Last October, I spent a week in Maryland, as a fellow at an Aspen Institute executive leadership seminar. There were about two dozen of us, people from all over the country and world, thrust together for a time, to discuss essays and documents that spanned history.
I was among five other women in our group, the majority of attendees were men. There was a solidarity among us “girls,” as we supported and defended one another when male chauvinism threatened to dominate the conversation. It was a transformative experience, one that allowed me to not only view the many shades of leadership, but also to recognize the importance of my voice.
It was around the fourth day when things shifted temporarily. Our discussion was centered on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex,” which recounts the unequal treatment of women through history. The heaviness in the room was palpable. One by one, the women shared their experiences of sexual harassment, discrimination and belittlement.
I watched as the tears fell, as my “girls” seized the opportunity to let the “boys” know how the actions of their peers objectified and humiliated them. Near the end of the conversation, one participant asked the men, “Why don’t you believe us?” I watched, and I supported, but I didn’t cry. I knew I had to save my tears.
I couldn’t cry because in this era of incivility and questioning of whether black lives matter, I had way more rage about the deaths of Philando Castile, Sandra Bland, Kalief Browder, Rev. Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Yusef Hawkins, Emmett Till and countless others. Knowing that Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letters from a Birmingham Jail” was the next conversation for our group, I had to save my strength.
I wondered how many of the women in our group marched or even voiced outrage when Castile, sitting in the passenger seat of his girlfriend’s car, was shot in front of her and her daughter for following police officer’s orders. His blood spread across his white T-shirt as the life escaped his body. The video came through my newsfeed on Facebook — I know some of them had to have seen it, too. Did they put on a hat then?
In his letter from jail, King said, “I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.” Simply put, change cannot occur if we are selective about which issues of oppression we choose to participate in.
State Rep. Robyn Porter, D-New Haven, was one of the few women of color who spoke at the Women’s March in Hartford Saturday, and her words spoke truth to power. She said she wanted the movement to “make sure that black and brown women do not feel left out, that they do not feel like they have been left behind, and discounted, and that they are expendable, and that the issues in their communities are second fiddle because we must be included.”
The conversation about King’s letter around the table at the Aspen seminar was exhausting. Angry tears flooded my face as I wondered aloud when things would change. I affirmed my colleague’s question “Why don’t you believe us?” but had one of my own: “Why don’t you see us?”