The POC Caucus is proud to present our second blog post written by Diversity Matters. We’ll add a new post each month on topics relevant to our experiences as POC leaders in the movement. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org to submit a post.
Why Diversity Matters in Political Representation
by Bama Athreya and Rashida Petersen
We are Bama Athreya and Rashida Peterson of Diversity Matters, and we believe networks are powerful. Years ago, we were invited to join a network of professionals of color in foreign affairs.* It was life-changing. We came to that network having worked hard to prove ourselves as diplomats, policy analysts, NGO leaders, think tank experts, and business leaders. And everywhere we still felt like outsiders. Foreign policy remained a white man’s domain.
Over time, our network made inroads. We fought hard and won greater commitments to diversity throughout the foreign policy establishment. We saw changes in the leadership of major US government agencies and in leading think tanks like the Council on Foreign Relations. We made progress under Republican administrations, as well as Democratic ones: the first Black Secretary of State and first Black National Security Advisor; the first Asian American head of USAID. Then came Trump.
Our Indivisible group, Diversity Matters, organization idea emerged on November 9, 2016 when two of us bitterly cried into our drinks, then pulled ourselves together, realizing no one else was going to fix this for us. We had worked hard to rise to senior positions in government, and had committed ourselves to mentoring and bringing up others from “nontraditional” backgrounds. But it was clear that Trump and his cronies wanted to expand the systems that divide us — so we decided to transform these systems.
Changing systemic racism requires a systemic approach for change. Learning from our lessons about building a deep and diverse bench of players in foreign affairs, we formed Diversity Matters as a movement organization, joining the network of groups advancing diversity and inclusion in U.S. electoral politics. When you change the people in the system, the systems change. We called upon the bonds and close friendships formed over the years, and got to work. We were tired of being left out by both parties when it came to deciding who was ‘electable.’ Tired of millionaire candidates who thought they could win by paying the same establishment consultants who kept leaving us out. So we partnered with two fantastic groups, Inclusv and Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, and promoted all their evidence about just how systemically exclusive the staff, the vendors, and the entire ecosystem is around our local, state, and national legislators.
And we demanded more than just good progressive rhetoric about inclusion in public policy. We created a Diversity Pipeline Pledge and insisted that we would only support candidates who were willing to walk the talk at all levels. The litmus test for any Diversity Matter’s Candidate serious about breakthrough change for our country is one committing to and acting on this pledge.
Like many others in this network, we’re a small, all-volunteer grassroots group, and we learned as we went. We adopted a half dozen amazing candidates for the Virginia statewide elections in 2017; and while we were thrilled to see them all win their seats, we realized the need to focus for greater impact. In 2018, we found our dream candidate in Andy Kim, a national security expert, with ties to our community, who was also a fantastic progressive champion for equity and inclusion. Andy won his seat by just 3,000 votes. We know our efforts delivered a few of those votes.
Now we have another dream candidate for 2020: Gina Ortiz Jones, another great national security expert who, like many in our network, has had to bang open some doors. We’re going to help her bang down the door to Congress in November!
But the systems that divide are also hard at work. It’s gotten tougher, not easier since we launched this group in December 2016. Voter suppression is a new Jim Crow system to deny the vote, and it’s affecting all our communities. But we are not deterred. We welcome all of you to join us on July 21 for our next event, a screening of the film Rigged and panel discussion with voting rights activists and with the fantastic Ms. Ortiz-Jones. By learning about these systems, we are empowered to change them.
*To learn more about the foreign affairs network, International Career Advancement Program, click here.