In 1977, 10 Black women, led by Audrey Rowe Colom and Jeffalyn Johnson, came together ahead of the International Women’s Year Conference in Houston to draft a document that would specifically address the needs of Black women in the women’s movement.
The group devised the Black Women’s Action Plan, which was endorsed by conference delegates that included future Congresswoman Maxine Waters and civil rights icon Dorothy Height. Out of that conference, the Black Women’s Agenda was born, and the group hasn’t stopped fighting for women in the 40 years since it was created.
Led by President Gwainevere Catchings Hess, Black Women’s Agenda continues to carry out the aims of its founders by advocating for the economic, social, and civil liberties of Black women. Though the organization has several initiatives—from focusing on access to healthcare and supporting African-American caregivers and their families—one of the most important concerns of the group is improving the financial lives of Black women and their families.
“If you are not capable financially then it’s difficult to focus on anything else when you are feeling disempowered economically,” Catchings Hess tells ESSENCE.com. “Being economically free allows you so many opportunities that you wouldn’t get otherwise. It allows you to go to better schools, it will allow you to get better healthcare, it will allow you to have a better mental state in the world, and it’s just imperative to be able to have that kind of freedom.”
While those who serve in the Black Women’s Agenda are a formidable group, the organization extends its reach by partnering with a host of collaborators, including all four historically Black sororities in the National Panhellenic Council, Jack & Jill of America, Mocha Moms, and The Links.
“We try to make what we do about the mission that needs to be done and we’ve tried to bring in collaborating organization that are of like mind who will also work toward the mission,” Catchings Hess says of the group’s ability to evolve over the last four decades. “If you make it about one person or one thing, if something were to happen to that organization or that person then it tends to die or go away.”
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Catchings Hess became president of the organization during the Obama administration, which worked with the group on several issues, but things have changed under President Trump.
“Our organization reached out to the [Trump] Administration immediately after this administration won the election. We submitted letters to both the president and to his daughter and to [Omarosa Manigault], who’s over his African-American outreach, and we have not heard back from them,” she says.
“We would hope there would be opportunities and ways to work together, we did work with the past [Obama] administration through the Council of Women and Girls on initiatives that they were planning, but we haven’t received any invitation from the current president for any collaboration,” says Catchings Hess.
Despite the current lack of communication between the Black Women’s Agenda and the Trump administration, Catchings Hess says the group, which is gearing up to host its 39th Annual Symposium Workshop and Awards Luncheon, remains committed to its mission, no matter who’s in office.
“We’re going to continue to fight and work to empower African-American women and their families regardless of who the president is. We’re going to continue to fight the fight because it’s not equal yet,” she explains. “Even though we’ve made giant strides in the past, there’s still a lot to be done.”