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Black Women Gather In Atlanta To Harness Economic And Political Power


Later this week, prominent black women from across the country will be heading to Atlanta, Ga., for a conference they call Power Rising. Now, it's not unusual for black women to get together. Their sororities and social clubs are actually known for their under-the-radar powerhouse organizing. But this get-together might be different in that its sole purpose is to harness that organizing ability towards specific policy and political goals. To talk more about this, we're joined in our studios in Washington, D.C., by Nakisha Lewis. She's an organizer with the New York City chapter of Black Lives Matter, and she's one of the organizers of the Power Rising conference. Also here with us in Washington, D.C., another organizer, Karen Finney. She's a former senior adviser and spokesperson for Hillary Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign. Welcome to you both.

KAREN FINNEY: Good afternoon.

NAKISHA LEWIS: Good afternoon.

MARTIN: And joining us from Ewing, N.J., is Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman. She will be speaking at the conference. Congresswoman, thank you so much for joining us as well.

BONNIE WATSON COLEMAN: Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: And I'd like to start with you because I understand that this idea came out of a retreat by the women members of the Congressional Black Caucus last fall, where you all were brainstorming about next steps. And the Reverend Leah Daughtry, who chaired the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, said something like if I could wave a magic wand, then I'd have you all get together and say, you know, how do we leverage all of our kind of political and economic power to do something when we often are ignored? Is that about right? Does that conform with your memory of things?

WATSON COLEMAN: Yeah, absolutely. We recognized that we had really shown up in a big way in these various elections from 2016 and 2017. We recognized that people are suddenly recognizing that we are dependable. There's very little necessary to get us going in doing the things that we do, and that we're going to do the right, and that we have a collective power that just has not been appreciated. And so in talking to one another - the women in the Black Caucus and some other women - we talked about, let's do something with this moment. So...

MARTIN: Could I just ask you to tell me - when you say that you feel often ignored, what do you mean by that?

WATSON COLEMAN: Well, secondarily considered I should say - marginalized. I don't think that we have sufficient representation at the table when we're discussing the agendas and futures. You know, we're not just sort of unified behind one interest. We have lots of interests that, at the end of the day, are directed at ensuring that the right thing is happening in our respective communities and in this nation.

MARTIN: Nakisha, I'm going to go to you. I want to point out that Congresswoman Coleman, for example - she was in the state legislature. She was the majority leader. She was the chair of her state committee. A lot of activists in your generation have not found traditional politics to be particularly helpful. They feel that they haven't served the needs of the African-American community. A lot of people don't want to identify with traditional political organizations. And I just wonder, you know, has that been a bit of a struggle for you in any way?

LEWIS: Absolutely not. So the beauty of this summit is that it is not a political summit, right? I understand that when people look at the list of names of women who are organizing, many of them are, you know, Democratic operatives or, you know, very partisan people. And so what I've been able to do is talk with my communities about why I'm here. And this group of women has been really awesome in that they've been willing to also hear my critiques when I comment and say actually, we need to make sure that trans women see themselves front and center in this because that hasn't always been the case when our people have organized. We need to make sure that young people see themselves. And the committee has been amazing because we are actually doing this work as sisters.

MARTIN: So I think - is the idea here that everything is not for everyone, and if you don't feel that you're a part of the sort of traditional political mechanisms, there's still other work for you to do and that you want the people doing that work to be visible in this system?

LEWIS: Yes, absolutely. And the reality is that here we say - but on Audre Lorde's birthday, and her words come to mind for me in that there is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we don't live single-issue lives. If that is not black women, then I don't know what is.

MARTIN: Karen, what about you? What made this attractive to you?

FINNEY: A couple of things. I mean, you know, what makes this summit different is two things. Number one, we are trying to both leverage the work that has been done and really put some things on an agenda that say how do we move these issues forward? You know, by 2021, they estimate that black women will drive about $1.3 trillion of our economy, looking at the ways that black women have an impact on culture and music and fashion and Hollywood and the rate at which we're starting businesses, and we are successful, and yet financial institutions aren't marketing to this very successful sector.

MARTIN: Karen, can I ask you this, though? It is true that at the end of the day, at the end of the 2016 election, African-American women showed out in force for Clinton? But before that, there was a lot of tension between the elements who saw themselves as being more progressive than she. I mean, in some cases, even some of her rallies were disrupted by activists who felt that she needed to be held to account for policies, particularly around criminal justice, that they felt had been unhelpful. Is the idea here that your kind of common experience as black women overrides what have really been very serious policy differences - single-payer health care, for example, and various taxing strategies and things of that sort?

FINNEY: Yeah, I mean, there are places where, I mean, let's be honest, in the black community - and I say this as a - you know, I am a Democrat. I am a progressive. But there are times when I don't feel that the progressive movement always understands the intersectionality of how some of these issues affect black people. You know, I - give you an example. In Virginia during the election - right? - there was great reporting about how important health care was to the black community, particularly black women. And you saw high turnout among black women because people realized hey, we need to really speak to this issue in a way that is authentic to the black community. That's part of what I would like to see come out of this - is a recognition when we're talking on the policy level, there's got to be authenticity around how we're talking to the black community, and then making good on those promises.

MARTIN: And Congresswoman Coleman, if I can ask you, it's been a long-standing struggle, at least since President Clinton's presidency, between the so-called moderates and the so-called progressives. I mean, this is not a secret. And it has been a source of some kind of resentment, I would say, among African-American political leaders that they sometimes feel that their agenda items are considered - I don't know how to put it - secondary or alienating to the kind of white moderates that you feel you need to sort of keep the Democratic Party together. And I'm just - this plays out in primaries, like, all the time. So how do you reconcile that within this kind of framework? I mean, is the feeling that your common concerns as African-American women supersede all that?

WATSON COLEMAN: You know, the exciting thing for me is this is an opportunity not about how to be a stronger Democrat, not even how to make the Democratic Party react to me in a more respectful manner, recognizing the work that we as African-American women do in their party. This is about me, the person, the African-American woman in the United States of America, who has value, who has contributions but who experiences structural barriers simply because of that intersectionality of race and sex. And we need to be able to define and develop agendas on our local level, state level and national level that take into consideration the diversity of our issues, our concerns, our challenges, our accomplishments. And what we do for that next generation?

MARTIN: All of you go to a lot of conferences, and all of you go to a lot of meetings. So I'd like to ask how you are going to know whether this one has been a success.

FINNEY: For me, it will be seeing women talking to each other and really digging in on issues. But also, I hope we can change the conversation a bit to understand that we are impacting this society and this culture, and we deserve - we're not a backbone, right? Treat me as a swing voter. Treat me as someone who you have to come and court my vote and make your case to me. And I would like to see us as black women take that back to our communities and to the national conversation.

MARTIN: Nakisha.

LEWIS: It will be a success for me if, one, knowing that all who do come, regardless of where they sit on the gender spectrum and regardless of where they come from in background, understand that they are part of the large fabric that is black womanhood.

MARTIN: If I could just mention what's on your T-shirt, it says elect black women, fund black women, believe black women, invest in black women, follow black women, defend black women, hire black women, promote black women.

LEWIS: Yes. And above all else, trust black women.

MARTIN: That is Nakisha Lewis. She's an organizer of the Power Rising conference, which is meeting in Atlanta next week. Also with us, Karen Finney, former spokesperson for the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign and Congresswoman Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey. We reached her at her home office in Ewing, N.J. Thank you all so much for speaking with us.

LEWIS: Thank you.

FINNEY: Thank you.

WATSON COLEMAN: Thank you for having us. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.