Black Women: A Seat at the Table

with Glynda Carr of Higher Heights for America

Since 1964, more than 70 women of color have been elected to the U.S. Congress. Today, black female representation in political office does not reflect their makeup in American society.

Glynda Carr of Higher Heights for America explains how her organization is mobilizing black women into politics, creating an environment where they feel empowered to run, win and lead across all elected offices.

Posted on:

February 03, 2020

Hosted by: Paul Lisnek
Produced by: National Newsmakers Team

Lisnek: "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair." [ Chuckles ] Famous words spoken by the late Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman elected to the United States Congress, in 1968. Hi, welcome to "Comcast Newsmakers." I'm Paul Lisnek. Shirley Chisholm was a trailblazer who helped pave the way for African-American women in politics. But this population remains underrepresented across all elected offices. Joining me is Linda Carr. She's the president, CEO, and co-founder of Higher Heights for America. Linda, so good to see you.

Carr: Thanks for having us.

Lisnek: I got to tell you, as a kid -- I'm gonna be honest -- I remember Shirley Chisholm, and I remember just being so intrigued by her. Why was it -- for folks who weren't around in her day -- why was it such a big deal for Shirley Chisholm to step out and say, "I want to be president"?

Carr: What's interesting, I mean, she ran for president the year I was born.

Lisnek: Ah, okay. We now know who's older. [ Both chuckle ]

Carr: And so I think it is important because if you want to change the face of leadership, we need to see what we want, what the possibilities exist. So, you take an African-American woman from Brooklyn who was the first black woman to ever serve in Congress to say, you know, "I'm going to boldly run for president, and I'm going to run unbought and unbossed," she paved the way for not only women but for African-American women and women of color.

Lisnek: So, do we know, by the way, when she did that, she knew she wasn't going to win, right? Did she do it for that purpose -- "I'm going to start paving away"?

Carr: Yes, and to be able to -- to be able to uplift the stories of communities of color across the country and the issues that are important to diverse communities.

Lisnek: So, we fast-forward a few decades or so and we end up with people like Carol Moseley Braun and people like Kamala Harris. And without getting into the politics of all of that, when women run for president today, it ain't no joke.

Carr: No I mean, Shirley Chisholm paved the way for a Carol Moseley Braun and, frankly, a Kamala Harris, who, when you look at it, was considered, unlike the many -- the diverse field of women running in this presidential cycle, a serious contender.

Lisnek: Your organization recently released a report called "Black Women in American Politics," a 2019 status update. Can you give me that status update?

Carr: Sure. And so we base all of our work at Higher Heights literally on the legacy of Shirley Chisholm. So, last year, 2019, we saw the largest number of black women serve in Congress -- right? -- on the 50th anniversary of her being sworn in as the first black woman. And so we celebrate those gains, right? In 2019, we swore in 25 black women serving in that body and sending five new freshmen, right? But they -- black women are still underrepresented and underserved in this democracy.

Lisnek: And so I have to ask you. So, given that, and you have people in this last Congress -- Lauren Underwood from Illinois and others -- how do you get black women out there interested to say, "I'm putting my hat in the ring. I'm going to be a part of this"? Win or lose, by the way.

Carr: Yeah. And what we've seen, over the last couple election cycles, you've seen more women, and particularly more black women, run for office. And so we need more women to step off the sidelines and to run for office. But we also have to be prepared, as an American democracy, to accept the changing face of American politics. And so if we're encouraging women and black men to run for office, we now need to support them. So our report with the Center for American Women and Politics, which is our research partner, shows that when black women run, they actually do win, even though they have to work on the obstacles that are in their pathway. So that is access to early money and navigating the politics, and the question of electability and likability.

Lisnek: And I'm assuming, as Barack Obama might say, this isn't a red issue, it's not a blue issue. It's an issue of African-American women entering the field of politics. Would you sort of say, "Be about --" Do you care which side of the aisle they're even on?

Carr: Well, the interesting fact that you can look at in our report is that black women are not represented, although you see gains at all levels of government. There are more black women that have run and won as Democrats. But there are black women that have won as Republicans, right? And so we look at 2014, we had one -- two black women elected and serving as mayors of top 100 cities. In 2020, we have seven black women serving as mayors of top 100 cities.

Lisnek: And of course, it also helps when there's presidential appointments. My mind goes to people like Condoleezza Rice and folks from the past. So, what message do you have for women -- black women watching this now who say, "I'm thinking about it. I don't know. I'd never win"? What would you tell them.

Carr: Run, win, and lead. Right? And that is at all levels -- running for school board, running for city council, running for your county commission. When we have diverse decision-making tables, those decision-making tables make better decisions.

Lisnek: You make a good point, by the way, which is to say, you know, you don't have to be running for president. You know, you can run for Congress. You can run for a school board and make a difference in your community.

Carr: Yep. Your voice matters at the table.

Lisnek: People who want to know more about the work you do, where can they go and find that out?

Carr: And you can find that report, and you'll be able to be armed to know how black women lead by the numbers.

Lisnek: Linda Carr with Higher Heights for America. Thank you for joining me, for the important work you do.

Carr: Thank you.

Lisnek: Let's hope we sent the message out today. For more great conversations with leaders in your community and across our country, just go to I'm Paul Lisnek. Thanks so much for watching.

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