‘A Conversation with Women of Color Leading Change in Boston’

Empowerment Breakfast: From left: City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Rep. Gloria Fox, Monalisa Smith of Mothers for Justice and Equality (MJE), Senator Linda Dorcena Forry and Mia Alvaro, Board Chair of MJE. 	Chanie Infante Louisma photoEmpowerment Breakfast: From left: City Councillor Ayanna Pressley, Senator Sonia Chang-Diaz, Rep. Gloria Fox, Monalisa Smith of Mothers for Justice and Equality (MJE), Senator Linda Dorcena Forry and Mia Alvaro, Board Chair of MJE. Chanie Infante Louisma photoLast Saturday, Mothers for Justice and Equality convened a breakfast panel at Hibernian Hall featuring local leaders in government. The “Empowerment Breakfast” was billed as a “Conservation with Women of Color Leading Change in Boston.”

Monalisa Smith, president and CEO of the Mothers organization, welcomed the gathering and then state Rep. Gloria Fox, who recently announced that she will not seek another term, was recognized for her pioneering leadership in the community.

“This has been a labor of love,” said Fox, the longest serving woman and the only African American woman in the House of Representatives, as she accepted a large bouquet of flowers.

Smith introduced the panelists as women who are history makers, breaking barriers and leading change in Boston. “Today we have the opportunity to take our leadership training further,” she said. “They are here today so we can be inspired to be like them, to be who we are to lead the change in our city, communities, homes, schools, and in our lives.”

Charlotte Golar Richie, a former state representative from Dorchester and now a member of the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination, served as panel moderator. She acknowledged the work and power of mothers, the women who address the complex issues in our community, then listed the achievements of the panelists: Rep. Fox, state Senators Sonia Chang-Diaz and Linda Dorcena Forry, City Councillor-at-Large Ayanna Pressley, and Council President Michelle Wu.

Pressley took the opportunity to stress the importance of forming true sisterhood bonds by citing the late Maya Angelou: “I come as one and stand as ten thousand.” Chang-Diaz, a mother of two, echoed the sentiment on sisterhood with her story of the support she received from her Senate sisters: the maternity clothes from Dorcena Forry and her changing her newborn’s diapers at the table as she and her colleagues met on legislative business.

One of the topics the panelists took up was the importance of educating voters. Councillor Wu has created a newsletter to inform the community on current issues and to talk about why it matters to vote at a community level. Dorcena Forry weighed in, saying said it should be simplified. “We need to get our communities… to understand the importance of voting. We have to start building communities and also get to know our neighbors.”

“There has been a deficit on trust,” said Pressley, adding that voting must be made more accessible and convenient. “There is a need to change the experience and to stop civic engagement as just voting; it is more important than just casting a ballot.”

Fox stressed that it’s important to vote not only during the presidential elections, but also in local elections, which generally see much lower turnout.

On the topic of youth incarceration and the school-to-prison pipeline, Fox, who had been involved with prison reform long before she was elected to office, encouraged people to visit the prisons, especially with church groups or community organizations, adding that educational institutions should be providing inmate support that is lacking in today’s prisons.

During the presentation, Shaneka Davis, from the Attorney General’s Office on Community Relations, spoke briefly about her work as a lawyer seeking to eliminate the “school to prison pipeline” by addressing gender identity, disability rights, and housing discrimination.

Presley commended Fox on her work on prison reform then shared an emotional account of her own experience with incarceration: Her father and her husband both served time in prison. By way of honoring her mother’s fortitude in such circumstances, Pressley has put her focus on making family reunification successful and re-entry easier.

Housing, access to transit, and discrimination are some of the many major barriers faced by those who have left prison, she said in noting that her father battled heroin addiction and was imprisoned for many years. While incarcerated, he found sobriety and gained two advanced degrees and he is now a published author and a professor of journalism.

“There is a lot of work to be done on restoring justice and trying to connect families,” said Dorcena Forry as she cited the importance of laws like the anti-shackling legislation [it bans the shackling of pregnant inmates] that was signed by Gov. Deval Patrick in 2014. A more recent bill passed by the Senate would repeal the law that subjects individuals convicted of non-violent drug offenses to an automatic license suspension for up to five years and a license reinstatement fee of $500, even if the offenses do not involve motor vehicles in any way.

Dorcena Forry also emphasized the importance of communicating with the youth: “Truancy is a marker and if children are not gong to school, we need to identify them and figure out what is going on in the home and provide holistic support,” she said.

Wu said there is a need to focus on jobs for youth and to better training in entrepreneurship and in technology, and Pressley, an advocate for gender-specific programming, said there is no one-size-fits-all programming and that there should be social and emotional support programs in schools. “Trauma is a barrier to learning,” she said. “We cannot teach a child who is not whole so we need to make those investments to make them whole.”

Pressley also touched on the issue of human trafficking: “Our LGBTQ youth of color are trading sex for shelter because they are estranged by their families.”

The panel concluded as members shared their contact information and encouraged the public to work closely with them to address the important issues that were discussed.

The next event for the Mothers for Justice and Equality is their fourth annual Mothers of Courage and Conviction Award Gala on June 18. The organization is now accepting nominations of exemplary community members who deserve to be recognized at the gala. For more information, visit mothersforjusticeandequality.org or call 617-516-8086.

Chanie Infante Louisma is involved in several community programs and writes about her experiences in Boston at her blog LifeByZen. You can connect with her on Twitter: @LifeByZen.