Women of Color and Allies Summit a Spectacular Success
By Lisa Bennett, Communications Director
April 15, 2005
Hundreds of activists and leaders from across the country gathered in Arlington, Va., April 1-3, for the Women of Color and Allies (WOCA) Summit organized by NOW Foundation and co-sponsored by dozens of organizations. The event was a major success, with participants leaving energized and inspired to keep in touch, work together back home, and take concrete action on issues of concern to women of color.
"We were thrilled by the turnout at the Women of Color and Allies Summit -- the main sessions and the workshops were packed, many to overflowing," said NOW Foundation Vice President Olga Vives. "But even more important, the attendees participated in something meaningful. We discussed critical issues while developing strategies and a plan of action to encourage growth and empowerment for women of color."
A Moving Opening
After a festive reception on Friday night, where Hon. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) saluted the organizers and joined in the salsa dancing, the Summit opened on Saturday morning with a vibrant ceremony. There were many cultures represented, from drumming and libations to the four directions and invocation of our ancestors. Music and ceremonial dance got everyone's blood flowing and spirits soaring. City at Peace, a multi-racial group of high school students from Washington, D.C., gave a dazzling musical performance about their definition of "success."
The opening also featured a moving tribute from the WOCA planning committee and NOW Foundation officers to activists we've lost just in the last few months: Geraldine Miller, the chair of the WOCA planning committee; Maria Plasencia, a National Board member and member of the planning committee; Tobi Hale, co-chair of the National Board Diversity in NOW Committee; and Wanda Alston, a former National Board member and planning committee member for the 1998 Women of Color and Allies Summit. Miller sent a videotaped message made just days before her passing, saying: "I'd like to see this conference be something spectacular. I'd like to see it bring us together more." It was, and it did.
The fabulous Aileen Hernandez, the second president (and first African-American president) of NOW and current chair of the California Women's Agenda, fittingly opened the first plenary session, exhorting us to greater accomplishments and getting the Summit off to a great start. Irene Natividad, executive director of the Philippine American Foundation and president of the Global Summit of Women, reminded us of the economic power of women, and the ways we can use that power to make change in our lives, our communities and our world.
Following the opening plenary session, participants were informed and enlightened by a dynamic panel on women's health and reproductive rights. The presenters gained a packed house as buses slowed by torrential rains continued to unload new attendees. Lorraine Cole, president and CEO of the National Black Women's Health Imperative, moderated the panel, which included: Courtney Chappell, a legislative attorney with the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum; Silvia Henriquez, executive director of the National Latina Institute for Reproductive Health; Aliyah Morgan, M.D., a physician working for more than 30 years in the culturally diverse and most stressed communities of New York City; and Patricia Sosa, director of constituency relations for the National Center for Tobacco Free Kids and a regular on PBS's To The Contrary.
Workshops Tackle Tough Issues
The WOCA Summit was not your average conference, that's for sure. Workshops covered a stimulating range of issues — from the struggle of immigrant women to the feminist agenda in hip-hop music; from violence against women and sex trafficking to religion, spirituality and values. Skill-building workshops provided hands-on guidance for organizing around issues in women of color communities.
Each of these workshops had an interactive component, encouraging presenters and participants to develop action ideas addressing their issue.
The Sunday plenary then heard from the workshop presenters and reporters, who outlined more than 60 recommendations on a plan of action to further the cause of equality and justice for women of color. These recommendations will be provided to all participants for their use in organizing locally, and will be presented to the National NOW Conference in Nashville, Tenn., July1-3. They include more than 60 action items, including taking on the HIV/AIDS pandemic among women of color; the unjust "war on drugs" in the U.S.; and the tragedy of the kidnapped, raped and murdered women of Juarez, Mexico.
Just when people thought things would settle down, a troop of spoken word artists and an outrageous comic kept the energy popping until almost midnight on Saturday. NOW's own Nitche Ward, also known as The Original Woman, led the way for three others artists: Queen Sheba, Monica Daye and Melissa Best, aka the Princess of Controversy. Each, in their own vibe and verse, spoke about living as feminist women of color and the need for empowerment in the lives of all women. Best even rapped some lyrics for the audience, which moved many in the audience to get up and dance.
The spoken-word performance not only stirred conference attendees, but the evening's comedian did as well. When Karen Williams took over the microphone, she had the audience almost rolling in the aisles laughing as she recounted tales of her life as a lesbian feminist of color and the mother of three sons. The fun did not stop there, but continued into the wee hours of Sunday morning while participants danced to music spun by DJ K La Rock.
Saturday afternoon's featured speakers included Ritu Sharma, co-founder of the Women's Edge Coalition and a leading voice on international women's issues. Sharma outlined ten gaps that affect women around the world, such as the education, health and safety gaps, and encouraged U.S. women to get involved in international issues.
Lateefah Simon, recipient of a 2004 NOW Foundation Intrepid Award, won over the audience as she told of she became executive director of the Center for Young Women's Development at the age of 20. Simon's advocacy on behalf of young women who are or have been confined to juvenile detention centers, group homes, jails and prisons was truly revolutionary!
Mandy Carter, a longtime NOW activist, was the perfect closer for the conference on Sunday. Carter is one of the nation's leading lesbian rights activists and a founder and executive director of SONG: Southerners on New Ground. Carter sent participants home with just the right attitude and a few thoughts to chew on.
"This summit came at an important time for women of color," said Vives. "It confirmed that we have a lot of work to do, but it also affirmed our commitment and reminded us of the incredible strength and power we have when we work together and lift each other up."
See the 2005 Women of Color and Allies Summit photo gallery.