5 Lessons from Women On the Rise: A Conversation on Intersectional Leadership in Boston

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“For me [intersectional leadership] is bringing every piece of ourselves into the work.” – Andrea Campbell, Boston City Council President

On March 28th, YW Boston was proud to host “Women On the Rise: A Conversation on Intersectional Leadership in Boston,” with Boston’s six City Councilwomen at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston. Currently, with six women of color, the city council is more diverse than ever. City Councilors Andrea Campbell, Lydia Edwards, Annissa Essaibi George, Kim Janey, Ayanna Pressley, and Michelle Wu joined Boston Globe reporter Akilah Johnson for a conversation on the importance of intersectional leadership. 

Learn more from our top 5 takeaways:

1. Everyone should invest in intersectionality.

YW Boston invited Boston’s City Councilwomen to “Women on the Rise” to speak about leading at the intersection of race and gender. As Councilwoman Lydia Edwards pointed out, though, conversations about intersectionality are not “just conversations for people of color or people who check off many boxes.” As she explains, she wants “to make sure that white men understand that they are also intersectional…when we are dealing with solutions, we must understand that if those solutions aren’t intersectional in who they impact, they will fail.” When people look inward and gain a better understanding their own overlapping identities, they do a better job recognizing solutions and establishing equity as leaders.

Michelle Wu further elaborated on how intersectionality leads to stronger solutions. As she explains, promoting intersectional leadership is “about making the smartest decisions.” A diversity of voices at the table increases a group’s ability to problem solve, she explained, and stated that “We will not be able to, as a society, draw on every bit of potential, every bit of strength…we can squeeze out if we are not taking advantage of what every single person has to offer…When we allow people to give their full selves and add that context, we have much richer conversations, we get better policy, we get more creative business ideas added to our city.”

2. Show up locally.

During questions from the audience, Joan from Boston Latin Academy stated that “Being that my generation is going through a lot of national movements, our voices have been empowered. However, our voices as women of color have been suppressed throughout these movements,” and asked specifically how people of color can combat this.

Both Michelle Wu and Ayanna Pressley recognized that getting started is daunting, but encouraged Joan and the audience to work to be more present in their movements. Councilor Wu responded, “Keep doing what you’re doing now in showing up first and foremost and raising your hand to chime in and standing up for what you think the inequities are.” She recognized that “the challenge for today’s environment is it is so easy to tweet,” but encouraged everyone to “tweet, to do the post, to do social media, and then plan some specific action. Get your bodies out there. Pick an issue that most drives you and reach out to an organization that exists or start one,” and encouraged anyone interested to reach out to the councilors to plan further action.

Councilor Pressley “I think that given the daily assaults on our most basic rights and our democracy, you want to have an impact, but may feel overwhelmed by the scope of the problem. I would start local. Be localized, be parochial, be possessive about your immediate.” This can mean starting with your school, your workplace, or your team. National conversations are daunting, so as Councilor Pressley advises, “You don’t have to find the root of the entire problem. In your community, you can ask ‘What is happening here? What is the injustice here that I can address?'” Finding a piece of the puzzle you know you can focus on will set you on your way.

3. Don’t let language be a barrier.

Everyone, especially activists and those working toward change in their community, must recognize whether the language and terminology they use shuts community members out of the conversation. “Intersectionality,” as a term, was first coined in 1989. As a concept,  people have always been discussing their overlapping identities . The term adds depth to the conversation, but even if someone doesn’t have this language, they may have a wealth of knowledge to add. While definitions are incredibly important in identifying inequities, these terms hold more weight when they are used to invite more people into the conversation.

Saphire, a senior from Boston Latin Academy and a current InIt delegate, stated that one barrier to joining activist movements is “not having access to language,” and asked the councilors what sort of work they are doing to make sure more people are coming to community meetings, because as Saphire explains, “change can’t happen if people don’t know how to approach that change.” In response, Councilor Edwards stated that one thing she has learned is “It’s not so much the vocabulary we choose, we all speak a language of the heart. How you connect with people is more important than whether they use the term intersectionality or if they come to this meeting or not…Often times these big words allow many of us to be siloed if they don’t have the education or the access.”

