By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer
The inaugural meeting of Sacramento County’s Commission On The Status of Women and Girls was like a virtual Who’s Who of women who lead in the civic engagement space throughout the region.
The November gathering drew participation from former Congresswoman Doris Matsui; mayor Heather Fargo, who is still only the second woman to ever lead the capital city; Elk Grove’s current mayor Bobbie Singh-Allen, who made history in late 2020, becoming the city’s first female mayor and the first Sikh woman in the nation to be elected as a mayor; and Sue Frost, chair (at the time of the meeting) of the Sacramento County Board of Supervisors. Frost’s predecessor, Phil Serna called for the formation of the Commission On The Status of Women and Girls, describing it as “long overdue.”
With a “particular emphasis on the economically disadvantaged,” the advisory council will help shape policy decisions that impact women and girls; act as a resource to advance economic opportunities for women and girls; and gather data on the status of women and girls.
A handful of Black women were also “in the room,” doing their part to make sure their voices and concerns are not only heard, but respected and acted upon. Among those looking to energize the on-going discussion is Anya-Jael Woods. Woods serves as a Strategic Business Planner with SMUD’s Sustainable Communities team. She also co-chairs The Sacramento Women and Girls Advancement Coalition and serves on the Board for the non-profit, Cottage Housing Inc. Her involvement with the new body began with the listening sessions hosted by the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC).
“I wanted to see just who they really were. I felt they were very interested in women’s issues, but I felt there was still a need for my voice that brought questions and insight about women of color,” Woods said.
The adult commissioners will serve three-year terms. Having done equity work at SMUD, Woods expects her professional experiences to aid her.
“I am also a planner and project manager so I hope all of that will help us stay focused and clear on the issues we are bringing to the table to resolve,” she said.
Black women aren’t often represented on boards such as this. Woods and others say it’s vital to have a seat at the table.
“Often time issues that are brought to the table as women’s issues are not considered with the additional layer of how those issues impact Black women. There is a difference.
Throughout the years the fight for equality and equity for women has been for White women. There was a secondary fight happening in the background for women of color. I am taking this seat at the table as a way to bring awareness to that secondary fight and hopefully move us closer to it no longer being secondary. It needs to be mainstream, it needs to be the fight of all women and those who are fighting for women.”
Some, Woods says, may see her as “wishing for rainbows and unicorns,” but universal support is a goal.
“I will always speak up and against division of any kind and what is flat out wrong,” Woods said. “It is flat out wrong that we are still fighting in this manner with a division between women in any way. That also goes for economic status, marital status, motherhood status, your zip code. None of it should cause a divide when you are coming together to fight for the common factor of women’s rights and equity.”
Angelina Woodberry is another African American commissioner. Woodberry is the Adult Consumer Advocate Liaison with Cal Voices, representing the voice of mental health consumers in the Sacramento County Department of Behavioral Health. She’s also a mother of two.
“Often in groups such as this, I have found that the voices of lower and working income mothers are often underrepresented or simply seen as a monolith. I want to make sure that this Commission gets off to a start that is grounded in the cornucopia of needs the marginalized mothers and daughters have in the county,” Woodberry shared.
Having admired the actions of the State Commission on the Status of Women and Girls for several years, Woodberry said she jumped at the chance to help with its County counterpart.
“When there is an opportunity to sit at a table where decisions are made that will impact the lives of women and girls, it is my obligation as a member of that group to make sure that the African American voices, women with disabilities, as well as the former foster youth voice is represented,” she shared.
What Woodberry wants for local women is the same thing she wants for her own daughter as she steps into adulthood.
“I want my daughter and other young women to grow in their empowerment. Black women often take on the brunt of responsibility in families, but rarely receive the accolades due them for their sacrifice, struggle and dedication.
“I want Black women in Sacramento County to be seen as more than an afterthought. I want them to recieve equal pay and recognition. I want them to be viewed in a fair light. Black girls and women are often viewed as being stronger, older, and more worldly than girls and women of the same age in other races. We seem to be viewed as dispensable. We are not. We need consideration and protection, just like other women and girls.”
