Race and gender intersect to empower

Center for American Progress forum draws huge crowd, offers compelling dialogue.

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The Center for American Progress (CAP) hosted a discussion panel featuring four prominent guest speakers to talk about race and politics in America, centering on the theme of the transformative power of black women.

The event — the third consecutive one on Martha’s Vineyard — took place at a packed Lola’s Restaurant in Oak Bluffs on a rainy Monday afternoon. The guest speakers who made up the panel were four black women at the top of their fields: Valerie Jarrett, former White House senior adviser to President Barack Obama; April Ryan, American Urban Radio Networks White House correspondent and Washington bureau chief; the Rev. Renita Weems, author, scholar, clergywoman, and public intellectual; and Alicia Garza, writer, activist, and co-founder of Black Lives Matter.

The talk, moderated by Danielle Belton, editor-in-chief of the Root, an African American–centric online magazine, not only centered on transformative power, but also touched on politics, media, racism, sexism, gender, citizenship, and spirituality.

“Everyone’s talking about ‘black girl magic,’ but you’ve been doing this for a minute,” Belton said to the panel. “I just want to know, why did it take so long for people to get hip to this game? We stopped Roy Moore, Beyoncé is on the cover of Vogue, so why did it take so long?”

“It’s because black women are not in power,” Garza said candidly. “Yes, [black women] have been doing things forever, yes we’ve been leading forever, shaping forever, creating forever, and we’re woefully underrepresented in every decisionmaking role that you can think of. As long as that dynamic remains true, people are always going to act surprised about the magic that we have been sharing and exhibiting for a really long time. I think it’s time to change that.”

“We haven’t had a critical mass,” Jarrett said to an audience that hummed in agreement. “When you are the first, or if you are the only, it is really hard. To step out there without the support of this room and many rooms like this, it’s very hard … We have been used to being in the back seat and having our voices silent.”

Each woman on the panel agreed that when they experienced discrimination, they sometimes could not discern if it was because they are black or because they are women. Weems said black women needed to be vigilant and vocal on not only racism, but sexism as well — that one was just as “virulent and vicious” as the other.

But the crux of the talk was not about how being black and being a woman are terms of disenfranchisement, but how they are terms of empowerment.

“It’s important for us not to step out now, but claim our position and say there is no going back. We cannot unknow now what we know. We can not depower ourselves now that we’ve seen that we have this incredible amount of power,” Weems said.

Ryan agreed with Weems. “We are free, we feel our freedom, and the shackles have been taken off. We are in a divisive climate right now, and we are reacting, but we have to be strategic when we act,” she said. “We have to really start thinking and fighting back. We have to look at what’s true and find out what’s true for ourselves, and don’t accept what they say. There’s people trying to change history, they’re trying to change facts. They’d have you believe the sky is orange instead of blue.”

Faith, in all its shapes and forms, can play an important role in the empowerment, sanity, and clarity of black women, Weems said. Quoting poet Maya Angelou, she said the black church was “a cool drink of water,” not only in its spiritual empowerment, but in its coordination, giving black women their first training on how to organize. “If you can organize the usher board, you can run the country,” she said.

Weems added that the other women on the panel had the job of fighting evil on a political level, while her job was to fight evil on the heart and spirit level: “How you fight the spirit of evil, and not just the person who is evil?”

Belton said black women have a supportive community, manifested by the event’s crowd that frequently shouted back exclamations of support, but asked the panel if black women need more allies.

Garza said she didn’t like the word ally, preferring instead co-conspirator, because being an ally doesn’t require someone to do anything or interrupt any dynamics.

“There’s a lot of work that we all can do to be better [co-conspirators] to each other. Once we’re in deeper community with each other, it creates a different kind of relationship with folks who are not us, but who should share our values, our vision, and certainly sharing our experiences — not all of them, but a lot of them,” Garza said.

Organizing and conspiring are the steps to start a movement, but institutional and cultural change comes with the action, voting, and participation of as many people as possible, Garza said. “We need millions of people to be a part of a movement, not just to change who’s in the White House but to transform all the ways in which powers are being abused. We have to switch that. We can’t just put somebody else in with the same tools and say, ‘I hope you do it differently.’ We actually need to shake up the toolbox a little bit.”

Ryan said participation starts with black women “being better messengers of our own message.”

Before the talk broke for a reception and the audience scrambled to get a face-to-face with one of the panel members, Ryan, looking toward a future of change, offered words of liberation.

“We have got to tell our story. Everything has a story, everyone has a story. There’s a history behind who you are and why you’re here. We got to walk in pride and never let them say what you can and what you’re not and what you think you are. We can’t keep the shackles on ourselves, and that’s how I think we take our narrative back,” Ryan said.