Friday, April 25, 2008

Women of Color Resource Center: An Interview with Anisha Desai

"I think that people have long associated feminism with older white women and the idea of bringing that back to women of color, and bringing it back to young women of color and asking them what it means is an exciting time for me."
Anisha Desai is the Executive Director of the Women of Color Resource Center. Founded in 1990, the Women of Color Resource Center promotes the political, economic, social and cultural well-being of women and girls of color. Desai came to the Women of Color Resource Center from a Deputy Director role at United for a Fair Economy. She has co-authored publications on fair taxation, housing and the racial wealth divide. The following is an edited transcript of an interview I did with her on March 25th, 2008 for the Big Vision Podcast. You can also listen to it to on this little player:

Anisha Desai: Hi, my name is Anisha Desai and I am the Executive Director of the Women of Color Resource Center. The Women of Color Resource Center has been around for a little over 17 years and we are a pretty impressive place, I think, because we are one of the very few places in the nation, and globally, that holds the interest of women of color, and girls of color as a central piece of our work.

We are most interested in women of color, and girls of color who are the most economically and socially fragile. Our work focuses on advocacy, policy, education and political thought that helps to shape the dialogue and public conversation about the interests of these folks.

Britt Bravo: Can you talk a little bit about some of your programs and some of the things that the organization does?

AD: I think it is important to start by saying that the Women of Color Resource Center came out of a lot of political thinking and activism of the late '60s and '70s, when women of color really felt that it was important that their voices be heard in a movement that was largely dominated by men, and also white women and white allies. That's where this work really sprung out of in looking at issues of homelessness, looking at issues of women on welfare, and looking at women in prison-- those who were really most affected and most in need of their voices being lifted. That is really where the origins of the work came out of. Our work now mirrors and touches upon some of the things that were focused on back in the day.

We have two main program areas, one that is focused on peace and solidarity, and we are quite intentional about the peace and solidarity work focusing on global women's struggles, so, looking at the experience of women of color as they are affected by U.S. military policies globally, not just what's happening with women domestically.

Our peace and solidarity program is really unique because we look at the work and the experiences of women veterans, which is a group that is rarely looked at. A disproportionate amount of women veterans are women of color, and many of them have just recently returned from Iraq or Afghanistan and are looking to get involved with the peace moment, and with their own political development, but also with their own healing, and what it means to heal after going through the incredible trauma of war. We also put together a popular education curriculum called Peace Games that focuses on the intersections of gender and militarism.

We have an economic justice and human rights program that focuses on welfare, and welfare policy in particular that is quite oppressive, and forces women into situations where they have no ability to make decisions for themselves. For example, policies like AB22, which is a family cap policy that basically restricts the amount of aid that a family can get after they have one child in the house who is getting welfare support. A lot of things out there that are designed to support women, in actuality are quite detrimental, and are disproportionately affecting women of color.

BB: You are relatively new ED. You started in December?

AD: In December, yes.

BB: What excites you the most about the work that the Center is doing, and its future, and then, what are some of the biggest challenges that you are facing?

AD: I think what excites me the most are also probably some of our challenges, exciting challenges. We are a Center whose Co-founder just left after 17 years of work in the organization, which is pretty impressive, I think, in the nonprofit world. You rarely find folks who have stayed on that long and really committed to building the infrastructure and the political roots of an organization. Stepping into that world after she left the organization is really very, very exciting.

It is a time where a lot of organizations are going through an intergenerational transfer of leadership, and a lot has been written about what does that mean? The baby boomers are retiring and young people are kind of coming up into that movement. I think it is a really interesting time because we have a young staff, and a staff that is very enthusiastic about taking on their own leadership roles, doing more writing, getting more politically involved, and developing their own skills of management and leadership within the organization.

That is the part that I feel very, very excited and challenged by. I also feel challenged by the question of what gender and feminism mean to young women of color in this day and age. I think we are hearing a lot with the recent debates, and political debates about what is more important? Is it gender, or race? What do we need to talk about?

I think we need to be talking about all of these things, that it is all interconnected. In particular, it is important to think about what young women need to be thinking about in this moment of time. Young women of color, what are the issues that are most important to them? Is it relevant anymore to talk about young women feminists?

I think that people have long associated feminism with older white women, and the idea of bringing that back to women of color, and bringing it back to young women of color and asking them what it means is an exciting time for me.

I think, of course, like all other nonprofit organizations, we are always struggling with our desire to grow and to get bigger and to do more things. We are based in Oakland, but we do work nationally, and in many cases globally, but our funding is always under constraints. The idea of building capacity, particularly in an economic climate that is harsh, is a huge challenge for us.

