Women of Color and Allies Summit an Inspiring Event

Participants Arrive Ready to Get Down to Business

by Lisa Bennett-Haigney, Managing Editor

The theme of the Women of Color and Allies Summit, "Linking Arms in Dangerous Times," echoed throughout the February 20-22 weekend in speeches, workshops, caucuses and discussions. The nearly 700 attendees responded vigorously to the urgent call for women to unite across racial, ethnic and class divides.

Speaker Mary Chung, president of the National Asian Women's Health Organization, said "This is the largest women of color conference I have ever attended."

Dr. Johnnetta Cole, former president of Spelman College, author and future professor at Emory University, added "Why is it that all of our meetings don't look like this?"

Coming Together

"The energy level, the excitement of everyone there could be felt throughout the halls of the hotel," said Elizabeth Toledo, NOW vice president action and a lead organizer of the Summit. "Women and men came ready to tackle the issues that sometimes divide us and focus on the issues that bring us together."

Friday night's opening ceremony contributed greatly to the crowd's exuberance. Produced by longtime NOW activist Wanda Alston and Ade Aboussena, a member of the local organizing committee, the show featured an amazing collection of performers. The evening began with a powerful drumming ensemble followed by singing, poetry readings and interpretive dance. The centerpiece of the opening ceremony was the building of an altar with items signifying the common struggles of all women and the issues that would be adressed at the Summit. After the altar was complete, Toni Asante Lightfoot—who informed the audience that she was a direct descendent of Stonewall Jackson—performed a "libation," a global tradition that pays homage to one's ancestors, bringing their spirits into the room to inspire and guide those gathered throughout the weekend.

"The ceremony was a way to bring the history of NOW and the history of people who aren t usually a part of NOW together," said Alston. "We wanted to create an experience that was both spiritual and linking. And it worked!"

Strawberry Workers Speak Out

Sandra Rocha and Audelia Bernabe
Sandra Rocha and Audelia Bernabe spoke through an interpreter to tell their moving stories about working in the strawberry fields in California. Photo by Patrick Butler.

Two of the most moving speeches of the Summit came from the women strawberry workers who came from California to tell their stories.

Dolores Huerta, co-founder and secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers (UFW) spoke about the UFW's campaign to help the strawberry pickers organize for workplace rights. These workers are subject to harassment, abuse, horrendous working conditions and low pay. Meanwhile, their efforts to unionize are thwarted by management.

Sandra Rocha spoke first, telling how she once rented a room in her supervisor's home, received rides to work from his wife and was given a promotion and a raise. Because of this, it was assumed that she would not join with the union efforts. When Rocha did decide to support her co-workers, she was demoted and kicked out of her home.

A very emotional Audelia Bernabe revealed that where she works, there are only three bathrooms for the entire field, which are cleaned only when they can't get any worse. There is no place for the workers to leave their lunches, so they frequently have to leave them next to the bathrooms. She explained that when union representatives arrived to organize the strawberry pickers, she and her fellow workers were immediately given raises to discourage any further action. Subsequently, union supporters and non-supporters were separated.

"I believe it is my right to come here and tell you what we are going through," Bernabe said. "I left my five children at home to come here and ask for your support. It is our right as people to be respected." Huerta announced that 6,000 stores—almost all the major chains—now support the rights of strawberry workers, but there is still a long way to go for justice for the people who help put food on this country's tables.

Courage and Talent On Display

The Women of Color and Allies Summit presented Women of Courage Awards to two honorees. Sylvia Smith and her newly formed NOW chapter on the Tonawanda Nation Territory near Rochester, N.Y., received the award for their fortitude and spirit in the face of police and government hostility.

Also honored was the National Youth Sports Program, which has been providing youth from low-income communities the opportunity to benefit from sports and education programs for 30 years.

Others displaying great courage were those who entered the Summit talent show on Saturday evening. The talent show was organized by National Board member Geraldine Miller from the Bronx NOW chapter.

A number of brave women stood before the crowded room to share their talents. One woman spoke—and shouted—her own piece about Rosa Parks' bold use of the word "no." A mother and daughter danced together. There was singing and comedy and good old-fashioned story telling. One woman performed sketches from her one-woman show about dealing with mental illness.

Bringing down the house at the end was Miller, herself, a 78-year-old seasoned activist, moving elegantly and deeply to spiritual music.

