White House #YesSheCan

White House Senior Advisor Valerie Jarrett (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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What are the challenges facing women and girls of color?

In an unprecedented move, the Obama White House is holding a summit on improving the conditions of a group that contributes much to this nation and yet is vulnerable and deserves our attention.

The conference taking place today at the White House is called “Advancing Equity for Women & Girls of Color: A Research Agenda for the Next Decade.” It is hosted by the White House Council on Women and Girls and the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University.

The meeting — which brings together academics and people from the private, government and philanthropic worlds — will focus on strategies to create more opportunities for people, especially women and girls of color, and to remove obstacles to success. Issues the summit will tackle include economic development, healthcare, criminal justice, vulnerability to violence, hip-hop, and the images of women in the media.

In addition, the White House announced a $100 million initiative over five years by Prosperity Together, a group of women’s philanthropies, to improve the economic security of low-income women. Also announced was an $18 million funding commitment by the Collaborative to Advance Equity through Research — a group of colleges and universities, research organizations, publishers and public interest institutions led by Wake Forest University — to promote research on women and girls of color.

Valerie Jarrett, Chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, said in a press call announcing the summit that the President has made raising the voices of women and girls a top priority, including women and girls of color “who often face stacked odds and scarce opportunities.” The goal of this initiative under the hashtag #YesSheCan, she said, is to create a vision for the future.

“I’ve often said the talent is ubiquitous. But opportunity is not. We need to think of every child as our child, and every girl as our girl,” Jarrett said, offering that “that’s what the twenty-first century demands of us.”

“As President Obama said when he spoke this year at the Congressional Black Caucus annual gala, ‘When women of color aren’t given the opportunity to live up to their God given potential, we lose out on their talents. We’re not as good a country as we can be. We might miss out on the next May Jemison or Ursula Burns or Serena Williams or Michelle Obama. We want everyone to be on the field. We can’t afford to leave some folks off the field,’” she added.

The administration’s current efforts are building on a 2014 report which noted the successes of women of color in areas such as higher graduation rates and business ownership but also problem areas such as the lack of job opportunity and pay and health care disparities.

“One of the central findings of last year’s report was that scholarly research and public data were actually lacking on so many of these issues. We could identify the problems but had a harder time digging in to understand and outline the solutions,” Jarrett said.

Melissa Harris-Perry — Professor and Director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University — noted that “without the foundation of research, we can’t know how to make you [see the] need for interventions in the lives of women and girls of color in a way that ensures that we are advancing equity.” Harris-Perry told theGrio that a few of the consortium partners will focus on research around health and heath equity for women and girls of color. “There’s also one partner whose research is primarily around mental health, and around the connections between a variety of different issues of mental health and women’s health outcomes, particularly for women and girls of color in the South.”

The subject is overdue, and the action is timely.  We see the successes of black and brown women, and yet there are so many who face daunting challenges.

Black girls are suspended at higher rates than girls of any other racial or ethnic group, and more than white girls and boys, according to the White House. American Indian/Alaska Native girls also face higher rates of discipline. Further, while African-American girls are 14 percent of the U.S. population, they are 32 percent of girls who are detained and committed — treated as criminals when they are victims of trauma and abuse in need of support. Black and Latina girls are twice as likely to become pregnant, while women of color are underrepresented in science and engineering and are disproportionately impacted by poverty.

Working women account for nearly half of the workforce, while women of color are 37 percent of all working women. Teresa Younger, CEO of the Ms. Foundation or Women, noted that women still make considerably less than men — 78 cents for every dollar a man makes. “However African-American women earn 60 cents and Latina women earn 55 cents of what a white, non-Hispanic male makes,” she said.

Jarrett also emphasized the importance of role models and expressed concern over the impact of media images of women. “From negative portrayals of women in hip-hop culture to images of women of color in leadership roles, our media and popular culture too often do not give girls of color a positive view of themselves [or give] everyone else a positive view of them and a vision for their future. And that needs to change,” Jarrett argued.

“Women and girls of color are so often an enormous asset to our communities, our companies, and across our country. And that story, we should be telling.”

Follow David A. Love on Twitter @davidalove

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