A community forum on women, politics and activism brought together a panel of eight female leaders and about 30 community members at the historic Women’s Building on a rainy Saturday night.
The panelists, split among two back-to-back sessions, were asked to “speak their mind” and draw from personal experiences to address the status of women in politics and activism.
The all-female panel, however, discussed a wide variety of topics, including systemic racism in the school system, the dire need for youth mentorship programs and strong female leaders, affordable housing and education reform.
Speaking in the forum were lesbian playwright Terry Baum, San Francisco Board of Education Commissioners Sandra Lee Fewer and Kim-Shree Maufas, political strategist Nicole Derse, Common Cause’s Helen Greico and community organizer Marie Harrison. Also participating were Occupy organizer Jane Smith and Christina Olague, who was recently unseated by London Breed for District 5 Supervisor.
Olague, who served on the Planning Commission before being appointed to the Board of Supervisors earlier this year, addressed the ironies of identity and progressive politics.
“There is no elected Latina official in San Francisco currently, which is interesting but no one seems to think it’s a problem.”
Olague also spoke bluntly about the forces behind her electoral opposition. Olague claims her Nov. 6 loss is unreasonably linked to her vote to reinstate suspended city Sheriff Ross Mirkarimi.
“The dogs were let out and it got pretty vicious … it’s unfortunate that things got so distorted in the way that they did.“ Olague said. “At the end of the day, holding on to my values was more important than necessarily holding on to a political office.”
San Francisco Board of Education Commissioners Maufas and Fewer emphasized the need for education policy reform, citing relationships between inadequate resources and poor performance.
“People say [graduation rates] is all about poverty. Well the largest population in poverty in the city are the Chinese. [And] we graduate our Chinese students at a very very high rate,” said Fewer, a fourth-generation San Franciscan of Chinese descent. “So I see myself as a tool of a larger movement to make San Francisco’s education system and San Francisco … a better place to live for all people.”
Political consultant Derse emphasized the power of electoral politics to empower communities and shape measurable social change. She also stressed the need to redefine progressive politics in San Francisco as a politics of inclusion, rather than exclusion.
“What’s most interesting to me is that I’m one of the only women political consultants in San Francisco,” said Derse, who is the co-founder of the political organizing firm 50+1 Strategies. “I’m certainly not the only one but there’s very few of us in a very white, male older dominated group of folks.”
Harrison, an environmental and social justice organizer, said she was drawn to activism after her grandson had an asthma attack, which Harrison linked to his proximity to the Bayview power plant.
“I had children that were suffering from the environment. I became extremely interested in politics because we [the African American community] were being not only underrepresented, but not represented at all … before [District 10 Supervisor] Malia [Cohen].”
She added, to the agreement of some panel peers, that San Francisco politics is “greedy,” “all about the money … and never about what we can do for the people who live in the city.”
Greico, who led the campaign behind city Proposition G, is dedicated to removing money from politics. She linked campaign finance reform to feminism, claiming that the biggest barrier for women running for office is raising enough money to run a competitive campaign.
“The [political] system is so broken,” she said. “It’s difficult to work on issues in a system that doesn’t work. And I felt that the best place to go was to reform the democracy, so there is a system that we can actually work in.”
She also criticized the minimal presence of women in politics, and stressed the importance of electing women to public office.
“The Center for American Women in Politics … just released a report that women are in 24 percent of elected offices in the country. I guess you could clap or cry.”
UC Berkeley graduate Smith brought a younger – and innocently eager – face to the panel. Smith said she was drawn to Occupy because the movement strives to change conscious thought and make small, impactful change.
“No progressive movement is able to be successful in this country if we don’t change the prevailing thought,” she said. “Our issues [at Occupy] are universal and about the 99 percent and resonate with everyone.”