“The most important office in government is the office of citizen.”–President Barack Obama
October 22nd and 23rd I attended the Democratic National Committee’s Women’s Leadership Forum’s 22nd Annual National Issues Conference in Washington, DC. Say that five times fast. In short, it was wildly more awesome than I expected it to be.
I had a friend on Facebook ask me what brought me to the event and that’s a great question. I’m not that involved in mainstream political activism. In college I worked for the CA State Attorney General’s Press Office and it was one of the best jobs I’ve ever had. I think it was the hybrid of policy and media that I found so exciting, plus a great boss who was inspirational, fun and liked his job a lot.
Once I went to law school, George W. Bush won that election through the Supreme Court, I realized how disempowering the legal system can be and I got burnt out on politics. I was exposed to more radical liberal politics and developed a passion for making change through personal narrative and DIY media. (Hence my work blogging, vlogging, podcasting and social media.)
When Dara brought up the idea of going to this conference I was lukewarm about it. My curiosity of what the Democratic National Committee was up to, the idea of attending as a person who is pretty far left though I always vote Democrat, and the low low price of $100 to attend as a person under 40 was what got me in the door. (Tickets for the over 40 crowd were $1,000 or having raised $2,500 or more for the DNC.)
I wore a vintage polyester dress from Re/Dress owner Rachel’s previous business Cupcake & Cuddlebunny vintage.
When we signed-up Michelle Obama was scheduled to speak and I thought it would be cool to take a Mishelfie while she was on stage. In my fantasy I would love to talk to her about how targeting fat kids for being obese doesn’t actually help overall health and wellness for kids and there is a lot of body positive rhetoric and Health at Every Size methodologies that would be more successful at creating a healthier United States.
The line-up changed a bunch and by the morning of the conference Barack Obama had replaced Michelle as the keynote speaker, Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton were scheduled in the morning and several panel discussions were in the middle of the day full of women who seemed like they could be impressive.
I was entirely blown away. The curation of the event was great. Not one of the sections of the programs was a snooze–I was shocked given how political it was that no one boring got stage time. Women of color were centered in the programming. The panel discussions were incredible–very smart, accomplished women, nearly all (or possibly all) of the panels were majority women of color. There was also age diversity and a diversity of economic backgrounds. Unsurprisingly there was not a lot of size diversity or visible ability diversity.
At one point I was surrounded by Secret Service. I want to acknowledge my privilege, that as a cisgender, White person being surrounded by law enforcement I feel delighted at how weird it is and can snapchat about it rather than being stressed or worried about it, like many POC in our country.
Hillary’s appearance was the day after her 11 hour Benghazi hearing. Did you hear about this? Apparently the Republicans on the committee have a wine club that celebrates how glacially slow their work has been. Anyway, her joke at the beginning of her fifteen minute speech was hilarious. (See below video from my Instagram.)
Hillary’s speech was charming and just what you would expect from her. The room was VERY pro-Hillary. I heard many times throughout the event about how much folks were looking forward to the reality of a woman POTUS. They were careful not to create an allegiance unless they were overt Hillary supporters (this is politics, after all) but the temperature of the room was Hillary degrees fahrenheit.
I kind of wish Hillary came off more genuine on stage instead of feeling like the kind of person she’s trying to get folks to think she is. Her speech reminded me of Tracy Flick’s speech from Election, where she spoke of having conversations with specific constituents. “I spoke with so and so, whose mom works in the cafeteria and he is concerned about xyz.” I generally agree with her politics though I wish she was a little more working class focused. Highlights for me included quality affordable healthcare for all (remember she’s been working on this since Clinton was elected in ’92), gun control, strengthening the middle class, fair wages, paid leave for all genders of caretakers, and funding women’s healthcare including Planned Parenthood. And maybe someday I’ll get to hang out in a hot tub with Hillary and she will be real with me and I can report back about genuine. I just feel like people get more real when hanging out in a hot tub.
Bernie Sanders was amazing. I really love that he brings the working class into the conversation every time. “Our government belongs to all of us not just a handful of billionaires,” is his rallying cry and it’s taking off. If you’re curious about what he stands for and love thinking about eradicating class disparity, especially with regards to taxation, go down the rabbit hole with videos on his website. “We need an economy that works for working class. So many rich people are pouring money into the political system.” I have so many thoughts about money and politics and the ways in which social media and personal connection are actually more valuable than money, I’m going to have to write another post.
We had some lively discussion at our table about Bernie vs Hillary (the college student, Eric, who was sitting next to me is a huge Bernie supporter) and someone said that Bernie + Hillary = Obama and I would say that seems pretty accurate. I’m curious to see what the primary has in store and how their disagreements will flesh out policy stands between them. Also I love that Bernie is pulling Hillary to the left. (Have you heard about Hillary going after the school to prison pipeline?)
