What Empowering Women of Color Means to Me

Last year IMPACT received an anonymous donation of $35,000. The note enclosed said that the donor wanted to support the leadership of women of color in the Empowerment Self-Defense field and that they wanted the money to go toward increasing the salary, benefits, and professional development of the Executive Director.

I had a lot of feelings in that moment: disbelief (I seriously wondered if the check was real), shock, happiness, relief, and eventually, that deep feeling of acknowledgement. I am here, in a field dominated by people who do not look like me, and someone else not only thinks that it is important that I'm here, but their checkbook does too. 

I immediately began to think of ways in which I could spend the money other than on my own salary and benefits – even though I had been facing some very expensive health expenses that I could not really afford. But real leadership is lifting all boats, right? How could I just give myself a raise and not the rest of my team?

I have always believed in living my life in the service of others. But for those of us who choose to do this for our job - it’s almost assumed that there is some amount of personal sacrifice involved – often it is salary. But is this personal sacrifice actually necessary? Have we all just accepted that society pays lip service to the nobility of what we do, but doesn't value us when it comes to the distribution of resources?

One year later, we received this donation again. And again, I asked myself whether I feel entitled to the majority of this money being spent on, well, me. Growing up at the intersection of the race-triarchy (my shorthand for racist patriarchy), I think most women of color have probably internalized to some extent, the idea that we are worth less. Across professions and subgroups, we are paid less. When it comes to advancement, we are deemed too angry, feisty, submissive, emotional, focused on our families, or [enter other stereotype]. Our ideas are co-opted and our voices are silenced.

This spring, I started a fellowship with an organization called LEAP (Leadership Education and Advancement for Professionals), a program that supports the development of (mostly women) leaders of color in the Sexual Assault and Domestic Violence fields. It was heartbreaking to hear others in the program talk about all of the obstacles and challenges they face in the work.

But it is much bigger than professional and economic opportunity, the race-triarchy tells us from a young age that our bodies don't belong to us, they exist in service to the pleasures and fetishes of others. And time after time, we are shown that our LIVES are not important – we can even die mysteriously in police custody and no one will be held accountable. And we hold this recent and not-so-recent history in our bodies as historical and generational trauma 

As long as we can and can't remember, women of color have endured personal and systemic violence. And our defense mechanisms and self-protective strategies are as diverse as we are as a group. Some of these have been passed on from our mothers and their mothers and we were strong enough to survive. BUT I WANT MORE FOR US than survival. I want us to sparkle, shine, luxuriate, exude joy, or lead, according to our own choosing.

And here's the thing: I believe that I deserve to be alive, that I am entitled to set boundaries around my physical and emotional safety and comfort, that I can and should take up space, that my voice should be heard, and that I am a great leader. And a big reason that I am able to believe and embody these things, is IMPACT. Taking IMPACT as a student helped me own my power.

Which brings me back to this donation. The incredibly supportive and wonderful Board of Directors at IMPACT made sure that I did get a much-needed increase in salary and benefits and support for my participation as a LEAP Fellow.

But they also supported me in developing and holding our very first Women of Color Basics class this spring. I wanted to create a space where we could discuss, or just sit in quiet understanding of the social context of the violence we have faced, and support each other in surfacing the power we hold within. This was also an important way for IMPACT to start building a pathway for women of color to become leaders in Empowerment Self-Defense because sustainable leadership does requiring lifting up more people. And I cannot possibly adequately represent the breadth of needs and experiences of everyone who identifies as or adjacent to the "Women of Color" label.

I can't wait to keep building our individual and collective power. And I wanted to write this to share with our anonymous donor and to our community, why this means so much to me.

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  • Tanaya Reid
    So much power in this post! When one woman of color speak up like this, it uplifts so many of us. Our strength and beauty is immeasurable. Thank you to the donor, IMPACT and Linda for seeing the importance in raising our voices!
  • Linda Leu