Updated Wednesday, June 18, 1 p.m. EDT: The White House has issued a response to a letter signed by various women and girls of color, including famed activists Alice Walker and Angela Davis, pushing for the involvement of women and girls of color in the My Brother’s Keeper initiative. The White House response—issued by Senior Adviser Valerie Jarrett in a statement—points to the president’s promotion of legislation and policies that benefit girls and women:
Since day one of his Administration, President Obama has focused on increasing opportunity for women and girls, as part of his larger focus on expanding opportunity for each and every American. It’s why—during his first days in office—he signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which extends critical protections for all workers who may face pay discrimination, and it’s why—during his first three months in office—he created the first-ever White House Council on Women and Girls, which for years has tackled issues that disproportionately affect women and girls of color, including equal pay and violence against women. It’s also why his administration has built a long track record of taking actions that will help both girls and boys succeed, from improving early learning to creating a fair criminal justice system.
The Council on Women and Girls, which Jarrett mentions in her statement, was an initiative that took flight a mere three months after Obama first took office. The council functions “to ensure that each of the agencies in which they’re charged takes into account the needs of women and girls in the policies they draft, the programs they create, the legislation they support” as well as “to ensure that in America, all things are still possible for all people.”
In May the council was responsible for championing the first White House Research Conference on Girls—a forum where more than 100 researchers, policy advocates, business leaders, members of the media and others discussed their work, focusing on girls and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) learning, girls and leadership, and the sexualization of girls in the media. The conference led to the launch of the Girls Research Coalition and the Girls Research Portal, which was conceived of as a clearinghouse for research on girls that will make that research more accessible.
Women and girls of color, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author Alice Walker, actress Rosario Dawson and renowned activist Angela Davis, have all signed on to a new open letter to President Barack Obama, urging the nation’s leader to include girls and women of color in his game-changing My Brother’s Keeper initiative, according to a press release.
More than 1,000 women and girls have signed on, declaring, “The crisis facing young boys of color should not come at the expense of girls who live in the same households, suffer in the same schools and endure the same struggles. It should reflect an attempt to overcome a history of racial subordination and limited opportunities for the entire community, as opposed to creating opportunities for some and not for others.”
The letter, titled “Why We Can’t Wait: Women of Color Urge Inclusion in ‘My Brother’s Keeper,’” goes on to encourage a second look at the initiative and make it inclusive of boys and girls of color, reflecting their shared challenges:
Those who have justified the exclusive gender focus of MBK often remind us that male youth of color are like the miner’s canary: their plight warns us that something is wrong in the mine. Indeed, something is desperately wrong when so many of our youth are falling victim to the consequences of punitive discipline, underfunded schools, poor job prospects, declining investments in public space, decreasing access to higher education and worsening prospects on the job market.
Clearly American society continues to be a toxic environment for many of our young people. Yet male-exclusive initiatives seem to lose sight of the implications of the canary’s distress: It is not a signal that only male canaries are suffering. It makes no sense to equip the canary with a mentor, a gas mask and or some other individual-level support while leaving the mine as it is and expecting the females to fend for themselves. If the air is toxic, it is toxic for everyone forced to breathe it.
“We cannot pass the burden of invisibility to yet another generation of our girls of color,” organizer Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw said in a press release. “When we see the challenges they face and actually listen to what they say, how can anyone who loves our daughters as much as our sons say, ‘No, you must wait.’ Our girls need to know they are supported and loved, and that we are working to remove the obstacles that undermine their well-being as much as the boys. How can we in good conscience do anything less?”
Citing disproportionate risk of sexual assault or rape, disproportionate access to education and ultimately disproportionate compensation for jobs, “Why We Can’t Wait” details the unique battles that women and girls of color face in American society: They’re more likely to be suspended from school than their white peers and more likely to make less in the workforce than men of color or white women.
Our daughters are ignored and under-researched. Although the exclusion of girls has been justified as data-driven, the fact is that little data is gathered on them. This situation creates a vicious cycle in which the assumptions that girls are not in crisis leads to research and policy interventions that overlook them, thus reinforcing their exclusion from efforts like MBK to bring successful programs to scale. MBK is not only built on this foundation, but extends it further by failing to require the inter-agency task force to report data that address the well-being of girls of color as well as boys. This erasure simply adds to the crisis that girls of color face, forcing them to suffer in relative silence.
Read the full letter and see all the signatories here.