Viola Davis and President Obama Just Called Out the Opportunity Gap for Black Women

When Viola Davis and Taraji P. Henson were nominated for Emmy’s this year in the Outstanding Lead Actress in a Drama Series category, they were only the sixth and seventh Black women to ever be nominated for that award.

When Davis accepted her first-ever Emmy Sunday night, she also became the first of those seven women to actually win. Her acceptance speech, one that invoked abolitionist Harriet Tubman, was a powerful reminder that, as Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.”

The previous night, at the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation’s annual dinner in Washington, D.C., President Obama delivered a speech that mirrored very closely, in 27 minutes, what Davis said in fewer than two.

“We know that the promise of this nation, where every single American regardless of the circumstances in which they were born, regardless of what they look like, where they come from, has the chance to succeed – that promise is not yet fulfilled,” Obama said.

His speech focused on Black women in particular, noting that – while they’re better off today than they once were – Black women in America are affected by economic policies and a criminal justice system that disproportionately trap them in poverty.

Davis’s speech may have been specifically calling out a lack of opportunity for Black women in Hollywood, but her sentiment, as Obama made clear in his remarks, is true nationwide. And it’s well-documented. In a report issued last year by the Black Women’s Roundtable (released 50 years after the War on Poverty, 50 years after the Civil Rights Act, and 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education), the challenges Black women face – unequal pay, high (though improving) incarceration rates, underrepresentation in elected office – are comprehensively explored.

“I want to talk about what more we have to do to provide full opportunity and equality for our Black women and girls in America today,” Obama said later in his remarks on Saturday, “because all of us are beneficiaries of a long line of strong Black women who helped carry this country forward.”

Obama no doubt had in mind women like Rosa Parks and Dorothy Height. He may have been thinking about women like Sojourner Truth and Ida B. Wells. He probably, too, thought of Harriet Tubman, as Davis did the following night.

Watch below.

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95 Years After the 19th Amendment, Women’s Fight for Voting Rights Continues

In 1971, the U.S. Congress designated August 26 as “Women’s Equality Day” to commemorate the 1920 passage of the 19th amendment – guaranteeing women the right to vote – and to honor the brave women and men who fought for women’s suffrage. Today, on the 95th anniversary of the 19th amendment, the right to vote seems unalienable and fundamental to any democracy – but nearly 100 years ago, many Americans didn’t think women should have that right.

The women’s suffrage movement spanned more than 70 years, and was carried out by tens of thousands of tireless advocates. To win the right to vote, generations of suffragists circulated petitions, gave speeches, and published newspapers, pamphlets and magazines. Despite seemingly insurmountable legal, financial, and political barriers, the movement became one of our country’s most successful civil rights efforts.

But today, nearly 100 years after women won their fundamental right to participate freely in their democracy, the right to vote is under attack. In 2013, the Supreme Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder. In the two years since then, states across the country have passed laws making it harder to vote through the elimination of early voting and same-day registration opportunities and restrictive voter ID requirements. These laws have had a disproportionately harmful effect on low-income voters, communities of color, people with disabilities, students, and the elderly – all groups that are, of course, comprised in part by women.

And for women, strict voter ID laws can pose a fairly unique problem. In the aftermath of Shelby, Texas was free to enact one of the most restrictive voter ID laws in the nation – a law that a federal court struck down prior to Shelby in 2012, ruling that the law would potentially disenfranchise hundreds of thousands of minority voters. Because of the strict ID provision, when Texas judge Sandra Watts tried to vote using the same identification she had been using for the last 50 years, she was unable to do so. The problem? Watts’ driver’s license lists her maiden name as her middle name, but on the state voting rolls, her given middle name is there. For women in Texas, getting married, getting divorced, or making any other adjustment to your name can be a barrier to voting.

Unfortunately, Watts’ story isn’t an anomaly. People across the country have been effectively disenfranchised post-Shelby. Today, 95 years after the ratification of the 19th amendment, women are waging a new voting rights battle. In Texas, Imani Clark, a student at Prairie View A&M University, is fighting the state’s restrictive ID law. In North Carolina, Rosanell Eaton – who was one of the first Black residents in her segregated county to vote in 1939 – is fighting North Carolina’s new voter restrictions that could jeopardize the right to vote for too many in 2016.

