By Ellen McGirt
April 25, 2019

The crowd turned out in force to watch eight Democratic presidential hopefuls – Senator Cory Booker, former HUD Secretary Julian Castro, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Kamala Harris, Senator Amy Klobuchar, former Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Senator Bernie Sanders and Senator Elizabeth Warren – ask for their vote.

But it began with a preacher’s rousing call.

Reverend Leah Daughtry, a former chair of the Democratic National Committee and Pentecostal minister, opened the She the People Presidential Forum 2019 yesterday with a reminder that the issues that affect black women voters in the U.S. are everybody’s issues.

“We vote for ourselves, yes, but we also vote for our families, for our community, and for our nation. We carry this nation on our back and OUR VOTES MATTER,” she said, leading the crowd in a chant.

Then She the People founder Aimee Allison took the stage and made the business case.

“Remember,” she began, “we’re a powerful voting bloc. One of five voters in primaries are women of color, and we are 25 percent of the voters in key swing states: Texas, South Carolina, Georgia, Florida, [and] Arizona.”

She delivered the message early and often: The eight people who came here today can’t win the nomination without us.

But while the first-ever political forum designed to center the issues of women and families of color emphasized the political power of black and brown women, it also put the commitment to inclusion front and center.

Allison explained in her opening remarks that she’d founded the organization on four key principles. “To love our own and each other, to seek justice for all, to ensure that everyone belongs, and to make sure that this American democracy lives up to its greatest promise.”

It was that framing and those benchmarks that made the event so unlike anything that’s typically seen in political life.

Allison deserves a lot of credit for designing a movement that is able to shape the conversation in a new way.

It probably helped that it was not a DNC-sanctioned event and the organization raises funds and operates outside of traditional party circles. And they cast a wide net. “In California, a third of the registrants are Independent and they break toward more progressive,” Allison said on San Francisco Chronicle’s political podcast “It’s All Political.” “We’re making this a space where we can talk about the issues… opening it up past what the traditional lines of what is considered the Democratic Party in politics.”

While much of post-forum coverage is focused on who appeared to win the crowd, I found the more compelling story in simply watching the candidates attempt to field a relatively simple question: Why should women of color vote for you?

“Though it was cringe-inducing to watch many of these candidates stumble over what should have been an easy and essential question, their shared awkwardness underscored just how unprepared politicians often are to engage the specific needs and expectations of black and brown women,” notes Stacia L. Brown in The New Republic.

It became a three-hour teachable moment.

For one thing, conference organizers made sure that they filled the room with experts and stakeholders, many of them local to the region, whose energy from the seats helped fuel the conversation on stage. And they gave the microphone to people representing a variety of perspectives, whose questions were held as equally valid.

“Undocumented students, debt-saddled college graduates, Native women, black mothers concerned about disproportionately high maternal mortality rates, and queer women were all invited onstage,” says Brown. They posed questions about a broad range of issues, from sub-minimum wage for restaurant servers to abortion access, from criminal justice reform to immigration, and from low investigation rates for incidents of violence against Native women to the impact of redlining on generational black and brown homeownership.”

I’ll leave it to the true politicos to cover the horse race, though it is worth noting that Elizabeth Warren’s detailed plans seemed broadly appealing to an audience that is so often invisible to those seeking power.

But besides offering an object lesson in political inclusion, She The People also feels like the start of something equally important: A better way to hire a public servant.

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