As a single mom, my race, class and gender defined my possibilities: because of the work hours I needed so I could take care of my son, the only job I could find was at Dunkin‘ Donuts. But women were only allowed to be the lower paid counter “girls,” while men could be donut-makers. And as an Asian, the boss expected me to work harder for less than the white “girls.”
Which pissed me off! It wasn’t fair! Suddenly, I did not want to accept third rate status because of my race and gender, I did not want to play the game. My best friend was already a feminist and a socialist. I went East to live with her and together we decided to dedicate our lives to ending the oppressive system of capitalism. That meant joining a socialist organization, since you can’t be a “social”ist by acting as an individual. I am still a member and credit this long involvement with much of my development.
Rather than thinking about a “career,” I took jobs based on consultation with my comrades so that my work could best contribute to our shared goal of unifying workers and combatting racism and sexism. That’s why I call myself a “professional troublemaker”: my profession became finding the job from which I could best rattle the cage. My longest stint was 20 years as a hospital food service worker; from a rank and file union activist, I was elected President of my local – the first Asian woman to do so in Massachusetts. It was the best and most honest leadership position I’ve had. While later I was an ED of a national non-profit, you aren’t elected to those positions by the people you organize/serve; you select yourself and are approved by a pretty small board.
As a labor and then community organizer, I realized that qualities are as important as skills, and that women have the qualities of compassion, deep listening, nurturing, and relationship building that are essential to building a new society. I found my power by tapping into those qualities, to consciously identify women’s ways as assets, to name them, to use them. Our society usually devalues what women have to offer, but we don’t have to accept that. For example, women are “too emotional” to be effective, right? When as a union steward I was representing a worker, sometimes I would get so angry I would cry; but crying isn’t a weakness unless you let it be one. I could both cry and be effective at the same time. Being a woman of color in a white man’s world means we are round pegs in square holes. I’m “standing in my power” when instead of forcing myself to fit, I’m changing the shape of the hole.
Women of color – African American, Native American, Latina, Asian – often teach and learn through story telling. We have sometimes shared stories of the painful experiences we have had of being silenced, made invisible, insulted, set up to fail. And for those who have succeeded, it has sometimes been at the price of “fitting,” much like the Chinese women of old who met the criterion for beauty by having their feet crippled to fit into 3 inch shoes.
But more and more, women of color have achieved their own goals on their own terms. Over the last few decades, we have defined for ourselves what we mean by “success,” and we have found our power by not being silent, by being visible, by following our hearts, by insisting on good process, by not doing it alone, by modeling new forms of leadership.
The world is on the cusp of change, ready for new models of leadership, for new definitions of democracy. The non-hierarchical models used by Occupy Wall Street owe much to the work of women. It couldn’t be a better time for Standing in our Power to form! Together, women of color can give each other the support to follow the paths we know are right – both in terms of what we do with our lives and how we do it. We can tell our stories. We can learn from each other’s experiences. We can give advice. We can test out new methods. We can laugh and we can cry. We can model new ways to organize ourselves. We can create a beloved community. We can give ourselves a taste of a better world to come.
Given that the nation will be majority people of color by 2042 and that women will be more than 50%, we are definitely the ones we’ve been waiting for – and they don’t know it yet, but we’re the ones everyone has been waiting for!