Organizers of a black women’s summit are hoping to gather more than 1,000 participants in Atlanta next month to map out a strategy for getting more political and economic returns for a group that has one of the highest voting rates.
Power Rising, the event planned for Feb. 22-25, was in the works before last month’s special Senate election in Alabama, where black women led the Democratic Party to an upset victory in the deep-red state. The idea came out of a retreat held by female members of the Congressional Black Caucus after the 2016 presidential election. Black women had proven to be the Democratic Party’s most loyal group of voters in the general election, with 94 percent of them casting their ballots for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump.
Leah Daughtry, a D.C. pastor who chaired the Democratic National Committee’s 2016 convention, spoke at the retreat and said she was asked by Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) about what black women should do next.
“I said if I could wave my magic wand, I’d have a conference of black women to come together across the spectrum and say … ‘How do we leverage the political power we have demonstrated that often gets ignored?’” she said.
But the idea went dormant, Daughtry said, until something happened during the past year in which a black woman was engaged in a public battle with the Trump administration or its supporters “and I got mad all over again.”
Daughtry couldn’t remember exactly what set her off, but it could have been any one of a number of incidents in 2017: the White House’s call for the firing of ESPN anchor Jemele Hill, after she tweeted that the president was a white supremacist; Trump backer Bill O’Reilly making disparaging remarks about Waters’s appearance; Trump and his chief of staff, John F. Kelley, challenging the veracity of Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.) and the widow of La David Johnson, a soldier killed during an ambush by Islamist militants in Niger, after the women said the president’s comments during a condolence call had been upsetting.
Black women also have been critical of the Democratic Party for taking them for granted, noting that after losing the 2016 presidential election white elected leaders and activists argued that the party had paid too much attention to voters of color and not enough to disaffected white voters who rallied behind Trump. In addition to their political participation, Daughtry also pointed to a Nielsen report last fall that said African American women were largely responsible for the growth in black buying power, which is estimated to reach $1.5 trillion by 2021.
Daughtry said she began calling black women leaders from different groups, asking if they would help plan a conference. “Not a single sister I called said no. Everyone said, ‘Absolutely we will help,’” she said.
A steering committee began holding meetings at the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women on Pennsylvania Avenue and came up with a plan to focus on five areas, or “pillars” — business & economic empowerment; culture, community, and society; education, technology, and innovation; health and wellness; and political empowerment.
The summit hopes to attract big names, grass-roots activists, seasoned leaders and students from all 50 states. The event is nonpartisan. Registration fees range from $25 to $100 and scholarships will be available for participants. Corporate sponsors also are being sought to help pay for the gathering.
Many cheered black women in Alabama as national heroes last month, when they turned out in record numbers and 98 percent of them voted for Doug Jones, making him the first Democrat elected to the Senate from the state in 25 years. And yet, Daughtry said, some news outlets reported that “women won it for Doug Jones. It was black women.” Indeed, 63 percent of white women voters in Alabama backed Republican Roy Moore. The failure to make that distinction, she said, was a “diminishment of our impact and voices, and a refusal to recognize what our contribution really was.”
The victory in Alabama and other electoral triumphs — along with Oprah Winfrey’s well-received speech at the Golden Globe Awards and recognition for Tarana Burke, the black woman who founded the #MeToo movement — has helped to generate interest in the conference, Daughtry said. “This is our time,” she added.
Another organizer, Nakisha Lewis, co-founder of SheWoke.org, which advocates for policies to improve the lives of black women and girls, said she is excited about the simple possibility of bringing together black women “across the diaspora, regardless of ethnic origin or identity and across the gender spectrum.”
“I’m an immigrant and a lesbian … A lot of people in my community do not feel welcome and included when the race says it’s getting together,” said Lewis, whose family is from Dominica.
She said women should come to the conference expecting more than just “hearing folks speak and watching a bunch of talking heads.” They should instead “come ready for work, to build an actionable agenda for black women.”
Organizers think this might be the only national conference of black women not convened by a social or professional group since the Combahee River Collective, a group of black lesbians who thought white feminists were not speaking to the intersectional lives of black women, met during the late 1970s.
Rep. Yvette D. Clarke (D-N.Y.) said the summit will give black women across the country the opportunity to connect and share their experience and efforts to improve their communities. “This gives us the opportunity to really demonstrate to ourselves, quite frankly, the strength that we have in our numbers,” Clarke said, adding that often black women are working in isolation, unaware of the work other black women are doing to address similar issues.
“If we’re successful in uniting our strength, then that’s where the power comes from, that’s where we gain the leverage we need to make a difference not only on the electoral level, but in the policymaking arena, the private sector and in other areas we find ourselves in isolation,” Clarke said. “This is the beginning of galvanizing and we’re really excited about that.”