In September, I attended the She the People Summit in San Francisco, California. Because WFMN was a sponsor of this first national summit of women of color in politics, I think they knew the community there would welcome me with open arms and that it would be an experience of a lifetime.

For me, attending a summit solely for my personal development and leadership meant taking a chance to do something I rarely do. Living in southwest Minnesota, we do not often get experiences like this, and I am so grateful to the Women’s Foundation whose Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota (YWI MN) made this trip possible.

Cheniqua Johnson with Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People and Democracy in Color

When I first heard about the summit, I was incredibly excited and terrified at the same time. As a WFMN Innovator, I am one of 22 young women whose leadership and solutions are being funded by the Women’s Foundation to advance key recommendations in the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota’s Blueprint for Action. The funding I received as a WFMN Innovator was a direct investment in my ideas and an opportunity to develop my goals to create more representative leadership and support networks in Greater Minnesota.

The Summit was led by Aimee Allison, founder and president of She the People and Democracy in Color. She, along with many other prominent and hardworking women including Nicole Boucher, co-director of the California Donor Table, and Yvette Simpson, federal electoral manager of Democracy for America, created a summit to bring women of color together to build fierce, collective power and inspiration.

Networking with Summit Sponsors

Labor leader, civil rights organizer, and co-founder of National Farmworkers Association, Dolores Huerta, with Cheniqua Johnson, and Elizete Diazher, her mentee and friend

We arrived in San Francisco the night before the summit for a VIP reception for summit sponsors, and I was able to attend as a representative of WFMN. I was so glad I’d invited my mentee and friend, Elizete Diaz, 20, an undergrad from the University of Minnesota. When we arrived at the reception, we were immediately welcomed with open arms by Aimee Allison and Lyvonne Picou. When I walked in, I began to introduce myself and Aimee said, “I know who you are. I have heard about you!” I was in complete disbelief.

We were off to a great start. Women of color from all ages, backgrounds, cultures, and regions were gathered together to strengthen our role in politics as voters, leaders, and strategists. We quickly realized how small the world was as we met University of Minnesota alumni, staff from other women’s foundations who knew WFMN staff, and elected officials who knew our state through travels.

Onstage at She the People: Linda Sarsour, co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March

After networking, the main speeches began and changed my entire outlook. I was able to hear from phenomenal women, including Linda Sarsour, co-chair of the 2017 Women’s March, Jennifer Epps-Addison of The Center for Popular Democracy, and Rashida Tlaib, running for Congress in Michigan. Their words filled me with hope and inspiration.

Just as I thought we were nearing the end of our evening, Aimee began to highlight the work of the women in the crowd. As she told their stories, I heard her say, “Then to see such a young ambitious woman here tonight – at age 23 – running for statewide office in her community.” I began to look around the room to see if anyone else shared my story, not believing that she could be introducing me to an entire room of game-changing women.

When she asked, “why are you looking around?” I completely stopped in my tracks. She was welcoming me up to the center of the room! When I say I was lost for words, I was completely speechless! She let the crowd know that I was the first women of color to run for statewide office in my district and a young woman working to make change in my community. She even encouraged the group to invest in my leadership.

I can’t tell you how vital this was to my sense of belonging. I went from feeling like a guest at the table to being at its center. Aimee may not have realized it, but her speech and welcoming allowed me to go into the summit feeling as though we belonged. I could hang with these amazing women and get inspired without feeling as though they were any different. I did not have to place them on a pedestal because we were all doing things that were making huge differences in the communities we were serving.

Thinking Up a Level

When Elizete and I arrived at the lobby of Julia Morgan Ballroom in downtown San Francisco, we had high hopes for the day after such an incredible evening the night before. Walking into the ballroom, we were met by positivity and hundreds of women!

Cheniqua Johnson with Alicia Garza, co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement

The program was packed with phenomenal leaders, including leaders in politics, higher education, movement building, including U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA), Alicia Garza (Black Lives Matter), Dolores Huerta (National Farmworkers Association), and many more who shared inspiration and knowledge in panels, interviews, and speeches to women from all across the country who had flown, bussed, or drove many miles for this experience.

In two of the panels we attended, “Women Building a Politics for All of Us,” and “Leading the New American Majority,” the speakers shared advice and reported on the work they were leading to engage women of color in all states for this election and future elections.

Ultimately, this experience was the validation that we as women of color so sparingly get. It was a full summit and 36 hours of nothing but positivity and encouragement that we – as women of color and young professionals – can be the change we aim to see. Our vote and our voice will continue to hold our system accountable.

This summit has me thinking big picture. By gathering with powerful women leading change, I am inspired to move forward and – despite the odds – continue to thrive with my passion to make a difference. I not only spoke with and heard from remarkable women, but also discovered that I am quite remarkable myself. That’s power! That’s confidence! That’s movement-building.

That’s the Young Women’s Initiative of Minnesota. Through the Young Women’s Initiative, the Women’s Foundation and the Office of the Governor are working with leaders across the state, including young women like me to start eliminating barriers so that all Minnesotans can achieve equity in economic opportunity, safety, and leadership.

By Cheniqua Johnson, WFMN Innovator

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