This past Friday, November 13 2015, the White House Council on Women and Girls hosted a day-long national forum on “Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color” in partnership with the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University and headed by Presidential Endowed Professor, Author, MSNBC “Nerdland” Host, and AJC Center Director Melissa Harris-Perry. More than 40 representatives from academia, private organizations, government, and philanthropy participated in a variety of panels including economic development, health care, criminal justice, vulnerability to violence, hip-hop and images of women in the media.
The White House Council on Women and Girls was established by President Obama in the first two months of his presidency in March 2009. In signing Executive Order 13506 establishing the Council the President stated: “The purpose of this Order is to establish a coordinated Federal response to issues that particularly impact the lives of women and girls and to ensure that Federal programs and policies address and take into account the distinctive concerns of women and girls, including women of color and those with disabilities.”
The Order did not make specific provisions of interest to Indian Country other than including the Secretary of the Interior as a member of the Council. The Secretary is a Presidential Appointment tasked with “upholding trust responsibilities” for Federally Recognised Tribes.
Recognizing that numerous inequalities and unique challenges continue to face women and girls of color in the US, the Council released its White House Report: Women and Girls of Color: Addressing Challenges and Expanding Opportunity Report in November 2014. The report, which included data specific to Indian Country, detailed key initiatives that had been undertaken by the Obama Administration to-date in shaping policy-making related to education, economic security, health, violence against women and criminal and juvenile justice.
A progress report, Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color, was released in concurrence with Friday’s forum. This 2015 update addresses five data-driven areas of particular interest for the Council: Fostering school success and reducing unnecessary exclusionary school discipline; Meeting the needs of vulnerable and striving youth; Inclusive STEM education; Sustaining reduced rates of teen pregnancy and building on success; and Economic prosperity.
Independent initiatives to redress the disproportionate imbalance include a $100 million, five-year funding enterprise by Prosperity Together to improve economic prosperity for low-income women and a combined commitment of $18 million in funding by Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research, a voluntary affiliation of 24 American colleges, universities, professional schools, seminaries, research programs, publishers, and public interest institutions committed to taking meaningful action to support and improve research about women and girls of color.
“The specific form of commitments varies in each institution but includes creation of tenured or tenure-track faculty positions; support and creation of post-doctoral fellowships; support for undergraduate research; hosting research conferences; collecting new public opinion data; and publishing a new book series.”
Informal learning through cultural establishments and organizations is also integral President Obama’s insistence that “America cannot afford to leave anyone behind if we are to maintain our competitive advantage globally”. Inspiring women and girls of color is next year’s theme for the Smithsonian Institution’s “Museum Day Live!” annual event. The national event on 12th March 2016 will include 1,300 museums and cultural centers and is expected to attract upwards of 250,000 visitors. Additionally, the National Endowment for the Humanities will fund a small grants competition to facilitate museums and other cultural centers to develop programing connecting communities and cultural institutions.
For the Council and AJC Center, proper data-driven research is vital to creating opportunity and fostering success for women and girls of color. They are clear that the standard one-size-fits-all non-intersectional approach typical of mainstream discourse will not work for marginalized communities and particularly for hard-hitting issues such as violence against women and girls of color.
This is especially true for Indian Country and that was made clear during the “When Violence Strikes” segment of the forum, the only panel to have a Native representative. The purpose of the panel was to highlight how “girls and women and color face persistent and profound violence that is both institutional and interpersonal,” said segment Moderator Beth Richie of the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Violence provides a lens through which to talk about broader categories of inequality and injustice.”
“We cannot resolve a problem if we’re using national data to help try to describe localized problems,” said Sarah Deer, a Citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, Professor of Law at William Mitchell College of Law, and Victim Advocacy Legal Specialist for the Tribal Law & Policy Institute in St. Paul, as she represented Indian Country sharing harrowing federal statistical information on Violence Against Native Women and Girls.
Professor Deer noted the following as examples of data provided by the Federal Government: American Indian and Alaskan Native people experience the highest rates of violent victimization in the US, the bulk of which is committed by non-Natives. As such, AI/AN people also have the highest rates of inter-racial violence more than any other racial group. She went on to cite statistics from the most recent National Intimate Partner & Sexual Violence Survey, the Violence Against Native Children Task Force, and the Indian Country Child Trauma Center noting that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is 4.4 times the national average in Native communities.
Native children are: targets of the same widespread violence as AI/AN women; 2.5 times more likely to experience trauma when compared to non-Native peers; and experience PTSD at the same rates as veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
It was made clear that while national data on Indian Country is generally useful, it is rather limited in signposting the way to specific resolutions at the local level to long-standing problems.
“Native people have been over-studied and over-scrutinized from outside-in and the studies that need to happen need to come from inside tribes and be guided by Native women,” said Professor Deer. “Because these numbers are unacceptable and this has been going on for hundreds of years with no intervention and it’s time that we stop it.”
In concluding her presentation, the professor voiced a call to action though with caution:
“We know that we have an incredibly difficult crisis to consider. My concern is that victimization does not become our identity. So often we need to tell these hard truths, we need to give these hard numbers – but we can’t let them define who these communities are. One of the fatal flaws of Federal Indian Law, which of course I teach, is that Federal Indian Law treats all tribes the same. And this national data is just that – it’s national data. What it doesn’t do for us, it doesn’t tell us what is happening in individual communities.”
Following up with ICTMN via email, Professor Deer had this to say for further clarification: “Tribes are all experiencing high crime rates, but the type, frequency, and nature of crime might be quite different from one tribal nation to the next. Tribal community members, leaders, and advocates know the national data – but can better frame and address the unique issues in their own Nation if they have data which is specific to their own Nation. When possible, there should be community action participation in research projects on Indian reservations and other tribal communities. Interested funders should consider how tribes and researchers can work together so that the survey instruments and data gathering methodology are customized to address unique tribal cultural norms.”
The Forum can be viewed in its entirety on You Tube. Sarah Deer’s presentation is roughly five minutes in length starting at 2:41:47 (the time allotted to all panel participants).
Follow ICTMN Correspondent Lisa J. Ellwood on Twitter at www.twitter.com/IconicImagery