Ashley Yates has been on the front lines in Ferguson. She was among the thirteen demonstrators—nine women and four men, she points out—arrested in early October while protesting the response to the police killing of Michael Brown. At a recent event about gender and racial justice organizing hosted by Columbia Law School, Yates told the audience that when men in the movement for justice there thank her for standing up for them and for having their backs, she offers this response:
“I’ve got your back and I also have your front and your side,” Yates, an organizer with Millennial Activists United, recounted. “I hope you have mine.” After all, black women are not only themselves victims of police brutality, they also stand shoulder to shoulder with men and lead when it’s time to advocate for change.
Last week’s announcement that the White House will focus on the challenges facing girls and women of color is an attempt to acknowledge this shared struggle across gender lines, a struggle that extends far beyond Ferguson. The move comes after months of criticism that My Brothers Keeper, the White House racial justice initiative announced in February, is fundamentally flawed because it singles out boys and men of color for support and turns a blind eye to the girls and women in those same families, classrooms and communities.
The day the White House announced that it would form a working group to study this demographic it also released a report titled “Women and Girls of Color: Addressing Challenges and Expanding Opportunity.” But instead of charting a course of action, it simply outlines everything the administration has already accomplished that may positively affect the lives of women and girls of color. Among these are passing the Affordable Care Act, establishing a campus sexual assault task force, and reforming sentencing for non-violent drug offenders. “The Administration supports numerous efforts to provide STEM opportunities to elementary and secondary school students, including many girls of color,” reads one section of the report, and sentences like this appear throughout. The report is a helpful reminder of various federal initiatives embarked upon in the past six years, but its implicit message is that great strides have already been made for women and girls of color—and that this group doesn’t merit the direct, explicit focus that boys and men of color do.
Joanne N. Smith, founder and director of the Brooklyn-based youth development organization Girls for Gender Equity, has been among those voices calling for My Brother’s Keeper to be reworked with a gender-inclusive lens. She gives last week’s announcement mixed reviews. “The fact that the White House is discussing the needs of girls and women of color is something that we should celebrate,” Smith told me, and went on to explain that her work calling for meaningful inclusion isn’t finished. “It’s nowhere near what MBK is, it’s nowhere near what girls of color deserve and we have to charge them to do so much more.”
Without the $300 million that private foundations and corporations have pledged to support MBK, it’s unclear what a parallel initiative for girls and women would be able to accomplish, which is one reason why gender justice advocates are calling for inclusion in the existing program. “We don’t want separate but equal,” Smith said. “We can have separate, gender-specific programming. But as far as a call to action for the lives of our young people of color, that needs to happen collectively.”
Now is the time for the administration to act, as MBK programming is being planned at the local level through partnerships with city governments, said Kimberlé Crenshaw, a legal scholar who directs the African American Policy Forum and has led much of the organized response to MBK. She said the local efforts should be amended to include women and girls and that President Obama should direct federal agencies to collect and report data on women and girls just as he did for men and boys. “Recommend best practices that can be scaled up with private and public partnership,” she suggested when we spoke this week. “That’s a signal that this is not just window dressing.”
There are bright spots signalling that other power brokers committed to advancing My Brother’s Keeper are paying attention to the call for inclusion. Smith noticed an important language change in a recent newsletter of New York City’s Young Men’s Initiative (YMI), a program considered by many to be a model for MBK that was launched by former mayor Michael Bloomberg and continued under the de Blasio administration. The initiative’s mission statement had changed to include the words, “YMI also has a vested interest in fatherhood services, mentoring, LGBTQ inclusion, and issues that pertain to women of color.” Smith said she’s confident that the shift opens the door to real strategic changes as well, and perhaps a step toward meeting demands laid out in a sign-on letter calling on de Blasio to expand YMI. Crenshaw said similar letters will be used to make demands of others mayors who have agreed to implement MBK at the local level.
Both advocates said they hoped young people will be involved in the newly announced White House working group. “They are the experts of their experience,” Smith of Girls for Gender Equity said. “They can be the ones to help provide solutions for change if they’re at that table.”