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From Local to the National, Achieving Equity Requires Young Women’s Solutions

Kalisha Dessources shared the following remarks at the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota’s Power Luncheon at the Women’s Foundation of Minnesota (WFMN) in August 2018. 

I have the honor of being the director of the National Philanthropic Collaborative of Young Women’s Initiatives, and I’m also former Policy Advisor to President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls, where I worked for three years, and directed policy work on advancing equity and outcomes for women and girls of color. I worked with colleagues across government, and leaders across the country, including WFMN CEO, Lee Roper-Batker, on a number of policy issues that particularly impacted women of color—everything from exclusionary school discipline policies, to juvenile and criminal justice reform, access to STEM education and tech jobs, access capital, issue of economic security and economic prosperity. I’m also a researcher and a doctoral student at Yale where my work focuses on how inequities in the education and justice systems impact young people of color.

A Heritage of Perseverance

But of the different hats I wear, my favorite—by far—is that I am the proud daughter of two Haitian immigrants. Two Haitian immigrants who each had unique journeys to the U.S. Journeys that required them to work through, succeed within, and overcome obstacles within a number of different systems that weren’t built with them in mind.

Kalisha, third from the left, with WFMN Innovators, a Young Women’s Cabinet member, and WFMN staff at Young Women’s Initiative Power Luncheon, August 2018.

More specifically, I come from a family of women and girls. Sure, I have some men sprinkled in here and there. But I come from a family where my father was the only boy, alongside seven sisters; my mom, one of three girls; myself, one of four girls. My aunts went on to dominantly have girls and so every family gathering is just a true manifestation of the power and strength and humor and intelligence and boss-ness of immigrant women of color.

And as a result of this identity—being born with and always wearing that cloak—I had these two drastically different narratives of what it meant to be a woman of color, a Black woman, a woman of immigrant heritage. The narrative I heard from society, and the narrative I felt at home. On the one hand, you learn quickly about the disparities and deficits that women of color face in the U.S., across zip codes, across industries. With too much emphasis on the outcomes, however, we hear a narrative that doesn’t exactly account for why those disparities exist.

Tenacity, strength, perseverance, boldness. They were risk-takers, and life-changers. That’s the narrative I had of women of color.

And then there was the narrative of the women I knew—a narrative that was so far from deficit-based. Women like my grandmother, Charlotte. Born into poverty in Haiti in 1930s, Charlotte struggled through inadequate formal primary education. By the age of 31, she found herself to be a single mother of three, still in the confines of poverty, but with a vision for her daughters greater than what she had for herself—a vision where they would go to school, and have access to good health care, be economically secure, be safe. Seeing no way forward for her family in Haiti, Charlotte got the papers she needed to come to the U.S. In what she would frequently account as the most painful journey of her life, which I call the bravest, she’d leave behind her three daughters in separate homes in Haiti for a one-way flight to John F. Kennedy Airport. When she arrived in Brooklyn, she worked as a factory seamstress, upwards of 12 hours a day. She did this for three years—three long years—until she made enough money to send for her daughters to join her in the U.S.

And this was just the beginning of how she’d move through systemic barriers. She’d eventually save enough to start a nurse’s aide program, because she knew her low-wage factory job wouldn’t bring her family financial security. She’d sit across the table from school principals who tried convincing her that her daughters—because they didn’t speak English and weren’t supported by language-learning curriculum—were disrespectful, and defiant, and unintelligent. But she taught them that education was their way forward. She’d save enough to buy them a home, knowing what that investment would mean for her daughters later in life. She’d later have 10 grandchildren, in whom she’d instill within the importance of education, of economic security, of social justice.

Tenacity, strength, perseverance, boldness. They were risk-takers, and life-changers. That’s the narrative I had of women of color. Incredibly hard journeys, but they’d make it. Because they had to. To me, that was admirable. But it wasn’t exactly always fair.

Systemic Failures Impact Women of Color

So what do we know about women of color across the country today? Or instead consider what we know about the systems in which they engage?

We know that because of inequities in our labor market and economic systems:

  • Black women make up more than half (52.9%) of the Black workforce, but are still the most likely of any group of women in America to live in poverty (28%) due, in large part, to low pay.
  • Latina women in the United States are typically paid just 54 cents for every dollar paid to white men.
  • While Asian women overall earn 85 cents on every dollar that white men earn, Cambodian women only earn 55 cents for every dollar compared to their white male counterparts. And Burmese women? 44 cents compared to their white male counterparts.