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Transportation Advocates from Across U.S. Gather for Equity Convening

Early this July, six local transportation organizations from across the country gathered in D.C. for the Transportation Equity Caucus (TEC) first national equity convening – a two-day event of trainings, story-sharing, strategizing, and Hill visits with key transportation stakeholders. Each of the organizations in attendance —MORE2, Puget Sound Sage/Tacoma-Pierce County Equity Network, Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, Urban Habitat, Services for Independent Living, and WISDOM—had received grants of up to $25,000 from TEC in April to support projects that advance affordable and accessible transportation in their communities, making this convening an opportunity to share successes, learn from each other, and plan for the months of advocacy ahead.

On the first day of the convening, grantees presented the details of their organization’s transportation equity work.

  • In Springfield, Mass., the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission is hosting local activities to engage and empower local leaders within communities of color to be advocates for transportation equity at the local and federal level.
  • In the Fox Valley region of Wisconsin, WISDOM has developed a new alliance of community and public health organizers that is advocating for equitable investments in transit, safe sidewalks, and bike lanes.
  • Services for Independent Living in Euclid, Ohio, is leveraging a new coalition of people with disabilities and members of the aging and faith communities to advocate for greater transportation accessibility for people with disabilities.
  • In Seattle, Puget Sound Sage and the Tacoma-Pierce County Equity Network are advocating for regional equity investments related to transportation accessibility, affordable housing, and a clean environment.
  • Urban Habitat of Oakland, Calif., has convened a transportation working group to help bring local voices and priorities to transportation policy
  • MORE2 in Kansas City, Miss., is working with its Kansas City Regional Equity Network to incorporate equity considerations into local and national transportation legislation.

The grantees also shared the challenges facing their communities and their transportation work. Among the challenges discussed were state and local budget cuts, gentrification and displacement, scarce transit options, a devastating lack of safe sidewalks and bike lanes, inadequate disability accommodations, and a disconnect between rural and urban areas.

TEC pecha kucha Bob Allen and Richard Marcantonio discuss the transportation work Urban Habitat and Public Advocates are doing in the Bay Area.

The situations the grantees describe are not unique to their states or regions of the country. Rather, they are indicative of a national problem where far too many Americans can’t access the safe, affordable transportation options they need to get to jobs, educational opportunities, affordable housing, health care, and other basic needs. As ongoing research at Harvard has shown, this link between transportation and opportunity has widespread implications for communities and can be a crucial factor in escaping poverty.

The need for sustained, robust, and equitable national investments in transportation was the focus of discussion when the grantees met with U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx. In the meeting, Secretary Foxx emphasized the importance of thoughtful transportation planning that is inclusive of all communities, and the need for better communication between local groups and Washington so the federal government is aware of transportation needs in different communities.

DOT FOXXU.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx discusses equitable transportation investments with the grantees.

After two days of peer sharing, fostering connections, and roundtable discussions, the grantees concluded the equity convening by outlining next steps in their transportation work. These included creating an urban and rural transportation equity coalition, ensuring that individuals with disabilities are included in transportation decision-making, and developing new partnerships with housing and environmental organizations. While the equity convening may have ended, the grantees’ work and the fight for opportunity continues.

DOT group pictureThe Transportation Equity Caucus grantees visit the U.S. Department of Transportation.

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35 Years Later: The U.S. Still Hasn’t Ratified CEDAW, But Local Activists are Working to Make a Difference for Women and Girls

By Patrick McNeil and Tara Yarlagadda

Though we’re sometimes regarded as an exemplar of human rights, the United States stands out internationally today for one disappointing – and shameful – reason.

That’s because 35 years after President Carter signed the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), an international human rights treaty intended to bring equality to women around the world, the United States still hasn’t ratified it.