On the closing day, a painting by Native American artist Dana Tiger was presented to the Women of Color and Allies Summit. Dana's sister Lisa Tiger brought the painting to the Summit and read these words from Dana: "This painting I dedicate to you today titled Together We Are the Foundation of This Land symbolizes the inclusion of the many voices, skills and accomplishments it takes to hold up cities."

Dana also sent urgent word of a crisis in her home of Oklahoma. The second largest tribe in the United States, the Cherokee Nation, is under rule by a man who is accused of ignoring their constitution and ousting all of the women leaders. The Tigers asked that everyone help by calling the Department of the Interior (202-208-3100) and demanding that the Cherokee people be heard. For more information on how to help, call Tiger Gallery at 918-687-7006.

Equal Pay for Equal Work

demonstration on Capitol Hill in support of the women custodial workersOn Friday, Summit attendees joined other activists and members of the American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees for a demonstration on Capitol Hill in support of equal pay for the women custodial workers who clean the offices of Congress.  Photo by Lisa Bennett-Haigney.

In addition to sharing information, strategizing and coalition building, attendees left the hotel on Friday to stage a protest on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. More than two hundred rambunctious people picketed in front of the Rayburn Building, where many Congress members have offices.

The demonstration was on behalf of the women custodial workers who clean the halls and the offices of Congress. These women have filed a class action lawsuit under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the Equal Pay Act, asking for the same pay as the men laborers who perform the same or equivalent duties. The average pay difference between male and female workers is one dollar an hour, which means women are being denied $40 a week, $2000 a year and approximately $94,000 over an entire lifetime of waged work.

"This inequity exists right under the noses of some of the most powerful people in the country," said NOW President Patricia Ireland.

Meeting the Summit participants on Capitol Hill were many of the women workers and their supportive male counterparts. Hazel Dews, a custodian, NOW member and the president of Local 626 of the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME -- the workers' union), spoke out, "We perform the same job task under the same conditions as the [men] laborers and therefore we are entitled to the same pay. It's time for the Architect of the Capitol to do the right thing and correct this injustice."

Different, Not Divided

Speakers, workshop presenters and participants worked hard to ensure that the many views and experiences of women of color were given their due at the Women of Color and Allies Summit. The issues that hold women back -- classism, ageism, poverty, wage gaps, violence, inadequate reproductive access, educational hurdles, health care needs, lack of constitutional protection and so much more -- affect women of color disproportionately. No one present was spared a look at the harsh realities of racism, whether it comes from the outside or the inside.

Frank discussion took place on the issues that threaten to—and sometimes do—divide women of color and white women. Dr. Cole used her speech to identify and respond to concerns that women of color struggle with when they consider joining the feminist movement.

Again and again, the point was made that when those in power are able to divide white women and people of color into opposing groups, they have won. It happened in California with affirmative action. It happened with welfare. And it will happen again with English-only initiatives and redistricting and other schemes that are just now coming down the pike.

Building for the Future

More than 165 organizations, large and small, signed on as co-sponsors.

The program included a diverse line-up of speakers representing academics, athletics, grassroots organizations, unions and "the trenches" of this country's workforce.

More than 100 workshop presenters volunteered their time, expertise and enthusiasm. Participants overflowed workshops with titles including "Are We All God's Children: Being Out in the Church," "HIV/AIDS and Women of Color," "Does Feminism Transcend Ethnicity/Cultural Identity?", "Women's Rights in Afghanistan," "Affirmative Action" and "Poverty and Homelessness as Seen Through the Eyes of the People Themselves."

Skills-building sessions on gun violence prevention, grassroots organizing, media strategies, getting out the vote and promoting diversity in organizations/chapters helped provide Summit attendees with the tools to take action.

Regional caucuses took place during which participants began to make the connections necessary to unite on the local level. In only three days, seeds were planted for what may prove to be powerful coalitions to stop the destructive measures that keep all women and people of color down and to form pro-active strategies to level the playing field. It was suggested that in addition to holding regional Women of Color and Allies Summits, activists should be organizing summits in every state.

Already there is a Sisters and Allies Conference scheduled in Maine this month and a Women of Color and Allies Northwest Regional Summit in the planning stages.

"This weekend is the kind of event I dreamed about," said Ireland, echoing the thoughts of most who attended.

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