BB: What is the path that brought you to this work, why do you do this work?

AD: I feel like I have been asked recently, am I a sociologist, am I an economist, how did I end up in this work? I ended up in it from way back, from where I grew up. I grew up in Florida in a pretty narrow-minded, and very closed South Asian community. I also grew up at a time that was really heavily segregated, and I think that was a place where I started to develop a lot of my political and race consciousness.

Then, I moved into the world of teaching. I was teaching in high schools in Miami and the Bronx and San Francisco for some time, and really wanted to be around young people, especially during their high school years, which I thought was an interesting time of their political development.

I went on to do some Masters work, and went on to work at United for a Fair Economy, which is an economic justice organization, where I got more experience in leadership and economic justice work. I have always loved the Bay Area. I lived here for a bit and very much wanted to be back here, and then this opportunity came about. It has a lot of the things that I have wanted to do for some time: be in a small organization, lead an organization, and work for and about women of color. It is like a dream come true.

BB: I read in one of your bios that you received a Fulbright grant to go to Rwanda and study the reconciliation process. I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that experience, what that was like, what was working, and not working?

AD: It was a pretty incredible experience. It is interesting to do something like that where it kind of came out of the blue It was a really, really important moment to go back (it was almost on the 10th anniversary of the genocide) to see what people were doing to rebuild their lives.

We met with President Kagame. It was this very incredible experience where we got access into people's lives and homes and memorials, things that I think ordinary folks would never have gotten the opportunity to do.

The greatest thing that I came away with is that the United States' and the European notions of what African history is all about, are so simplified. The whole conflict between Hutus and Tutsis was really reduced to a very binary kind of thing by the time that it had reached here, stateside. That actually wasn't the case at all. It is a much more complex and nuanced history. I really felt very grateful to be able to talk to folks who were on "both sides" of the conflict, and to really hear from some Hutus, who had nothing to do with any of it, that they felt like they were very much swept up into some kind of a brainwashing, and a tremendous under-swell of violence and grief. Many lost their own family members, and I talked to many Tutsis, as well, who had lost family members.

What I was most interested in, and intrigued by while being there was looking at how they were rebuilding their political system. And I know, there has been a lot of conversation about whether Hutus are being included in that rebuilding of that political system. There is a lot of discrepancy about who is being included, and who is not. But, the one really incredible piece is that women figure so largely into their governing bodies, and that is a very, very intentional thing that they are doing as part of their work. So, that was quite inspirational. They just made it happen. They made a mandate, and they started to include women.

I think a lot about how it is such a struggle here in this country to get women to the table, and I look at our election process now, and the debate. It just seems like such a mind-leap for people to make. In so many countries that have struggled through many, many more difficult things than we have in the recent history, they seem to be able to do it.

BB: A lot of your work at United for a Fair Economy was raising awareness and doing research and studies about the racial wealth divide. What do you think are the main things that people just don't realize? It's not a term you see plastered all over the newspapers, "racial wealth divide." What should people know? What is going way below their radar?

AD: I think that what is going below people's radar is the cumulative effect that policies have on the current state of wealth disparity in this country today. We are a very ahistorical kind of a place, and people don't like to think about how the past may have impacted the present, but there are very concrete and tangible ways to measure the way that assets have been taken away from people of color, steps have been taken backward, and privilege has been afforded to other folks, mainly white Americans. Things like the Homestead Act.

No one thinks about the Homestead Act. There is a great piece of policy where white folks were privileged to basically get stolen land where they could do things with that land and develop it. And that is an asset. Land is an asset. There are people who are still living off of their grandparents' and great grandparents' land that was obtained through that Homestead Act.

There are people who look at that and say, "Well, African-American folks were allowed to be part of that Homestead Act," That is true, to some extent, but part of the policy was that you had to develop that land in order to keep the land. You had to improve the land.

Well, African-American folks at that time didn't have any ability to improve that land; therefore, they weren't able to keep it. That is still an issue today where there are huge pieces of land being lost in the south to African-American landholders; it is going on today.

You look at the mortgage crisis of today. It is supposed to be the greatest loss of assets since Post-Reconstruction for African-American folks.

So, that is a way where history has continued through, and the whole point of that project was to really raise awareness about how the policies that people put into place, whether the intentions are good, the outcomes are really what matters--to link those good intentions with the outcome as well.

BB: When I hear that I think, wow, that is a huge, depressing, systemic problem. What can people do to change that? There is raising awareness, saying, "This is an issue that you are not keeping in mind when you are creating policy," but, then, what is necessary to make that change?

