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Voting and Civic Engagement Top Issues at Women of Color Forum

Muna Killingback | Fri Sep 25, 2020

In opening the virtual forum, Standing in Our Power: Women of Color Leading Change, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley delivered a strong challenge to participants: “Stand unapologetically in your power and use it to demand the change we need and deserve.”

“Your voice and your passion are so critically needed as we work to build a country that finally affirms equity and justice for every person in our society,” Pressley told the more than 150 women in attendance on September 19. 

The two-day forum, organized by the Center for Women in Politics and Public Policy (CWPPP) at UMass Boston and the Massachusetts Women of Color Coalition (MAWOCC), brought together top women of color leaders from around the state to address a range of critical issues like civic engagement, voting, electoral representation, and policy reform.

Organizers Dr. Laurie Nsiah-Jefferson, director of CWPPP and the Gender, Leadership, and Public Policy graduate certificate program, and MAWOCC President, Visionary and Founding Member Celia Johnston Blue said the purpose of these events is to educate, inspire, and activate women of color around policy issues that are of particular relevance to them by providing them with tools and strategies for civic engagement and igniting positive change in their communities — especially as they face the challenges ahead.

Blue emphasized the need to dismantle systemic racism with a “sense of urgency—it’s now, it’s our time.” Nsiah-Jefferson noted an “awakening in America that racism is alive and well,” and observed that women of color have not fully benefited from “aspirations for democracy.” 

NAACP Boston Chapter President Tanisha Sullivan

NAACP Boston Chapter President Tanisha Sullivan addressed the “fundamental right to vote,” expressing strong support for the John Lewis Voting Rights Act of 2020, which she said would restore and extend the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  She said the NAACP is involved in voter education, outreach, and engagement campaigns so that voters understand the significance of both completing the 2020 Census and voting. Sullivan also emphasized the “power of collaboration” that builds on relationships with other Black organizations.

“This will be one of the most consequential federal elections in our lifetime,” she said. “We should be casting our ballots and using our power to make sure we elect individuals who are aligned with our values.”

MassVOTE Executive Director Cheryl Clyburn Crawford stressed the importance of both hard data and relationships to getting out the vote.

“We are building democracy hubs, regionally, around the Commonwealth,” she said. “Gentrification is real—our leaders are leaving Boston because they can’t afford it, so we are following our leaders.” 

Graphic shows POC Voter Participation 2010-2018

Beth Huang, executive director of the Massachusetts Voter Table explained that voters of color in the state are “leaving power on the table.”  Her data showed that voters of color could make up one in every five eligible voters, but currently only cast one in 10 votes.

“So we are leaving 46 percent of our power on the table,” she said.

However, in Suffolk County where Boston is located, due to successful organizing over years and decades, the voters of color are only leaving about “22 percent of their power on the table.” She also emphasized the importance of the Census and noted that redistricting will be done over the next two years.

Anna Del Castillo, a fellow of the IGNITE organization, which is building a pipeline of next generation women leaders, suggested ways for young women to become involved in the election, such as becoming IGNITE the Vote Ambassadors. She encouraged her peers to text ITV to 33777 to become an ambassador.

Loren M. Spears, a leader of the Wampanoag Tribe in Narragansett, Rhode Island said that they have been in solidarity with all people of color. She noted that historically Native American women were “very empowered in their own cultures, but not in white supremacist structures.” 

She said that indigenous people had historically experienced marginalization: they were not counted in any census until 1900 and did not become citizens until 1924.  It was not until 1957 that all indigenous people had the right to vote in the U.S.  While some barriers to indigenous voting still exist, Spears has been encouraging indigenous citizens to use their votes and activate their power. 

Boston City Councilor Andrea Campbell

Boston City Councilors Andrea Campbell and Julia Mejia addressed the impact of civic engagement.

“We now have the most diverse Boston City Council in history with a majority of both women and people of color,” Campbell noted.

Campbell said she understands that many of her constituents feel that government has “failed them for generations,” so she encourages them to partner with the council to “co-create” solutions. Mejia, the first Afro-Latina to serve on the council, noted that she had won by only one vote, which underlines the “power of one.” Voting brings influence, she stressed.

Julia Mejia

“It takes about six years to change a non-voter into a super voter—they are the ones who are the loudest, who get their streets paved, and have the highest quality schools in their neighborhoods,” she said.

It was her mission to mobilize Black and Brown voices with the message: “Your vote is your voice.” Mejia asked every participant at the Forum to either run for office, run a campaign, or talk about politics at the nail salon or the donut shop.

“Show up every day, because our lives depend on it,” Mejia stressed.

Barbara Berenson, a historian focusing on the Suffragette movement, highlighted Black women leaders who contributed to Black women winning the vote. She noted that the suffragette movement concentrated on getting white women the vote, and that the many Black women who worked for suffrage were “not welcomed in the leadership ranks of the suffragette movement, and in some cases were not welcome at all.”

In the afternoon session, current and past trailblazing women of color leaders discussed their experiences. Asked what it meant to “stand in their power,” former Fitchburg mayor and current Winchester town manager Lisa Wong said that she is now more strategic than she was when she was younger and “rushed to do everything.”

Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state legislator and former Commissioner of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, said Black Lives Matters is an affirming movement that addresses disparities that had become more prominent during the COVID-19 pandemic and the recession it caused. Cambridge Mayor Sumbul Siddiqui spoke about protecting tenant rights and how they had passed legislation that requires landlords to inform tenants of their rights when renting to prevent the flight of low- and medium-income families from the city.   

Representative Liz Miranda

State Representative Liz Miranda emphasized that all citizens have the right to advocate for the issues they want to advance, but says that there is a lack of access to information about how government really works: “If we can take the skills and deconstruct what a lobbyist does…and transfer them, that is what a community organizer needs to do.” 

Miranda spoke about being one of only three Black women in a Massachusetts legislature that consists of 160 representatives and 40 senators.

“The role of government can play a powerful role in advancing racial and economic justice, but we have a problem of representation,” she said.

“We desperately need more women like us to run for office so we can better represent our communities,” Miranda stressed. “We know best what our families need and how to advance the progressive values in Massachusetts. In moments of chaos, women of color can ask what they can give back to their communities.  When I stand in my power, I remember that I am here for a bigger reason, that I am here for my family and my community.” 

In addition to the other activists and leaders, students from UMass Boston’s Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality department actively participated in the forum, which was supported by a Barbara Lee Family Foundation Suffrage Centennial Project Grant.

The second part of the forum was held Saturday, September 26, featuring a Development and Action Planning Round Table led by Charlotte Golar Richie.