2020 Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris speaks to students at a cafe on April 11 in Des Moines. (Charlie Neibergall/AP)

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This year’s packed schedule of Democratic presidential town halls and debates will feature something different: a forum specifically designed to make candidates answer to women of color.

On April 24, much of the 2020 Democratic field will convene in Houston for a forum convened by She the People, a political organization founded to help center women of color in the political process. Democratic candidates who have officially declared were invited to attend, and Sens. Cory Booker (N.J.), Kamala D. Harris (Calif.), Amy Klobuchar (Minn.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.), former Housing secretary Julián Castro (Tex.), Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (Hawaii), and former congressman Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) will participate. It will take place at Texas Southern University, a public, historically black university.

As the 2020 election gets underway, women of color within the Democratic Party want to make sure it “boldly lives up to its values,” as Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) demanded of a group of party figures in December. This cycle’s crop of presidential contenders have gone out of their way to acknowledge issues facing African Americans and other minority groups in their speeches, appearances and policy rollouts, and their votes are seen as critical. But ahead of 2020, many women of color want to ensure that sentiment translates into genuine policies, aggressive voter outreach and diverse hiring from Democratic campaigns.

Aimee Allison, who launched She the People in 2018 and organized the forum, said one of her main goals is “to change political considerations of presidential campaigns.”

“We want to change the dynamic that women of color had been taken for granted for decades,” she told The Washington Post. “Savvy campaigns understand the role of women of color . . . those are the ones that are positioned to be successful. They are campaigning directly to the most loyal Democrats."

She the People’s forum will place candidates directly before an audience of women of color. Each presidential hopeful will appear onstage for 20 minutes and respond to audience members’ questions. Allison said she particularly wants to hear the candidates’ proposals on issues such as immigration and criminal justice.

Nearly half of black Americans prioritize addressing racial inequality as a voting issue, with 46 percent saying it was either their first or second top issue, according to the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2018 American Values Survey. The survey showed 40 percent of Hispanic Americans considered immigration to be a top issue.

Timing the forum early in the campaign was a strategic bid to engage the candidates early, Allison said. She also pointed to Texas’s significance in the 2020 election — Castro and O’Rourke hail from the state, and it has long been an electoral prize coveted by Democrats — for holding the forum in Houston.

She the People has no plans to hold a forum for the Republican presidential field, in part, because of the lack of candidates.

The forum comes at an opportune time for those who argue that women of color deserve more seats at the electoral table. The 2018 midterms ushered in the most female and diverse Congress in history. Some candidates such as Pressley triumphed by building diverse coalitions and arguing that Congress needed to better reflect the general populace, while others, who fell just short of electoral victory, such as Georgia gubernatorial nominee Stacy Abrams, continue to build their national profiles and generate excitement among Democrats.

The past few years have seen increasing recognition in the Democratic Party that women of color, particularly black women, constitute some of their most loyal voters. Exit polls showed that in the 2016 election, 94 percent of black women cast their vote for Hillary Clinton, and 69 percent of Latina voters did.

“Black women are the backbone of the Democratic Party,” Democratic National Committee Chair Tom Perez said in 2017, after these voters were credited with delivering Alabama Sen. Doug Jones an upset victory in the 2017 special election.

More than 40 national and regional partners that are led by or work to advance the causes of women of color have been invited to partner with She the People for the forum or attend, including the Texas Future Project, MoveOn, Black Voters Matter, New American Leaders and SEIU Texas.

Andrea Mercado of the New Florida Majority, which contributed field operations to Democrat Andrew Gillum’s bid for Florida governor and has partnered with the forum, said she’s looking for candidates who will “walk the walk” at the forum and offer proposals that resonate with Florida voters.

Mercado also noted Latina voters are looking for candidates to offer solutions to problems such as sexual harassment and discrimination in the workplace, gun violence and flaws in the public education system.

“I want to walk away knowing candidates running for president understand that they can’t just count on women of color to turn out voters in record numbers but not have a bold policy proposal to address the challenges that our families face,” she said. “This will be a really important opportunity for us to ask the questions that we need answers to be able to discern which candidates will really fight for our families and our communities.”

Correction: A previous version of this post incorrectly said that 2016 exit polls showed 98 percent of black women voted for Hillary Clinton and 64 percent of Latinas did. The post has been corrected.

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