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Report calls for elevation of Black women’s leadership in social justice movement


To close Women’s History Month, the Los Angeles Black Worker Center, an affiliate of the National Black Worker Center Project (NBWCP), released a pilot project report, “Black Space for Women: From LA Practice to National Model for Sister Empowerment,” that reveals what Black women experience as barriers to leadership in progressive organizing. The report also offers a set of seven curriculum-based activities, including Letters to My Sister, Focus Groups and a Wellness Wheel, to address the health and wellness of Black Women in the labor and social justice movements.

Findings show that inequities in areas including education, housing, healthcare access and wages, challenge the capacity of Black women to fully exert leadership. In LA County, for example, Black women struggle through a widening gender gap, as well as a racial wage gap. There, Black women represent 14 percent of low-wage workers, which is higher than all White male and female low-wage workers combined. There is also a $5,000 race wage gap between Black women who hold managerial positions and work professional roles compared to their White counterparts. These are oppressive economic obstacles that limit professional and social mobility.

“Historically, Black women have been hardest hit by economic and social crisis,” said Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, UCLA Labor Center Project Director and LABWC co-founder. “Our legacy of leadership has inspired generations to fight, but most of the Black women leaders who participated in the Black Space for Women workshops had stories of backlash to their leadership ambitions.”

The report, an assessment of the Black Space for Women project, is a compilation of more than two dozen interviews, focus groups, workshops and research by the UCLA Labor Center. It is also part of a local and nationwide effort to transform current norms and practices into supportive pathways to Black women’s leadership.

The national goal is to develop a collective plan with the National Black Worker Center Project (NBWCP), a national network of nine Black Worker Centers in Baltimore, the Bay Area, Boston, Chicago, L.A., Mississippi, New Orleans, North Carolina, and Washington, DC, dedicated to addressing the multi-dimensional Black work experience.

“Enhancing Black women’s leadership incorporates the crucial mission of NBWCP’s recently launched #WorkingWhileBlack program,” said Tanya Wallace-Gobern, executive director for the NBWCP. “We have every intention of exposing the impacts of racial and economic injustice in the workplace, across the economic strata, regardless of geography, profession, skills sets, or income level.”

The report also cites unquantifiable barriers. During interviews and focus groups, participants answered a series of questions for discussions around personal experiences, involvement in social justice work, historical influences, role of Black women in the movement, life balancing, mentorship, and advice for sustainability in the workplace. They also described recent events that required healing. Several themes recurred including the LA jobs crisis, poverty, public perception, defying stereotypes, access to wealth and lack of trust among Black women.

“I would like to see people go out there and regain what was taken from us,” said Terri Green, LABWC leader activist and merchandiser. “There are so many things that we have done and accomplished that we do not get credit for. It is just time for us to get our rightful dues.” Green participated in the assessments for the report.

While the project initially centered at the LABWC, which is at the forefront of advocating for Black women in Los Angeles, the goal of Black Spaces for Women is to develop partnerships with women leaders at allied organizations to further understand these unique obstacles, advance strategies to overcome barriers, and grow Black women’s leadership. Current partners of the LABWC effort include: SEIU Women and African American Caucuses and Summer Institute on Union Women.

“What we learned speaks directly to the challenges Black women face and why creating spaces for them to heal and gain support for their leadership ambition is imperative to elevating existing Black women leaders and developing new Black women leaders,” said Smallwood-Cuevas.

The next steps for the Black Spaces for Women includes fundraising to help refine the Spaces model and sharing the curriculum with allies through the NBWCP affiliates across the country.

“Black Worker Centers play a critical role in grassroots progressive community organizing. Because Black women continue to be at the center of so many social justice movements, there should be dedicated spaces for them to heal, for fellowship with other Black women activists, and to help fulfill their ambitions to lead,” said Smallwood-Cuevas.