Women’s voices in politics promoted at conference

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The importance of voting, female representation in politics and making issues affecting women main topics of discussion during the 2012 presidential election were just a few of the main themes discussed during the annual New Voices Pittsburgh: Women of Color For Reproductive Justice’s Women of Color HERStory Month Political Luncheon held February 23 at the YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh.

Participants
PARTICIPANTS—Magdeline Jenson, Priscilla Huang, Stephanie Alvarado, La’ Tasha D. Mayes, Tara Reynolds Marks, Jessica Byrd and Bekezela Mguni.

For five years, New Voices Pittsburgh has taken the time to celebrate the accomplishments and history of women of color during February and March, two months where their stories are often under represented-Black History Month and Women’s History Month.

“This is a movement centralized around the experiences of women of color,” La’Tasha Mayes, co-founder and executive director of New Voices Pittsburgh, said during her welcome at the luncheon. “This is necessary because so many times the stories of women of color are left out, untold or misrepresented.”

New Voices Pittsburgh is a grassroots human rights organization for, led by and about women of color that uses the reproductive justice movement as the foundation to educate communities of color about human rights while developing new voices for leadership in Pittsburgh.

“If you like to see better, we have to do better,” said April Georgia, an attendee of the luncheon. “Women are powerful. I advocate anything women do that’s positive.” She also said it’s important for women to create, engage and build.

Just Harvest Co-Director for Public Policy and Communications Tara Reynolds Marks served as the mistress of ceremonies and spent the afternoon driving home the message of the importance of women coming together and using their voice. “And as women of color, if we do not collectively come together and organize for this presidential election, then we are failing those who came before us, the pioneers in this room and many women who will come after us,” she said.

The afternoon was filled with several dynamic speakers, which were Priscilla Huang, the policy director for the Asian & Pacific Islander American Health Forum; Jessica Byrd, political opportunity program assistant at EMILY’s List, the nation’s largest financial resource for pro-choice, Democratic women running for office; and Stephanie Alvarado, the national field organizer at the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health.

Huang discussed a few of the specific policies and reproductive justice issues that are affecting women of color and taking center stage during the presidential election. The most prevalent issue she spoke on was the administration of President Barack Obama’s decision to have coverage for contraceptives and other women’s preventative healthcare services at no cost to the worker and how many religious affiliated organizations, that have to be compliant, are speaking out against the decision. She referenced major discussions that are being held with no female representation.

“Women’s bodies are taking center stage in the presidential debates, but what’s tragic is that women are largely being left out of the public discussions of our own bodies,” said Huang. “Elections matter, (we) need to go out and vote for the best candidates that represent us.”

She also spoke about fetal personhood, which is the idea that fetuses should be treated as a full legal person and have legal rights, and is scheduled to be on the ballot in 12 states; government spending and immigration.

Byrd, who is also the co-founder of WOCHM, spoke on the importance of voting, having female candidates, or as she referenced, “taking our seat at the table.” She pointed out that women make up 52 percent of the nation’s population, but only hold 11 percent of the nation’s elected office; that Pennsylvania is ranked 42 out of 50 states in the status of women holding elected office and that 44 out of the state’s 253 legislators are women.

“Where are we? Pennsylvania is in the top 20 percent of states with the highest population of women, yet the state’s legislators are refusing to pass legislation to give women the access to contraceptives,” she said. “The power is with us.” She said the solution is “taking our place at the table,” getting women to run for office and getting women involved so that the voices of women are heard.

While the other guests spoke on the issues affecting women and the need for more female representation, Alvarado spoke on why the reproductive justice movement needs to be a catalyst for discussions during the election and organizing strategies. She said being civically engaged does not mean just going to a booth and voting, it means engaging with candidates and community leaders, holding them accountable and letting them know how they are doing at their job, writing letters and protesting and demonstrating. And that women need to mobilize and influence the stakeholders.

“Our issues are the nation’s issues. Our power equals the social change,” she said. “If we are not telling our stories and we’re not the ones expressing our role in reproductive justice and what it means for our community then who is? We can’t let others speak for us.”

While the crowd was small, it was mighty.

“The panelists were great. I loved the diversity (of the speakers and the guests). It was the kind of diversity that we need, that should be seen in women’s movements, initiatives and organizations,” said Valerie McDonald Roberts, manager of Real Estate, Allegheny County; former county Recorder of Deeds and Pittsburgh City Council member; and past candidate for lieutenant governor and county controller. “Their comments were informative; it was educational and motivating. The organizers did a fantastic job and I hope it is even bigger next year.”

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