Black Women Leaders and Disability Justice
Black Women Leaders and Disability Justice
Rasheera Dopson, MPH
In most traditional images and coverage of political leadership, Black women are not the faces that come to mind. Leadership has often been portrayed in mainstream media and global platforms as statues of white male figures, those who are tall with booming authoritative voices and an air of entitlement to all spaces. Nevertheless, within the past five years there has seemed to be a paradigm shift in which a different type of leadership is emerging. These images look nothing like the ones I had grown up with–these images are brown, feminine, and soft. I had the privilege of volunteering with a Black woman leader and my outlook and understanding of what leadership has completely changed.
During the fall 2022 election season I had the opportunity to serve on the Stacey Abrams Disability Advisory Council as a volunteer. Although many would say that to know Abrams is to love her—I’ll take it a step further and say, “to work in any proximity to leader Stacey Abrams is to truly get a glimpse of equity and justice in action.” The first time I witnessed this was when Stacey Abrams held a town hall meeting with members of the Deaf community located in Rome, Georgia. The Georgia School for the Deaf is the only deaf and hard of hearing school in the state. It was in the moment when Stacey Abrams went center stage and began to share her vision of creating One Georgia that I saw a synergy taking place. I witnessed members of the Deaf and disability community and non-disabled people engaging together in civic dialogue with a high-profile political figure and this figure was a Black woman! This moment was monumental for several reasons— one of them being how this single conversation sparked a disability justice movement in the south that has been well overdue.
I have been in political workspaces in which I had to advocate for closed captions on videos and transcription. And most times those accommodations were far and in-between, and I had to find alternative ways to make it work. However, the Abrams campaign made accessibility seamless. From making sure the website was fully translated into alt-text to ensuring closed captions and ASL interpreters were present at every meeting and community gathering. As a deaf and hard of hearing woman this intentionality made all the difference in my full participation as a volunteer. I can proudly attest that every disabled person on her staff and her volunteer team had the opportunity for full access. Fostering inclusive practices like this opens the door for more disabled talent.
The demand for inclusion has increased and gained public support within the past few years in political campaigns with the COVID-19 pandemic as a major factor. Many people who did not consider themselves to be disabled were now being introduced to this community due to the long-term effects of COVID-19. Disability went from being an overlooked population to becoming a catalyst in addressing health equity, medical ableism, and medical racism. States in the south which are historically known for having higher prevalence of poverty, lack of education, and negative health outcomes were crying out for change. The power of grassroots advocacy was no longer a performative measure used by public figures, but it became a tool to leverage systemic policy change such as expansion of Medicaid. What we began to see take place in the south was a movement that built on the many movements already in progress often led by Black women. Marginalized communities were taking back their power in leadership and that started with the bravery of Stacey Abrams and the Black women organizers who have been doing the work for years. With Stacey Abrams taking the additional steps in creating a fully inclusive campaign, she created a model for future campaigns and candidates. This model centered its efforts on equity ensuring that groups previously excluded had a seat at the table and had a hand in determining their outcomes. Her cross-generational work and diverse teams was an example to other candidates in how to achieve structural justice. She sent a loud message across the nation that we can’t obtain political transformation without undoing structural racism. Her willingness to show up and do the work set a precedent throughout the south. A precedent that said, “to get to justice we need an internal audit.” The record-breaking results and engagement from communities throughout the south influenced our election strategies and changed the way the most vulnerable communities showed up in the polls. We saw more impassioned and informed voters than decades prior. The disability community was activated and gained more political power because one Black woman from the south dared to do something different. Although the election results did not garner the outcome we were hoping for, the political climate in states like Georgia will never be the same.
For centuries Black women have been in silos in which our leadership and political influence has been overlooked and silenced. Even though we are often at the frontlines of civic engagement, the magnitude of our influence is rarely recognized. Society would have us to think that this work we have been doing started with the election of Vice President Kamala Harris or Supreme Court Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson or even Stacey Abrams. But when we look back in history, Black women have also been at the crux of political leadership—setting up the stages for other candidates to get a slam dunk. We have been in the trenches for a long time. Holding up our communities, advocating for our children, and crying aloud for justice. In the words of Fannie Lou Hamer, “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I’ve always liked to believe that Lady Liberty was a Black woman—because only Black women can truly understand the price of ensuring true liberation.
Black women in political leadership have shown all of us that our country is in dire need of transformative leadership—leaders that can connect with those who feel seen and unseen and connect both groups back to a place of hope and justice. Black women have a keen sense on understanding justice—this is something every community wants and needs. The disability community in Georgia experienced a level of unprecedented visibility and access that we had not seen before. Likened to the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Junior “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” But I’ll add on to Dr. King’s words by saying “when one experiences justice—those near and far can begin to rejoice because it means justice for them is right around the corner.” Thank you, leader Abrams, for the work you have started and may those who proceed your footsteps stay on the path that is just and equitable for us all.
Rasheera Dopson, MPH, is a disability justice advocate, author, scholar, speaker, content creator, and researcher. Her research centers around advancing health equity within marginalized communities through implementing and applying equity-based research in communities and policy frameworks. She is the founder of the Dopson Foundation and Beauty with a Twist brand—whose organizational aim is the advancement and betterment of professional, health, and social outcomes for women and girls with disabilities.
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