Our Voices Matter, Turning Political Action into Political Leadership

Tisha_James.jpgBy Hon. Letitia James
Public Advocate for the City of New York

Last month, I joined Higher Heights in an important discussion about how under-represented voices-- and specifically the voices of Black women-- can be amplified through grassroots movements, political action, and civic engagement in a substantive and empowering way.

The truth is that too often the ladder has a specific ceiling when it comes to Black advancement. Today, Black women are the behind-the-scenes leaders in the Black Lives Matter movement, fair minimum wage movement, and other social justice coalitions. They might not be writing the op-eds or getting the majority of the public attention, but they are doing the on-the-ground work around issues that more than often overwhelmingly affect Black men.

And that’s important, because just as aggressive policing, harsh sentencing for non-violent offenses, affordable housing, and job creation are important issues for our communities-- so are paid family leave, quality and affordable childcare, pay equity, and access to reproductive rights.

There was also a recent report by Columbia Law School and the African American Policy Forum entitled Black Girls Matter: Pushed Out, Overpoliced and Underprotected. It found that NYC Schools suspend black girls 10x more often than their White counterparts. This is important because the dialogue around school suspensions so far has largely centered about Black boys, while Black girls are suspended for things like ‘improper dress’ at a higher rate.

Frankly put-- any Black social justice movement must include the issues that matter to Black women. The stakes of not doing so are too high. Because Black women like Sandra Bland are dying in jail cells. Black women like those allegedly violated by Oklahoma City officer Daniel Holtzclaw are hurt by someone charged with protecting them AND feel that no one will believe their story; Black women like Kam Brock are placed in hospitalization against their will because it’s easier to believe a Black woman is unhinged when she demands she be treated with respect; Black women like Fay Wells are greeted by an army of officers-- guns drawn-- in their own homes because their neighbors see them as so invisible that they mistake them for criminals.

We must remember these women’s names and stories, which demonstrate the very real dangers and the powerlessness Black women experience, even as they care for and fight for others. And we must recognize that addressing institutionalized sexism and racism begins with making room at the table for Black female voices-- allowing Black women to grow from positions of behind-the-scenes coalition-building to leadership roles.

Whether you agree or disagree with the actions of women like Marissa Johnson and Mara Jacqueline Willaford-- who disrupted Bernie Sanders’ rallies in Seattle-- it is almost certain that their actions pushed our Democratic candidates across the board to talk seriously about their plan to address social justice and policing issues nationwide.

So the question before us becomes: how to turn political action into political leadership.

Dr. Danielle Moss Lee, CEO of YWCA of the City of New York, recently said: “I decided to lead because I came to accept that I was just as good as the alternative, and possibly better... I decided to lead because history offered me a blueprint for the possibility of liberation, and I understood that even if I don't have all the answers I remain part of the solution.”

Black women seeking leadership roles have two strikes against them. They will have their personal choices, their intelligence and education, their ambition, and even their sanity called into question. Believe me, it takes a thick skin.

You MUST believe that you have every right to the highest position you desire, whether you work in advocacy, law, politics, or the corporate world. You must believe that your contributions-- your work-- are equal in value, and VALUABLE.

As many people know, the first election I won, for the New York City Council, I won as a Working Families candidate. I’d worked as counsel for elected officials in Albany, as an Assistant Attorney General, and as an attorney for legal aide-- But I don’t have to tell you that there were people who thought I was out of my mind for running without Democratic party endorsement, much less a political war-chest. Yet I ran for one reason and one reason only-- because I believed I could make a difference. I believed I could be an effective leader. I was willing to make sacrifices to do so, and I wouldn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. And I’ve let that same drive guide me to this very position, as the first African-American woman elected to citywide office in New York’s history.

In this position I’ve had a chance to use my background as an attorney and legislator to be at the forefront of the push for transparency in grand jury testimony, for police body cams, for addressing the deficiencies in our foster care system, and for preventing college sexual assault. History is made by those who show up to galvanize and lead, and for every Black woman who makes it through the glass ceiling, she must commit herself to lifting up even more.

I made it my business to get to know the women of color who serve in the City Council today, women like Council Members Julissa Ferreras, Laurie Cumbo, and Vanessa Gibson. I have offered them support and advice from time to time, as well as a listening ear, as leaders like State Senator Velmanette Montgomery and Una Clarke did for me.

I know many of us have busy and full lives, but we must make time to PAY IT FORWARD if we want to see diversity in leadership roles. We have to create the leadership we want to see. We are all in a position to help a deserving woman in some way-- be it financially, with our time through mentorship, or through networking and creating connections.

I want to leave you with one more quote from my role model Shirley Chisholm-- “In the end, anti-black, anti-female, and all forms of discrimination are equivalent to the same thing -- anti-humanism.”

We must embrace an intersectional way of thinking that connects the plights of low-income and high-income women; women with higher education and those without; mothers who are married and those who are not; LGBT women and those who are not; and Western-born and immigrant women.

Only through this mindset will be able to improve the lives of all women of color.

Letitia James is the Public Advocate for the City of New York, the second highest ranking elected office in the City. As Public Advocate, she serves as a direct link between New Yorkers and their government, acts as a watchdog over City agencies, and investigates complaints about City services.

Public Advocate James made history in 2014, by becoming the first woman of color to hold citywide office in New York City. In less than two years, Letitia James has transformed the Office of the Public Advocate to deliver real results and reforms for all New Yorkers.