Although more than 40 years have passed since Shirley Chisholm shocked the world by becoming the first Black woman to run for President, Black female leadership is relatively nonexistent in the nation’s political arena. For example, of the 90 women serving in the 112th Congress, 15 are Black. Of the 71 women serving in statewide elective executive offices, only four are Black. Addressing this leadership gap head on, Higher Heights for America (HHFA) hosted a salon of over 30 Black women on February 28, 2012 in Harlem, New York.
The salon entitled, “Building and Supporting a Leadership Pipeline of Black Women” allowed guests to collaborate during small group sessions to identify ways to inspire, involve, influence and impact Black women to get more involved in the political process. Using a worksheet to guide their conversation, participants were prompted to answer questions regarding the specific challenges and opportunities Black women face when entering the political arena. After meeting separately for half an hour, groups reconvened to share and discuss their findings. Here’s what they had to say:
Challenges Facing Black Women
- Lack of knowledge around the political process;
- Scarcity of funds;
- Family responsibilities;
- Not viewing politics as a profession;
- Taught to be in supportive roles (i.e., support and help male leaders); and
- Lack of confidence.
Opportunities for Black Women
- Organizations like HHFA that encourage women to become involved in the political process;
- Growing weariness of the status quo;
- Social media as a viable platform for elevating their collective voice;
- Involvement in other community organizations; and
L. Joy Williams, political strategist at LJW Community Strategies and co-host of podcast Blacking it Up! , live-tweeted the salon and revealed to listeners that she was reluctant to run for public office because she was divorced. Her revelation sparked a conversation about double-standards for unmarried women and the reality of smear campaigns as a tool to discourage their political leadership. Listeners agreed that women let the fear of their past indiscretions surfacing deter them from pursuing political office while men often do not.
The last question salon participants were tasked with was to think of “calls-to-action” that could strengthen opportunities and weaken challenges for Black women to pursue political leadership positions. One group suggested that initiatives should be created to start actively recruiting women in various industries and invest in them, ultimately grooming them to run for office. Another group suggested that there should be education seminars on how the government is run and how-to workshops that explain how to run for office.
The Honorable Una Clarke, the first Caribbean-born woman elected to New York City Council and mother ofCongresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, shared a compelling story from her first run for office when her victory was contested and she was told by officials that after counting the votes, she had lost. Confident in her win, Clarke threatened to mortgage her home to finance a recount of votes and the opposition quickly retreated, acknowledging her win. Oozing fearlessness, Dr. Clarke urged the room to “take power for the powerless.”
Conversations like this salon are only as powerful as the action that follows them. In the coming year, HHFA will continue to engage Black women in a meaningful dialogue around a long-term strategy that expands and supports Black women’s leadership pipeline at all levels and strengthens their civic participation beyond just Election Day.