AD: I think that a key tool, which we use here at the Resource Center as well is, is after folks know more about what the issues are, we're trying to build leadership amongst grassroots folks so that they can start to advocate for policies that matter to them.

We're constantly talking about the power vacuum in this country, and I think we do have a power vacuum in this country. The idea is for us to disrupt that power vacuum and to include more people who are the most affected by policies to get in the mix, to start advocating for themselves, and for their voices to be seen as more valid, or relevant, or salient to the conversation. That's one key piece.

The other thing is, we're in this really incredible moment right now where there's this little tiny window that's been opened, this tiny window of opportunity to talk about race, to talk about inequality. When you're in a moment where everybody's also feeling the crunch, you know, everyone talks about the squeezed middle class, this is an opportunity, where we can start talking about how these issues not only have affected people who are the most affected, but they're starting to affect everyone now. As they start to percolate to the top where they are affecting more people, I think, it's an opportunity to start building coalitions, cross-class, cross-race coalitions. People are often in their little silos, their issue silos, but I think, it's a moment where we can start building those alliances for greater change.

BB: Following on that idea of alliances, is there a role for white people in the Women of Color Resource Center's work?

AD: White allies have held a huge role for the Women of Color Resource Center historically. When you think about the women's movement in general, and you think about the role that the women who founded this Center carved out for themselves to be separate from, but in conjunction with the women's movement of the time, there's been a lot of tension that has stemmed from the feminist movement, and where women of color fit within that. Again, it goes back to, is race more important? Is gender more important? At the core of it, there are some general principles that we're looking at, and when we talk about bringing issues of women of color to the front, we're not saying to the exclusion of everyone else. What we're saying is, there are issues of opportunity, there are issues of power, and there are issues of speaking one's voice that have applicability to everyone. If the most affected are raised up, then that will make waves outward.

Women of color and white women have always been allies with the Center to be spokespeople for our work, to disseminate all of our publications, and to get out there in the world. There are a lot of white women in academia who have utilized our resources, data and statistics. And certainly, folks have always been welcome to be part of our celebrations and our policy work. Certainly, our policy work on welfare advocacy has stretched across race and class, and our peace and solidarity work has done the same. So, I think that, for us, the core is about developing leadership amongst women of color, and certainly that leadership development can happen in conjunction with white allyship as well.

BB: How can people who are listening, or who will read a transcript of this, get involved with your work whether they're in the Bay Area, or they're somewhere else?

AD: Well, there are a lot of different ways. If folks are interested in our women veterans work in particular, we're always looking for various healers and alternative medicine folks, people who are really interested in helping, particularly the women of color veterans, to do their healing work so that they can work more on their political work as well.

You can always buy our publications, read them and disseminate them. Participate in workshops, lead a workshop. That can happen all over the country.

Locally, we run a project called the Technology Empowerment Project of Oakland. That is a project that trains low-income women, or no-income women, to tell their own stories through audio documentaries. If you know of women who can participate in that, if you are a woman who can participate in it, we encourage you to call us.

And then, of course, you can always financially support the Center. We're a small organization of six staff members, and we're doing a lot of different work. Your dollars go a long way in terms of the work that we do, and the products that we achieve.

BB: Is there anything else that you didn't get to talk about, or cover that you want listeners to know about your work, or the Center's work, or anything related?

AD: I survey the landscape of nonprofits constantly and look to see who is doing similar work all the time. I feel like we're a very unique organization in the work that we do. I don't see a lot of organizations that are so deeply rooted in developing the political and social thought of women of color, for women of color, by women of color.

I would say to really think about the idea of supporting and learning about organizations like this, even outside of election time. I think there's a lot of buzz around race and gender and these hot-button issues around election time, but we're here before election time, and after election time. We're doing this work regardless of what the political climate is. That's a really important thing to know about places like us, and other organizations that are doing this work.

BB: There's a directory, isn't there, of women of color organizations?

AD: There is, yes. In the past we have put out a directory of women of color led organizations that are all over the nation, and you can easily pick one up and order one from our website. We have all our publications listed on our website.

BB: Is there any quote, or mantra, or something that keeps you going in your work?

AD: I just think of, "little by little." Little by little. I'm constantly a little overwhelmed by what I don't know, and I think about everyone who came before me, and how they learned what they learned, and it didn't come all at once. I'm young yet, and I feel like little by little, we can get there.

The work that we're doing is big, sometimes quite depressing work, but it's the little victories along the way that keep us going, all of us.

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