was originally published on AAUW.org. As Co-Director of YWTF Baltimore, I wrote this piece to bring attention to our work in creating Intersectionality Week, a week in which we focus on intersectionality in today’s feminist movement.

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April 13, 2016

When a group of Younger Women’s Task Force chapter directors got together at the 2015 AAUW National Convention to talk about our thoughts on feminism, intersectionality naturally popped up in the conversation. That discussion led to the idea of Intersectionality Week, a week during which YWTF chapters around the country will host events that highlight intersectionality and how it can be applied to today’s feminist movement. The first-ever YWTF Intersectionality Week will take place May 1–7.

The concept of intersectionality is not new, but the term is gradually working its way into the mainstream. Coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw, a law professor and director of the Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School, intersectionality acknowledges the multiple overlapping, or intersecting, social identities and related systems of oppression.

As feminists, we must recognize how an issue affects women differently based on their various identities. We must act in all women’s interests, not only the most privileged women’s interests. When encouraging girls to learn about science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, are we recognizing that girls of color have additional hurdles to cross? When we talk about ending sex trafficking, do we recognize the particular struggles of transgender women? How can we ensure that we are inclusive of the multiple oppressions that different women face as we work toward equality? These are the kinds of questions feminists should ask themselves constantly.

Sometimes intersectionality brings issues into the feminist sphere that have not been mainstream feminist issues in the past. Police accountability, for example, is a feminist issue. Crenshaw’s #SayHerName initiative draws attention to the black women who have been killed by police but whose names are largely unknown. Black women, transgender women, and immigrant women all have unique experiences with law enforcement that the average white woman does not. The Daniel Holtzclaw trial and the “Cleveland Strangler” case show how the most vulnerable women are victimized and then denied justice precisely because of their race and socioeconomic status.

Another common feminist issue that is not usually examined through an intersectional lens is reproductive rights. We often hear about sexual health and the fight for reproductive rights from a white woman’s point of view. Women of color are often criticized or slut shamed for talking about their sexualities and specifically about abortion. We must learn to create a safe space for all women to openly speak about their experiences and feel comfortable knowing that they are protected.

For decades, social justice movements have excluded or sidelined the most oppressed groups while centering the struggle of the majority. Feminists can’t allow that trend to continue if we claim to believe in social justice and equality. The fact that there has been a lack of intersectionality in past and current social justice movements doesn’t mean they have no value. But it does mean that there is no longer an excuse in 2016. A middle-class, white, cisgender, American-born perspective does not represent all of us. Now more than ever, women of all identities have the tools to elevate their voices, and they have done so with force.

We can see that marginalized voices are increasingly being heard, as some organizations have already begun to incorporate an intersectional feminist viewpoint into their work. The Ms. Foundation recently launched My Feminism Is, a campaign that highlights how people in different intersections define feminism for themselves. The African American Policy Forum was created with the specific purpose of addressing racial justice in an intersectional way. But the work is never enough, and it is never over. Similar to the way AAUW joined them in #HerDreamDeferred Week, an initiative dedicated to elevating the status of black women, you can acknowledge Intersectionality Week. With YWTF Intersectionality Week, we hope to make it clear that intersectionality must be a priority in the feminist movement of our generation. We are ready and committed to doing the work to make that a reality.

#AddWomen: The Root Cause of the Women in STEM Problem

Last month, the American Association for University Women (AAUW) released a report, Solving the Equation, which outlines the variables that affect women’s success in computing and engineering. It is the latest in a list of studies identifying bias as the root of the lack of women in STEM and leads to the pipeline issues and “personal choices” of women who opt out. Workplaces and academic environments are made unwelcoming to women due to stereotypes and biases, resulting in isolation, loss of opportunities, and other limitations. Simply recruiting more girls into existing educational programs does not solve the problem; the environments where they learn and work need to be reformed so they can achieve a sense of belonging and purpose in their STEM careers.

AAUW held a Twitter chat to coincide with a Solving the Equation panel on the report’s release, using the hashtag #AddWomen to track the conversation. Other hashtags on the subject include#WomeninSTEM and #STEMinism.