By far my favorite speech was Nina Turner, a former Ohio State Senator who is an incredible public speaker. She left the podium with a wireless mic and spoke so passionately and vibrantly about honoring our inner purpose. (I wish more politicians left the podium! It gets very endless-graduation-speakers to see people speaking from a podium again and again.) Nina reminded the audience that fierce women shake the world and use both hands, one to reach forward and one to reach behind. “We are a country that lifts people. Everybody should have the right to live a good life. Not just decent, a good life.”
She focused her talk on living for your purpose and not for a title. “This world will be right if you live for your purpose. Many of our foremothers didn’t have titles but they had purpose.” I think it’s great to hear a reminder about being true to yourself in a room full of politicians. I think politics gets way too caught up with the horse race and the “winners” when it’s important that we have leaders whose discussions lift up issues that are significant, regardless of whether or not they hold office.
Bernie Sanders made a joke out of having to give his speech right after Nina Turner, who is so inspirational and really brought the house down.
The day began with breakfast that started at 6:30AM. Dara and I thought we were there early by arriving at 7:30. Ha! We had to sit on the far right side of the room. These women who were early birds? They were getting worms and by worms I mean really baller coffee service (three types of syrups including sugar-free vanilla), fruit and quiche. And an oatmeal station!
Nancy Pelosi gave a speech and reiterated a theme that was brought up again and again over the two days at the conference–that women politicians are more effective. She said, “If we reduce the role of money in politics and increase the role of civility we will elect more women.” And that the DNC has women running in half of their targeted races.
There were about 10 different times that they called to the audience to encourage those in attendance who wanted to run for office. There was an emphasis on the training programs available for women, (Emerge America training is a good example) and especially those trainings that support candidates and campaign staff of color.
The keynote speech closed the conference and was delivered by President Obama. I never thought I’d see President Obama speak while in office, this was like a dream come true I hadn’t even articulated. It was exciting to see him for the first time! His whole vibe was pretty casual since it was a room of friends, basically. He said he loved being in a room of Democrats and especially a room of Democratic women. It was like ultra charming because it was both super flattering to women but also not delivered in a way that was too flirtatious to be professional. Such a hard line to walk.
He was so charming and engaging, I couldn’t believe his whole speech was 30 minutes long!
Obama focused on rallying the troops for the 2016 election, and definitely had a lot of harsh words for Republicans. “We can disagree without being disagreeable.”
“America’s greatness doesn’t come from building walls it comes from building opportunities.”
Obama jumped on the theme of the evidence of effectiveness of women and Democratic leadership. According to Obama’s speech, empirical evidence shows when there’s a Democratic president & Congress that the economy does better.
He also told some jokes! “Republican politicians are down on America. They are gloomy. They’re like Grumpy Cat.” That was hilarious.
There were five 45 minute long panels after the first stretch of speeches and before Obama’s keynote. Some of my highlights from the panels are below–seriously could write a blog post about each one):
The one and only panel where size diversity was mentioned was the Women Breaking Barriers panel, through an audience question, as two of the panelists were in fashion. Moderated by Chief of Staff to Michelle Obama and assistant to the President, Tina Tchen (who is a bad ass, definitely go see her speak if you ever get the chance), an audience question about wanting more diversity in clothing sparked some great soundbytes about the need for fashion to represent all sizes.
Rebecca Minkoff said “Companies need to listen to their consumers and change to include everyone.”
Jana Babatunde-Bey, who works for Will and Jada Smith in their production company and in their Foundation, said, “You have to decide how you are comfortable in your own personal style. Be unapologetic.”
The WNBA President, Laurel Richie, is a plus size woman and had a lot to say. “We have the ability to show them how it will work by showing it is possible.” She wants plus size women to get a great tailor and not be limited by what’s available, and that continuing to be fashionable it will change the tide of limitations on size. As the response to a different question on how to exude power in the corporate world she said to find what works for you. For her, she wears red lipstick, it recalls the energy of her mom who exuded power.
The panel also talked about work-life balance. Laurel Richie said you should take time to determine what work is important in the organization you’re working for and what is important to you and balance those two things.
A couple more valuable gems I found were Tina Tchen’s advice about when men are speaking to men in the room and ignoring women. “Don’t get thrown by it. Have confidence you have the answer.”
“I make it a point to speak first and I’m not afraid to contradict the popular opinion,” Jana Babatunde-Bey.
