In a posh ballroom overlooking Central Park on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, a hushed roomful of state and local elected officials from across the country gathered for a 9 a.m. Sunday session. It was the sort of weekend conference that routinely fills banquet rooms across the country, but it was remarkable for one simple fact: Every single official in attendance was a young woman.
On the final morning of the Young Elected Officials Women’s Conference, held earlier this month, dozens of enthralled leaders leaned over cooling mugs of coffee to hear two panelists present a series of grim facts on the number of women incarcerated in America’s prisons—that rape was such a problem in women’s facilities that inmates on death row had to be checked if they were pregnant, for example. Or that the rate of incarceration of women is growing twice as fast as the number of men in prison.
Everyone present could testify to how the mass incarceration of women had impacted their districts and counties. The audience pressed the panel on what they could do to get medication into prisons, how they could overcome logistical barriers to doing outreach in women’s facilities, and how they might disrupt a school-to-prison pipeline that frequently seized upon students of color.
At one point, Virginia Commonwealth’s attorney for Portsmouth, Stephanie Morales, stood up to respond to a question about enforcing reforms in county jails. The city’s top prosecutor, Morales quipped, “Now, I’m not on the panel, and I know I shouldn’t be telling you this...”Around the room, her peers chuckled as the panel urged her to continue on.
Morales beseeched the women in front of her to wield their budget power to get sheriff’s offices and jails, as well as offices like hers, in line with their priorities. Given how Morales’ own office was at the mercy of local and state lawmakers, it felt like she was giving the entire room permission to use the power entrusted to them. At their tables, women lawmakers and administrators clapped and snapped their fingers in appreciation.
Those same snaps resounded a day earlier when Minnesota Representative Ilhan Omar delivered a keynote address to a packed room about the importance of their presence in politics.
“Representation means to have fluency in the communities they represent,” Omar said. “There is a tradition of asking for permission,” Omar noted, explaining that with an increasingly diverse body politic, “we’re setting the agenda. We know what our communities need.”
The message resonated for many of the black women attending the conference, who told the Root they felt as Omar did: like a minority within a minority, demarcated from their colleagues on county commissions, state legislatures, and committees by their age, race, and gender. For these progressive officials, YEO provided a place to network and share ideas with a select few who understand the unique challenges of being the lone member of a community to have a seat at the table.
There is no small number of major American movements—the labor movement, for example, or #MeToo—that have relied on the organizing power and rhetoric of black women. But once those movements become mainstream, black women are frequently disappeared from the fore. This long-standing historical trend becomes all the more egregious when you consider the Democratic Party’s own contributions to that marginalization—despite black women being one of the party’s strongest and most reliable voting blocs.
But as a diverse and growing crop of Democratic contenders in the presidential primary begins to make its appeals to voters, these young black women are already doing the sort of unglamorous, tedious, workaday labor upon which meaningful transformation is built. This means centering marginalized communities and foregrounding issues like income inequality, black maternal health, and affordable housing. They are permanently expanding an American political and moral imagination that has frequently sidelined them, or ignored them altogether.
Few understand this challenge better than Stephanie Morales.
Morales credits her commitment to procedural justice with the fact that she comes from the community she’s serving. When asked how she feels about criticisms that she—and other black women like her—are playing on identity politics in order to win their seats, she rolled her eyes.
“It’s so dismissive,” she said.
Within three months of being elected as the city’s top prosecutor, she was tasked with trying a white police officer who had gunned down an unarmed black teen in a Walmart parking lot. Morales persuaded a jury to convict former Portsmouth Police Officer Stephen Rankin for voluntary manslaughter, making her one of very few attorneys in the entire country to successfully prosecute a case against a police officer. While her re-election campaign was contentious, Morales believes her 2018 victory affirms her message of procedural justice—an approach that emphasizes fairness in the way legal processes operate—has resonated with the Portsmouth community.
For Morales, this includes reducing mass incarceration through diversion programs, reforming the cash-bail system and ceasing to prosecute marijuana cases—ideas that have taken hold in progressive prosecutors’ offices and county commissions around the country. And on a local level, she’s focused on keeping attorneys inextricably connected to the communities they interact with—not just the police they work with.
“I want you to get to the level where you work with the community so much...if you have to prosecute a citizen for anything, that you say ‘this is really difficult,’” she tells attorneys looking to work in her office.
Maryland state delegate Jheanelle Wilkins—the first black woman to ever represent Montgomery County in the state house—agrees on the significance of having a deeply personal understanding of local issues.
“It’s really important to me to serve all of my constituents, but also the issues that I championed, I understand personally because of that perspective of being a black woman,” Wilkins said. Foremost among her concerns is equitable access to healthcare, a priority that stemmed from seeing her mother, a first-generation Caribbean immigrant and small business owner, put off scheduling doctor’s visits because she didn’t have health insurance.
