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New project urging more women of color to vote

on October 31, 2008


Oct. 30 – Decades ago, Barbara Lee—now the outspoken Democratic congresswoman from the East Bay–deliberately chose not to register to vote. As a Mills College student in 1972, Lee was required to work for one of the presidential campaigns, or risk failing a class.

“For the first time, I said ‘I’m going to flunk this course,’ because I’m not going to get involved in politics,” she recalled. “ ‘These guys aren’t speaking to the issues that I think are important,’” she remembered thinking to herself.

But later that year, when Shirley Chisholm – the first African American woman elected to Congress – spoke on campus, Lee had a change of heart. “You speak to all the issues that young women care about,” she told Chisholm after her speech.

In reply, Chisholm told Lee that she needed to register to vote to if she wanted to change the system, according to Lee. Inspired by what she heard, Lee ended up coordinating the Chisholm’s campaign’s Northern California office for her class project.

Mable Yee

Mable Yee

Less than a week before the 2008 Presidential election on Nov. 4, Lee’s story is as relevant as ever. After the contested outcome of 2000 and the razor-thin margin of winning votes in 2004, many Americans seem to have realized that just one vote can not only swing an election, but the future of the country. In 2008, more than 3.5 million citizens have registered to vote, according to a survey of state election officials conducted by the Associated Press. Results of the survey also noted gains among blacks, young people, and the rural population.

Despite the rise in new voters, “minority” women, or “women of color” –African American, Asian and Pacific Islander, Latina, and Native American/Alaska Native women — have yet to register and vote in large numbers, according to Mable Yee, the CEO and co-founder of Engage Her, a new online and nonpartisan organization seeking to get a diverse group of women politically involved.

Yee, 56, a former businesswoman-turned-social activist who lives in Berkeley, has worked since last year to uncover the reasons why women of color do not vote.

“The U.S. Census projects that by 2042, the multicultural population will make up the majority of our population,” she said. “If minority women don’t step up to participate and represent ourselves in the political system, we’ll continue to be left out of the power structure that runs this country.”

In 2004, the census reported 47 percent (1.5 million) of Asian Americans and Pacific Islander women, 40 percent (3.3 million) of Latina women, and 28 percent (3.7 million) of African American women – all citizens – failed to register and vote in the 2004 Presidential election. “The number of these women that didn’t vote – 8.5 million – could have made a difference in the 2004 election,” Yee said.

Yee’s research included interviewing women around the country for the book project she also called “Engage Her.” Although Yee emphasized that she did not know all the reasons women of color do not vote, she said many do not cast ballots because they are too busy caring for family or working, do not believe in the efficacy of the electoral system, or have lived under repressive political regimes.

After an outpouring of support from women who had heard about her research, Yee realized there was a potential movement underfoot. Her friend Joan Blades, the founder of and, convinced her to stop the book project and produce a film instead, for its increased potential value as a teaching and discussion tool.

“Engage Her” features women of color, including Lee and Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers, who share their stories about the importance of voting. Since the film was completed in September, Yee and a group of volunteers have been screening the film and holding post-screening discussions, hoping to ignite sparks among women of color who don’t usually talk about politics. “We want this film to start a national dialogue,” Yee said. Voter registration forms were also available at each event.

In addition to receiving requests for copies of the film around the country, Yee has also been asked for copies to show in countries as far as China and Liberia.

If anything, the film seems to have struck a chord among viewers, according to Yee, who has seen them laugh and cry while watching the film.

“What’s most important is to build leadership and encourage women of color to make their voices heard on the issues that affect them,” Yee said.

Sandra Pitts-Johnson

Sandra Pitts-Johnson

Sandra Pitts-Johnson, 56, a resident of North Oakland for the past 35 years, agrees. As Community Programs Manager for Engage Her, Pitts-Johnson said she recognized women in her own family and neighborhood who do not vote for many of the reasons Yee found.

“Women are the foundation of every family,” she said. “They are often too busy with survival issues–like taking care of their kids, putting food on the table, and going to work–to become involved,” she said.

Citing her 85-year old mother-in-law, Pitts-Johnson said she had an idea of why some older African American women do not vote. “We registered her to vote when she moved here from Texas in 1997, because it was the right thing to do,” she said. “But she was resistant, and said it wouldn’t make a difference.”

The older lady’s own personal observations was one of the main reasons why she didn’t vote, said Pitts-Johnson. “She grew up in a time of blatant racism. Although she was inspired by the civil rights movement, she didn’t see any of its results, especially in the last election, where she saw that the system did not work for people of color.”

Engage Her — whose website just launched in September — is focusing on four key main issues: education, health, economics, and the environment. Yee and Pitts-Johnson envision taking their brand of online participatory politics further by attempting to make elected officials accountable.

“Politicians come out for our vote and leave us behind,” Yee said. “We need to mobilize hundreds of concerned women to call in to Congress about issues they care about, as well as publish politicians’ meeting attendance and voting record on a Facebook page.”

In the film, Engage Her co-founder Mina Wilson implores women to become involved, and not only for their own good. “If you don’t speak up, you have no voice,” she said. “If you don’t speak up, your daughter may never get health care. If you don’t speak up, you’re creating another generation of people who are powerless to change their outcomes.”

“And that’s our objective,” she said. “That’s the work we have to do.”



  1. Lydia Chavez on November 2, 2008 at 10:32 am

    Interesting story–I like that you started with Yee and not the organization. Great example of alienation turning into mainstream activism. lc

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