The Power of Black Women
As the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, Shirley Chisholm knew all too well the challenges and resistance that Black women faced when seeking to influence governmental and other large institutional systems. “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair,” was her mantra.
Accepting the call to engage, almost 200 African American women pulled up a chair on Nov. 11 at the “The Power of Black Women Summit,” presented by the Denver Alumnae Chapter of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc. at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus.
“One of the Delta’s five-point program thrusts is political awareness and involvement,” Senator Angela Williams stated in kicking off the day’s activities who is a member of the sorority. “In 2016, we were on the precipice of electing the first woman president. We did our part – 94 percent of Black women voted for Hillary Clinton, but our voices were not heard. We need to change that. If not us who? If not now when?”
The purpose of the inaugural Summit was to strengthen the voices of its participants through education about public policy issues that affect Black women and provide them with peer support and mentorship to step into community leadership roles.
Kimberly Peeler-Allen of Higher Heights America Leadership Fund encouraged participants to celebrate the progress made by Black female political leaders and consider how the news, most often, does not reflect these successes. “Record numbers of Black women won in the 2016 election,” Adams shared. “But that was not the story told. White progressives lost, so that’s the story told.”
The power of Black women, aka Black Girl Magic, extends to the economic realm in a significant way. Black women account for a $500 billion in US spending, according to a UCLA study. A recent U.S. Census survey shows that Black female entrepreneurs own more than 1.5 million businesses with more than $42 billion in sales, and currently have the highest rate of growth (67 percent) out of other groups. A panel including Tameka Montgomery of Core Strategy Partners, Carla Ladd of Denver Black Pages, Lee Gash-Maxey of the Colorado Black Chamber, and Dawn Bookhardt of Butler Snow discussed the challenges and the tremendous opportunities for Black women in business.
Montgomery highlighted Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s observation on the progress of civil rights in 1966: “Low wages of Blacks and depressed ghetto living conditions were a structural part of the economy.” She added, “Little has changed since that time. Black women are critical to the economic system, as either significant contributors or primary breadwinners in households, yet they only make $.60 for every $1.00 that white men make. White women (while still in an inequitable position) make $.79 per dollar of white males.”
How do we address the wage gap? Experts cited two main ways: Get every skill that you can to be at the top of yourgame, and support other Black women to get ahead. “I’ve had mentors at every job I’ve held – older Black women who helped me to navigate the office,” Carla Ladd shared. “We need networks of support, but it doesn’t work with a slave mentality. Black power is as real as white privilege. We are brilliant!”
The State of Education
In response to concerns from Denver schools and community, DPS commissioned Dr. Sharon Bailey to report on the experiences of African-American educators and concerns about how African-American students are being cared for and educated. One of the key findings highlighted in the 82-page report was that many Black teachers feel isolated within the district and see stark contrasts in how Black children are handled in and out of the classroom compared to their white counterparts. Bailey was one of several panelists (other panelists include Makisha Boothe, Tameka Bringham, and Vanecia Kerr) who discussed the challenges of teachers as well as Black students.
PanelistNycole Bradshaw shared that she is the only Black teacher at her school. “Everyone sends their Black students to me for care,” she said. “White women teachers don’t know how to connect with Black boys. They are very easily offended.” She added, “Black teachers provide invisible labor. We do everything white teachers do but also everything else necessary to meet the needs of Black students. We need to train white teachers to do this.”
This invisible labor comes at a cost. Federal data suggests that in 2012-13, nearly 22 percent of Black public-school teachers moved schools or left the profession altogether, compared to only about 15 percent of white, non-Hispanic teachers.
Burn-out for Black teachers is a real threat, but is also a significant risk for all Black women who, too often, try to do for others without taking enough time out for rest and self-care. A panel of experts addressed the need for radical self-care. “A lot of what ails Black women cannot be healed by my scalpel,” said panelist Jandel Allen-Davis, MD.
Cathy Phelps, Executive Director of the Trauma and Resilience Center, shared that to ensure her staff takes care of themselves, she institutionalized self-care. “You get raises based on physical, spiritual, and intellectual self-care,” she said.
Dr. Terri Richardson, Internist at Kaiser Permanent said, “I tried to invent the 36-hour day. I have two sons, and at one point realized I needed to say ‘no’ so I could be around to watch them grow up.”
“Many Black women don’t feel they deserve more,” shared Karen McNeil Miller, Colorado Health Foundation CEO. “We need to be ok with saying to ourselves, ‘I’m a bad sistah. I deserve time to myself, to eat right, and sleep.’ Our role isn’t just to give to others.”
The current administration has made way for an onslaught of racism and sexism which threatens so many of the social justice gains of the past 50 years. A panel of local experts, including Dr. Rosemarie Allen, Assistant Professor of Early Childhood Education at MSU, shared thoughts about how to continue progress even in the midst of the current political and social climate.
“Being a feminist is defined by white women, tied to equal pay and reproductive rights, said Carol Watkins Ali, Author of Survival and Liberation: Pastoral Theology in African American Context. “There is an alternative definition of feminism that Black women use, ‘womanism.’ It’s incumbent upon us to define ourselves and amass our strength.”
“Often times we get a little success and forget our own communities. We must have unity. Forgive for past harms and forget the pettiness,” said Felicia Griffin, of FRESC.
Rev. Dr. Regina Groff challenged Black women to consider their “enoughness,” in a rousing luncheon keynote address. “The world conspires to kill Black women, requiring us to do more. We’re slaves wondering ‘what more can we do?’” She offered, “Don’t seek more to do, but be recharged by what we’ve done. Be smart, effective, and intentional. We need power sources. We need to support sisters. Invest in each other instead of betting against them.”
A call to action was sounded for Black women to keep building the momentum of engagement in service on boards and councils and in local governments.
The Summit culminated with an inspiring assemblage of elected Black women past and present including Dominique Jackson, Angela Lawson, Janet Buckner, Rhonda Fields, Angela Williams, Leslie Herod, Happy Haynes, Dr. Sharon Bailey, Elbra Wedgeworth, Wilma Webb, and Gloria Tanner. The predominant sentiment was that being treated as if “invisible” was part of the terrain for a Black woman in public office.
Representative Leslie Herod reminded participants, however, that there are now eight African American legislators in Colorado. “Utilize the power and voices we represent. We now determine victory or defeat.”