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Advancing Justice for Women and Girls of Color

November 13, 2015

During a White House summit on Friday, the Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research will announce $18 million in commitments over the next five years to support, extend, and initiate research about women and girls of color. To understand the meaning of this announcement, it is worth understanding the context.

President Obama had been in office less than two months when he signed an Executive Order creating the White House Council on Women and Girls. With a country still reeling with economic uncertainty and barely six weeks after assuming the Oval Office, the President created a council charged with accounting for the needs of women and girls in all policies, programs, and legislative efforts.

Unlike the My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which the President launched more than five years later, the Council on Women and Girls is not outward facing and splashy. The Council rarely captures media headlines or attracts corporate attention in the way MBK has. Still, one might argue that the Council is the more consequential initiative. The Council on Women and Girls does not suffer from the individualist, respectability politics that plagues MBK. It is less interested in role models and far more in results.

The Council on Women and Girls is an internal check forcing every department to heed Abigail Adams’ admonition of her husband as he drafted the U.S. Constitution— “remember the ladies.”

The Council is focused on structural change and creates mechanisms for accountability from the actors and outcomes over which the administration has the greatest influence. Its membership is formed of Cabinet leaders, operating under the mission “to provide a coordinated Federal response to issues that have a distinct impact on the lives of women and girls.”

The Council on Women and Girls is an internal check forcing every department to heed Abigail Adams’ admonition of her husband as he drafted the U.S. Constitution—“remember the ladies.”

But the Council’s internal orientation obscured public recognition of its efforts and accomplishments within the inscrutable maze of government decision-making, and its race-neutral identity signaled dismissal of critical differences among women. By contrast, the determination to keep the brothers, born in the crucible of the devastating deaths of so many, telegraphed a commitment to the specificity of black men’s vulnerability that was both public and personal.

The contrast meant many women of color asked, “Ain’t I a woman?”

Then in September at the annual Congressional Black Caucus dinner, President Obama used his address to map the historical achievements and contemporary challenges of black women. With clarity and urgency he called for action to address gendered economic inequity, criticized efforts to deny women critical health care access, articulated the distinct challenges facing women and girls in the mass incarceration system, and called for new tools to prevent and punish sexual assault.

And he did something remarkable. The President acknowledged the asymmetry in his administration’s gendered public discourse, saying, “And although in these discussions a lot of my focus has been on African American men and the work we’re doing with My Brother’s Keeper, we can’t forget the impact the system has on women.”

Mutually affirming recognition allows citizens to operate as equals within the confines of the social contract and is a core feature of the relationship between citizens and the state.

For nearly six years before the President’s speech at the CBC, the White House Council on Women and Girls had been actively seeking to shape the choices of policy makers to ensure equity for women. During those years much of the Council’s efforts were focused on women and girls of color, but the President’s CBC speech seemed to acknowledge that while substance matters, so too does recognition.

Recognition is an organizing need within democracy, and one too frequently denied women of color. Mutually affirming recognition allows citizens to operate as equals within the confines of the social contract and is a core feature of the relationship between citizens and the state. Citizens want and need fair distribution of resources, but that alone is insufficient. Citizens also desire, and are willing to sacrifice for, accurate, meaningful, and mutual recognition of their humanity and uniqueness.

This is not just a matter of hurt feelings. The stakes are high and the consequences potentially deadly when women and girls of color are misrecognized. Mislabeling the victim of childhood sexual assault as a “teen prostitute” means prison instead of rescue. Denying a restraining order because a judge can’t imagine that a black woman with a big attitude and ample body could be abused ensures violence rather than reprieve. Refusing to see the loss and pain masked by a teen girl’s combative attitude means handcuffs instead of hugs. Seeing struggling moms as border-crossing criminals intent on cheating the system leads to sanctions instead of solutions.

The insistence that we say her name; that we remember her story; that we recognize her face; that we truly, accurately, and fully see her acknowledges the heady business of recognition for women and girls of color.

Substantive and sustained research improves recognition. Research lacks the sexy, high profile appeal of programming interventions, but it is foundational. Research forces us to subject our assumptions to rigorous investigation.

Too often we approach systemic injustice with a headlong rush to bring solutions before we fully understand the problems.  It is one thing to notice a wage gap; another to understand its sources. Health disparities cannot be addressed until we unravel processes that create them. The achievement gap may seem wide, but the problem may be that we are using the wrong measures of achievement. Research helps us test assumptions. It helps us refine our assessments. Research helps us to see and to recognize the women and girls of color who are standing in our midst.

The insistence that we say her name; that we remember her story; that we recognize her face; that we truly, accurately, and fully see her acknowledges the heady business of recognition for women and girls of color.

Now there will be more of this research. On Friday, November 13, the White House Council on Women and Girls will host a day long summit at the White House titled, Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color: Building a Research Agenda for the Next Decade.  It is a surprisingly wonky—dare I say nerdy—convening for a venue as high profile as the White House, but it is one rooted in a commitment to bringing more explicit recognition to women and girls of color as an effort to create more equitable long-term outcomes.

I have been deeply involved in this effort in my role as director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University. AJC Center’s mission is to advance justice through intersectional scholarship. With the support of Wake Forest University, we jumped at the chance to partner with the Council on Women and Girls to host an event that could draw attention to both the lived experiences of women and girls of color and articulate the pressing need for additional research into their lives. Friday’s summit will be just one step in an ongoing effort to bring consequential research to vulnerable women and girls.

Research produces new knowledge, offers a foundation that expands our understanding of the world, leads us to ask new questions, and informs our policymakers. Research deepens understanding, illuminates challenges, and gestures toward solutions that can be applied in the public sphere. Research can also expensive, laborious and iterated.  Research projects must often be tended for long periods before they bear clear fruits for policy makers. This is why research requires investment. One of the most exciting events on Friday will be the announcement of the Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research.

The Collaborative of 24 institutions will announce combined commitments of $18 million over the next five years. The specific form of commitments varies in each institution but includes creation of tenured or tenure-track faculty positions; support and creation of post-doctoral fellowships; support for undergraduate research; hosting research conferences; collecting new public opinion data; and publishing a new book series.

The Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research is a voluntary affiliation of American colleges, universities, professional schools, seminaries, research programs, publishers, and public interest institutions committed to taking meaningful action to support and improve research about women and girls of color. This Collaborative is responsive to a call for action led by Wake Forest University’s chief academic officer, Provost Rogan Kersh. And the Collaborative serves as a national model of substantive action, best practices, and sustained partnerships to advance equity through research about women and girls of color.

The Collaborative of 24 institutions will announce combined commitments of $18 million over the next five years. The specific form of commitments varies in each institution but includes creation of tenured or tenure-track faculty positions; support and creation of post-doctoral fellowships; support for undergraduate research; hosting research conferences; collecting new public opinion data; and publishing a new book series. These commitments are consequential. As the Collaborative grows and as the work produced by and supported by these institutions gains wider audiences, perhaps we can begin to see more clearly, to recognize more fully, and to advance more steadily the cause of equity and justice for women and girls of color.