This year, the SHRM External Affairs team was intentional in leveraging our workplace equity policy pillar to commemorate the 19th Amendment Centennial, which granted women the right to vote in the U.S. We partnered with the Women2Women Tour to host events that captured the opinions of women on key policy issues like healthcare and pay equity. We also joined the United Nations’ Women Empower Women initiative to share insightful research and best practices on gender equity, workplace flexibility, and leave. This month, we launched a digital campaign with the National Foundation for Women Legislators that leveraged the voice of elected women to compel women and our allies to continue using their voice to create a better world for women and their families. I am proud of this work and the fact that in each of these campaigns, we have included SHRM employees, SHRM members, and women of varying races and backgrounds.
I ended this week reflecting on our work around this historical moment and attending the first meeting of SHRM’s Blue Ribbon Commission on Racial Equity (BRC). It was truly a privilege to hear the Commission members share their perspectives as they sought consensus on actions and deliverables for their work. Every voice was heard and respected, and included in those voices were five women who stood equal to the men in the conversation. I couldn’t help but think that this was such an amazing example of what inclusion looks like. As I observed these women, my thoughts circled back to how gratifying it has been to see that so much of the coverage related to the 19th Amendment Centennial has been inclusive of the plight of Black women who advocated for their place within the suffrage movement.
On Tuesday, I went down to Union Station in Washington, D.C. and took photos of the Ida B. Wells exhibit. If you look closely, you’ll see the work is made up of hundreds of photos of other women. Talk about a moment of inclusion! The exhibit, the BRC meeting, and other current events are constant reminders that the movement continues, and it continues with Black women not just finding their place in it, but leading it.
As I thought about how their efforts impacted the world of work, I remembered my graduate school research on the 1945-55 women’s uplift movement in my husband’s hometown of Sanford, North Carolina. While their sons, husbands, and fathers were off at war, these women held down jobs and kept the economy flourishing, only to be told they were no longer welcome in the workplace when the men returned. Instead of capitulating, the women dug in their heels and found ways to “uplift” their station in the community as entrepreneurs, elected officials, community and church leaders, and eventually again side by side with their men in the workplace.
Many of the women who led and followed these movements were members of Black Greek letter sororities. The role of Black sororities in the fight for civil rights to vote, work, and be viewed as equals cannot be understated. These are more than just sisterhoods; they are training grounds for leaders and change makers. Women like Washington D.C.’s Nellie Quander, the lead incorporator of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, were on the front lines of the suffrage movement, along with the renowned Ida B. Wells, a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Incorporated, who was a leading voice for the right to vote and a critical strategist for the early Civil Rights Movement. And, just months before the ratification of the 19th Amendment in January 1920, five women founded the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority to promote finer womanhood. It’s worth noting that while the public health crisis has delayed official celebrations of the Zeta centennial, the organization has refocused efforts on what it has been doing since 1920—helping their communities thrive.
As we continue our focus on inclusion, I hope what is normal for me becomes just a regular occurrence for others that don’t look like me. There always seems to be an element of surprise when Black women gather to elevate their voices to demand change. Just six years ago, everyone wanted to know who the women in red suits were seated in the Senate Chambers during Attorney General Loretta Lynch’s confirmation hearings. They were Deltas. Twelve years ago, I was one of 20,000 women dressed in pink and green as we marched down Pennsylvania Avenue to commemorate the centennial of AKA. We were not there by accident. We were there to remind the highest levels of government of the power of the voice of an organization representing 300,000 Black women and their families. The route ended at a stage that included female members of Congress—all who just happened to be AKAs.
With the nomination of the first Black woman as a vice presidential candidate, it seems to be news that the women of Alpha Kappa Alpha could be a “secret weapon” for the candidate. However, it’s no secret these same women launched the AKA Connection in 1980, a vehicle to allow its members to elevate their voices at all levels of government on issues pertinent to their communities, promote voting and educate elected officials and constituents on policy issues impacting Black women and their families.
As a former AKA Connection chairman for North Carolina, I planned four AKA Legislative Days at the State Capitol. Each year, we turned Jones Street into a sea of pink and green while advocating for education and social and economic equity. Even though I work in this space each day, I still marvel at the power of the voices of Black women committed to help others—just as I did while attending the BRC meeting last Friday.
We’re so focused on our lives and livelihoods that sometimes the movements pass us by. Today, the quest for equality on the streets and in our workplaces are front and center again. Black women have been essential to these movements since before 1920. These movements haven’t been televised, but to be clear, these sisters have been “woke” the entire time, quietly, and sometimes loudly doing the work to improve their communities and workplaces. It just so happens that the fruits of that labor are now more visible to mainstream America.
I hate to add anything else to our plates, but as Black women, it is now our responsibility to continue the movement not just in our communities, but in our workplaces with the strategy, know-how, dignity, partnership, and respect we’ve relied upon for decades. We have the power and obligation to bring others along in partnership with our allies that do not share the same sex or race. Inclusivity is more important than ever.
I don’t know what the final recommendations from the BRC will look like, but I know the final product will be the result of a truly inclusive experience similar to the one envisioned by the very women who fought for the right to vote, the right to work, and the right for equity in this country.
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