Diversity on the commission was an important factor, says veteran leadership expert Bernice Bass de Martinez, who was a member of the Blue Ribbon Commission (BRC). Bass de Martinez initially became involved through Sacramento State University, where she works as Special Assistant to Sheree Meyer, dean of the College of Arts and Letters. Prior to the BRC, they held a series of listening circles that brought together a cross-section of women on campus. They were spurred forward by the first national Women’s March and the inauguration of President Donald Trump, who was known to make disparaging remarks about women.
Then, the global coronavirus changed everything.
“All of a sudden the earth fell out,” Bass de Martinez said. “It really made sense (to start thinking) about how much money do women and girls earn? What jobs are available to women and girls? What about the level of education in terms of women and girls, given their circumstances? If you work and you don’t have childcare, how can you go to school on a regular basis? Can you tell your child you can’t be sick on Friday because I have a test? I don’t think so. But oftentimes others don’t think of things like that.”
Sometimes, Bass de Martinez adds, people don’t see each other’s differences or the value in addressing them either. She’s hopeful, however, that real change is on the horizon.
“Throughout the process, folks continued to say, ‘What about diversity?’ Now, that means something different for everybody, but being present at the table, people who look like me, we could raise the issues. ‘You do mean race?’ You do mean socioeconomic? You do mean gender diversity? What about age difference and how is that affected by the intersection of race? So that was a constant, and I can say that because I was present at the table.”
Interaction, Bass de Martinez says, is critical.
“Oftentimes, it’s not that people are negative, or racist, or sexist… it’s because they’ve had no contact, in a real way, with someone who is different than them. And out of sight, out of mind, as my mama used to say, and that is really how we function as living, human beings.”
It’s a lot to expect a group, especially one still disconnected and separated by the need to still socially distance, to solve everything.
“Let’s look at it this way. It will be in the thinking, the approach of how we go about this work,” Bass de Martinez said.
“We know there’s hunger and particularly amongst women. This commission’s job is not to be on the corner handing out food. Its job is to make sure that County supervisors understand women are impacted even greater by food shortage and women from certain segments of the population have an even greater than great problem with getting good food. This commission is about keeping the issues in front of the supervisors.”
Woods said her top five issues as a commissioner are pay equity for women, bringing women back into the workplace post pandemic, representation, quality childcare that is affordable and accessible, and safety.
“There are so many (issues), but these five, I feel, have so many branches that touch women’s lives and how we are able to show up as our whole self to be successful at anything we do,” Woods said.
“We have a really long way to go. Honestly I know these issues will not be solved in this generation,” she continued.
The goal is to help put girls in a position to speak up and stand up.
Woods has “five beautiful, joyful, genius, busy, crazy, loud and proud Black children.”
“I have three bonus daughters and two biological sons. What I want for my daughters is the same that I want for my sons. I want them to know that they have access and privilege to do whatever it is that they set their heart to. They belong in every room they enter, they have a voice and they better damn sure use it, and that I will do everything humanly possible thing to remove any and every barrier that they are faced with because of their sex or skin color.”
The Sacramento County Commission of the Status of Women joins 26 other California city and county commissions dedicated to gender equity. The only County now without such a body, Bass de Martinez says, is San Bernardino.
It’s also crucial, she says, for the Black community to engage civically.
“It’s about showing up and being present, even if there’s nothing on the agenda that interests you. We don’t. And I speak from that from having served on an appointed body at the city level in Elk Grove. I say that from having sat on a board appointed by the governor. Who comes? And then, later, who says they didn’t do anything for us?’”
Bass de Martinez encourages Black women to make the time to volunteer and be involved on boards and commissions in a meaningful way.
“You don’t just sit there because you think it’s going to build your resume. You are in a seat that really can help make a difference.”
While sharing their own expertise in these roles, she noted, it’s also important for women to be open and willing to learn from others.
“You’ve got to be open enough to consider that there are needs of multiple people,” she said. “Absolutely, we care what happens to our people. But if we only focus on ‘our,’ then we’re doing exactly what we say we’re fighting against. I know that’s tough, but that’s real. if you’re going to advance career wise, you become the boss of all, not the boss of some.”