The Power of Diversity in Office

Andrea Jenkins, Mazahir Salih and Jamescita Peshlakai make history and work locally for equity and opportunity.

By Alyse Burnside
Illustration by Grace Molteni

It is hard to extract hope from the 45th presidential administration, but if there is a silver lining to the relentless divisiveness and scandals we’ve seen unfold during the past 11 months, it is the push for more women of color and Indigenous women to run for political office at unprecedented rates.

On the same day Donald Trump was elected president, Tammy Duckworth, Kamala Harris and Ilhan Omar—among other women of color—were also elected to office, making history in their respective offices: Duckworth as the first Asian American woman elected to Congress in Illinois, Harris as the first U.S. senator of Jamaican and Indian descent and Omar as the first Somali-American Muslim legislator.

The 2016 election celebrated a record number of victories for women of color, making the 115th Congress the most diverse in history, only to be outdone slightly by 2017.

Headlines across the U.S. celebrated the “barrier breaking” candidates and many firsts that made election history in 2017. Nov. 7, 2017 was a night of many victories for democrats and progressives, from the first openly transgender person elected to the Virginia legislature, Danica Roem, to the first black woman elected as mayor of Charlottesville, Va., Vi Lyles, along with other political firsts.

According to the Center for Women and Politics, four women of color and three Indigenous women were elected to Congress in 2017, plus eight women of color to state legislatures. Beyond making headlines, these newly elected officials will be instrumental in uplifting marginalized communities by making change to policies and our many inequitable systems.

Representation Matters

According to the Center for American Progress women of color make up approximately 20 percent of the U.S. population, yet they remain underrepresented in our political system with just 4.5 percent of congressional seats and 5 percent of all legislative positions. This means that every day, white men are the main group making important decisions about the lives of women of color and Indigenous women and their communities without the slightest idea of the resources they need or the inequities they face.

Councilmember Mazahir Salih of Iowa City, Ia. became the first Sudanese-American person elected to public office in the U.S. in November 2017. Salih’s public engagement stems from helping to home and advocate for new immigrants in her community. Salih is the former president of the Center for Worker Justice of Eastern Iowa, a nonprofit that advocates for the rights of immigrants.

There is much more to representation than holding the same identities as your constituents. It is a shared understanding of the experiences of women of color and Indigenous women as well as the ability to speak to their specific concerns that makes for truly powerful representation.

“No one will feel your pain,” Salih says. “You can be really passionate and supportive of others, but you cannot feel the same way as the people themselves. That’s why an elected official can support their community, but if they do not look like me, they are not going to understand the pain I feel, because I live it.”

Of the 2,205 women who currently serve in political office in the U.S., 2,021 of these women are white. While the victories of all women are beneficial to minimizing gender disparities in leadership, it’s impossible for white women to fully advocate on behalf of the specific needs of communities of color and Indigenous folks, regardless of how progressive or empathetic they might be.

“We’ve had many well-meaning white women and white guys in office, and nothing has changed. They can’t know firsthand the experiences,” says Councilmember Andrea Jenkins of Minneapolis.

Jenkins became the first openly trans black woman elected to public office in the U.S. Jenkins is an activist, poet and staple of the Minneapolis social justice community, working for years in Minneapolis City Council as an aide to her predecessor, Elizabeth Glidden. Jenkins won her seat with more than 70 percent of the vote.

“[White women and men] can read about it; they can watch Oprah, talk to their best friend who is black, but they really cannot speak on behalf of the community that they are not a part of,” Jenkins says. “As a trans woman of color, some 14-year-old trans kid has some renewed hope right now. That would not be the case of just a well-meaning white woman saying ‘trans kids matter.’ That’s important, but that is not even close to the same as witnessing a trans person in a position of leadership who is able to speak articulately to the issues or stand up to power. There’s no replacement for that.”

And lest we not forget, 53 percent of white women voted in favor of our presidential administration.

The recent victories of women of color and Indigenous women are just stepping stones for future leaders. Following the 2016 presidential election, organizations like VoteRunLead, which is dedicated to recruiting, training and supporting women interested in running for political office, has reported that participant levels have quadrupled, with women of color accounting for half of these totals.

Not seeing women that look like you holding political leadership roles is a huge barrier to young women of color and Indigenous women and can serve as visual messaging that people who look like they do can’t be leaders.

“People have been telling me that their transgender children and friends are deeply inspired,” Jenkins says. “I’ve met black women who’ve said that they now want to run because I ran.”

