Shelia Williams, a single mother of five in Memphis, Tennessee, was putting herself through college when the city cut bus routes within the low-income, primarily Black neighborhood where she and her family lived. She almost failed her classes and had to derail her career goals simply because she couldn’t get to school.
Determined to finish school, Williams co-founded the Memphis Bus Riders Union, which successfully advocated to restore bus service. They did this by showing the Memphis Area Transit Authority how essential public transit routes were to opportunity for low-income residents in the city. Today, Williams is a member of the Memphis Area Transit Authority Board of Commissioners and remains an avid advocate for public transit in her city.
Williams’ case is an inspiring story, but this was a battle she shouldn’t have had to wage in the first place.
It’s no secret that today’s economy continues to leave behind women, especially women of color, who should be one of the nation’s greatest economic assets. Women already make up nearly half the workforce, and as the nation as a whole bolts toward becoming majority people of color, women of color represent a growing proportion of those workers.
As a group, women are more educated than their male peers, and women of color in particular are the fastest growing demographic of entrepreneurs. Yet women, and women of color especially, remain vastly overrepresented in low-wage work, face persistent wage gaps, and are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. In a nation where 40 percent of households with children rely on women as the primary breadwinner, these inequities are simply unacceptable.
President Obama highlighted this issue last month, when he told the nearly 5,600 women gathered for the first-ever White House United State of Women Summit that current workplace policies appear “straight out of Mad Men” — as part of an outdated playbook designed for a predominantly white, predominantly male workforce.
The roots of workplace inequality run deeper than these workplace policies, though. As is the case with Williams, the realities of living in disinvested communities can put low-income women and women of color at a disadvantage before they even enter the workforce. Too many of the neighborhoods where these women live lack a basic “opportunity architecture”: the good schools, healthy food, affordable housing, and reliable public transit that connects residents to quality jobs and other opportunities throughout the region.
At the local, state, and federal level, the United States needs policies that not only focus on workplace parity but invest in an architecture of opportunity that empowers women to reach their full potential.
Thankfully, the Obama administration has already laid important groundwork for policies and programs that do just that.
In education, the administration has set up Promise Neighborhoods, a community-focused program that works to ensure young girls and boys in distressed neighborhoods have access to a good education and strong systems of family and community support to help them succeed. This means connecting both children and parents to opportunity. For example, the Northside Achievement Zone in Minneapolis not only focuses on improving academic performance for students but connects struggling families to secure housing, helps single mothers go back to school, and provides job training and employment opportunities for parents.
The Healthy Food Financing Initiative (HFFI) has brought economic opportunity and healthy food to more than 200 disinvested neighborhoods by providing local food retailers with the financing tools (low-cost loans, grants, tax credits, etc.) they need to open up shop and create jobs in the areas that need them most. In Oakland, where I live, HFFI helps finance Mandela MarketPlace, an organization with an all-female leadership team that creates jobs, offers community-ownership of assets, and fosters healthy eating in low-income neighborhoods through community-owned food enterprises.
The Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, a recently passed update to the Fair Housing Act, helps local leaders leverage housing investments to connect struggling residents with community resources. This is done, in part, with local demographic data and assessment tools that help guide city planning and decision-making. For example, when Seattle piloted this assessment tool, local officials recognized the lack of career-track jobs in several poor neighborhoods of color and decided to place a new food distribution hub and job incubator in those communities.
These programs represent the president’s focus on lifting up disinvested communities by ensuring that all residents can access the basic building blocks of opportunity. They are exemplary programs among many opportunity-focused initiatives put in place by the president, and they represent crucial first steps in what must become a larger campaign to ensure that all women can live, work, and raise their families in healthy, opportunity-rich environments.
If we’re going to have a thriving economy, we cannot stand by while discrimination, poverty, and community disinvestment continue to hold back women from their full potential. These mothers, sisters, and daughters are the backbone of the American workforce and an indispensable part of our nation’s future.