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On Mother’s Day weekend, influential African American women vow to remove barriers for next generation of Black women and girls

“COVID has given us an opportunity because these disparities are like neon flashing lights. They cannot and they must not be ignored,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot
“We must do better — in Chicago, in Illinois and across our country — to tear down these barriers that hold our women, our girls back,” Mayor Lori Lightfoot said Friday.
Sun-Times file

Some of Chicago’s most influential Black women kicked off Mother’s Day weekend on Friday with a vow to remove barriers made worse by the pandemic — in education, health care and economic opportunity — holding back the next generation of Black women and girls.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot called it, “the next phase of what I hope is the feminist revolution.”

“Through the pandemic, women have suffered mightily. There are a lot of women who were forced to choose between staying at home, being a home-schooler, child care and their jobs,” Lightfoot told a virtual news conference convened by U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly, D-Ill.

“COVID has given us an opportunity because these disparities are like neon flashing lights. They cannot and they must not be ignored.”

Kelly agreed that the so-called “she-cession” triggered by the pandemic has impacted Black women and girls more than women as a whole.

“It’s really brought people that needed some reality check to realize what’s really going on. They can’t deny it,” she said.

Kelly vowed to re-introduce the so-called “Protect Black Women and Girls Act” that went nowhere in Congress last year.

It would empower an interagency task force to examine and recommend changes to programs at the federal, state and local levels to improve outcomes for Black women and girls. And it would direct the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights to conduct a comprehensive study on economic, health, criminal justice and social service factors for Black women and girls.

U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly
U.S. Rep. Robin Kelly
Sun-Times file

“We have to do more work around the health disparities. COVID shined a bright light around those issues …. We’re already talking about closing the wage gap. A lot of conversation around more support for child care service, which definitely will help all women, but definitely will help Black women. A lot of conversation about supporting student loan reduction,” Kelly said.

“So many people are held back because they owe so much in student loans. He’s a man. But my husband is a doctor and it took him 20 years to pay off going to medical school and student loans.”

Kelly, the Illinois Democratic Party chairman, was asked to assess the chances of passing the bill.

“I’m hopeful. That’s all I can say. There’s never any guarantees,” she said.

“Even though we’re hanging by a thread — Democrat, Democrat, Democrat — we’re hoping we can get it passed out of the House and out of the Senate to the White House desk.”

Two months ago, a congressional caucus co-chaired by Kelly released a groundbreaking report entitled the “State of Black Women and Girls in 21st Century America.”

It included a collection of essays pinpointing the challenges faced by Black women and a string of proposals aimed at eliminating those roadblocks. They ranged from expanding Medicaid coverage for pregnant Black mothers and bolstering federal support for child care to mandating financial literacy starting in preschool, bolstering STEM education and closing the wage gap, particularly between Black women and their white male counterparts.

The report further recommended student loan reduction, using PELL grants to reduce tuition costs and increasing investment in school-based mental health services as an alternative to “exclusionary discipline measures.”

Long before any of those changes were being contemplated, Chicago Foundation for Women President Felicia Davis had a mom she called a “champion for education,” even though she never graduated high school.

“My mother knew our story would be written for us if she let it. And she never gave in. Instead, she went back to school to get her GED and, from there, a great-paying job. And everything in our lives changed,” Davis said.

“Thanks to my mother’s resilience and fortitude, our life quite literally flipped. We were able to move out of public housing from Altgeld Gardens and into an apartment in Morgan Park. And I became, eventually, the first person in my family to graduate college.”

As an African American woman who “has broken through,” Lightfoot said she feels a “profound sense of obligation to reach back and blaze a permanent trail for others to follow and surpass me.”

“We must do better — in Chicago, in Illinois and across our country — to tear down these barriers that hold our women, our girls back,” the mayor said.