Another panel highlight for me was the Media Messengers panel. This was the first time feminism was spoken about. I was shocked at how, in a room full of folks who are where they are because of the work of feminism they didn’t use the word even one time except for this panel. They said “foremothers” a lot and spoke of the work of women before them but did not mention feminism.
The panel included the Editor of Feministing, Lori Adelman; Senior Editor from Ebony, Jamilah Lemieux (whose Twitter is great); and the “millenial voice” of Elizabeth Plank, a Senior correspondent at Mic News.
I loved that intersectionality was a big topic for the panel. In response to a question about intersectionality and poitics, Jamilah Lemieux said, “My feminism & race are not in conflict. Racism and sexism are in conflict against me.”
In a room full of White feminists, it was great to have this media panel dropping truth. Jamilah say that Black women are essential to feminism and how mainstream (aka White) feminism has herstorically erased the experience of intersectionality. Elizabeth Plank (29 year old White journalist) said it was important for White women to step back and listen to Women of Color perspectives. Lori Adelman reminded folks that three queer Black women started the Black Lives Matter movement.
Black Lives Matter came up a lot all day long and Jamilah also used a great metaphor. Men who complain about feminism being about women trying to be above men are missing the point. Feminism seeks to make women equal to men–the things that we need to work on like paid leave for caretakers helps all genders. Just like saying Black Lives Matter naturally leads to all lives mattering, but saying All Lives Matter erases what we need from Black Lives Matter–the work to make all lives important in a society where that is not the case because of oppression. (Read more here.)
In the panel Why Women’s Leadership Matters, I was enamored of Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who said, “The most powerful thing you can do is be heard.” And who talked about a bill going through Congress to remove barriers to LGBT people fostering children.
Ayanna Pressley, Councilor at Large from Boston, said “An advocate is greater than an ally–they bring up issues when it’s not convenient or politically expedient.”
There were men in attendance, too, but the majority were women. I get feminist offended when the media focuses on what women are wearing in politics, but this is a part-fashion blog so I gotta dish on these outfits.
I expected a lot of lady suits and while I saw several blazers I was impressed at how well-dressed and stylish many of the attendees were. I was a little too shy to do street-style photos of folks in the lobby (plus the lighting was terrible for equipment without flash) but I took a lot of notes about how to dress professionally stylish. There was a woman in a black dress with black leather details that reminded me of the Monif C line three years ago that I loved. Not that I needed any reason to lust after a Monif C dress, but calling something a work-appropriate investment is always more seductive.
I also want to shout out to Nina Turner who wore a stunning floor-length variegated green gown. I love when women in politics dress beyond the skirt suit!
The first day of the conference was a training program but I didn’t walk away with a ton of skills, though I got a lot of information. I loved the presentation by Jessica Byrd who began a consulting business focused on getting people of color elected to office!
“Diversity is the people who are invited to party, inclusion is who gets to choose the music,” Jessica said. “What would it look like if people of color and women had a clear path to elected office?”
The rest of the day was a lot of facts and figures about women running for office and how to fundraise, the presentation of which gave me a lot of mixed feelings about the way in which folks who fundraise interact with class backgrounds and people who are not wealthy, but that is for another day and discussion of politics and money!
The things that were not addressed that could/should be, especially if folks in the DNC want to be in touch with the millenial generation (as many said they did):
Non-binary gender: If we’re talking about being inclusive, especially with regards to millenials, we need to acknowledge non binary gender identities. I know it’s hard at an event that relies on a binary gender but we can (and should) absolutely talk about womanhood in a context of a non-binary gender!
Size diversity only came up the one time, with regards to fashion. Weight based discrimination is still alive and well! It is not okay to discriminate against people about their body size. We have a long way to go beyond being included in clothing racks.
Sex workers’ rights: This wasn’t mentioned even once, in spite of this summer’s groundbreaking stance by Amnesty International supporting the decriminalization of sex work, and the raid on Rent Boy by Homeland Security. (Talk about a weird use of Homeland Security to go after sex workers, rather than maybe focusing on trafficking or actual threats to homeland security.) If you want a primer on what decriminilization means and a primer on sex worker’s rights, this is a good article. Sex workers’ rights are a passion project for me, and I work as an ally to sex workers for the Desiree Alliance, which, among other advocacy, creates a conference that brings together folks working for sex workers’ rights. The next one is in New Orleans, July 10-15, 2016.
Disability justice and access: This was only discussed in a cursory manner.
Immigration: This came up a lot but not in any meaningful ways that proposed policy changes.
Anyway, would I attend this event again? Hell yes. Did it make me feel more engaged in my role of the public office of “citizen” as Obama called it in his speech? Hell yes. Do I want a DNC “I hate Tea Parties” reusable mug to have on a future episode of the Lesbian Tea Basket? Hell yes.