In partnership with Washington State Women’s Commission and KD Hall Foundation, Seattle Central College hosted a Zoom webinar on Wed, Oct. 13 called Girls on the Rise: Black Women in the Suffrage Movement to “reflect on the untold stories of black women suffragettes” ahead of the 2020 election.
Hosted by Central’s Executive of Legislative Affairs, Sara Bukair, the afternoon featured an empowering group of influential Black women from Washington State, including Central’s President, Dr. Sheila Edwards Lange.
With conversations based on the history of Black women in the fight for equity and voting rights, Bukair and Dr. Edwards Lange were joined by several other women involved in advocacy and law. The event featured a panel including Kela Hall, President and CEO of KD Hall Foundation; Judge Anita Crawford Willis of Seattle’s Municipal Court; Regina Malveux, the Executive Director of WA Women’s Commission; Michelle Merriweather, President and CEO of Urban League of Metropolitan Seattle; and Justice G. Helen Whitener of the Washington State Supreme Court.
Dr. Edwards Lange, who started off the event with welcoming remarks, says she’s proud to work for Central in the midst of urban activism and change. At the heart of a resurfaced wave of Black Lives Matter protests that began in May, Central’s South Lawn is used as a gathering spot for demonstrators nightly.
“My career has shown me that colleges and universities can actually play a unique role in strengthening our democracy by shaping civic identity in students who will ultimately step into leadership position roles in our community,” said Dr. Edwards Lange in her introduction speech.
Dr. Edwards Lange finds it important to provide tools of education for student empowerment, referring to the event as one of them. She says this is especially significant today, as the 2020 election poses new threats to accessible voting. Covid-19 and the Trump Administration have offered obstacles to voting and a peaceful transfer of power, causing this year’s presidential election to be a historic one.
Determent of power
Kela Hall, who followed with a keynote speech packed with an analysis of history, provided key context to the evening’s conversation.
“At this key turning point in American history, determent of power allocation to the black community shifts from dejore to defacto,” said Hall of the Reconstruction Era, “meaning, black citizens were free on paper, but the socioeconomic reality for black communities remain[s] largely unchanged between generations.”
Hall says when economic struggle becomes prominent for families, voting comes second, implying that because Black communities still face extremely harsh economic conditions today, voting accessibility is especially out-of-grasp for them. This is among many circumstances that discourage people from voting. Other barriers can include requirement of several forms of ID, purging state voter rolls, changing voting center locations, and disqualification based on criminal records or court records.
“If you can’t afford to take time off from work or a family obligation to make it to the polls on a weekday,” said Hall, “your voice isn’t counting.”
The discussion – past, present and future
The event moved on to a panel discussion hosted by Hall and Bukair, after a documentary produced by Hall was screened called “The Untold Stories of Black Women In The Suffrage Movement”, featuring the story of Ida B. Wells, an investigative journalist and leader in the civil rights and women’s rights movements.
During the panel discussion, Willis, Malveux, Merriweather, and Whitener were asked a series of questions by Bukair and Hall about the past, present, and future of the suffrage movement.
“I think we need to know our history,” said Whitener, when asked about the importance of recognizing slavery’s impact on Black women in the suffrage movement, “because it basically tells us where we need to go, what avenues we need to take, and what we need to not take for granted as we move forward.”
Merriweather says history has shown that when Black women enjoy the power of the vote and are given a voice, positive change arises.
“The consistent and constant movement towards a better future has relied heavily on the work and backs of women and Black women in particular,” said Merriweather. “That for me is what the suffrage movement has lifted up.”
Using your voice
Whitener believes that silence amongst the Black and LGBTQ communities today is a matter of life or death.
“Silence equals death,” said Whitener. “I don’t know about you, but I’m not about to die.”
Willis adds that it’s also crucial to vote for judges, as Merriweather cites that they are on the front lines of change. The conversations between the panel also emphasized the significance of all elections, both general and local.
“No matter whether you’re excited for a candidate or not the thing that every last one of us needs to do is think about what issues impact you personally, what issues do you care about, and look at the position of the two candidates,” said Merriweather, “and then decide who you’re going to vote for and how important the vote is.”
Malveux says voters can contact their networks, the voter guide, and other educational resources to help make the most informed decision. She says there is a significant positive or negative impact when we vote based on our interests.
The next generation
Another key concept discussed was the significance of voters aged 18-29. Since the 1980’s, voter turnout for 18-29-year olds has been consistently the lowest, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. But Merriweather says she’s got a “tremendous amount of faith” in younger generations.
“I think we have to take those young activist leaders that were leading those marches and protests and help them translate that energy into getting people to turnout to vote,” said Merriweather, “just like they got people to turnout to march.”
Willis wants to encourage more people to run for office. She says it’s important to provide opportunities to explore government positions, hear the experiences of those who have experienced running for office, and connect people with the resources and experiences available to them.
“It is important to have diversity on the bench,” said Willis, referring to the judiciary. “People have better respect for the court, and also that better decisions are made when you have women and people of color on the bench.”
Chiquita Wright, a Community Relations Associate at Central who helped organize the event says she hopes the event will encourage students to be vocal about their interests and “lift as they climb”.
“It’s important that this event is accessible because it’s a conversation that the nation needs to have to promote change,” says Wright. “Hosting it at Seattle Central College is a way to inspire our community which is made up of a lot of diverse individuals.” At vote.org, you can check your registration status, register to vote, request a ballot, locate polls, and much more.
Alexa is an avid journalist seeking an A.A. with an emphasis on Global Studies at Seattle Central College. She's interested in pursuing investigative journalism to report on social struggles like immigration, civil rights, and access to education in South and North America. She is currently working to cover budget cut reforms at Central and civil rights movements in Seattle. Alexa is also a Youth Council Member at OneAmerica, advocating for greater access to quality education for immigrants and refugees in WA. She is a first-generation American who has travelled to 13 countries to explore world cultures and politics.