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Shaking the Table
By: Desiré Bennett
During last year’s United State of Women Summit in Los Angeles former First Lady Michelle Obama reminded me and thousands of other women about the importance of honoring our place and space at the table—and the responsibility that comes along with that:
“So many of us have gotten ourselves at the table, but we’re still too grateful to be at the table to really shake it up. That’s not a criticism, because for so many, just getting to the table was so hard, so you’re just holding on,” she said. “But now we’ve got to take some risks for our girls… just holding onto our seats at the table won’t be enough to help our girls be all that they can be.”
Her powerful words still resonate with me. They are a cautionary tale to not allow myself to become complacent or fearful of challenging the systems that make it so hard to get to the table in the first place. Although I am thankful for the opportunity to now have a place at several tables, I must never forget to use my lived-experience as a teen mother and high school dropout to continue to uplift those who are climbing below or alongside me. I know all too well the climb is often arduous with many obstacles and setbacks.
During my climb, I had to navigate the matrix of public assistance as a working, single parent for many, many years. On average it takes nearly 20 years to climb out of poverty and my experience was not dissimilar. Although education served as the stepping stone that brought me closer, and ultimately, to the table, I realize there are—and should be—other ways for women and girls to secure their places. All perspectives deserve representation. Obama’s words remind me to challenge the notion that there’s only one correct pathway to inclusion.
And even though I’ve worked so hard to get to these spaces, her words also remind me that I mustn’t let a fear of losing a seat at the table allow me to inadvertently block opportunities for others. Instead of just asking “why don’t more people sitting at the table pull up a chair for others?,” I’ll take action and be the person who asks others to scoot over so there is more space to pull up multiple chairs. If we truly want to create more space at the table, we must embrace and recognize that there’s enough room for all of us to work together.
At the end of last year when I presented alongside 19 women and 10 girls on the Hamilton County Commission on Women & Girls (the first of its kind in my county!), Obama’s words were with me as a reminder that we can accomplish great things when we work together. And as I work each day at Design Impact—a social innovation nonprofit working to advance social change through human-centered design by promoting leadership, creativity, and equity at co-created tables, tackling complex social issues like food insecurities, homelessness, and others across the nation—I am reminded that there are always new and innovative ways to use my seat at the table.
We all arrived at this table under different circumstances, and as a woman of color, I must use my voice to remind people of this. For some, the table was higher, farther away, or they were told all the chairs had been taken. Those we serve also have a multitude of experiences—therefore, we must take care to approach complex issues by looking through an intersectional lens. According to law professor and social theorist Kimberlé Crenshaw, Intersectionality is the interconnected nature of social categorizations such as race, class, and gender as they apply to a given individual or group, and the cumulative manner in which the effects of different forms of discrimination combine, overlap, or intersect. It is critical there is always a conscious effort to recognize this.
As the United State of Women Ambassador for Cincinnati, I, and other ambassadors across the United States, will embark on projects, co-creating and engaging with local advocates and organizations to advance gender equity in our communities and across our nation. And as we navigate these opportunities, we must not forget to invite other women and girls to help us lead.
When I find myself operating in these various spaces, I will continue to work at the intersection of racial and gender equity to amplify the voices and unique experiences of women and girls. I challenge you to join me. How might we create a world where all women and girls’ voices are included? A good place to start is to create more opportunities for women and girls—in your workplace and in your community—and be intentional about applying an intersectional lens when creating those spaces. It is in these ways that we can not only expand, but shake up the table.