This was originally published by WireTap magazine.
Keesha Gaskins is making history as one of the few young black leaders at the League of Women Voters. Rallying the Vote
October 14, 2008
(This content is produced by Rock the Trail, a partnership between Rock the Vote and WireTap magazine.)
Keesha Gaskins is a champion for emerging women leaders. She’s the first black woman to serve as executive director of the League of Women Voters Minnesota, a non-partisan organization that uses education and advocacy to inform voters and influence public policy. Formed in 1919, the organization has traditionally been led by older white women.
Gaskins is a stark contrast to the status quo. The history of the women’s suffrage movement is fraught with divides along race and class lines. White leaders were often at odds with their black allies over issues of race and class. As a woman of color, Gaskins has done work to further the legacies of both the Civil Rights and women’s suffrage movements. She now faces the monumental task of connecting generations of women in the common struggle toward education and empowerment.
Throughout her youth, Gaskins participated in politics on many levels, from discussing current affairs on the debate team to challenging the status quo on her campus. After college, she practiced law, ultimately taking her talents to the Minnesota political scene. She is now working to support women who are interested in running for office, as well as making sure that women voters everywhere are informed on the issues. The voter guides of the League, may be coming to a doorstep near you.
She recently sat down with Rock the Trail to discuss her childhood, challenges and new position at the League.
What were your high school years like?
I lettered in a few sports: soccer, softball and volleyball. Unfortunately, I was a terrible basketball player. I lettered in debate, and I did some backstage stuff in theater. I wasn’t terribly popular in high school; I just kind of did my thing. I was involved in some community organizations and I was pretty active with my church. They still had roller-skating, so I went on Saturdays and Thursdays with my friends.
Would you say you were political? Did you grow up around politics?
I wouldn’t say I was political growing up. I was opinioned. When I was two and three, my parents were very politically active. My dad would take me to all of these community meetings. I would be playing with my blocks while they were planning their community action, so it must come [somewhat] organically.
Later, I remember getting involved in the Council of African American Students. I heard about it, so I thought I would show up to one of their meetings and see what these people were up to. I thought, Well, I can do this, so I start raising my hand to do stuff. Later on, I found out that some people were irritated with me, thinking, Who is this girl? and other people were thinking, She’s willing to do work, just shut up! That was my first big thing: I became president of the Council of African American Students on campus.
Do you remember a specific moment where you realized you needed to get into politics?
I remember working at a law firm. I was making a conscious decision to be very active in the NAACP. I was very active in the public policy committee at the YWCA. I kept making decisions that clearly were not those of someone who wanted to be a big bad partner at a law firm. Simultaneously, I was bringing in clients and doing really good work, but it clearly wasn’t where my passion was. There were things I enjoyed about it–the dynamics, the interaction–but it wasn’t enough to keep me getting out of bed excited every day.
Do you still have that initial fire or passion that you felt when you first started doing political work?
I think the “fire” is sort of a romantic notion. I don’t know if I have this “fire.” I know that I have a sense of purpose. Do I think this purpose is going to go away? No. There is still so much work to be done. I will donate money to organizations and volunteer, but my work is social change. It’s about helping to organize people to push ideas and to push decision-makers to think outside the box. It’s about having the opportunity to sit at the table long enough to make them uncomfortable–to make them explain why people are left out of the conversation.
How does your mission to push for social change play out in your position as executive director at the League?
Not as often as I would like. One of the biggest challenges when you’re working for an organization like the League, that has been about social change for so long, is that it [becomes] an institution. Managing an institution means that I spend all of my time doing administrative and management work. But the work needs to be done because the organization needs to exist. The [League] has been around since 1920 and was born out of the women’s suffrage movement. The principle was that women had to be, not just voters, but informed voters.
What criticisms do you and the League face?
We get blasted all the time. People say we are a left-leaning organization. No question: Our positions are oftentimes progressive. But our positions are in support of more openness in government, more transparency.
I understand the dichotomy and some of the irony of an African American woman leading this organization given the history of the suffrage movement in this country. It was the 15th Amendment that split the Universal Suffrage Movement down the middle, where you had white women literally using expressions with former allies like “Sambo,” and saying, “Uneducated black men, how dare you get the vote before us upstanding, educated white women.” You have black women on the other side saying, “What in the world? These women are already represented. Their husbands vote, and their husband’s interest is their interest.”
Meanwhile, you have African American women completely left out of both sides of the debate because we certainly weren’t men, and we weren’t white women, and white women were in front of us. We had no role. They wanted nothing to do with women of color– whether they were American Indian or black women. Many of the women in the suffrage movement were very unpleasant.
What are you working on at the League?
We are always working on citizen participation. With the upcoming election, we are doing a lot of outreach. We have our voter guides, making sure people have information and are educated about what’s out there. Everyone gets excited about what is going on at the top of the ticket, but when you ask people what they care about, they care about when their garbage is picked up, how many cops are on the street and what’s going on at the local level.
How are you engaging young people?
The average age of a Leaguer in this state is about 65. So, clearly, we don’t have a huge membership of young people. The main focus of engaging young people is making sure they know the information. The information we have isn’t about being old, young, white or black. It’s simply about the candidates on the ballot. If you don’t have access to the internet, you’ve got access to Target. Our voter guides will be in every Target across the state. They are going out to Minnesota state colleges and university papers. They are going to be everywhere.