The formal launch of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls (CBWG) examined barriers and pathways to success during a wide-ranging discussion Thursday.
Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Robin Kelly (D-IL), and Yvette D. Clarke (D-NY) formed the caucus in March at the behest of #SheWoke, a collective started by seven advocates and thought leaders across the country. CBWG is the first of its kind to represent Black women and girls among the 430 registered congressional caucuses and member organizations, which includes the Congressional Black Caucus and the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys, the lawmakers said at the time.
Portions of the inaugural event can be viewed via two videos on Watson Coleman’s Facebook page. The caucus also partnered with Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) for a second event on Black girls in the school-to-prison pipeline. Ebony magazine Senior Editor Jamilah Lemieux moderated the #RethinkDiscipline discussion.
“As we move forward in this launch, I can tell you that I’m looking forward to consistent, persistent work with an insistent attitude,” Watson Coleman said Thursday morning. “I believe that there’s been a vacuum of understanding our value, our challenges, our experiences, and our accomplishments.”
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#SheWoke’s Ifeoma Ike and Nakisha Lewis told Rewire that the collective, and the caucus, grew out of conversations about Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old woman who died in police custody under controversial circumstances last year. The New York-based roommates realized that they had a lot in common with Bland—including the same vulnerabilities. No amount of educational achievements, professional successes, or other accolades could protect them from joining the long list of Black women who preceded Bland in death.
“She really could have been us,” Lewis said in an interview.
Ike and Lewis organized with other members of historically Black Greek letter organizations to form #SheWoke and translate their conversations into action. The group then reached out to Kelly’s congressional office to bring the movement to Washington. #SheWoke began working collaboratively with the lawmakers and their staffers about how to bring in research on school discipline and other pressing issues, as well as how to better connect impacted communities with elected officials, Ike said in a separate interview.
As a former Capitol Hill staffer who worked on the Congressional Caucus on Black Men and Boys, Ike recognized the importance of a national platform to elevate the discussion and bring change to the local level. Going forward, #SheWoke would want the CBWG to coordinate hearings that allow Black girls to tell their stories and speak their truths before Congress.
“What we’re trying to challenge people with is to try to look at everyday people as the experts on their own lives,” Ike said. #SheWoke is planning to do the same through talkback sessions with young girls, professional women, and seniors across the country.
Firsthand accounts matter because Black women’s and girls’ lived experiences vary. A Black woman in Texas or Louisiana would likely have a far more difficult time trying to access Planned Parenthood services than her counterpart in New York or New Jersey, Ike said. Genderqueer, gender-nonconforming individuals, and “all the people who have been left out on the margins” also need to be a part of the conversation, Ike said.
Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou presidential chair at Wake Forest University and editor-at-large at Elle.com, echoed the need for intersectionality in her remarks at the caucus’ first event.
“Despite important commonalities, all African American women do not share the same ideas, beliefs, and burdens,” Harris-Perry said. “Age, region, queer identity, and skin color shape Black women’s lived experiences. Black trans women are uniquely vulnerable to public and state violence. Black women living with disabilities face barriers we frequently overlook. Black girls in foster care or struggling with episodic homelessness will have very different challenges than those with more stability.”
Such variations, however, “do not invalidate the importance of thinking about [B]lack women and girls as a group,” she said.
Harris-Perry said the late Angelou would commend the congressional co-chairs for developing the CBWG and ask the larger legislative body, “What took so long?” Harris-Perry ran through the list of overdue conversations: the disproportionate vulnerability to violence, unequal opportunity, criminal injustice, and health disparities that Black women and girls face in their day-to-day lives.
In addition to Harris-Perry, the event included speakers representing nonprofits, advocates, academia, and in the case of Geneva Reed-Veal, the mother of Sandra Bland, experts in the realities, and consequences, of the criminal justice system. Sharon Cooper, Bland’s sister, is a #SheWoke member.
Ike said she was “amazed at the interactions in between the formalities” of the event. Conversations focused on veterans’ rights, homelessness, school discipline, disability issues, mental health issues, and more, she said. A discussion on how women of color continue to bear the brunt of the gender pay gap underscored the lack of parity for Black women and girls—and the need for a forum to discuss policy prescriptions.
“The theme that I kept feeling was equity,” Ike said.