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Women of Color in Government event opens up powerful discussion

Mills College’s chapter of the International City/County Management Association (ICMA) hosted the Women of Color in Government event on Thursday, March 8, opening up a powerful discussion of how issues of race and gender play out in complex ways.

Moderator and Mills Masters in Public Policy student Jenifer Logia said that she pitched the idea for this event.

“Working in government as a woman of color, it can be very discouraging,” Logia said. “Day to day stuff can drag on you.”

The panelists were Jovanka Beckles, Eliza Marquez, Maria Dominguez and Chantal Gaines. The event centered around local government, as all of these women have worked, or are currently working in Oakland, Alameda County or in the nearby community.

Shanalee Gallagher, president of the ICMA chapter at Mills, highlighted some of the planning that went into the event.

“We wanted to blend staff and elected officials,” Gallagher said. “People don’t know the efforts that go into making a systematic change, so hearing those stories makes it real.”

Beckles is Richmond’s first openly lesbian councilwoman, and was elected to the Richmond City Council in 2010 then in 2014 was reelected and became vice mayor.

Marquez is a Hayward City Council member, and has served as chair of both the City’s Human Services Commission and Planning Commission, and as a member of the City’s Sustainability Committee.

Dominguez is an alum of Mills College, and in June 2017 was appointed to the Alameda County Commission on the Status of Women and the Consumer Affairs Commission.

Gaines is an assistant to the City Manager in Palo Alto, and was previously in a similar role for the City of Oakland.

The questions posed by Logia focused on the panelists’ experiences with race and discrimination in their workplaces and what work they have done within their communities. Topics ranged from how the panelists first got into government, to how they dealt with discrimination in the workplace, to the struggle between conforming to a workplace environment and being true to yourself.

These four women came to show Mills what being a woman of color in government is like, what they keep in mind, juggle, talk about, don’t talk about, fight, consider and believe. Dominguez made a point to return to talking about intersectional issues, and how women, but also trans women, should be supported in government, and she brought up the absence of many Asian-Pacific Islander members in government. All of them encouraged the audience to get involved, and offered a rare glimpse into their lives.

Logia asked the panel how they deal with racist comments and stereotypes, giving the example that two summer interns she knew, both Latinas, were asked on their first day of work to clean the kitchen.

Beckles responded, talking about how when she was running for a position the opposing candidate used Beckles’ identity as an Afro-Latina against her, telling the African American community that Beckles wouldn’t represent them properly because she’s a Latina, and then turning around and telling the Latinx community that she wouldn’t represent them properly because she’s African American.

“It [my identity] was used against me,” she said, calling it a political bargaining division tactic, the message being “you can’t be both, you have to pick one.”

She didn’t win the seat that year, but she ran again the next term, and that time she won.

“It still hurts,” Beckles said. “The African Diaspora is immeasurable.”

Marquez mentioned that when she ran for a position on city government, there was an expectation that she needed to have a nuclear family, but Marquez is a single mom.

“I reflect this community,” Marquez said. “This resiliency is what people care about… if I didn’t see that example out there, I wanted to be that for my daughter.”

Dominguez spoke about how she’s had to deal with the ‘angry Latina’ stereotype.

“I don’t want to tone anything down,” Dominguez said. “Besides from being yourself, it’s also about stepping into the brave space… not just calling people out, but calling them in.”

That comment tied into a point she made about how sometimes the more triggering things are done by people and in situations where you’re least expecting it, and engaging in those tough discussions to help educate people can be both informative and liberating.

She used an example of how she had been late for a retreat with a group she works with, and after she arrived another woman of color put her hands on Dominguez’s shoulders and told her to ‘slow down.’ This was especially triggering for Dominguez, who alluded that the physical touch reminded her of sexual violence, and decided to bring up the issue with the person soon after that incident, allowing her to share her feelings, and let the other person know to take more into consideration when touching another person in that way.

Dominguez brought another aspect of discrimination to the discussion that Gaines agreed with.

“In my workplace, I don’t feel judged off my race or gender, but it’s my age,” Gaines said.

Once the discussion was opened up for Q&A, audience members asked how the panel help their communities through the education system, how to stay neutral during this current politically divided time (directed at Gaines), and how to fundraise.

As a city manager, Gaines emphasized the need to stay apolitical, and to do her job no matter who she works for and what their political affiliation might be.

“The job is implementation and serving the community on a daily basis,” Gaines said, “I bear in mind my credibility as well as my opinion.”

Although she might stay quiet when it comes to sharing her political opinions, she still wants to be there when the important discussions take place, but she has to be mindful of what she says.

“That’s a hard lever I have to deal with on a day to day basis,” Gaines said. “Even if my recommendation isn’t taken, I want to be in that room because my comment is a step in the right direction…. I want to make sure when I say something it means something.”

Mills Public Policy graduate student Aidé Aceves said she enjoyed the event and wanted more people to have attended and heard the panels’ stories.

“I always appreciate when they bring women of color or folks of color to have that perspective. I also liked the difference in roles, so they had someone in city management, which was more apolitical — you’re not supposed to be politically affiliated,” Aceves said. “I just appreciated the different representation. Policy is, like a lot of other sectors, a lot of white women.”

One of the moments that stood out to her was when Beckles talked about identity politics.

“What I remember most about the panel was Jovanka’s comment on how they used her race against her, so when she was talking about being Afro-Latina that really resonated with me, because of how she was talking about identity, how they were able to play it against her,” Aceves said. “That story really stuck with me, and when she shared about her home invasion.”

Beckles cited a home invasion as one of the moments that launched her into her current career working in local government. The men went into her son’s room, which had “what he wanted, not just needed,” Beckles said. One of the men said “it must be nice to be loved,” and hearing that made her think about what made these men the way they were and how their community failed them, she said. She wanted to change that.

“I think [this event] is super important,” Aceves said. “I think for Mills in general to be mindful and making sure we are bringing back folks that resonate with the current student body, that we are always being intentional about the different life experiences that we bring.”

While this event was informative for those interested in working in local government, it also was applicable to a greater issue, the injustices that women of color have had to endure, how they have dealt with that, and what they have accomplished.

“I feel inspired and motivated to keep going. These four give me a lot of hope,” Logia said. “Days like today make me really happy to be at Mills.”