Bonnie Watson Coleman, center, when she was a New Jersey assemblywoman in 2014 (AP Photo/Mel Evans, File)
Last week, three African-American lawmakers made history with the announcement of the country’s first and only Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls. Representatives Bonnie Watson Coleman, D-N.J., Robin Kelly, D-Ill., and Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., announced that the group will be devoted to public policy that eliminates the barriers and disparities experienced uniquely by black women in the United States.
Running parallel to the White House’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative, which supports the advancement of black males, the new caucus is in the early stages of establishing goals to address gender-based inequities in wages, healthcare and education, and other policy gaps that disproportionately affect black women. The new caucus is the first out of the 430 registered congressional caucuses on Capitol Hill prioritizing black women and girls.
Advancement on black women’s issues is long overdue as economic equity statistics — which directly impact health and educational outcomes — continue to stagger among this demographic nationwide. According to research conducted by the American Association of University Women, black women were paid 63 percent of what non-Hispanic white men were paid in 2014. Additionally, black women represent the highest majority of minimum-wage workers, represent less than 3 percent in the technology industry and less than 1 percent in engineering fields, indicating a tremendous need for pay equity and attention to potentially hostile, discriminatory work environments.
“I think there are many stories regarding African-American women, experiences with law enforcement, suspension rates, unemployment, education, et cetera, that need attention. We need to elevate some of these stories,” says Coleman, who was born in Camden, New Jersey and whose congressional district includes Trenton. “There is a whole body of consideration that hasn’t been focusing on our uniqueness of being black and female. This caucus is a good outlet for it. We’re looking to bring forth an action agenda that will be more connected across the nation on black women’s issues.”
The new initiative was spearheaded by Ifeoma Ike, the co-founder of Black and Brown People Vote, and six other black women’s rights activists: Nakisha M. Lewis, Tiffany D. Hightower, Shambulia Gadsden Sams, Sharisse Stancil-Ashford, Avis Jones-DeWeever and Sharon Cooper. Cooper is the sister of Sandra Bland, who died in a Texas jail cell after an unlawful arrest by a police officer.
“We want to get everyone, including our sisters, aware of where we statistically fall within these issues. Knowledge is definitely power,” Ike told The Huffington Post. “We’re looking at this space as one of idea-sharing and policy creation. We’re making sure we’re included as a demographic that deserves to be addressed.”
While the group continues to build its platform and policy campaigns and seeks to bring federal resources to help eliminate disparities, Coleman shares that the initial work will engage organizations already working on black women’s issues.