Women of Color: The undercapitalized warriors of American democracy
2020 was a historic year for women of color in politics. Vice President Kamala Harris became the first Black and South Asian American to occupy the office. Three Korean American women became the first to get elected to Congress. And Washington state and Missouri elected Black women to represent them for the first time, increasing the number of women of color in Congress to 52 from the previous record of 48.
It was also the year that women of color, particularly Black women leaders, were heralded for their innovative, tenacious, and effective community organizing efforts. Nsé Ufot earned national profiles for her work with the New Georgia Project that registered over half a million Georgian voters ahead of the 2020 election. LaTosha Brown, who co-founded the Black Voters Matter Fund that led the #WeGotPower bus tours to galvanize voters, has garnered praise from the White House for her activism for voting rights.
After the celebratory headlines and the Twitter memes dissipate, however, there is little effort to ensure that women of color leaders and their organizations have the resources they need to build sustainable institutions and movements. Liberals, in particular, love championing the success stories of women of color but fail to give them consistent resources — capital, access to networks, and capacity building support — the critical ingredients to elevate their leadership and grow their work.
In an election cycle that spent a whopping $14 billion through campaigns and PACs, civic organizations led by women of color were the least resourced, despite driving some of the most successful organizing and voter mobilization campaigns — and doing it in the midst of a pandemic, voter intimidation efforts, and an economic crisis.
A newly released analysis by New Profit’s Civic Lab shines a light on this funding chasm. The organization’s 2021 investment selection cycle that received 117 applications, 64 percent from leaders of color and 64 percent from women, showed civic organizations largely saw a funding increase in 2020. However, organizations helmed by leaders of color reported a median 2020 revenue of $260,000, roughly 36 percent less than the $410,000 reported by organizations helmed by white leaders. Women-of-color-led organizations saw even greater disparities, reporting a median 2020 revenue of $233,500, roughly 38 percent less than the median for organizations led by white women and 43 percent less than organizations led by white leaders overall.
Even with resource constraints, women of color leaders are employing a diverse set of strategies to strengthen our civic culture and promote an inclusive, multiracial democracy. Angela Lang of Black Leaders Organizing for Communities (BLOC) is demonstrating the efficacy of year-round organizing and creating pathways for ongoing civic action beyond the election cycle. BLOC provides Black leaders with tools, training, and resources to organize and ensure that their issues, concerns, and values are represented at all levels of government. Emma Vadehra of Next100 is building a new cadre of diverse policymakers to democratize a highly elitist think tank industry. Next100 is cultivating a new generation of experts who are developing original research and policy recommendations on issues ranging from education to criminal justice. Tiana Epps-Johnson of the Center for Tech and Civic Life is improving our electoral infrastructure by equipping election officials with communication and technology skills through tools and training to conduct trustworthy and inclusive elections. Layla Zaidane of Millennial Action Project is leading the largest coalition of bi-partisan lawmakers across 28 states to bridge the partisan divide in an era of gridlock. We, women of color, are filling critical leadership roles in building and defending our democratic values and infrastructure. We are the undercapitalized warriors of American democracy.
This undervaluing and undercapitalization of women of color is a consistent thread across all industries. Less than 1% of start-up funding goes toward businesses that are led by women of color despite us starting more businesses. And while very little data exists on broader philanthropic giving to women of color, organizations led by Black, Indigenous, and Latino/a/x leaders receive a mere 4% of total grants and contributions.
This is further exacerbated by cyclical funding of civic organizations. Philanthropic investment over the last decade in media, government accountability, civic participation, as well as campaign, election, and voting reform all add up to only around $12 billion — $2 billion less than what was spent in a single campaign cycle.
In this paradigm, there is little room for long-term investment in the vision and leadership of women of color reimagining our democracy. Even during the height of political giving, women of color are shortchanged — despite the monumental role they have and continue to play. Women of color are not only reforming the existing broken and discriminatory practices in our democracy, they are also entrepreneurs who are building and growing new institutions that, if effectively resourced, can help us realize a truly multi-racial democracy.
Yordanos Eyoel is Managing Partner at New Profit and Founder of New Profit’s Civic Lab. Aimee Allison is the Founder and President of She the People.