‘Welcome to Wakanda’: Black Women in the Age of ‘Power Rising’

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Commentary Politics

‘Welcome to Wakanda’: Black Women in the Age of ‘Power Rising’

Regina Mahone

An Atlanta summit set a progressive policy agenda for Black women and strengthened sisterhood bonds.

More than 45 years ago in Gary, Indiana, 8,000 people from all walks of life gathered for the National Black Political Convention. Hosted by Richard Hatcher, the nation’s first Black mayor of a large city, and held seven years after the Voting Rights Act, the convention sought to develop an agenda “not only for the future of Black humanity, but [also as] … probably the only way the rest of America [could] save itself from the harvest of its criminal past.”

Although political leaders, such as Illinois’ first Black statewide officeholder and onetime U.S. Sen. Roland Burris (D), credited the conference with increasing the number of Black political officeholders at almost every level, Black women are still underrepresented. As Higher Heights, a New York-based political action committee for Black women candidates, explains on its site, “Of the 100 members of the U.S. Senate, there is one Black woman. Of the 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, 18 are Black women.” Only two of the 74 women in a statewide elected office are Black, and 266 of the 1,830 women serving as state legislators across the country are Black.

Notably, back at the Gary Convention, former journalist Renee Ferguson, who covered the event, observed, “there were a lot of egos and there weren’t many women.”

That wasn’t the case at this past weekend’s Power Rising Summit in Atlanta, where some 1,000 Black women—including Democratic Reps. Bonnie Watson Coleman (NJ), Yvette Clarke (NY), Robin Kelly (IL), Marcia Fudge (OH), Joyce Beatty (OH), Brenda Lawrence (MI), and Stacey Plaskett (Virgin Islands); as well as numerous celebrities (the legendary Cicely Tyson, Jennifer Lewis, and Erika Alexander, among them) and faith leaders (Bernice King, Traci Blackmon, and Leah Daughtry, to name a few)—from across the country came together in solidarity to build an agenda for Black women. As others have noted, the summit was significant not least because of the lack of hierarchy. Rev. Blackmon aptly noted during the opening session, “I welcome you to Power Rising—I almost want to say, ‘Welcome to Wakanda.'” The summit was organized by a steering committee of Black women who understood the importance of getting Black women—a non-monolithic group of people often representing more than one identity—together to discuss policy priorities and next steps at a critical time for the country.

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As my friend and colleague Angélique Roché, who moderated the “Digital Activism: Your #ForTheCulture Masterplan in Social Impact” session, explained to me after the summit, this was the first time in our lifetimes that we saw an agenda-setting event for Black women, one that was not associated with a particular organization, sorority, or industry. “From what I can remember, there’s never been a Black women convening across sectors and movements, particularly one that’s been this inclusive of queer and trans women,” Angélique, the vice president of external affairs at the Ms. Foundation, told me. “It wasn’t an organization throwing the conference. It was Black women who wanted to come together and be together at the table to set a progressive agenda for community advancement.”

That in and of itself—the true spirit of the summit—is what made it so powerful. Other attendees I spoke to shared similar sentiments about the aura of the weekend: Multigenerational Black girl magic was happening before participants’ eyes, and it was for us, by us. As Rep. Clarke noted in her opening address, “When we engage one another, we come up with solutions—we strengthen one another.” Said another way, as author Veronica Chambers put it in describing the power of the conference: “I’m reminded of something Lupita Nyong’o once said: ‘Go where you are loved. People who see the best in you bring out the best in you.’” The more space Black women can continue to create for deepening our sisterhood, the stronger our nation might find itself.

“Building Our Agenda”

Participants built an agenda for Black women based on five pillars: business and economic empowerment; culture and community; education and innovation; health and wellness; and political empowerment. The sessions held during the summit’s first full day corresponded with those pillars. In a session on the criminalization of Black women and girls, author Andrea Ritchie, Rep. Watson Coleman, and NAACP Director of the Youth and College Division Tiffany Dena Loftin discussed how to reverse trends showing increased imprisonment rates for women, a school pushout crisis, and the continued dependency on for-profit prisons and the carceral state. Panelists and people in the audience concluded that the agenda regarding state violence should include alternatives to incarceration, the elimination of for-profit prisons, and more critical analysis of the good-girl/bad-girl dichotomy that perpetuates violence against young Black girls.

And in the session on “Black and undocumented,” panelists representing the immigrants’ rights network UndocuBlack—Nekessa Julia Opoti of the Black Immigrant Collective; Patrice Lawrence, national policy & advocacy director of UndocuBlack; and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient Faye Phillip—and Rep. Clarke spoke about the current administration’s enforcement priorities and how they affect Black and undocumented women. To meet this population’s needs, Rep. Clarke urged the audience to fight for more comprehensive immigration reform that protects the diversity visa program and DACA, and other policies that are being undermined by the current administration, while the UndocuBlack members asked participants to stay vigilant in fighting the erasure of Black, undocumented communities.

