Yesterday morning (June 8), former political fundraiser Kimberly Peeler-Allen sent out a jubilant mass e-mail on behalf of Higher Heights for America, the group she co-founded to support Black women candidates. The subject line—”We’re one step closer!”—referred to the U.S. Senate primary victory of California Attorney General Kamala Harris the night before. If Harris beats Orange County Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Latina and fellow Democrat, in the general election, she will become the first Black woman in the Senate in 20 years.
With a focus on voter engagement and leadership development, Higher Heights supports Black women candidates with strong progressive agendas, those who champion policies such as equal pay, paid family leave and reproductive health access. It also considers who has the strongest chance of winning. This election cycle, Higher Heights is focused on the U.S. Senate. It endorsed two of the five Black women running for a seat, Maryland U.S. Rep. Donna Edwards and Harris. Edwards lost her primary in May making Harris the group’s current priority.
Statistics for Black women in elected office are pretty abysmal. A 2015 report by Higher Heights assessed the landscape:
Despite being 7.4% of the U.S. population, Black women are just 3.4% of Congress, less than 1% of statewide elected executive officials, 3.5% of state legislators, and 1.9% of mayors in cities with populations over 30,000. Four Black women serve as mayors in the 100 largest cities in the United States. Historically, only 35 Black women from 15 states have ever served in the U.S. Congress, only 10 Black women from 9 states have ever served in statewide elected executive offices, and three states have still never elected a Black woman to their state legislature.
Black women’s underrepresentation in office comes within the context of their extremely high voting rates. With 64 percent voting in 2008 and 74 percent in 2012, Black women have the highest voter turnout of any race/gender subgroup in the U.S. “Black women come to the polls because we recognize the importance of government,” says Peeler-Allen. “I think we’re now just coming up on the first generation who may not have someone in their household who was part of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s still a really fresh battle to get the right to vote.”
Political strategist and Higher Heights cofounder Glynda C. Carr referred to her own family history as motivation for her involvement in a recent profile: “The women who came before me drive my commitment to lend my voice for women, particularly Black women, to have a place at the table to advance progressive public policies.”
So why don’t more Black women run for office?
Peeler-Allen says the barriers are multifaceted. “It’s a pipeline issue,” she explains, referring to the process of politicians coming up through local offices such as those on the school board and city council. If Black women aren’t in lower levels of government, it’s less likely that they will become national candidates.
Party gatekeepers also play a major role in choosing who can and can’t successfully run, especially in local contests. “There are states where, really, your ballot access is controlled by a county leader or some figurehead like that,” says Peeler-Allen. ”In theory a party leader [could be] a woman, but in actuality it’s [often a] male county executive that really recruits and supports candidates in the five adjacent counties.”
In addition, the race and gender wealth gaps poses a challenge, says Peeler-Allen. “People are very intimidated by the resources that are required to run a successful campaign.”
And the notion of being in the public eye gives some prospective candidates pause. ”They are weighing whether or not they want to put their families through the scrutiny that happens when you run for public office,” she says.
Peeler-Allen and Carr founded Higher Heights to tackle these barriers. Both had been involved in New York politics for more than a decade and kept noticing that they were among just one or two other women of color in these spaces. ”We knew from our personal networks that there were a huge number of women who were campaign operatives or very engaged in the process, and they weren’t part of the conversation,” recalls Peeler-Allen. What began as just a side project in 2011 is now the full-time pursuit for Carr and Peeler-Allen.
The group maintains multiple arms—a 501(c)(4), Higher Heights for America, a 501(c)(3), Higher Heights Leadership Fund, and a federally-connected PAC—that allow them to participate in the political process in a variety of ways. Peeler-Allen says their work is primarily funded by their members, about a 1,000 who have paid anywhere from $25 to $1,000 to join.
One of Higher Heights’ primary programs, Sister to Sister Salon Conversations,* focuses on Black women’s political participation beyond voting. ”Women go through these guided conversations, and the light bulbs come on. If you fire up a Black woman, she doesn’t go to the polls alone,” says Peeler-Allen. In a recent article for the Huffington Post, Carr made a similar point: ”Importantly, [B]lack women don’t just mobilize themselves; they organize their communities and bring others to the polls with them.”
Peeler-Allen says that having more Black woman politicians isn’t just about representation but about the power to determine political agendas. “If you’re not at the table, you are on the menu,” she says. “Everyone brings their personal perspective to leadership roles. Budgets are never about dollars, they are always about priorities. If we have people who have a broader set of priorities at the decision-making table, different decisions will be made.”
*The name of this program has been updated since publication to include “Salon Conversations”