Southern Women, Southern Justice

Susanna Hegner

There is so much more to Mother’s Day than flowers and chocolates. The modern-day celebration of motherhood traces its roots to a 19th-century women’s disarmament movement. Today, women are joining forces to tackle a wide array of issues, including growing economic disparity. Poverty among women is at historic levels, significantly higher than those for men. The numbers are even higher for women-led households, women of color and women in rural areas. 

In her decades of social justice work, Southwest Georgia Project Cofounder Shirley Sherrod recognized the plight of women in some of the poorest counties in the United States. She joined forces with like-minded leaders in Mississippi and Alabama to launch the Southern Rural Black Women’s Initiative, an organization that creates economic opportunities, connects women to resources and influences public policy. “It was so empowering for the women to talk about what would be needed to try to help bring change here in the South.” Sherrod said.

From its founding, the SRBWI noticed the roles women already played in guiding their communities and encouraged them to move into leadership positions – a shift Sherrod acknowledges even she wasn’t comfortable making at first. “I can remember way back in the 80s when someone referred to me as a leader. I didn't want to have that label because I’d always looked at the men as being the leaders. But when you take the time to look at it, it’s the women who do the work but don’t get the label. So it took a lot for me to accept that I was a leader and to be accepted as a leader because I didn't want to put myself out there as a leader. But when you can get women with the training to get out there, things happen.”




Former Business Development Specialist for the Southwest Georgia Project Daa’iyah Salaam agrees women often need a push to step into those positions. “I think we don’t really see ourselves as leaders because we’re so busy trying to just do it and get it done, and I think there is a sense of responsibility and a burden that’s placed on you when you view yourself as leader, and I think some of it is being a woman, maybe. Maybe some of it’s being a mother, feeling responsible, so maybe we shy away from that word just because that puts extra pressure on us, but I think we just really see ourselves as someone trying to make a difference and not someone who’s actually leading people.” 




To give women the confidence to overcome that reticence, SWGP developed youth leadership and mentorship programs. “We aim to help expose rural young women to different types of things,” Salaam said. “The women learn all kinds of things about leadership, about their human rights, about body image, about advocacy, about writing, public speaking. And these are young girls who don’t get a chance to go outside of their boundary lines, so they say we take for granted eating at restaurants, that they have not experienced. So we expose them to all those types of things. And we actually give them a voice.”

One Voice Louisiana Director Ashley Shelton says encouraging women to step into the public arena is part of her organization’s overall state strategy. “When we look at the progressive leadership in our state, the pipeline is thin and the pipeline is light in terms of folks that are entering into that pipeline. How do we encourage more women of color to run for office?”




History has shown how effective women’s leadership can be. The Arkansas Public Policy Panel began as the Panel of American Women, a group of mothers who were determined to build bridges across race, class, culture and religion in the 60s. “They’d have an African-American, a white, a Catholic, Protestant, a Jew and sometimes an Asian-American when she was available, and they would go hold panel discussions all over the state,” said APPP Executive Director Bill Kopsky. “They had a philosophy of telling their own stories about what it was like to grow up with their particular cultural background and why diversity was important to them.”




Kopsky says the women fielded questions peppered with racial slurs about Martin Luther King and derogatory queries about people of different faiths. “They always put a tablecloth over the table and held hands under the table so that they could support one another and not react angrily. And they would take those questions honestly and they’d tell them what Dr. King was doing or what the facts are about the Jewish faith or Protestant faith or Catholics.”

The momentum from that cultural outreach project led the women to become engaged in a wide range of policy issues and grow the organization’s membership. “By the 70s, there were enough men involved that were feeling insecure about the name that we changed the name to the Arkansas Public Policy Panel,” said Kopsky.

Ultimately, Sherrod says, women must be in leadership positions when it comes to the social change work that affects them. “To have women in this area actually leading the work that we’re doing, I think it’s really something special and something to be highlighted.” 

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Maureen O'Connell, former Executive Director of Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment, describes some of her experiences with gender dynamics in community organizing.




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