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Navigating Power and Privilege In A Coalition Policy Space, written by Krista Niemczyk
Blog Series: Confronting Inequities in Our Field - October 30, 2020

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I love what I do. Leading the Partnership’s policy team, I get to work closely with our entire membership, our national partners, the state Capitol community, and our Congressional delegation. It is never, never boring. It’s filled with opportunity to have large scale positive impact, and fraught with potential for large scale harm.

But what does it mean to be a white woman holding this space? Am I operating in a way that elevates the needs and voices of survivors and advocates of color, and advancing policies that support them? Am I supporting the only other policy person on our team, a Native woman, to lead and have her voice heard and centered? Or is my work centering white voices and perpetuating mistakes and harms that public policy has caused in the past? These are questions I grapple with regularly, and never more so than this time of year full of reflections on the end of one legislative session and preparations for the next.

When I first started in this field as an intern with a national organization in 2008, I didn’t know it would become my life’s work. I knew I wanted to work on policy issues addressing children and families, and securing this internship for my first semester of grad school felt like a stroke of incredible luck. That they eventually took me on as full time staff and set the direction for these next 12 years of my career still feels like winning the nonprofit life lottery. That internship was the first time I’d worked in a space that was exclusively women in leadership, and it was inspiring to move through Congressional spaces – about as white male dominated as it gets – with such a group. That this space was often filled with a majority of white women wasn’t nearly as present in my mind as it should have been.

White women continue to be overrepresented in domestic violence coalition leadership and policy spaces, and like the rest of our field, coalitions are grappling with how to better hear and center Black and women of color voices in shaping our direction. The Partnership as a whole has been part of this work, myself included. It’s why we signed on to a recent “Moment of Truth” letter along with 45 other state domestic and sexual violence coalitions, stating clearly that Black Lives Matter, that we repeatedly failed Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) survivors, leaders, organizations, and movements, and outlining principles and a vision for moving forward real policy solutions. Some signers to this letter are already facing backlash, and I know that I’ll need to work hard to stay centered on our values if and when we face similar pushback.

I know that throughout my career I’ve gotten it wrong at times, and made mistakes that have caused harm. I know I must constantly work to do and be better. As one clear example of getting it wrong, I failed in centering the voices of Black advocates and survivors in particular when our inaugural Policy Advisory Council didn’t include any Black folks. Not only were Black leaders not included, but I failed to notice they were missing until one of our members called it out. While we’ve taken steps to remedy this gap in representation on the Council, today there’s only one Black woman on our Council, and that isn’t enough. I need to continue to pay close attention to which voices we’re seeking input from, and which voices we are elevating. If I’m not including Black voices in our priority setting process and in what I bring forward to the legislature on behalf of our members, then I cannot expect our elected officials to enact policies that do so.

As I reflect on the issues we’ve prioritized, including economic justice, housing, and homelessness, I recognize how I’ve failed to center the systemic racism embedded in these topics and the disproportionate impacts on Black, Indigenous, and People Color. My messaging on homelessness, for example, often centers on naming the intersection of domestic violence and homelessness and the differing experiences and needs of survivors as compared to other homeless individuals but doesn’t incorporate the far higher rates of homelessness and domestic violence among Black women and the systemic, structural racism and racist policies at the root of this. As I prepare for the next legislative session, these are things I will change.  

Back when I was an intern new to this movement, I would sit silently listening in on meetings to draft federal legislative language, in awe and more than a bit intimidated by the attorneys and longtime advocates who would debate every word, every comma of proposed language. I’m still a bit in awe of those same national folks that I now get to call colleagues and friends, but have found my voice and am often the one speaking up and expected to have the answers when people in power are looking for information and recommendations.

While my internal self-image is sometimes still that quiet, shy person I was, I have to be very aware that I can certainly have a big voice and take up a lot of space in this role. But I believe strongly in the importance of decision makers hearing directly from communities and the people most directly impacted by their choices, and that our work is stronger when there are more advocates in our movement who know and are engaged in the policy efforts.

That’s why I’ve spent the past seven years serving in a supportive role for the Women’s Policy Institute, supporting the leadership development of women of color advocates and watching them speak their truth and expertise to power, and shift the dynamics in the Capitol. Watching those teams shine and pass important legislation are some of my favorite days.

When I’m getting it right, living in to this commitment also includes working intentionally in collaboration with our Partnership team, to develop briefing panels and speaker lineups that feature a diverse range of survivor and advocate voices and to de-center myself in those public spaces. The current COVID social distancing requirements mean most interaction with the Capitol occurs by phone or video conference, which has great potential to allow for more meaningful access and equity. I’ve been inspired by advocates developing creative ways to bring in more voices and am committed to weaving new ideas into my work.

When I get it wrong, it looks like discussions on legislation with only White women in the room.  Or not challenging myself and our membership to take a stand on controversial racial justice legislation because it’s not specifically a domestic violence issue.

As I work to continue showing up as an aspiring ally, I’m committed to doing the daily work. I will keep addressing how my privilege shows up and actively support the advocacy and issues championed by advocates of color throughout our membership and in our allied organization partnerships. I am committed to showing up and to being accountable when I fail or misstep.

The stakes have never felt higher, and this work has never felt more essential.

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