Wilkins’ longtime friend, Wanika Fisher, was recently elected to represent Prince George’s County. Fisher began to tear up recalling a visit to Bethesda Chevy Chase, a high school in a neighboring county that recently added a $30 million wing.
“Literally no kid in my district is going to a school like that,” Fisher said, choking up. “Northwestern High School is never going to look like this...It’s so unfair, the lack of access.”
In a country where black households have steadily lost wealth, Prince George’s, home to the largest black middle class in the world, exemplifies how racial inequity can supersede class in shaping American lives.
“People think Prince George’s County is this rich black county, but all the white people still own all the commercial space,” Fisher points out.
While Fisher’s concerns are specific, they are certainly not unique, particularly when framed against a broader national conversation about how to tackle the racial wealth gap—an issue The Atlantic recently identified as a litmus test for the Democratic Party’s presidential would-be candidates.
But unlike U.S. Senators like Elizabeth Warren, Corey Booker, and Kamala Harris, Fisher and other YEO officials are never far from the communities they represent. And because they’re often the “youngest” and “first” to be in their positions, being both a voice for change and trying to codify it can be an isolating experience.
For them, attending YEO was a tonic, granting them a space to share tips and resources for how to push their priorities through, as well as reinforcing a much-needed message: You are not alone in this.
Both Maryland delegates Fisher and Wilkins voiced disappointment that older women lawmakers weren’t necessarily the advocates and champions they hoped for. But Fisher was particularly distressed by the lack of support from black male lawmakers, especially on issues that primarily impact women of color.
“I haven’t heard a man of color in Annapolis get up and say, ‘We have female head-of-households, that’s why equal pay so important.’ I haven’t heard one man of color say that,” Fisher said.
“We’re getting a seat at the table. But I’m never getting a plate. I think that’s the new thing,” she said. “It’s like yeah I’m at the table, but I got to ask for the salt. I got to ask for where the cup is...Everyone has nice china, I’ve got a plastic fork.”
Throughout the conference, the women I spoke to brought up different variations of this analogy—a nod to Shirley Chisholm’s famous quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” They were hyper-aware of their singular statuses: Many of them were the “first” or “youngest” black woman to hold their positions.
“When we go back into those [political] spaces many times we’re on our own,” Michigan state Representative Sarah Anthony said. “We feel very detached.” She added that peers would “look at you like you’re crazy” when you bring up issues like black maternal health or voter suppression, or the challenges of fundraising as a woman of color.
“That’s why even in a lot of the [YEO] panels—I mean some folks, they don’t have a question. They just want to be heard. And not be judged. And hear the little amen corner snapping,” she said.
“We can’t look weary...We can’t share all of these hits that we’re getting on a daily level,” said Anthony. “But I can trust these women from all these different areas, many whom I have met today, and I could look them in the eye and I know they get it.”
Twenty-six-year-old Georgia politician Mariah Parker sought similar support for her own challenges. Last year, Parker made waves when she took her Athens-Clarke County Commission oath of office on Malcolm X’s autobiography, her other hand raised high and defiant in a fist. She explained it’s since been challenging at times to stay rooted in the face of tough decisions.
“The problems are so serious. They deserve 14-hour, 16-hour days,” Parker said.
Tishaura Jones, treasurer for the City of St. Louis and one of the presenters of the “Family Management” panel, described as a work/life balance session, nodded her head in agreement with Parker: “It’s so easy to get caught up.”
Jones, a former Missouri state lawmaker, sought out the treasurer’s role for a number of reasons: She wanted executive authority so that she could dictate policy and steer her office’s priorities, and as a single mother, it was important for her to be closer to her family so she could balance raising a son with her career in politics.
Since becoming treasurer, Jones has used money the city’s garnered from parking fees and funneled it toward financial empowerment initiatives that help St. Louis’ most economically disadvantaged residents. She’s also started a program that sets up a college savings account for every kindergartener entering a St. Louis public school.
But as important to Jones is that she can attend every single one of her son’s basketball games—time which she says is “non-negotiable.”
“I try to move heaven and earth to try to be there and be present, because he always looks back like, ‘Mom, you see me?’” she says.
Those moments are grounding for Jones; they remind her of why she does the work she does, but also of the world that exists outside of her role as a city official.
This year’s conference was also special for Jones because it allowed her to “close a loop” with Representative Omar, who has been among the most vocal and prominent members of the House’s new Democratic majority.
“I was a presenter at a ‘Vote, Run, Lead’ conference several years ago before she ran for the state house,” Jones said. “And someone told me that she was inspired [to run] by my story.”
Jones was at the front table the day Omar laid out an alternative view of what the women in the room represented. Often, Omar said, women like them were viewed as “the resistance,” when in fact, it might be more accurate to view Donald Trump in that way—as the obstacle impeding what her and so many progressive leaders of color have sought, for centuries, to do:
“Create the America we deserve, the America we could have.”