The agenda items discussed in those panels were combined with those from the other sessions and analyzed by Dr. Avis Jones-DeWeever, a steering committee member and founder of the Exceptional Leadership Institute for Women, along with her fellow organizers. They went through the notes and distilled them down to what became survey questions during an interactive session the following day. Participants texted their answers to multiple-choice questions like, “What should be our primary focus to improve the political empowerment of Black women?” The responses, ranked by the total percentage of votes, appeared on a large screen.

According to my notes, the agenda to which participants committed by the end of the conference includes: cultivating young people’s leadership through mentorship and training; divesting from entities that don’t support Black women and communities; educating each other about health and wellness in homes, beauty shops, churches, and other locations; organizing for expanded access to quality K-12 education; and pushing for criminal justice reform.

I asked Jones-DeWeever to clarify if this was a two-part agenda, since clearly there’s a difference between those items, the panel conversations, and the list of actions we were advised to take after the polling exercise. Delivered by TV personality Star Jones, those actions included: register five people to vote; donate to five Black candidates; volunteer five hours of community service; dedicate five hours each week to health and wellness; or support five Black businesses.

“I do think that there is a short term and a long term, and then there is a minimal basis and then a more in-depth focus in terms of outcomes. The five that you just referred to, I perceive those as the bare minimum that everybody in that room can do in order to create some change,” explained Jones-DeWeever.

When it comes to the larger efforts, like say criminal justice reform, that’s change that would involve the organizations and Congress members already embroiled in that work. For creating that type of change, the former head of the National Council of Negro Women advised that folks “connect with an organization like, for example, Black Women’s Roundtable and the African American Policy Forum—organizations that organize Black women anyway around policy issues and are already prepared and have the infrastructure together to make sure that we can act collectively in the most powerful way” to create change on a policy level.

“So, for example, I mentioned the Black Women’s Roundtable,” added Jones-DeWeever, who serves as the organization’s public policy adviser. “We have an event coming up in March—the annual Women of Power Summit. Every year we release our state of Black women in America report there. And so this is the type of organization where—and their conveners spoke here at the ‘What’s at Stake’ session—I could see potentially a partnership where that is the type of organization that could carry those big-picture ideas and actually implement on the ground through their networks.”

For those looking to run for office or support Black women candidates, she recommended the R.O.S.A. PAC and Higher Heights.

“I think we’re really just scratching the surface of the potential of [the summit] this year,” she said. “We’ll really be able to figure it out [in terms of the execution of the agenda] even to a broader scale if we were to replicate [the event] in the years to come.”

Black Girl Magic

At a time when the world is benefiting from Black women’s power, without offering much in return, our love and protection of each other has been a refuge. And over the course of the four days at the summit, the sisterhood among attendees only grew stronger. It was in the air, which you can witness in photos and videos here.

When Black women gather—as many have done from the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls to the Black Mamas Matter Alliance, Black Girls Rock!, and GirlTrek—we see our own strength and ability, reconnect to our collective and individual power, and relearn to wield said power to our hearts’ content. What participants witnessed at Power Rising was something that happens all the time in more compact spaces, among smaller groups of Black women, including in Congress.

In her opening address, Rep. Clarke, who was among the women who made the conference possible, clearly articulated the significance of the event for her and the other Black women in Congress: “While we are in Washington, we are 20 out of 535 people in the legislative body in the U.S. Congress. We knew that amongst us, working with so many of you out there, we could really drill down and be accurate in our advocacy, in our legislative agenda, so that we are not missing the mark—we are fully focused on what must be done to uplift, to reform, and to progress and make sure that our interests are dealt with in a way in which we would require in the halls of Congress.”

She further noted that it was long past time for this conversation. “We go about [our] lives just doing what we do: We struggle in our silos .… But we really need a coordinated effort in this time, in this space, in the advent of the 21st century that would enable our girls to understand who they are, to find their place, to get the mentorship, to get all of the tools they need to be successful and to be leaders if they should so desire.”

Echoing the sentiments of many of the weekend’s speakers, Clarke added: “We will rise up and make this nation accountable for what we have done to build this nation.”

Despite the flaws of the Gary Convention, Black leaders have called for another one in the years since 1972. Most recently, at the Power Rising closing session, attorney and political commentator Angela Rye explained in her speech, “The last recorded Black agenda meeting I know about [was] in … Gary, Indiana. It’s 2018, in case you missed it. If there’s anyone who can make power rise, it’s Black women.”

Many are now calling for the Power Rising Summit to become an annual convening. The organizers suggested at the closing session that it’s a possibility. But whether or not you attended the conference, or are anxiously awaiting dates for the next one, if you stand among or alongside Black women, there’s plenty of work to do now. You can support a Black business, support a Black woman candidate, or register more people to vote. These are not revolutionary ideas—Black leaders have been calling for these specific actions for decades—but it’s the work of anyone who wants to be more civically engaged. There’s no time like the present to get to it.