Councilor Edwards said that in order to not leave people out of the conversation, she makes sure to go to people specifically and ask them about issues they are facing. Rather than waiting for people to speak up and speak a similar activist language, meet people where they are, and as she states, if you show people “that you care, they will follow.” In addition, Councilor Annissa Essabi-George asked the audience to invite their elected officials to community meetings and “to where you are,” because the work really happens in the community, more so than the high-powered meetings.

Photos by Amanda Kowalski

4. We must cultivate a strong pipeline of intersectional leaders.

In 2009, Ayanna Pressley made history by becoming the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. While it is a historic and proud moment for Boston, Councilor Pressley reminded us that this fact can be seen as a “Sad, sobering, and perhaps pathetic commentary that it took 100+ years to elect the first woman of color to the Boston City Council.” She often gets questions about the 100 years before she was elected, such as, “Who were hurt more, black people or women?,” to which she replies “Everyone, because [government] is always stronger when it reflects the representative system.”

With so little representation on the Boston City Council and in U.S. politics in general, too few experiences have been discussed and too few inequities have been problem solved. As Kim Janey states, “Too many people have been left out. They’ve been left out of the power structure. They’ve been left out of the opportunity to build wealth. I’m here to say that things need to change.” 

In less than ten years, the number of women of color on the council has risen from one to six, demonstrating that there have always been women of color ready to lead in Boston, but someone had to be the first. However, we can’t expect the fight to end here – we must equip young women of color with the tools required to earn the leadership roles the councilwomen represent. By recognizing the inherent talent of these people, and through mentorship and eliminating barriers, we can build a pipeline of strong, young leaders. The city council structure is meant to be fully representative and as Councilor Janey stated, we must strive toward “Group centered leadership where we all have a voice.” In order for that to happen, we need representation of types of people in these positions of power.

5. Celebrate the hidden gems.

As Akilah Johnson wrapped up her questions, she pointed out that “Often we focus on inequity and what’s not working and what’s not right rather than focusing on the bright spots in our community,” and asked each councillor to tell the audience about hidden gems and unsung heroes they have come across in their communities.

The City Councilors’ answers to the request were varied, but each one brightened with passion for her community. Councilor Essabi George appreciated the question, stating that “As elected officials we often hear about all of the negative stories…but it is so incredible day in and day out to go to community meetings and find a sea of gems.” As a former educator, she recognizes the hard work being done in Boston’s schools, stating “I want to say we have teachers, guidance counselors, administrators across our city who are working with some of our most fabulous people, our young people, but they are also facing a lot of trauma and challenges…The people that are committed to that work and educating our young people, are our most incredible gems as a city.”

Kim Janey spoke about being from Roxbury, and how the neighborhood’s strong history of creativity inspires her work. She recognized one specific person, her neighbor Joan Andrews who always knows everything going on in Roxbury. She knows she can turn to Joan, because she is one of those “leaders who have their finger on the pulse…These are the people who are in danger of being pushed out of the neighborhood.”

Andrea Campbell recommended a specific spot for everyone to visit, The Sustainability Guild in Dorchester. As she explains, “Its looks like an old garage, you go in through the side door, and you walk into an oasis. They have yoga classes, they are about mindfulness, meditation, prayer, local artists…I encourage anyone if you are in Dorchester, you can literally just walk in.” 

Councilor Campbell called on the audience: “I encourage everyone to reach out to someone in your community who may not look like you, who may not agree with you, because you may be surprised by what you learn.” As each councilor touched on throughout the morning, connection drives Boston forward. Recognize those doing the work, and find ways to collaborate.

What are your neighborhood’s hidden gems? 
Who are the unsung heroes?
Let us know: #WomenontheRise @ywboston

Councillors Lydia Edwards, Ayanna Pressley, Kim Janey, Michelle Wu, and Annissa Essabi George with students from Boston Latin Academy

Thank you to our six Boston City Councilwomen, our moderator
Akilah Johnson, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston,
and everyone who attended the event!

Find more photos from the event, or listen to the panel discussion.
Your support helps us create connections. Please consider donating to YW Boston.

Women On The Rise: A Conversation On Intersectional Leadership (Audio)