In the absence of ratification by the U.S. Senate, an effort is underway on the local level to bring the foundation of CEDAW to cities across the country. The goal of this emerging grassroots campaign, called Cities for CEDAW, is to protect the rights of women and girls by passing ordinances establishing the principles of CEDAW in cities and towns across the United States.

In 1998, San Francisco became the first city to adopt an ordinance reflecting the principles of CEDAW. More recently, the city of Louisville, Ky., passed a resolution last November that will use CEDAW as a framework for all future policy aimed toward ending gender-based discrimination. Washington, D.C. is on the cusp of passing its own after an ordinance was introduced in the D.C City Council last year. Overall, eight cities have either already passed an ordinance or are making significant progress toward an ordinance. Over two dozen more cities have expressed interest in organizing to establish the principles of CEDAW locally, and the number continues to grow.

These ordinances work to ‘make the global local’ and protect women and girls by requiring three key components: a gender analysis of city departments and operations, an oversight body to monitor the implementation of a local CEDAW ordinance, and funding to support the implementation of the principles of CEDAW.

Implementing CEDAW ordinances at the local level would benefit many women and girls across the country, but the United States will still lack international leadership without actual ratification. Right now, we’re one of just a handful of nations – including Sudan, Somalia, Iran, Palau, and Tonga – that haven’t taken that step. South Sudan just took it on April 30.

Today, 35 years after we signed it, ratifying CEDAW should be a priority. The Cities for CEDAW campaign takes an important first step in that direction by lifting up the necessity to ratify the treaty while pushing for change at the local level.

Leadership Conference background on CEDAW

Assuming leadership of the campaign for U.S. ratification of CEDAW in 2010, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights has since convened a national coalition of 190 organizations seeking ratification of CEDAW in the U.S. We have also participated in global reviews of the United States under ICCPR, CERD and the UPR focused on a wide range of civil and human rights issues. Our goal is to use the treaties and human rights process to hold the U.S. accountable for all of its human rights obligations, including eliminating discrimination against women.

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These are the Significant Costs of Predatory Loans

By Hunter Davis, a Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

Earlier this month, the Center for Responsible Lending (CRL) held a briefing – and released a groundbreaking new report – on the cumulative costs of abusive lending, a broad term that includes a variety of loans such as student, payday, and car title loans. What distinguishes abusive loans from responsible ones is a lack of transparency concerning the risks associated with taking out a loan and a lack of consideration concerning the borrower’s ability to repay the loan. Combined with high interest rates and hidden fees, abusive loans often force the borrower to take out additional loans in order to make their existing payments, spurring on an endless cycle of debt.

Why would an individual choose to take such a risk? The fact is, many people don’t have a choice. Marceline White of Moving Maryland Forward Network moderated the briefing and pointed out that many individuals who are desperate for short-term cash and are unable to meet qualifications for a responsible loan have no other choice. After an individual exhausts their savings, assets, and other potential lenders, few options remain. And according to a recent survey from the Federal Reserve, two-thirds of Americans making under $40,000 per year would either have to sell something or borrow money in the event of an emergency expense of at least $400.

Also troubling is that in 2013, White households had 13 times the median wealth of Black households and 10 times the median wealth of Hispanic households – both which are higher than 2010 levels, according to Pew Research Center.

With this in mind, it’s hardly surprising that low-income people of color are the most frequent victims of these types of loans. People of color are two to three times more likely to be the victim of a predatory loan, exacerbating the racial wealth gap. As CRL President Mike Calhoun stated, “the difference between a fair and affordable loan and a predatory loan often becomes the difference between achieving greater prosperity and falling into a cycle of unending debt.” As they struggle to pay back high fees and associated interest, borrowers are unable to save money, hindering upward mobility.

While detrimental to individual families and communities, predatory loans are very lucrative for the lender. Every year, borrowers pay at least $2.6 billion in the form of payday loans alone; the costs of all types of predatory lending practices are virtually incalculable, according to the CRL report.

One solution to this problem lies in the forging of robust alliances. For example, diverse faith groups have weighed in, and their stance could be a useful tool in reaching out to conservatives, who as Rep. Keith Ellison, D. Minn., pointed out, will be key to addressing these problems.

