Black women have the highest voter turnout of all demographics, and yet, in a country comprised of 37% of people of color, White people hold 90% of elected political power. Of that figure, The Women Donor Network found that 65% of that power is attributed to White men with 25% represented by White women. This sea of whiteness in elected office needs shifting, and Jessica Byrd, who has long history in working to get progressive women – of color specifically – elected, is aiming to push for that with The Pathway Project.
Most recently, Byrd worked as the Manager of State Strategies for the Washington, D.C. based political action committee EMILY’s List. She’s also held posts with the Obama administration and the Democratic National Committee. In January, TIME magazine recognized the 27-year-old Ohio native in its ‘12 New Faces of Black Leadership’ feature. Having spent almost a decade working for and with Democratic candidates and political organizations, she is uniquely poised to bolster the role of women of color in office.
On July 1st, Byrd will begin a six-month research process funded by The Women Donor Network. Byrd will travel the country and meet with organizations involved in voter and political engagement. Byrd explains, “I came up with this idea to create a coalition space where I would bring together as many people of color organizations as possible with a membership base to talk about candidate recruitment, and target specific seats across the country, and then attempt to both recruit a candidate and then spend resources as a coalition to affect the political landscape.”
Will that magically make everything better? Byrd doesn’t equate electability with transformative change, however, “Right now, we have the activism. We don't have great policy and we don't have great elected leadership. I think that when we have great elected leadership that represents the incredible voting block of Black women, I think that we're going to get to some of that policy we need in order to live better lives.”
There is also the chance to change the narrative about what the “women’s vote” means. Far too often is the media narrative about the “women’s vote” primarily about white women’s vote, negating the key role Black women play in electoral politics. Byrd adds, “We've seen, actually, since 2008, that Black women voters are the highest voting population in electoral politics. That hasn't happened though, so we're not telling that story, but what hasn't happened is that hasn't translated into literally anything. Nothing.”
Indeed, there are no major pieces of legislation directly related to Black women being passed. This, despite than turning out more than any other base voter. More than White women. More than Latinos. More than Black men.
As for those – self-included – who assumed there was a singular barrier preventing many women of color from seeking office, Byrd says that is not the case. “We have spouted these numbers as a reason why we have kept people out of the system, and we haven't removed any of the barriers that really answer any of the individualized questions that people have,” she notes.
There is no blueprint, but there is opportunity in creating better spaces for more politically engaged women of color to get involved. “I think that the challenge for all of us is to figure out the past and how we can remove as many barriers from that past so people of color and low income folks as possible, so that we can get the best leaders.”
And while The Pathway Project is in its infancy, there are already positive signs about more representation of Black women in politics. Although there has not been a Black female U.S. senator in 16 years, two women – Attorney General of California Kamala Harris and Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards, respectively – running for Senate in 2016.
Byrd explained that much of the 2016 narrative is being shaped by Black women, explaining: “All of our conversations around criminal justice reform, all of our conversations around reproductive justice, and the way that we treat women of color, and the way that we have created inclusive places for all of us to exist are really being led and organized and activated by Black women. I think that has been, that I have noticed, that that is really forcing our candidates to be critical and be thoughtful about what they're thinking about.”
I’m sure Hillary Rodham Clinton would eagerly nod in agreement.
Byrd herself is often asked to run for office. “Yes, it is on the table. I don't know when and I don't know how, but … I do know how, but I don't know when, but it is definitely an option. I think about it a lot.”
In the meantime, she’ll be actively doing her part to get others who look like her on the ballot. It’s long overdue, but right on time.
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