“Lean in” feminism encourages women to break the glass ceiling of leadership in business. There is nothing inherently wrong with this; the problem is that the dominant message that each woman can “lean in” to achieve business success minimizes the role bias plays in the workplace and focuses on middle-to-upper-class white women, leaving out the women most lacking rights and representation.

Dialogue about the lack of women in STEM fields particularly suffers from this problem. While research shows that girls begin to lose interest in STEM subjects in middle school, the fact that gender and racial biases influence students through their parents, teachers, media and the culture at large, is sometimes downplayed as if this loss of interest was biological. The insidious nature of bias is that it persists into adulthood and, if left unchecked, guides our behavior, so women working in STEM fields are subject to implicit and explicit biases every day in these predominantly white male fields.

A 2014 UC Hastings study also supports the importance of bias in women’s STEM representation. It identifies five biases that push women out of STEM fields and how they affect women differently depending on race. One of the biases, called the “tightrope,” refers to the thin line women must walk between acting in traditionally masculine or feminine ways. If a woman acts too feminine, she is seen as incompetent. If she acts too masculine, she becomes unlikable. Asian American women in particular reported feeling pressure to play a stereotypically feminine role. Black and Latina women were more likely to be seen as angry when they don’t conform to the role, reinforcing the “angry black woman” stereotype. This puts women in the position of having to defer to male colleagues and hold back to avoid being berated by superiors (an experience reported by women in the study) or suffering other consequences that limit their career growth.

The recent loss of a gender discrimination lawsuit brought by Ellen Pao against her venture capitalist former employer highlights the challenge of combating implicit bias. When it results in discrimination, it’s very difficult to prove. Prevention requires us to be constantly aware of internalized biases as they arise, which takes will and persistence. Hopefully, the publicity surrounding these studies and Ellen Pao’s case creates a groundswell of support for initiatives to make white male-dominated workplaces and educational programs more welcoming to women of every race.

(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)

#BlackGirlsMatter Too: Ending the Exclusion of Black Girls

Earlier this month, the African American Policy Forum released a report, Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced, and Underprotected, written by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, a Columbia University law professor. The report provides data from Boston and New York public schools on the ways girls are disciplined depending on race. Not surprisingly, girls of color and especially black girls are exposed to harsher punishment and at a higher frequency. Though more boys are suspended than girls overall, racial and gender disparities are significant. Black males were suspended three times as often as white males, while Black girls were suspended six times more than white female students.

As a result of zero-tolerance policies applied with gender and racial bias, students of color are removed from their learning environments and unnecessarily exposed to the criminal justice system, something referred to as the school-to-prison pipeline. Girls in particular face unique challenges when it comes to zero-tolerance policies that don’t allow for individual discretion by a teacher or counselor. Sexual trauma and harassment, high incidence of interpersonal violence, teen pregnancy, and family responsibilities contribute to emotional, behavioral, and practical challenges that affect a girls’ school life.

Excessive discipline cases have been making the news for years now, bringing the issue to light. Recently, video footage from a Baltimore middle school shows the beating and pepper-spraying of three girls by a school security officer. In 2014, a Detroit honor roll student was suspended during her senior year for accidentally bringing a pocketknife to a football game, and in 2007 a six-year-old Florida girl was arrested for having a tantrum. This report is the first of its kind to bring attention to the fact that girls of color are nowhere near exempt from harsh treatment and it does not make sense to focus policy on boys alone.

News coverage of stories like these helps to inform a wider audience of issues facing Black girls and the AAPF report includes a social media campaign to do the same. The hashtag #BlackGirlsMatter tracks the conversation on Twitter and has produced thoughtful responses regarding Black girls in the school-to-prison pipeline, the gender and race biases that cause this disparity, and the way Black women and girls have long been left out of conversations on addressing racially biased policies and practices.

An important fact raised in the report is that girls are largely excluded from current efforts to break down the school-to-prison pipeline. It’s generally thought that boys suffer worse consequences than their female counterparts, and unfortunately, this myopic thinking influences policy. While the overall number of Black men who are the direct victims of a racially biased criminal justice system is higher than the number of Black women, this often translates to a complete disregard for Black women and girls. Just as it is possible to address the difficulties officers face in policing while at the same time holding them accountable to the public, it is also possible to tackle the needs of Black men and women at the same time. Outside of the Black feminist community, not enough attention is paid to Black women and girls who suffer the same injustices, but are not acknowledged.

