Last July, video footage of a traffic stop and violent arrest in Waller County, Texas, went viral, putting national attention on how black boys and men aren’t the only ones who die while in police custody. Now the tragic death of Sandra Bland, the 28-year-old black woman who was found dead in her jail cell three days after being pulled over, has helped catalyze the creation of the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls, the first caucus in U.S. history to focus on eliminating the inequalities and injustices threatening the well-being of black women.
“Sandra Bland could have been any one of us. We’re degreed. We’re professionals, we’re members of elite organizations. None of us are actually safe,” Nakisha M. Lewis, a New York City–based race and gender activist who works as a senior strategist at the Ms. Foundation for Women, told TakePart. Lewis is one of the seven founding members of the #SheWoke Committee, a grassroots collective that advocates for black women’s rights and helped inspire the caucus. “It’s the people’s caucus. If you live in one of the districts represented by the three congresswomen who started it, you should thank them,” she said.
Indeed, three black women members of Congress—Rep. Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey, Rep. Robin Kelly of Illinois, and Rep. Yvette D. Clarke of New York—launched the caucus on Tuesday. It “gives Black women a seat at the table for the crucial discussion on the policies that impact them while also providing a framework for creating opportunities and eliminating barriers to success for Black women,” said Kelly in a statement.
The caucus has its roots in conversations Lewis began having in early January with her new roommate, Ifeoma Ike, an attorney who helped get President Barack Obama’s My Brother’s Keeper initiative for black boys off the ground. “We’re two black women who are youngish professionals trying to figure out how to make it in New York City,” said Lewis with a laugh.
As they discussed the protests they helped drive after Bland’s death—and the state of black women and girls in general—they soon began to wonder if there was a caucus to represent their interests. They found that there were roughly 430 congressional caucuses and member organizations “on all sorts of things, from identities to one on cut flowers. And not one on black women and girls,” Lewis said. “So we dreamed that there could be one.”
Lewis and Ike are also members of historically black sororities, service-based organizations founded in the early 20th century when black women were barred from mainstream Panhellenic groups. Around the time in January that most of the black sororities were hosting celebrations for their founding anniversaries, Brian Encinia, the state trooper who pulled over Bland, was indicted on a charge of perjury. That pushed Lewis and her peers, including Bland’s sister, Sharon Cooper, to form the #SheWoke Committee. “If she was ‘woke,’ using the vernacular of the time—that’s how we as black women talk to each other—it means ‘to be aware, to not be bamboozled,’ ” Lewis explained.
Two days later, the group launched a petition asking Congress to champion “legislation that aims to improve the social, economic, and overall quality of life for Black women and girls” and support efforts and spaces that prioritize them. Cooper is a member of the sorority Sigma Gamma Rho and made contact with Kelly, who is also a member, Lewis said.
“The genesis of all this is sisterhood,” said Lewis. “This is what happens when black women get in formation”—a reference to Beyoncé’s controversial, anthemic song celebrating black culture.
The need for the caucus is certainly there. Along with facing police brutality, the social and economic obstacles black women deal with are significant. “The median net worth of a black woman in America is only $100,” said Lewis, and black women are a disproportionate percentage of low-wage workers, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. With 4.1 million American families headed by black women, that economic disenfranchisement affects the life chances of black children, who are more likely to live in poverty than any other group, according to a Pew Research Center analysis.
And although black women are 13 percent of the U.S. population, they make up roughly 30 percent of the prison population, Lewis said. Last October, a video of a school resource officer in South Carolina dragging a black teenage girl from her desk, body-slamming her to the floor, and cuffing her went viral. The shocking clip made people realize how black girls are suspended six times more often than their white peers and are steered into the school-to-prison pipeline.
But without a group to drive tangible policy changes that benefit black girls, history repeats itself. Late last week, “a black girl was put in handcuffs at her school for taking candy off her teacher’s desk,” Lewis said.
It remains to be seen what issue the caucus tackles first, but Lewis trusts the leadership of the members. “They have beyond-capable staffers who will be working with them to put forward the best plans. This is the trust we get to have in our elected officials,” she said. Over the next few years, she hopes the caucus can spur a “full prioritization” of black women’s health, economic stability, safety, and education. With black women more likely to vote than any other demographic, it’s in the interests of elected officials nationally to pay attention to their specific needs, she said.
“Every member of Congress has the opportunity to sign up and join the caucus. We’re looking forward to seeing them stand up alongside their colleagues and represent their people,” said Lewis. After all, she added, “black women live in every congressional district in America. We’re everywhere.”