The second annual “Seat at the Table” was hosted Tuesday evening by the University of Michigan’s Students of Color in Public Policy in the Michigan Union. The event, including four panelists of color, created a dialogue on issues of intersectionality, social injustices and illuminating the voices of women of color.
The theme for the panel was “Sister Outsider,” based on Audre Lorde’s 1984 collection of poems and essays of the same title that touches upon similar issues. Juliana Pino Alcaraz, a University alum and policymaker at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, served as a moderator for the event.
Kururama Sánchez, a Public Policy graduate student, one of the organizers of the event and a member of SCPP, said she was excited to include the often-excluded voices of women of color in the discussion about policy.
“We’re hoping to have a really lively conversation with the audience and the panelists,” Sánchez said. “It often feels like a lack of a voice for women of color, so it’s important to see those voices at the table.”
The panelists included Ashley Tuomi, the executive director of American Indian Health and Family Services of Southeastern Michigan; Desiree Cooper, a former attorney, Pulitzer Prize-nominated journalist and reproductive rights activist; Mahima Mahadevan, a New American Leaders Michigan program coordinator; and Sandra O’Brien, the chair of Wayne State University’s Board of Governors.
After introductions of each of the panelists by SCPP President Gabrielle Horton, a Ford graduate student, Alcaraz presented questions for each of the panelists.
Alcaraz first asked the panel about what it means for a woman of color to be at the table.
“There are so many white norms determining that space before we came in,” Mahadevan said. “Even though there are women that are there, there are so many norms that we are struggling to push against.”
Tuomi commented on what she has witnessed in her career so far.
“There’s almost this competition among women to be at the table,” Tuomi said. “We fall into the trap of tearing each other down rather than bringing each other up, so find a way that we make comprises and help each other.”
Cooper also mentioned the workplace discrimination women often face for having or wanting to have children.
“I’ve spoken to a lot of audiences and always ask this question,” Cooper said. “How many women have hidden the fact that they are having children, or are pregnant, or are planning to be?”
The answer was many. Alcaraz also posed the question of what mentorship from women of color has meant to the panelists through their experiences.
Cooper responded to this question first, bringing in her experience working at the Detroit Free Press, where she said she was initially underpaid for the work that she did. Cooper said only after an older woman of color made Cooper aware of it, did she stand up for herself.
“There is still a taboo that (women) don’t talk about and that is money,” Cooper said. “Let’s talk about that and that is a huge validation of our power.”
O’Brien, who is the only person of Latinx descent to serve in her position at the University, spoke from her experiences working in the judicial system.
“Without somebody that looks like you, whether it’s a female or a person of color, there’s a higher probability that your interests won’t get served,” O’Brien said.
For the final question, the panelists gave advice to their younger selves at the beginning of their careers.
“You can do it all,” O’Brien said. “I grew up with modest means on a farm, and I’m the first in college of my family. Women can have it all, if you want to have a family and a career, then you can.”
After the questions were over, the panelists interacted with the audience to discuss issues with representation and employment.
Rackham student Save Gasaiwai said he came to the event because he heard from Mahadevan earlier this year and her ideas had resonated with him as a Pacific Islander student.
“I’ve been doing a lot of soul-searching about what I want to do after I graduate,” Gasaiwai said. “They (the panel) really clarified some issues that I have myself have been struggling with like discussing my pay, saying if I’m good enough for a position, because of my position in society.”