These victories represent more than just political prowess. They can be educational for future Indigenous leaders and leaders of color. The successes of women of color in politics has the potential to urge other women of color to engage politically, whether it be campaigning for candidates, learning more about how the political system works or running for office themselves.

Salih says her campaign was no normal campaign. It was more than a campaign—it was an educational experience for her community and beyond.

“First I had to say to my community, ‘I am going to run for city council,’ and they would say, ‘What’s that? What’s that?’” Salih says. “They know how to vote in presidential elections, but they don’t know anything about school board, city council or any smaller offices. They are not very engaged, and they have to start educating themselves. But there are younger students who go to the University [of Iowa], and they call me auntie Mazahir. They say, ‘You know what, auntie? You are opening a path for us to think about engaging politically in this community.’”

Barriers Remain

On top of the racism and sexism that women of color are subjected to in daily life and in running for political office—combined with discrimination against any and all of their additional marginalized identities—there are other systemic barriers that keep women of color and Indigenous women from running for office, or make it particularly challenging. Not only was the world of politics and government built for white men, it was built specifically to keep women of color and Indigenous women out.

Trans women and women of color in America receive lower wages than white and cisgender folks. While white women make on average 78 percent of what a white male makes, race significantly widens the gap, with the largest disparity being for Latina women, who make only 54 percent of what white men make.

According to the Drug Policy alliance, “Drug use occurs at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, yet black and Latina women are far more likely to be criminalized for drug law violations than white women.”

Consequently, women of color are four times more likely to be incarcerated for drug offenses than white women, and Indigenous women comprise 35 percent of all women incarcerated, despite constituting less than 2 percent of the population in the U.S.

These factors and systemic disadvantages make it even more challenging for women of color and Indigenous women to access and enter the political sphere.

“Everybody now is talking about, ‘Hey, we need more minorities in leadership. We need more minorities on our school board, at our meetings,’” Salih says. “But before you ask for that: Raise the minimum wage so they can afford to work one job. Before you ask for that: Fix the transportation system so they can come.

Despite increased interest in running for office, systemic barriers stemming from our culture’s sexism, racism, transphobia, xenophobia and Islamophobia remain some of the fiercest competitors for women of color and Indigenous women during elections.

“When I started my campaign—and every day when I wake up, in fact—I know that my two biggest opponents are racism and transphobia,” Jenkins says. “That’s who we ran against.”

In our political system, which has always excluded those outside the white male parameters, simply being a woman of color or Indigenous woman in politics can be a subversion of the system. Yet it would be naïve to assume the discrimination they face ceases to exist once women of color and Indigenous women successfully win their seats. In fact—it often intensifies.

Arizona State Senator Jamescita Peshlakai, a Navajo woman of the Tangle People and Redhouse clans, says she faces continued discrimination and disrespect serving in the Arizona State Legislature. Peshlakai began her first term serving as an Arizona State Senator in January 2017. She fell into a life of political engagement by accident while supporting her daughter’s environmental activism. She is a veteran of the Gulf War and works to advance the rights of veterans in Arizona.

“I’ve had people not want to shake my hand. If we are in front of a camera, they will smile and shake my hand, but in private they will not acknowledge me or give me the dignity of being a leader, and that makes me upset, but it makes my back just a little straighter,” she says.

Jenkins expects similar challenges in working to improve her community as a member of Minneapolis City Council.

“I think it’s a big part of what I am going to continuously have to overcome as a city council member in working with all the different entities throughout the city that have a real and valid interest in the city, but may not be willing and able to work with trans-identified people,” Jenkins says. “I think even if people are willing, the deep seated nature of white supremacy and structural oppression is so completely ingrained in our culture that many people who swear up and down that they are not racist continue to perpetuate the ideals of whiteness, of white supremacy and structural oppression unwittingly.”

Navigating Worlds

The idea of living between two worlds is one commonly expressed between all three politicians: one world in which other people of color and Indigenous folks share in their experiences and the other in a culture steeped in white supremacy.

Navigating these conflicting worlds is something Peshlakai has grown used to.I’ve always told my friends, ‘I live my life halfway in the Anglo world—off reservation—and half my life on the reservation and in the traditional sense, having ceremony, speaking Navajo,” she says.

The racism and sexism pervasive in Anglo culture impacted—and continues to harm—Indigenous communities by way of colonialism. Peshlakai says native women in leadership face sexism not only in American culture on the whole but also on the reservation. Traditionally, women in her tribe led the family and society.

“But with colonization, everything has turned around,” Peshlakai says.

Out of 24 positions on Peshlakai’s tribal council, there is one woman.

