Linking Arms in Dangerous Times: Summit Urges Dialogue, Action on Race

Elizabeth ToledoNOW Vice President-Action Elizabeth Toledo is a lead organizer of the Women of Color and Allies Summit to be held in the Washington, D.C. area this February. Photo by Leah Michaelson

by Elizabeth Toledo, Vice President-Action

Editors' note: We asked Elizabeth Toledo, a lead organizer of the Women of Color and Allies Summit, to reflect on the inspirations for and major issues of the upcoming Summit, Feb. 20-22. Here Toledo discusses the relevant concerns and answers common questions.

When I became the first Latina to head California NOW, many women of color (in particular other Latinas), made a special effort to support me. I heard many women say they were happy to see a woman of color in leadership in NOW. One of my favorite memories is about a young Latina intern from the CA NOW office who went to apply for a job in the state legislature and when asked who her heroes were, she listed me and explained that she was inspired to see a feminist Latina in power.

On the other hand, I have had experiences that were discouraging on the issue of women of color and feminism. I have heard implications that I won elections or political support because of my ethnicity, not because of my achievements. I have had people say to my face that no women of color are in NOW leadership, leaving me wondering how I became so invisible. People have assumed because I am Latina that I am necessarily not fully a feminist, that I am influenced by Catholicism or a tradition of machismo.

I chose NOW as my political home for the same reason that many other women do: I like the political agenda, I like the energetic, determined nature of its grassroots organizing, and I like the power of its huge numbers. Whenever I saw a NOW representative on television I thought to myself, why shouldn't women of color share that power?

So every time I see race, ethnicity, and class issues emerge in my NOW life, I fight hard on the side of diversity and inclusion. It has been important to me to push to ensure that our feminist agenda includes issues that disproportionately impact women of color.

Almost six months into being a NOW national officer, I still sometimes feel a sense of disbelief. It feels like yesterday that I was watching NOW faces on television, thinking there should be more Latinas in leadership. When I first arrived in Washington as Action Vice President, nothing was more motivating than organizing a national dialogue on race, ethnicity and class.

What is the Vision for the Summit?

The vision for the Summit is to bring feminists together across race, ethnicity, and class divisions to create a common bond in our collective struggle for justice.

Overcoming these obstacles within the feminist movement could represent the single greatest opportunity for explosive growth. Organizing across these divisions would result in a movement of such proportion that victories in long-fought struggles may be within our reach.

Participants will discuss the political issues that top the agenda for feminist women of color and create a vision for activism. The result of this will be a more powerful movement that will take on the political forces who work to disempower women and chip away at our equality.

Together we prevail; divided we struggle.

What is the Political Agenda?

The Summit is about building a movement with the strength to defeat attacks on our equality and, in many cases, on our lives. How we prioritize our issues and what strategy we embrace to move forward will be the topics of workshops, roundtable discussions, open mike sessions, plenaries, and caucuses. The work of the Summit will address the range of discrimination faced by women and felt disproportionately by women of color.

Dr. Johnetta ColeDr. Johnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College, will be a main speaker at the Summit. As part of the Smith Barney settlement, Cole is serving as diversity adviser to the company. Photo courtesy of Pat Trosclair.

Every participant will have a place for her voice to be heard; the voices of our speakers will include both well known leaders such as Dr. Johnetta Cole and women whose work is not well documented in the public eye, such as those who are fighting for the rights of sweatshop laborers or farm workers. The backgrounds of speakers and presenters will range from academia to electoral politics to grassroots movements.

An excellent example of the politics of the Summit is the protest on behalf of women working in the Capitol. The women who clean the congressional offices have historically been paid less than their male counterparts and have now filed a wage discrimination lawsuit. The great majority of those in Congress are white men of privilege who work in offices cleaned primarily by women of color earning low wages and facing sex discrimination. Summit participants will be invited to protest in support of these workers.

Who is Organizing this Summit?

Local organizers of the Women of Color and Allies SummitLocal organizers of the Women of Color and Allies Summit hard at work include: (pictured, left to right) Ade Abousena, Lisa Favors and Linda McAllister (seated). Photo by Lisa Bennett-Haigney.

NOW is providing the infrastructure necessary to create a place for this important work and has invited hundreds of organizations to participate in the Summit planning. The end result of the Summit will include ideas and expertise from hundreds of groups and individuals reaching from coast to coast.

A long and growing number of organizations have signed on as co-sponsors. As we went to press more than 50 sponsors had joined us. Please check our website at for an updated list.

What Makes this Distinctive?

Organizers of the Summit are proposing an agenda that creates an environment of linking arms. We will focus on what kind of dialogue takes place as well as how that dialogue takes place.

For example, we will include the arts as methods of expressing feminist politics: music, poetry readings, ceremonies. We will share ideas over meals; there will be open mike sessions, entertainment and dancing. Regional caucuses will develop an action strategy that can be implemented post-Summit.

A major effort is underway to eliminate any barriers to participation, such as money, childcare and physical needs. We are seeking scholarship donations for activists' travel, lodging and registration. Participants can pay sliding scale registration fees or volunteer and waive fees. On-site childcare is offered free of charge. NOW's national committee on disability rights is already reviewing accommodations and materials to ensure full participation. Sign language interpreters will be available.

How Are Women of Color a Part of Our Movement?

Women of color have shaped the feminist movement from its inception in this country, yet the public face of feminism is often seen as white. The Summit will focus on women of color as the leaders they are in the movement: we will create a more accurate portrayal of history, we will assess the current status of women of color in feminism, and we will contribute to the vision of a feminist future.

The role of women of color in NOW will undoubtedly be an area of exploration in the Summit and afterward.

Women of color in NOW are very committed to the organization, but some struggle to address negative perceptions about NOW and racism/classism in their communities or homes. The real and perceived under-participation among women of color and poor women within NOW and among the ranks of many feminist organizations causes splintering in our movement. We have not finished our work on internalized racism, classism, homophobia, and other prejudices that divide. No single meeting or action plan will permanently keep these barriers from emerging.

However, we must also recognize external forces that work to perpetuate a perception that feminism is a white woman's movement and thus prevent feminism from realizing its full strength. Our opponents understand that dividing feminists weakens our resources.

As Dr. Cole said, "We have to ask who benefits when women are divided."

Collectively we have moved the mountains of slavery, suffrage, genocide, segregation. We have revolutionized women's place in the world. Collectively we can also undo the internal barriers of race and class so that we can define the next millennium as a historic breakthrough for women's empowerment.

Why Come?

Why come to this event, when we are pulled in many political and financial directions?

Ten years ago NOW sponsored a standing-room-only summit on women of color and reproductive rights. We anticipate the same high level of energy to erupt at this Summit.

Summit participants will make history by conquering the divisions that keep our movement splintered. The power of this diverse gathering will propel the feminist movement forward with a strength previously unreachable.

The theme "Linking Arms in Dangerous Times" reflects the need to strengthen our movement against serious political attacks. This Summit calls us to walk proudly, defiantly, side by side. (Register for the Summit

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