Winds of Possibilities: The Women of Color Leading us Now

Western States Center
6 min readNov 3, 2020

By Eric K. Ward

Barbara Smith, Audre Lorde, Cherríe Moraga, Hattie Gossett, Helena Byard, Susan Yung, Ana Oliveira, Cherrie Moraga, Rosío Alvarez, Alma Gomez, and Leota Lone Dog were co-founders of Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press; discovering their writings at Mother Kali’s feminist bookstore in Eugene in the mid-1980s changed my life.

Updated to reflect the early results of the Nov. 3 election

Folks wonder how I’m managing to stay calm, cool, and collected in this time of such intensity. It’s largely due to the voices of so many incredible women of color. Women whose words create winds of unfolding possibilities, whose courage shines down on us like the starlight above, whose footsteps rustle along the quiet earth setting the pace for the coming of spring.

Listen. Can you hear them?

“To all the counted outs, the forgotten abouts, the marginalized, and the pushed asides. This is our moment. We came together to end a 52-year family dynasty. That’s how we build the political revolution.” Congresswoman-Elect Cori Bush, Missouri

Black women, indigenous women, women of color are leading a movement for change that might be slowed but cannot be stopped. They’ve fired us up. They’ve pushed us to take care of ourselves and to take care of each other. They’ve reconfigured how we think of ourselves and our movements for justice and liberation: movements that are woman-centered, Black-woman-centered. Leadership and movements that give us a preview of the world we are working to build.

As the Movement for Black Lives wrote recently, “Black cis and trans women and femmes have always been at the forefront of our movements. We organize and build power for our communities. We run for office, win and change policies that impact our families. And we vote disproportionately more than any other group. Black women show up.”

Regardless of the final outcome of the election we need to remember how central the leadership of women of color has been in bringing us to this moment. History shows us how often men tend to come in to take control and take credit after women have done the unacknowledged work behind the scenes.

Let’s pledge, right now: not this time.

The work over the past four years led by women of color has changed the landscape so profoundly. Amidst the deep divisions and impact of gerrymandering and voter suppression laid bare by this election, the bravery of women of color candidates is a bright beacon lighting the path to the future. Of the 318 female candidates running for the 470 available Congressional seats this year, 117 of them were women of color. Congratulations to Cori Bush, politicized through the Movement for Black Lives, now the first Black woman from Missouri in Congress. Congratulations to The Squad — U.S. Representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Rashida Tlaib — who won reelection despite record spending to defeat AOC and a climate of red-baiting not seen since the 1950s. Congratulations to Teresa Leger Fernandez, whose victory means New Mexico is the first state to elect a House delegation consisting entirely of women of color (even with one seat still undecided between Latina incumbent Xochitl Torres Small and her Republican challenger, Yvette Herrell, a member of the Cherokee Nation). Congratulations to Nikema Williams for winning the seat held by Congressman John Lewis. Congratulations to Stephanie Byers, a member of the Chickasaw Nation in Kansas who will be the first transgender person of color to serve in a state legislature. Congratulations to Black criminal justice reform activist Mauree Turner, one of the first non-binary state lawmakers in America, who will be the first Muslim to serve in Oklahoma’s state legislature. These victories are on top of the achievements by women of color candidates earlier this year, including Ella Jones, now mayor of Ferguson, Mo.

It’s not just those courageously stepping up to elected office — I have to add history-making Vice Presidential candidate Kamala Harris and Washington Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal and there are so many more. It’s the leaders laboring mostly behind the scenes, building our movements in a way America can’t quite yet embrace but whose day is coming.

Now, when we’re so close to our destination, why wouldn’t we trust their leadership for this next leg of the journey?

I’m talking about women like Alicia Garza, Ash-Lee Woodard Henderson, and the others featured in the beautiful Essence photo essay Black Women Are The Beating Hearts Behind The BREATHE Act. I’m talking about women like Lecia Brooks. Rinku Sen. April Baskin. Deepa Iyer. Greisa Martinez. Winona LaDuke. Linda Sarsour. Ai-jen Poo. adrienne marie brown. Valarie Kaur. Bridgit Antoinette Evans.

I know I’ve left out so many. When I shared a shorter form of this appreciation on my Facebook page I started tagging the BIPOC women I wanted to praise; I had to stop when I got to 100. Even now, I know I could spend a month reciting all of the names I’d like to share with you.

Stop for a minute and think about it. What a great problem to have! No more solo icons like Rosa Parks. Too many women of color of leaders to name!

But let’s be clear: when I talk about honoring and following the leadership of Black women and other women of color, I’m not talking about being passive. No one gets to sit anything out because they’re getting it done. I’m talking about full-on and tangible support and appreciation.

Earlier this year Sayu Bhojwani published an article titled Why Women of Color Leaders Are So Tired — and that was before COVID-19 hit our communities so hard, before George Floyd’s extrajudicial killing ignited an international uprising for racial justice.

I get it — I’m tired too. And every time I feel like I’ve given enough and have got nothing left to give, I think of the generosity Black women and other women of color have extended to me.

It starts with my big sister Alycin, who always knew when it was time to get me out of the house on a bike ride. She had to be an adult long before her time. She was just trying to survive. But she kept me safe.

The organizer I am today began with Connie Mesquita and Pearl Hill. Connie Mesquita gave me a work study job at Lane Community College’s multicultural center, a program that now bears her name, honoring her 34 years of work with students of color. Pearl Hill, a former Black Panther, ran Upward Bound, a program for high school students who would be the first in their families to attend college. She saw me walking down the street in Eugene; asked me, “Who are you?” and told me to come by and see her. She hired me as a group counselor.

So much was happening on campus in those days of protest against the verdict in Rodney King’s killing, fights for a multicultural curriculum, establishing the Longhouse at LCC. The associations of Black, Chicano/Latinx, Native American, and Asian Pacific American students were in the lead; being led by women of color.

In case you didn’t know: I was not born woke. And I’m still not woke. If I’ve learned anything, it was from all of these women, and the ones I met in the pages at Mother Kali’s bookstore and since, that helped me understand my own experiences alongside theirs. I didn’t have much money in those days, but I spent what I had on a book I couldn’t put down — Bahati Ansari had recommended it to me — Yours In Struggle: Three Feminist Perspectives On Racism And Anti-Semitism.

Once I started working off campus as a community organizer I got to work with and learn from more of the Black women path-breakers in Oregon’s social justice movements: Kathleen Saadat, Sharon-Gary Smith. The firsts in elected office: Avel Gordly, JoAnn Hardesty.

Now I know how busy they were. Now I understand how precious their time was (and is). Now I appreciate some of what it cost them to plow the ground in which we now grow.

When I think of these women, It makes me even more certain that we’ve already won the war. We face backlash, absolutely. The old world is not dying without putting up a fight. But the midwives are already at work, birthing the new world.

All praise the midwives of the new world being born.

Eric K. Ward is a Senior Fellow with the Southern Poverty Law Center and Race Forward and Executive Director of Western States Center.

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Western States Center

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.