Last Friday I attended the annual Women in the World breakfast hosted by the Seattle International Foundation (SIF). This event brought together over 250 leaders from philanthropy, business, media, academia and the nonprofit sector to celebrate Seattle's role in advancing the rights of women and girls worldwide. It was an occasion for networking, fundraising, and honoring the work of women who have found their purpose in international non-profit work. I met women who were working on providing more sanitary living conditions to people in Bolivia, and women who were founding schools in Afghanistan.
Though it was pretty early in the morning for me, I never turn down a free breakfast at the Four Seasons. I made my way through the crowd, networking, greeting old friends, and visiting various booths to collect information about the various programs founded in the Pacific Northwest, but providing outreach across the world. Eventually we were ushered into the main dining area.
The program began with a performance by Naomi Wachira, recently named “Best Folk Singer” by the Seattle Weekly. I had never heard her before, but she was a phenomenal and she has a new CD out called African Girl. It was just her and her guitar and her voice filled the room with a robust sense of peace. Better than coffee, her songs eased me out of my resistance.
The key note speakers were Yvonne Musiime, a graduate of the Gashora Girls Academy, a school created by the Rwanda Girls Initiative, and Gloria Cruz from Peru who is here as a participant in Earth Corps.
Both women told compelling stories. Yvonne’s was a story of leadership, of really standing in her power and it was touching to see an 18 year old black girl really taking advantage of all her resources and making decisions about her life. Gloria’s story was more focused on all the limitations she had to overcome, the biggest being the very limited idea of what a woman could do or be. She was taught early on that girls only needed to know how to cook and care for a family, but she wanted more. And this caused strife for her within her family. Still she chose to follow her heart and ended up not only getting an education, but the opportunity to do service work and learn more about conservation.
Near the end SIF announced that they would be giving $266,000 in grants to 18 local organizations working globally on women's issues. As representatives from each organization came to the stage, I kept hoping to see a black woman, a Latina, an Asian, a Pacific Islander, but it was white woman after white woman. By the end there was one Asian woman and Yvonne, the keynote speaker who accepted recognition on behalf of the Gashore Girl’s Academy, though I couldn’t help but wonder if their executive director was another white woman or white man sitting in the crowd.
Alright, I live in Seattle, a 69% white city and I’ve worked in the non-profit sector long enough not to be surprised by these demographics, but it doesn’t take away the disappointment. In 2006 I attended the SIT Graduate Institute in Brattleboro, VT. You might not have ever heard of it, but it is one of the premier Graduate Programs for international education and development work. There, out of my cohort of 200 students, 75% were white women.
As part of our curriculum, we went to Boston to attend NAFSA, the annual international educator’s conference. It was a huge event, so large that it was held in a ballroom that fit about 6,000 people. Before setting my course to network with the various institutions I would soon seek employment, I climbed up into the balcony to survey the landscape. From there it was even clearer. I could count on two hands the number of people of color in the room. It made me feel lonely. I decided that since there were so few of us that I would at least try to meet every single black person in the room to find out what kinds of work they were doing. The first person I approached was a black woman in a non-descript business suit. She looked to be about my mother’s age. I introduced myself and asked her about her organization and she informed me that she was a secretary. The next group of people I approached were also older women, all black, and in slightly flashier suits. They worked for SEVIS, the branch of homeland security that helps deport students with expired visas. Throughout the day I did not meet a single study abroad program leader who wasn’t white.
It’s a moment that really stayed with me because a big part of the excursion was to begin to be able to see ourselves in our careers. To not see anyone who looked like me doing the thing I most aspired to do felt disheartening. And despite the lovely food served on the fancy Four Seasons china, the beautiful music, and good company at the breakfast, I once again felt that feeling of, what am I doing here?
Is there a place for me? A young (ish), black woman, with a passion for international travel and a desire to work with the youth in my community to provide them with opportunities to experience the world? I don't want to take away from the good work that those women are doing. They are amazing and I applaud their passion and dedication, but I can't help but feel that the world is missing out on something. When the programs that are really changing the lives of people of color, especially children of color, here and abroad are solely conceptualized and run by white people, what are we losing?
Reagan Jackson is a writer, artist, YA fiction aficionado, afro-punk, international educator, and community organizer based in Seattle, WA. You can find her most Tuesdays at the Seattle Poetry Slam or maybe just being nerdy at her favorite bookstores.