However, as several panelists indicated, outlawing abusive loans is insufficient, as it will leave hordes of desperate Americans without any means of accessing loans. Ellison plans to advance a bill to comprehensively solve this problem. The focus will be on helping people gain credit and improving their credit scores in order to make fair loans more widely accessible. While outlawing abusive loans is an important first step, acknowledging the implications of a deterrence-based approach and planning accordingly is crucial in formulating effective policy.

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Immigrant Heritage Month 2015: Celebrating the Importance of DACA and DAPA

By Julia Burzynski, a Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Intern

During the month of June, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights partnered with the Immigrant Heritage Month Campaign to celebrate and commemorate the history and lives of the diverse immigrant groups and people who together comprise our unique American narrative. As we close out the month of June and Immigrant Heritage Month, it is essential to reflect on the importance of programs that have benefited the lives of millions of immigrants, such as Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA.

Issued by President Obama in 2012, DACA allowed for up to 1.2 million eligible undocumented immigrants to emerge from the shadows and participate openly in their communities. By granting eligible people a two-year work visa and social security number, DACA opens up a wide range of education and job opportunities that were previously out of reach, allowing for countless individuals to live, work, and thrive in this country without fear of persecution. As we celebrate DACA’s three-year anniversary, we reflect on the positive impact it has already had on thousands of undocumented individuals.


In November 2014, President Obama issued executive actions that expanded DACA and established Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents (DAPA), which would protect millions of undocumented parents from the threat of deportation. DAPA and the expanded DACA program will have a huge, positive effect on the four million individuals who stand to benefit from them. As of now, 15 states, more than 180 members of Congress, and dozens of city officials have all publicly filed their support for DAPA at the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. DACA and DAPA are important not just for our country’s immigrants, but for all Americans who support human rights, basic fairness, and common sense.

As the month of June comes to an end, our celebration of immigrant heritage is far from over. It is imperative that we continue to defend against attempts in the courts and in Congress to dismantle DAPA and DACA to ensure that millions of immigrants who already have or would benefit from these programs are able to build a better life for themselves and for their families.

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Supreme Court Decides that Love Can’t Wait

By Hunter Davis and Matthew Meyer, Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Interns

In a historic 5-4 decision on June 26, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of marriage equality in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. The ruling extended the right to marry to more than 3 million people across the 13 states that previously denied the right. With this ruling, the U.S. becomes the twenty-first country to legalize same-sex marriage nationwide. Same-sex couples are now free to marry in all 50 states, and will be entitled the same legal rights and benefits as heterosexual couples.

The ruling came on a historic date. Twelve years ago to the day, the Supreme Court struck down anti-sodomy laws in Lawrence v. Texas, and just two years ago, the Court found the Defense of Marriage Act to be unconstitutional in U.S. v. Windsor. The Obergefell decision also falls two days before the anniversary of the historic Stonewall riots, which are widely considered to be the starting point of the modern LGBT rights movement.


Activists wait in anticipation of the Obergefell decision.

But this decision is by no means the end of the fight for LGBT equality. In the absence of comprehensive federal antidiscrimination laws, or an adequate solution for our nation’s LGBT teen homelessness problem, it’s clear that the struggle for LGBT equality is not over. Members of Congress, along with a coalition of civil rights groups (including The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights), issued a statement just hours after the Court’s decision echoing the need for comprehensive federal nondiscrimination protections. By advancing these protections, Congress can begin to address “unfinished work” in the wake of Obergefell.

Although the Obergefell decision may not have solved every problem LGBT Americans face, it has certainly moved our nation closer to that great ideal inscribed on the Supreme Court’s facade: “equal justice under law.” As Justice Kennedy acknowledged in the last paragraph of the Opinion of the Court, LGBT citizens “ask for equal dignity in the eyes of the law. The Constitution grants them that right.”

And as Obama put it in his Rose Garden speech on Friday, “today should also give us hope that on the many issues with which we grapple, often painfully, real change is possible. Shift in hearts and minds is possible.”

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