Blink and you would have missed it.
Lost in much of the coverage of the Paris attacks, student protests and police shootings, more than a week ago, the White House announced a new series of initiatives meant to help women and girls of color. There was a daylong forum for it, a forum focused on advancing equity for women and girls of color in areas like economics, health care and education.
The forum came and went with some attention. It featured several big names, like Attorney General Loretta Lynch and MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry. But the anemic buzz it received Nov. 13 paled even more in comparison with the same attention My Brother’s Keeper garnered more than a year ago in 2014.
An initiative meant to help young men and boys of color, My Brother’s Keeper was rolled out with actions including several philanthropies and corporate leaders pledging $200 million over five years (in addition to another $150 million they’d already dedicated to the cause) to determine what programs can best help young men of color, then duplicate that success in communities nationwide. Its launch was covered wildly in the press, and its efficacy was hotly debated on both sides of the political spectrum.
For those grappling with mass incarceration and the high suspension rate of black boys, it was as timely as it was necessary. But amid all the fanfare and smattering of conservatives calling it “racist,” some critics—male and female—began to ask, “What about the girls?”
This new initiative may answer that question, but it’s not comparable to My Brother’s Keeper.
The Root spoke with several individuals who work with or have worked for organizations that work with women and girls of color, and while all praised the White House’s efforts, there was some concern about the funding and timing of these initiatives and what little attention they have received.
“Men and boys of color have overshadowed what is happening to girls and women of color, and we need to be having an ‘and both’ conversation. Not an ‘either-or,’” said Judith Browne-Dianis, co-director of the racial-justice organization Advancement Project. “It’s good that the foundations are stepping in, and you would hope there would be as significant funding into that work as men and boys of color, but that has not happened yet.”
The funding gap is real. Instead of an investment of $200 million (or $350 million, if you take into account the funding put up for the cause initially), these initiatives for women and girls of color are receiving a $100 million, five-year funding commitment from several women’s foundations, including the Ms. Foundation and Prosperity Together, along with an additional $18 million that will go to the Collaborative to Advance Equity Through Research to fund new and current research that targets women and girls of color.
Browne-Dianis, who is on the advisory council for My Brother’s Keeper, attended the daylong forum held for women and girls of color. She praised the forum and the new initiatives, but she also felt that the Obama administration could “always do more.”
“I haven’t seen an administration yet that you can say they’ve done enough, especially when it relates to people of color,” she said.
When looking at the initiatives, one must remember … it’s a start. It’s a nice effort, and it’s as appreciated as it is necessary. But just as women of color are paid less than white men, women and girls of color aren’t getting the same funding. And even when something good happens for women and girls of color, it doesn’t get the same kind of press. There are no in-depth cable-TV debates going on about these initiatives. The effort didn’t launch a million think pieces. The initiatives didn’t even receive an easily identifiable and memorable name, like My Brother’s Keeper.
The lack of visibility in the press isn’t lost on Ruth Jeannoel, lead organizer for Power U Center out of Miami. She said that the work on women and girls of color is being “invisibilized.” While she saluted the White House’s efforts, saying that she was “excited” when she learned of the forum, she admonished the Obama administration for contradicting itself.
On the one hand, she said, through the initiatives, the White House is decrying the high rate of school suspensions for black girls (studies have shown that black girls are suspended six times more often than white girls), while on the other hand, the White House supports putting more police in schools (in 2014 the Obama administration called for a $150 million investment for more school resource officers), an act that Jeannoel says contributes to those suspensions and the furthering of the school-to-prison pipeline.
“You’re talking advancing equity for women of color, and you’re still investing in [school resource officers]. That’s problematic. If we are to continue to invest in policing in schools instead of programs like restorative justice … then we’re really not getting to the root cause of the problem,” Jeannoel said.
It’s not new for women of color to feel marginalized, even by those claiming to help. Black women help build movements but often aren’t the face of them. And we’re routinely expected to be happy with what’s given, even though our issues are just as great, just as significant. President Barack Obama actually touched on this last September during the Congressional Black Caucus’ annual legislative conference.
“Black women have been a part of every great movement in American history, even if they weren’t always given a voice,” he said, later adding, “Although in these discussions, a lot of my focus has been on African-American men and the work we’re doing with My Brother’s Keeper, we can’t forget the impact that the system has on women, as well. The incarceration rate for black women is twice as high as the rate for white women.”
Avis Jones-DeWeever, president and CEO of Incite Unlimited and founder of the Exceptional Leadership Institute for Women, is optimistic about what the president is trying to do. “There is always an extra weight that’s added to issues when the president himself is seen as the main advocate on its behalf,” she said.
But despite her enthusiasm, she, too, is worried about visibility and sustainability, with these initiatives coming up so late in Obama’s final term. Still, said Jones-DeWeever, “I’m hoping, with aggressive efforts not only within the White House but also among external partners, we can take this ball and run with it.
“Our girls deserve no less,” she said.