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The Political Power Of Black Women Signals Need For 'Whole Person Politics' In 2018


Progressives are relieved over the surprise Alabama election of Democrat Doug Jones to the U.S. Senate, and to be sure, it’s a huge victory.

The numbers are in, and Jones couldn’t have won without Black voters, and especially Black women. Wake up Democrats. As we move into the first days of 2018, progressives can’t bank on anti-Trump sentiment alone. “Vote against Trump” or “vote against the dark ages candidate” is not a good short-term strategy for 2018 and 2020 – and certainly not a long-term plan for organizing and winning.

This election, just like recent elections in Virginia and New Jersey, and the 2016 election, once again proved the incredible political power of Black women and the importance of our leadership. To create a lasting, thriving, and voting progressive base, we need to center and invest in Black women. This requires approaching us through the lens of what I call “Whole Person Politics.” We are not single-issue voters. As Audre Lorde said “we do not live single-issue lives.” To give voters a reason to go out and vote for the issues they care about, the progressive platform must reflect the entirety of our experience. If we lift up Black women and the issues that matter most to us, we benefit the entire electorate.

And we win.

As the women of color-focused Make It Work campaign that I have run for the last three years comes to a close, I want to reflect a bit on what we learned. We set out to make America ready for bold solutions to our biggest challenges and to bring pressing but overlooked issues for families and communities of color to the forefront of the 2016 presidential election. We did just that—for the first time, presidential candidates from both major parties laid out policy proposals on our priorities, including paid family and medical leave, equal pay and affordable child care.

We knocked on doors and asked people “how do you make it work?” Over and over again, we heard about economic concerns and challenges trying to earn a paycheck while also caring for loved ones. In many families, women of color are the ones supporting their families. So it was not surprising that we heard about struggles to pay the bills and especially the astronomical child care bills. We also heard about unfair pay. Black women are paid only 63 cents for every dollar White men are paid. In fact, Black women lose nearly $900,000 over the course of our careers as a result of this pay injustice. And while we focused on this economic justice agenda, we were clear on the fact that you can’t talk to a Black mom about affordable child care without also acknowledging her concerns about the safety of her children. Or what unequal pay means when you’re the sole earner and you’re trying to save for your kids’ college.

Once we connected the personal problems each of us face to the collective solutions that are possible, women quickly became activists – and this is how we centered our campaign.

On the ground in Nevada, a swing state in 2016, we built a nimble, effective program that elevated Black women as the inspiration, messengers, and advocates for our work. We positioned them as authorities, or our “Ambassadors,” on the issues most impacting their lives, rather than focusing on candidates or Washington D.C., Beltway jargon.

One of our Ambassadors, Electra, struggled after the birth of her first daughter because she only received four weeks of maternity leave from her employer. After switching jobs and giving birth to her second daughter, she had three full months of paid leave, as did her husband. She called it a “gamechanger,” allowing her to bond, nurse, and be fully present with her newborn. I have a 15-month old son and can relate to how crucial that time is. Having someone like Electra at the table to inform policy reminds those in power what’s at stake and how a comprehensive paid family and medical leave plan uplifts families.

Our Make It Work Action activists took to the streets of Clark County in 2016, knocking on doors and canvassing on the issues, rather than candidates. Their work led to an unprecedented turnout in Clark County and dramatically increased early voter turnout of Black voters in the county. Ninety-one percent of voters in our universe had already cast a ballot prior to election day, and they enthusiastically voted for candidates who supported our campaign’s issues. Hillary Clinton and Catherine Cortez Masto, the state’s first Latina senator, both ran on pocketbook issues and both won in Nevada by 83 percent and 79 percent of Black voters, respectively.

A true marker of the success of our Nevada program is that it will carry on even while our national campaign comes to its natural close. This long-term investment in local leaders, especially Black women, will continue to increase the political power of their community in the state well into next year’s election and beyond.

In reaction to the misogynist in the White House, women have seized their political power across the country. Higher Heights Leadership Fund, where I serve as the Board Chair, has called 2017 the year of the Black Woman Mayor. EMILY’s List has seen an astounding 15,000 women reach out to them about running for office since November 9, 2016. More women in office, especially women of color, means propelling our issues, our families and our communities to the forefront of the national agenda.

This is already playing out: Charlotte’s voters elected Vi Lyles as their first Black, female mayor; Virginians elected Elizabeth Guzmán and Hala Ayala as the first two Latinas in Virginia’s House of Delegates; and New Jerseyans chose Shelia Oliver as New Jersey’s first Black Lieutenant Governor. These historic wins were the result of progressive campaigns focused on women’s and families’ economic security. They were also the result of direct investments in voters of color. The American public is more interested in candidates who understand the pocketbook issues voters are dealing with, and we’re only going to see this trend continue. Look at the excitement around Stacey Abrams for instance, whose progressive platform –including a bold approach to making quality child care more affordable – has the potential to make her the first Black Governor of Georgia in 2018.

When women of color run, they win. And they win on whole person platforms.

From #ReclaimingOurTime, to #BlackWomenAtWork, to the polls, women of color are exercising our power, lifting our voices, and using our votes to make change. Investing in the communities where our issues are felt most acutely and recognizing the power of those most impacted, we can effect change from the ground up. This was the playbook for our campaign. Take it and run with it.

Tracy Sturdivant is the co-founder and executive director for Make It Work, a three-year nonprofit campaign that worked to advance new policy solutions to help families make it work.

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