By Kathy Ferguson, Program Manager
Back in 2001, a group women self-identifying as women of color came together to discuss the violence against women movement; to evaluate to what degree women of color were involved; and further explore what opportunities were available for increased participation. There were roughly 60 women in attendance from all over the state of Maryland. The majority were domestic violence and/or sexual assault advocates, but there was also representation from law enforcement, parole and probation, social services, education, among other disciplines as well.
The group convened in large part due to the initiatives of then executive director Karen Hartz who was following up from national discussions and meetings which had just begun to address the lack of women of color leadership in the movement and to address the importance of racial and ethnic diversity in the servicing of sexual assault services. Preliminary studies from a group of women of color in the field found that women of color were largely absent at state coalitions and rape recovery centers and when they were staffed at coalitions and rape crisis centers they functioned in limited capacities. Actually almost all employees that who identified as women of color were relegated to outreach assignments. Part of what came after these findings was a push to establish women of color caucuses in the states and territories as a way to ensure that there was seat at the table for women of color, that the voices of women of color were included in the movement against violence against women.
Originally, the Maryland caucus identified a prime goal to be that of increasing leadership in the field. One way to meet that goal would be to interest women of color in college to think about working in such capacities as nonprofit management, forensic nursing, law, clinical psychology, education and social work with special emphasis on addressing violence against women. Much of our early work concentrated on how to accomplish that goal but we also operated in an advisory capacity. Our early days were that of an ad hoc group helping to shape the direction of MCASA’s overall work. At that time MCASA’s WOCN group members actually paid dues and had a separate bank account that was overseen by then president Barbie Johnson and treasurer Maria Johnson. These funds were used to purchase refreshments at meetings but more importantly helped to pay for a MCASA WOCN logo design and to print letterhead.
In 2002, MCASA WOCN celebrated its first anniversary by hosting an informational reception which featured author Lori Robinson, author of I Will Survive: The African-American Guide to Healing from Sexual Assault and Abuse.
The event was held at the Montpellier Mansion in Laurel, MD and was quite successful. It was also during this year that we compiled a statewide resource directory which was distributed across Maryland.
In the time since, originally-forming membership began to dwindle, however, the vision of MCASA WOCN continued to prevail and by 2005, under the leadership of Jennifer Politt-Hill, MCASA made the move to incorporate the WOCN into its programming. Since that time MCASA WOCN has operated as a STOP funded program, working to build the capacity of communities of color to address and respond to sexual violence. More recently this support has expanded to include all underserved populations while continuing to nurture the WOCN. Our new executive director, Lisae C. Jordan remains committed to continuing this important work.
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Loretta Ross speaking at the 2012 MCASA WOCN Conference[/caption]
While creating a separate program risked further reinforcing the outreach pigeon hole that women of color staff were usually relegated to, as identified in those earlier studies, MCASA’s WOCN group was decidedly in favor of addressing the disproportionately high rates of sexual assault happening in communities of color as well as addressing the lack of parity for these communities with regard to resources, education, and systematic responses.In the years since, the MCASA WOCN program has gone on to update its logo, produce four culturally relevant brochures, host seven statewide conferences featuring internationally renowned speakers and leaders in the anti- violence against women's movement, offer numerous technical assistance and training sessions, conduct countless community education and outreach events, as well as participate in local and state awareness events.
Currently, MCASA’s WOCN maintains a small core leadership team which helps shape the agenda and overall direction of the group but boasts over 90 general body members. These members participate in our sponsored events as well as our women of color listserv which disseminates announcements; information; and provides notification of local, state, and national trends; research and developments that are happening in or are particularly relevant to communities of color.
MCASA WOCN has plenty to be proud of since its early beginnings. We have grown tremendously and have accomplished a lot. And while you can expect to see more of the same important work from MCASA WOCN there is still more to do. So be on the lookout as we continue to progress and move forward.
This article is part of the Fall 2012 issue of Frontline.