We know that Black women are the most likely demographic group in America to start their own business. Between 1997 and 2015, the number of companies started by Black women grew by 322%, culminating in over 1.3 million businesses nationwide. 8 out of 10 women-owned business are Black- and Brown-led. But because of systemic inequities in entrepreneurship and venture capitalism:

  • Black women tend to fall behind when it comes to revenue generation. Businesses owned by Black women tend to produce just under $40,000 annually. Latina women, $68,000. This is compared to $190,000 for firms owned by white women.
  • The percentages of businesses started by African American women that receive venture capital investment are gravely low. And here’s a fact we all know: Investors tend to trust and ultimately invest in people that are similar to themselves. So for example, for Black women, 92 percent of senior investment teams are made up of men, and less than one percent are African American.

We know that because of structural inequities in the tech sector:

  • Tech company giants like Apple, Facebook, Google, Intel, Microsoft and Twitter are collectively hiring thousands of workers, but, on average, their employment of Black women comes in at only 3%.

And we know that because of systemic health barriers:

  • Only about 67% of Native American women have access to health insurance as of 2014. The result? Without preventative care, American Indian women are two times more likely than white counterparts to die of disease.
  • Maternal mortality remains at crisis levels for Black women. Over the past 25 years, the maternal mortality rate in America has doubled and that trend can be almost fully attributed to the skyrocketing rates of maternal mortality among Black women.

Because of systemic inequities in our education system:

  • Black girls are more likely to be suspended from school than all other girls and most other boys. From data pulled in 2014, we know that Black girls were more than seven times more likely than white girls to receive an out-of-school suspension. They were 2.5 times more likely than white girls to be referred to law enforcement, and four times more likely to be arrested at school. Latina elementary students were nearly three times more likely to be arrested than non-Latina white girls.

And because of inequities in our justice system, we know that:

  • Black females are nearly three times as likely as their white peers to be referred to juvenile court for a delinquency offense. American Indian and Native Alaskan girls, 40 percent more likely to be referred to juvenile court for delinquency, and 50 percent more likely to be detained.
  • Over the past decade, the number of Native women inmates confined in Indian Country jails has increased almost 60%.
  • And according to the Survey of Youth in Residential Placement, 42 percent of girls in custody reported past physical abuse, 44 percent reported past suicide attempts, and 35 percent reported past sexual abuse.

So what we know about women of color is that the systems at play overshadow that first narrativthat I grew up knowing all too well.

Shifting the Narrative and Transforming Systems for Women of Color 

Every single day I find proof that women of color are game changers, trailblazers, innovators, entrepreneurs, thought leaders, movement builders, justice fighters. They have the ideas, they have the ability, they have the solutions. They have the solutions. They can tackle policy, advocacy, politics, finance, philanthropy. But we need to address the structural barriers that keep too many women of color, young women of color, from realizing their full potential.

What we know about women of color is that women of color across the country are leading movements—movements on immigration reform, racial justice, gender justice, gender equity. Movements against hate, gun violence, harassment.

We don’t have to invest in young women of color because of their deficits or disparities; we have to because our countries legacy of racism and patriarchy left them seven steps behind. And I’ve watched women of color through their lifetime catch up. And I’ve watched them catch us all up. Overcome obstacles and challenges and catch up.

I believe in this work because at its core—it understands that young women of color have the answers. They have the solutions. They are leaders, they are innovators.

I’m in this work not because I’m worried about girls and young women of color, what they are capable of, what they can achieve. I know they can endure. I’m proof of that. My grandmother made gains from her generation to mine that are remarkable. But I do lose sleep over systems. Because we can’t overcome poverty, racism, patriarchy one woman of color at a time. We shouldn’t have to. We shouldn’t have to and there’s just too much at stake.

Which brings me to the Young Women’s Initiative. I believe in this work because at its core it understands that young women of color have the answers. They have the solutions. They are leaders, they are innovators. But they need folks in this room, folks across industries to get behind them. To invest in them. To invest in their movements, their ideas, their leadership.

There is so much power in this movement that centers young women of color happening across the country, happening with the leadership of women’s foundations. And just so much power in what this looks like right here in Minnesota. Where young women across communities—rural, immigrant, Latina, LGBTQ young women—are coming together, are collaborating, are strategizing. Their goal isn’t beating systems through lifting up one woman of color at a time, but instead, shaping the policy, and the power that maintains inequities in systems.

Thank you for being allies in this work, for funding this work, and for seeing the urgency in systems change.

Kalisha Dessources is the director of the National Collaborative of Young Women’s Initiatives. Prior to this role, Kalisha served as the Policy Advisor to President Obama’s White House Council on Women and Girls, where she was responsible for directing work to advance equity for women and girls of color. She brings the same commitment and passion to her work to elevate the status of young women of color nationally today.

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