This research partnership explores the challenges and opportunities that influence the public leadership of women of color in their communities and beyond.
Each fellow generated information specific to her research project that drew upon her own experiences of community and political leadership as well as the perspectives and insights of other women of color leaders. Taken as a whole, the fellows’ projects provide a wealth of knowledge about the realities and conditions that shape the experiences of women of color leaders from low-income communities in Massachusetts.
Several common themes resonated across projects. These collective themes demonstrate that women of color leaders are uniquely situated to serve in public leadership roles and approach identity, expectations, leadership, and inequality in particular ways.
Based on the themes that emerged, women of color leaders:
identify and serve as community leaders
Women of color leaders have a passionate will to serve. They are deeply committed to the communities they serve and they have strong orientation to social justice. These leaders are driven by values of integrity, honesty, and centrality of family as well as a profound understanding of the needs and vulnerabilities of the communities they serve. In addition, they share a conviction that social and community change is possible and this, combined with their commitment to community, drives their community activism. Women of color leaders bring their powerful and essential identities—with diversity in voice, thought, action, and skills—into their visions and experiences of political leadership.
negotiate persistent gender and racial inequalities
Both longtime and emerging women of color leaders need to constantly transcend prevailing gender and race stereotypes. As women of color, they face discrimination from those in leadership positions in the political arena and from some of their own community members due to the intersecting patterns of sexism and racism. Their identities, capabilities, and electability are constantly questioned. This in turn impacts their own political confidence and discourages them from running for public office.
manage cultural/ethnic, family, and community expectations
Women of color leaders not only face persistent gender and racial inequalities, but they must also manage the cultural expectations of their own families and communities. As they redefine their cultural roles, often with some conflict, they are redefining who they are and expanding perceptions of women of color leadership within their families and communities. Specifically, women referred to experiences of:
- negotiating family expectations
- negotiating ethnic community expectations
- redefining the cultural roles for women of color
face realities of campaigning and political life
As do women more generally, women of color leaders face the grueling, costly, and exhausting reality of entering political life. Fundraising and campaigning alone have intense demands on time, resources, and personal energies for any candidate. But for women of color leaders who come from under-resourced communities, running for political office seems to be out of reach and unsustainable without financial, emotional, and social support. Moreover, women of color leaders struggle with the belief that “politics is dirty.” Often, if not always, women of color leaders believe that they will compromise their personal integrity in order to maintain their political lives. In addition, women of color leaders elected to office may become disillusioned when the change they want to see take place takes longer than expected.
need more comprehensive support programs
The harsh realities of fundraising and campaigning make it even more necessary for emerging women of color leaders, who come from already under-resourced communities, to be connected with individuals and organizations that can help them set realistic expectations and teach them specific strategies. Women of color need to learn the informal rules and underlying expectations in order to maneuver themselves successfully in the political landscape. More than training and guidance, structured space for reflection and systematic support are just as essential as these resources increase emerging women of color’s political confidence and can enable them to run for office. Fellows identified specific needs for:
- more comprehensive training programs
- systematic support (physical, financial, emotional, and social)
- collective space for connecting, sharing, and reflecting