Our Ground, Our Voices: Uprooting Structural Barriers on Capitol Hill

By Marlén Mendoza

On October 18, CLASP joined several partners in co-hosting a Capitol Hill briefing entitled “Our Ground, Our Voices, Policy Priorities for Young Women of Color” aimed at policymakers, legislative staffers, and allies. Over the past couple of years, CLASP has used an economic justice lens to focus on policy issues impacting young women of color (YWOC). Our hill briefing is a byproduct of this work and draws from our earlier report, Systems of Power and Young Women of Color, which launched our YWOC work. Building from the lived experience of young women of color, the report focuses on how race, gender, and their intersection impact the structural barriers young women face.

Our report was based on conversations with Hmong American, Latina, Native, African-American, LGBTQ+, and gender non-conforming young people who identified a set of seven structural barriers that are root causes of their economic marginalization: low wage work, financial strain, educational inequality, mental health, housing instability and homelessness, exposure to violence, and the justice system. It’s important to note that these issues are not new for this population; they have remained stagnant because policymakers have left young women of color out of the national policy discourse. Our response: bring the voices of these young women to Capitol Hill to reclaim the conversation, uplift policy priorities for young women of color, and reshape the conversation around the root causes of that inequity–systems of power.

The intersectional panel at the Hill briefing featured four dynamic and resilient women of color: Nala Toussaint, Founder of Reuniting of African Descendants; Brenda Perez, DC Youth Organizer; Isabel Coronado, Policy Entrepreneur at Next 100; and Bao Chu Lee, Partner Relations Manager with Minnesota Voice. These women addressed many topics, including the power of storytelling to shift narratives; an acknowledgment that YWOC are not a monolithic group; and the human consequence of criminal justice, immigration, health care, and education policies on women and their communities when they are not at the table and forgotten in legislation. Panelists also highlighted the importance of representation, electing women of color to all levels of office, and the expansion of existing policies at the federal level to advance economic justice. This important conversation was kicked off by our “sister in solidarity,” Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) who, as a woman of color, reminded us that we are the “truth-tellers, we are the justice seekers, we are the preservers of democracy.” Rep. Pressley, like CLASP, recognizes the importance of having the people most impacted by issues be part of the decision-making process: “the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, driving and informing the policymakers.”

Since the briefing, Rep. Pressley has introduced two pieces of legislation that engage in this type of policymaking and tackle some of the structural barriers experienced by young women of color. On November 14, she unveiled The People’s Justice Guarantee, a comprehensive resolution intended to reshape the criminal justice system by incentivizing states to decrease the prison population, end fines and fees, and reform policing, prosecution, and sentencing. When Rep. Pressley held a press call for the release of the resolution, she included briefing panelist Isabel Coronado, demonstrating her commitment to opening policymaking spaces and shifting power to young women of color.

On December 5, in partnership with Representatives Ilhan Omar (D-MN) and Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-NJ), Rep. Pressley introduced the Ending Punitive Unfair School-based Harm that is Overt and Unresponsive to Trauma (Ending PUSHOUT) Act. CLASP joined more than 100 national, state, and local grassroots organizations in endorsing this bill that acknowledges and seeks to correct the harmful ways in which Black and Brown girls are criminalized and overpoliced in schools. CLASP looks forward to continued partnership in support of a federal legislative agenda that uproots unjustice, educational inequity, and the other key structural barriers facing young women of color.

Our next step is the rollout of a comprehensive policy agenda for and by young women of color with the help of our policy partners and community stakeholders. For more information or questions on this work please contact Nia West Bey (nwestbey@clasp.org).

You can watch the full panel and video highlights from this Hill briefing here.