“My job now is to teach the power of the woman, the sanctity of our roles in life,” she says. “It is an upward struggle because patriarchy has become so embedded by Christianity and colonization that we are acting as a patriarchal society, but traditionally we are not.”

Representing the stories of her community with empathy and verity is something Peshlakai seeks to do.

“I always try to represent the good parts of my people, my culture and where I come from because I am always combating the negative stereotypes you see of native people on TV,” she says. “I want people to feel empowered by the beauty and spirituality and the life that we live, mostly in seclusion. There are people on the reservation that have never left the reservation. I want to tell their stories in a compassionate and kind way.”

Power at the Local Level

While national offices are overwhelmingly white, male-dominated and seemingly resistant to change, local politics offer more of an entry point for women of color and Indigenous women. Offices like city council require leaders to live in the communities they serve, so it is much more likely that constituents know candidates personally.

“City councils decide when the trash is going to be picked up, when that pothole is going to be fixed and how much property tax you’re going to have to pay,” Jenkins says. “It’s the easiest form of government to interact with, and it’s the most direct form of government to impact our lives.”

Beyond potholes, city councils are offices with significant change-making potential. Councilmembers are influential in making decisions that affect the wellbeing of their constituents and preventing decisions that disproportionately affect communities of color. Councilmembers are instrumental in passing bills to increase minimum wages, enforcing citywide racial equity initiatives and influencing how neighborhoods develop.

The power of this direct and community specific decision-making has ripple effects for the rest of the nation.

“There is infinite power here locally because change starts from the bottom to the top,” Jenkins says. “If we can change our local communities and make them work for every member, we can change our cities for the better.”

Pursuit of Equity

According to the Center for American Progress, a definitional aspect of female leadership is the tendency to prioritize the issues of their constituents as part of their policy agendas. Women in office also deliver disproportionately positive results to their constituent base.

American University’s Women & Politics Institute says women feel a higher sense of competition than men, remain more involved with their communities and sponsor more bills. Peshlakai, Jenkins and Salih have big agendas that involve working toward equity in their communities in 2018.

Salih is wasting no time in working to better her community. Despite not officially being sworn in until January 2018, she has already begun working toward her campaign promises.

“During my campaign I talked about affordable housing, creating living wage jobs and improving our transportation system. I am already thinking and meeting with people with lots of experience in these areas,” Salih says.

Jenkins hopes she can make Minneapolis a better place for all its residents.

“It’s incredibly, deeply maddening to me that I live in the city that is number four on the Wall Street Journal’s Best Places in the World to Visit, along with places like San Francisco, London and Paris. We live in this community, yet our black and brown people and Native people are suffering mightily,” she says. “I am really trying to get at the structurally racist policies holding people back, from employment hiring practices to tackling issues of criminal prosecution for low level drug offenses. In particular, cases where black men are charged disproportionately. I certainly plan to work on the affordable housing issue here in Minneapolis, as well as police accountability. Eliminating inequity is what I am going to be about for the entire four years.”

Peshlakai hopes to get rid of the school voucher system currently in place in Arizona. She advocates for more funding to public schools so that teachers can make living wages. She tells me that her tribe has focused large amounts of funding to help Indigenous teachers complete schooling and certification, only to make below a living wage in Arizona, forcing them to relocate to other states. We need to provide for them so they can provide for their families and live a life of dignity,” she says.

Peshlakai is also attentive to the needs of veterans living in Arizona. There are more Indigenous veterans per capita in Arizona, yet there are no federally run Veterans Affairs offices on her reservation, leaving the reservations tasked with providing resources.

“I have to devote myself to righting that historical wrong,” she says. “It might be the status quo, but I need to work to fight against those inequities.”

Fighting against inequity within her reservation does not just benefit Indigenous people of Arizona—it seeks to better her state on the whole.

“Whatever is good for tribal nations is good for the rest of the state and the nation,” Peshlakai says.

All three women were unified in their desire for more women of color, trans people and Indigenous women getting out the vote nationally and running for national office in the coming year.

“People can be discouraging, which is why you have to believe in yourself,” Jenkins says. “You have to believe in your own authenticity, your own power and not listen to naysayers and haterators that are going to try and keep you from your goal.”

Alyse Burnside is a writer and educator living in Minneapolis. Her work has also appeared in Noisey and Tender Journal. Find her on Instagram at @comicsanstorm.

Grace Molteni is a Midwest born and raised designer, illustrator, and self-proclaimed bibliophile, currently calling Chicago home. She believes strongly in a “beer first, always, and only” rule, and is forever seeking the perfect dumpling. For more musings, work, or just to say hey check her out on Instagram.