Essay: Empowering women

Women of color and transgender Californians are underrepresented in government

By Surina Khan

The importance of the 2020 presidential election cannot be overstated. The decisions made this year have the potential to drive forward racial, economic and gender justice—or drag us even further back.

Elections can be a great motivator, but the real key is to build community-based power every day, every month and every year. Policy is year-round. We have seen here in California that when we invest in building the power of women and girls of color we can transform the state and solve our greatest problems.

That starts with representation. Women of color, trans and non-binary people are dramatically unrepresented in our government. A fair system that works for all of us is impossible without our participation.

But in California, things are changing.

Over the last 15 years, the Women’s Foundation of California’s Women’s Policy Institute public policy training program has radically reshaped who participates in our political process. The WPI has trained more than 500 transgender and cisgender women, non-binary and gender-queer people. The institute has helped pass 40 far-reaching laws, including one that made California the first state to require public universities to provide medication abortion and another that required the state to implement cultural competency into all emergency and disaster planning.

Those 500 WPI fellows have personal networks of thousands of people—creating the potential to activate millions of Californians.

The institute exists because of the power in historically disenfranchised communities. The Women’s Foundation of California is proud of the individual leaders we invest in, leaders who go back to their organizations, educate their colleagues and lead public policy and advocacy initiatives in their communities throughout the state. This is the power that will fuel the larger gender justice movement. The 2018 WPI class was the most diverse in our history, with 80% of fellows identifying as people of color and one-third identifying as queer or something other than heterosexual.

Surina Khan is CEO of the Women’s Foundation of California.

Those voices of people impacted by gender-based oppression, violence and discrimination are often missing in Sacramento and at the local levels of policymaking, which means that if we don’t participate in the policy process, our lives, bodies and futures will be legislated on in our absence.

We must push for an intersectional political agenda, engage voters, elevate the voices of communities of color and immigrant communities and work to ensure everyone is counted. This is how we are building power to create policies that make every city and county in California a more equitable place. We deserve to live in a state where young women, girls and gender expansive youth have role models in the halls of power and believe in their own potential to change the world.

We will use that power to change the way gender is discussed in the media and in our culture. We need to change the culture to make it standard that women vote, serve on councils and run for office. We know women are heads of households and face many different barriers to political engagement, including a lack of outreach, access to transportation or child care. Women have the potential to hold so much power in our democracy, and we’ve seen what can be done when we come together and support each other.

We’re working to make policy and politics better for women, but we’re not doing it alone. We’re proud to work with and support many organizations, leaders and efforts including Black Women for Wellness, the Young Women’s Initiative, Khmer Girls in Action, Parent Voices, the Young Women’s Freedom Center, the TransLatin@ Coalition and California Latinas for Reproductive Justice—all of which are doing incredible work to support and build the power of girls, women and gender expansive people across California.

I am hopeful in 2020 that California will continue to be a leader for gender justice and provide a clear vision to the world of how we can all thrive when women and girls of color have access to quality education, healthcare, housing and be safe—all year long.

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