Aimee Allison believes in living her politics and standing up for courageous, moral leadership. Speak with her for just a few minutes and it’s clear that she practices those same principles with a very clear goal in mind—elevating women of color to their rightful place in the American democracy.
“This is more than about politics to me,” Allison said late last year, when She the People, the groundbreaking organization she founded, hosted a gathering of hundreds of women of color who are transforming politics. “We’re taking everything forward. It’s about a justice agenda. It’s about creating a country where everyone belongs. It’s about women of color and the saving graces of democracy. And when we come from that place, nothing can touch us.”
Multiculturalism is Allison’s religion. She’s pursued that goal for more than two decades, written about how to build a better world, provided media commentary, and hosted podcasts and radio shows. In addition to founding She the People, she also is president of Democracy in Color, an organization dedicated to empowering the new American majority, which is multiracial, multicultural, and progressive. Her mission is to bring people together, to become a bridge connecting communities, and, perhaps most significantly, to elevate the voices of women of color “as leaders, political strategists, organizers, and voters.”
“Because of her, we’re in a moment where it feels like the world is paying attention to us,” said Rebecca Thompson, a former candidate for state representative in Michigan who advocates for black women running for office. Thompson, who shares her experiences in her work as a career coach, describes Allison’s efforts as game-changing. “Beyond doing amazing work, she is a beautiful human, and her light literally brightens any room she’s in.”
Allison was born in Antioch, California, and has made Oakland her home since the early 1990s. She earned a B.A. in history from Stanford University, and holds a master’s in education from the Stanford Graduate School of Education. Talking about her work, Allison often returns to the new American majority. “Women of color, black women for sure in terms of the highest vote count, but also Asian American women, Latinas, Native women, Arab American women, we’re as a block the fastest-growing and most progressive vote at the polls,” Allison says. ”We dwarf the other groups.”
“We’re not a minority,” she adds. We need to tell other women of color that the country needs us, she urges. And, Allison says, we have to tell the country we need women of color.
It’s a simple truth: The strongest progressives have always been black women. When black women are centered, when black women lead, they succeed. While 2018 offered a heightened realization of black women’s power, that power has been there all along. Last year was just one of the first in which there’s been a high-profile, concerted effort to center black women voters and the path to victory they offer. That’s what Allison was doing around the country with Get in Formation for Stacey Abrams, the Democratic nominee in the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial race.
The models for success are out there. Allison wants everyone to know Summer Lee, a Democrat who unseated two-decade incumbent Paul Costa in Pennsylvania’s 34th state House District in 2018. Lee won by emphasizing the importance of young voters, investing in grassroots outreach, and championing proactive, progressive policies. Lee is the first black woman to represent the area in the state legislature and one of just a few black female state representatives.
Status quo progressive campaigns, Allison says, aren’t just targeting the wrong voters, but are investing in the wrong things. Deep investment in black voters, in grassroots mobilization, changed the landscape in Pennsylvania’s 34th. Allison wants to make that happen on a national scale. The potential is enormous.
“The calculus about how to win, particularly in the swing states and the Southwest, has to be based on a simple fact: That is one in five primary voters in the Democratic primary are women of color,” she told MSNBC’s Joy Reid shortly before She the People’s first-of-its-kind candidate forum in Texas in April. “If we take a look at the mistakes that were made in 2016, one of the biggest mistakes was to not embrace and recognize the most progressive, powerhouse, important voting blocks in the party. That’s women of color.”
Across the board, progressives have not invested early enough, or substantially enough, in black voters, particularly women of color. Look at the 2018 midterm elections. Altogether, candidates, parties, political action committees, and outside groups spent $5.7 billion, she points out. Where did that money go? To television and digital advertising, Allison says, the wrong methods, targeting the wrong voters. Joe Biden keeps visiting Scranton, but Pittsburgh’s the key, she tells me.
There’s more than one reason this inefficient electoral resource allocation persists. Political consultants want to keep using failing strategies because of how that industry’s economy works—campaigns hire consultants, consultants brings in ad makers, and so on. They’re not necessarily reaching the people candidates need them to reach. Bottom line, Allison says, a lot of good money is wasted on ineffective efforts.
These underlying trends are based on and in turn feed into false metrics.
“Polling might put Biden near the front of the Democratic pack,” Allison observed recently in The Nation, “but with women of color making up a massive percentage of the Democratic primary electorate in key early states, let’s not be too quick to judge how important it is for a candidate to address our real concerns to make it to the finish line.”
Success, per Allison, requires shifting the broader narrative, changing political culture. Reorienting misguided thinkers, introducing the new American majority, and advancing a new paradigm for new American leaders—that’s how we change patterns of spending and investment. She’s after forcing profound shifts: a shift away from “minorities” and toward recognizing black women as leaders among us.
Right now, the fundamental momentum surrounding who matters in electoral contests isn’t based on anything true, Allison says. That’s why, along with her successful efforts to promote women of color running for office last cycle, she created that first-ever summit focusing on women of color in politics last year in September 2018. She’s also fielding a straw poll in Nevada to get a sense of women of color’s thinking re: 2020.
Allison’s ultimate goal is to build political power: “The nation’s politicos need to understand, recognize, and center women of color.”
Rebecca Pilar Buckwalter-Poza is deputy managing editor of Prism. You can follow her on Twitter @rpbp, and you can follow Prism @ourprisms.