Tonight, 10 candidates will participate in the third national presidential primary debate taking place at Texas Southern University in Houston, Texas. Back in April, this debate stage was set by She the People’s presidential forum, a historic first presidential forum that centered women of color. That event and the narrative it drove still serves as a touchpoint and measuring stick for assessing campaigns and politics today. That’s saying something, given the velocity of the news cycle and the shock and horror of recent events including white supremacist violence, police shootings, inhumane treatment of young migrant girls in custody, and our government turning away those fleeing the environmental disaster in the Bahamas, just to name a few.
In Houston in April, women of color arrived as swing voters, as a discerning bloc, as the must-win group. We also arrived with a hopeful message to Democrats facing deep fears of a 2020 loss and fights about how to win. We already have what it takes. We are one-quarter of voters in swing states like Georgia, Florida, and South Carolina, and have the power to close the vote gap in the Midwest states of Michigan and Wisconsin. We are the most likely to vote for Democrats, to lead movements on the ground—and we have powerhouse organizers who are experts at building the multiracial coalitions we need to win.
Back in April, She the People brought together a network of dozens of groups and leaders for our first presidential forum focused on women of color. Our organizing, led in part by Jessica Byrd of the Movement for Black Lives and Three Point Strategy, tapped the power of the women of color networks in Texas and nationally. We brought top experts on stage to question the candidates. We presented to the world the image of 2,000 engaged, empowered women from 26 states—especially states that Trump won in 2016—who will determine not just the results of the primary, but if Democrats can win the White House next year. What’s more, we brought with us a cadre of reporters, editors, producers, and opinion-makers who understand that this moment requires a new perspective into the dynamics that drive American politics, and an understanding that so many narrative-drivers missed the most important stories in 2016. Because we women of color are three times more likely to vote for Democrats than white men—and far more progressive than white women as a group.
We challenged the very assumptions of both Democrats and Republicans that ignored the monumental force women of color represent in modern politics, and I spoke to this when we opened the event. Top leaders from across the country joined MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid and me onstage to ask questions—questions important to us women of color that have been ignored in the past by top candidates. We wanted answers to the crisis in black maternal health, and the threat of white supremacy. We wanted solutions to the housing and education crisis. We asked about Indigenous rights and the missing and murdered women traditional media has ignored. We challenged candidates to answer why women of color should support their candidacy—and they are still making their case tonight. Our event changed the national conversation, trending No. 1 on the day of the event, inspiring more than 11,000 articles and news segments, and reaching at least one-quarter of the American population.
We chose Texas for a reason. The margin of victory for Democrats in Texas shrunk to a mere 3%, thanks to the excellent long-term organizing and voter engagement led by Texas Organizing Project and a host of women of color-led groups like Texas Rising. Some had written Texas off, but we saw great power in holding an event in Harris County, the most integrated county in the country that recently elected a host of exciting women of color leaders like Lena Hildago and 19 black women judges who, you might remember, later appeared in a compelling photo shoot.
What’s more, Houston was the birthplace of the term “women of color” when a multiracial group pushed for an agenda of economic, racial, and gender justice at the nation’s first and only National Women’s Convention back in 1977. Houston was also the home of Congresswoman Barbara Jordan, a personal hero in my own journey and bold voice as the first black female leader to address the Democratic National Convention. She later taught at Texas Southern, the state’s largest HBCU. In fact, building adjacent to the auditorium where candidates will gather tonight bears her name.
A reporter for a major news outlet told me recently, without irony, that through the last four election cycles, they had never experienced an event like She the People. “It’s a watershed moment for American politics,” the reporter said. There’s plenty of evidence that our collective voice and our work has changed the game. Nearly daily in the past four months, another news outlet cites She the People in stories on the campaigns and the electorate.
Women of color arrived on the primary scene in April and are in a pitched battle with establishment forces to focus our approach on expanding the base and organizing a multiracial force that will win the White House in 2020. Tonight, all the candidates on stage have signaled to women of color that they are listening and responding to various degrees. Since the forum, Elizabeth Warren has laid out specific plans to boost wages for women of color. Cory Booker has paid tribute to the role black women have played in changing this nation. Julián Castro has addressed the epidemic of murdered and missing indigenous women in his policy proposals. These candidates now recognize, in a way that Clinton did not in 2016, that there is no path to victory without the support of women of color.
Did you see our presidential forum in April? I’ll be back here next Tuesday, Sept. 17 at 11 AM Pacific for an AMA on Daily Kos. I look forward to answering your questions and engaging in a discussion with you all!
Aimee Allison is a Senior Fellow at Prism and founder and president of She the People, an organization that elevates the political voice of women of color.