ATLANTA — Between pastoring a small church, teaching college classes, volunteering with an anti-violence group and running for Congress, Stephany Spaulding didn’t think she had the time to go off to a women’s empowerment summit.
After spending two days with hundreds of black women juggling similarly busy and civically engaged lives, Spaulding can’t imagine not having attended Power Rising, a conference aimed at connecting African American women to share ideas and strategies for improving their communities.
More than 1,000 women attended the three-day event at the Westin Peachtree Plaza in Atlanta, where big-name speakers and grass-roots activists shared wisdom, laughter and even a few dance moves in joyous affirmation of one another.
Spaulding, 39, who lives in Colorado Springs, praised “the energy, the strength, the power and the direction of women that I’ve been able to connect with” by attending the conference. “Even if our paths to getting where we’re going are different, I believe we are all going to the same place. We want justice and love and liberation for everyone.”
The conference was a rare national meeting of black women that was not convened by a membership-based, professional or service organization. The idea grew out of a retreat held by black female members of Congress shortly after the 2016 presidential election, in which 94 percent of black women voted for Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
Since then, black women have felt slighted not only by the administration of President Trump, who has publicly feuded with and ridiculed prominent black women, but by the Democratic Party, which has focused more attention on winning back white independents who voted for Trump than it has on seeking input and addressing the concerns of black women, who are the party’s most loyal voters.
Although black female voters got attention for the record turnout that helped Democrats snare a U.S. Senate seat in Alabama, activists say the party and progressive political organizations could do more to support black female candidates all over the country, many of whom are seeking to make history.
One such candidate, Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor of Georgia, was greeted like a rock star when she spoke on the first day of the meeting.
“Sta-cey! Sta-cey! Sta-cey!” the crowd chanted when she came on stage. Abrams, the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African American leader in the state House, shushed the crowd and reminded them that her Democratic primary opponent is Stacey Evans. Chanting her last name would be better, Abrams suggested.
“A-brams! A-brams! A-brams!” the crowd obliged.
The women gasped when Abrams told a story about how years ago she and her parents took a municipal bus to the governor’s mansion, where she was to be honored for being her high school’s valedictorian. The guard at the gate looked at them, sneered and said, “This is a private party. You don’t belong here.” After her parents persisted, the guard checked the guest list, found their names and finally let them in.
“When I am governor, those gates will be open for everyone,” Abrams concluded, drawing applause.
The theme of overcoming obstacles with the goal of helping everyone ran throughout the speeches and panel discussions. At a session on feminism, Chirlane McCray, wife of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, recounted how a group of black women founded the Combahee River Collective in 1974. The group said that the white women leading the feminist movement did not appreciate that for black women, “the major systems of oppression are interlocking,” including sexism, racism, class bias and discrimination against LGBT people.
McCray urged young black feminists to “tell your story. Don’t let your story be erased. It’s so easy to become invisible and devalued.”
In a workshop on criminal justice, La Mikia Castillo of Los Angeles talked about her work with an organization called Get on the Bus, which provides transportation for children to visit their incarcerated parents in state prisons.
Castillo, 34, said she’d grown up poor and was the first in her family to go to college. She said she mentors young black girls and young women in the foster-care system and wishes she’d had the financial means to bring some of them to the conference.
“Those are some of the women who are not here,” she said. “The women who are here are inspiring — they went to Ivy Leagues; they are leading companies and corporations. But I also want to be able to invest in and see folks who come from where I come from who have not made it to that point.”
Leah Daughtry, a minister who also was chief executive of the 2016 Democratic National Convention and was a lead organizer of Power Rising, thanked the women for taking a leap of faith and attending the conference, which was pulled together in a matter of months and with limited resources. “All we had was an idea, no money,” she said at the closing session Sunday. “Those of you who are here are the brave ones. The ones who said, ‘We don’t know who the speakers are. We don’t know what time it starts. All we know is, it’s in Atlanta, and it’s going to be some black women, so we’re going!’ I appreciate you,” Daughtry said, fighting back tears.
Women attended from all 50 states, organizers said, and most participants were between the ages of 18-49. A few who attended brought along their infants, the youngest just four-months old. The oldest attendee was 98.
Daughtry said the organizers had not gone into the conference thinking it would be an annual event, but many attendees — as well as people who didn’t make it this year — have said they are looking forward to gathering next year. She said organizers will explore that possibility.
The women were encouraged to commit to adopting one of five actions to begin the work of improving their communities: register five women to vote; support five black women running for office; do five hours of community service; support five black businesses; and engage in five hours of cross-generational mentoring.
Several women running for office attended the summit, including congressional candidates Pam Keith in Florida and Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts. Spaulding, who is seeking the Democratic nomination in Colorado’s 5th Congressional District, said several women she met at the conference said they would help her campaign. She also joined Higher Heights for America, a political-education group that recruits and trains black women to run for office. The organization’s co-founder, Glynda Carr, served on the steering committee that organized the summit
Although the conference focused on serious issues, the gathering also was a cultural celebration — both planned and organic. Several celebrities participated, including actresses Cicely Tyson, Jennifer Lewis, Nicole Ari Parker, Amanda Seales and Erika Alexander.
Spaulding said that one of the most touching moments was on Saturday morning when the women began spontaneously dancing to upbeat songs by Beyoncé, Patti LaBelle and Cheryl Lynn. The moment was so joyous, Spaulding said, she nearly “broke out in tears.”
“It was divine, cosmically divine. Nobody orchestrated it. It was like a release. No one was judging,” she said. “There were sitting congresswomen, celebrities, women who were multimillionaires and young girls. No one was greater or lesser than anyone else; we were just women loving and dancing.”
There was also palpable excitement about the blockbuster movie “Black Panther.” None of the movie’s stars attended, but participants frequently made references to the film, including crossing their arms across their chests like the citizens of Wakanda, the fictional African kingdom depicted in the movie. Both Spaulding and Castillo said they were partly inspired to attend by the depiction of black women in the movie as strong, intelligent, compassionate leaders. Some women also jokingly referred to Atlanta, a majority-black city with a storied history in the civil rights movement that has long been home to a large black middle and upper class, as Wakanda. Also, parts of the movie were filmed in Atlanta.
During a general session, moderator Avis Jones-DeWeever asked participants to text the word that best described their feeling about the conference. The words “powerful,” “inspiring” and “awesome” initially dominated the word cloud. Jones-DeWeever noticed that “Wakanda” also was showing up. Soon it was the largest word in the cloud.