African American Women and the Law Conference

At around 4 pm last Thursday the DC office of the National Education Association was filled with a heartening scene. Around a hundred Black women and girls descended the escalator and joined together in affirmation, celebration and hard policy development. Stuck to the walls of the building’s basement auditorium were 20 long sheets of paper each with their own bulleted policy agenda lists marked out in brightly colored ink. One sheet read “Black girls and women are perfect as we are,” while another asked those in the room to “call upon African American lawyers and Black women to fight for election protection.” These pieces of paper, displaying the finished products of nearly 20 different panels, marked the culmination of the last two day’s work, but only the beginning of the central pledge of the African American Women and the Law Conference: to support and advocate for Black women and girls in a broadly inclusive manner that speaks across issues of disability, age, gender identity, class.       

Kimberlé Crenshaw, Co-Founder & Executive Director of AAPF, joins Barbara Arnwine, President of TJC, and Michelle Bernard, president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy, for the opening plenary.

Kimberlé Crenshaw, Co-Founder & Executive Director of AAPF, joins Barbara Arnwine, President of TJC, and Michelle Bernard, president and CEO of the Bernard Center for Women, Politics & Public Policy, for the opening plenary.

Dancers from the Breaking Silence Summer Camp hold Meagan Hockaday, Michelle Cusseaux and India Kager high above their heads and in their hearts.

Dancers from the Breaking Silence Summer Camp hold Meagan Hockaday, Michelle Cusseaux and India Kager high above their heads and in their hearts.

Arising from a 16-year hiatus, the African American Women and the Law Conference: Black Women Still Rising: Ending Structural Racism, Patriarchy and Violence, co-sponsored by the Transformative Justice Coalition, The Center for Intersectionality and Social Policy Studies at Columbia Law School and the African American Policy Forum, brought together Black women leaders to draft and pursue a legal and public policy agenda that centers the experiences of Black women and girls and strives to dismantle, in an intersectional manner, the systems that marginalize Women of Color. Over the course of two days and 16 panels ranging from “The Hush Among Us: The Target on the Back of Our LGBTQIA Community” to “If Black Girls Matter We Must Rethink ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ And Other Education Policies” and “#Say Her Name: Why We Must Address the Police Killings of Black Women,” the AAWLC attendees worked through some of the most difficult issues facing Women of Color with a focus on drafting hard policy points to advocate for the rights of Black women and girls. Each panel was tasked with producing a list of recommendations to present and be voted on at the closing plenary in gallery walk style. It was these policy points that would be written on the long sheets of paper and stuck up on the walls for all to see.

As the conference came to a close, attendees engaged with these issues once again, this time in a very personal and immediate way. Hosted by AAPF, Say Her Name: An Evening of Arts, Action and Healing asked family members of Black women killed by police to share the moving stories of how they lost their loved ones. These women, Fran Garrett, mother of Michelle Cusseaux, Gina Best, mother of India Kager, and Misha Charlton, sister of Meagan Hockaday, asked the audience to join in reflecting on what justice looks like, both for those who were lost and for their families, when Black women are killed by police. They were joined on stage by a variety of artists performing powerful songs and spoken word poetry. It was a deeply moving display and while somber, full of hope and determination. As the event came to a close, a group of women who had been a part of the Breaking Silence Summer Camp joined together and performed the centerpiece dance from the last Say Her Name event at Vassar College. Clasping hands, they weaved between each other forming a long interconnected braid as the music finished. With that send off the African American Women and the Law Conference came to an end, leaving everyone involved energized, more deeply engaged and determined to further the work, both in policy and personhood, that the last two days had inspired.

On Thursday, with the conference over, but its momentum still strong, the family members and the AAPF staff took their message to Capitol Hill. Guided by the experienced hand of Dara Baldwin of the National Disability Rights Network, the three women met with five Congressional offices and one prominent Senator’s office within just one afternoon. Although our time on the Hill was short, it was a major step forward for the family members as well as AAPF.  These conversations, only just the beginning of a longer relationship, bit deeply into issues of violence against Black women and police accountability with both sides taking copious amounts of notes.  Moving the forward, the AAPF staff is excited to spread the stories of these women across the Capitol and push for legislation that will lift up their narratives and, hopefully soon, protect Women of Color from state violence.

Want to see what went down at the AAWLC? Watch these videos for a glimpse! 

-How have Barbara Arnwine and Kimberlé Crenshaw experienced patriarchy?

-Luncheon Panel: "Organizing to Make Real Our Civil and Political Rights"

-Tonya Pinkins and Abby Dobson open up the Say Her Name reception with "Lift Every Voice and Sing"


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