Black feminists have increasingly been pushing back on this type of thinking and their outspokenness has spurred real-world action. Women leaders of #BlackLivesMatter protests have made a conscious effort to include the names of Black female victims in protests to make sure their lives and deaths are not ignored in the process. In 2014, when President Obama announced the My Brother’s Keeper program, feminist scholars, organizations, and activists including Alice Walker and Rosario Dawson, signed onto an open letter. The letter made a clear point: leaving out Black girls perpetuates the myth that girls are doing just fine and ends up neglecting them to the detriment of the entire community. Also publicized by the AAPF, the letter and its topic were discussed on Twitter using the hashtag #WhyWeCantWait and has become a full campaign to realign MBK.

Stereotypes of Black women contribute to the erasure of Black girls from the conversation about excessive use of force and discipline. Historically, Black women have endured racial and sexual abuse and fought tirelessly for justice, but despite their many contributions have been relegated to the sidelines in public.

Now, in the age of social media activism, Black women activists have an expanded platform to resist these entrenched biases and insist that Black women and girls be considered and involved in policy decisions. Hopefully, this is a continuing trend and we see a greater understanding and concern for the future of Black girls in this country.

(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)

#ReclaimMLK: Reclaiming Our History and Future

This year, Martin Luther King Jr. Day was different than those in recent memory. The visibility of police and vigilante murders of black Americans changed the way we engaged in MLK Day this year, and possibly for years to come. Using the hashtag #ReclaimMLK, Ferguson Action planned and encouraged protests around the country from January 15-19 as a way to reclaim the true intention of Dr. King’s work. As Danielle Belton wrote in The Root, “Somewhere between his assassination and today began an MLK-neutering campaign meant to turn the famed agitator’s holiday into a national Day of Service, a generic mishmash of good feelings that contorts King’s social-justice legacy into a blissful Hallmark card of post-racial nothingness.”

Protesters around the country staged die-ins, marches, and blocked highways, shopping outlets, and even brunches. A long list of hashtags tracked these actions including #ReclaimMLK, #MLKalsoSaid,#BlackLivesMatter, #ShutItDown, and #ICantBreathe. 

This refocusing of the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday has been a long time coming. For years, Dr. King has been presented as an icon for the nebulous feel-good ideas of peace and unity or used as a commercial ploy, ignoring the radical nature of the Civil Rights Movement and what King’s beliefs and actions really meant. Even in his nonviolence, King was so threatening that the FBI zealously monitored him and other civil rights leaders.

Fast forward to today, when media figures and others who oppose many of the things Dr. King stood for- workers’ rights, reproductive justice, criticism of capitalism– praise him as a national hero while co-opting his true message. Each year, we can expect to hear pundits and politicians justify their beliefs by claiming that, if he were alive today, Dr. King would agree.

Rosa Parks is another of the most well-known civil rights leaders and rightly so, although not for the reasons most of us were taught in school. Like King, Parks’ image has been distorted to fit popular culture. As a black woman, Rosa Parks has been put through an additional layer of sanitizing to make her acceptable to racist and sexist power structures. As Danielle McGuire writes in her book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance – a New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power, Rosa Parks wasn’t just a quiet old woman who refused to get out of a whites-only seat on the bus because her feet were tired from a long day of work. She was “a militant race woman, a sharp detective, and an anti-rape activist long before she became the patron saint of the bus boycott.”

Her decision to resist segregation wasn’t a result of tired feet, but of a lifelong defiance and ingrained belief in the right to fair treatment. Her story was co-opted not only by white power structures, but also by a patriarchy that requires a civil rights heroine to take on a saintly image to be effective.

As we see in the erasure of Dr. King’s radicalism, Rosa Parks’ fierce lifelong activism, Maya Angelou’s unapologetic past as a sex worker, and so many others, we cannot count on others to tell our stories. This generation is capitalizing on the ubiquity of social media to demand that our history is neither revised nor repeated.

(Originally published on Hashtag Feminism)