A Folding Chair Movement in Hawaii


Original Post Source

In Hawaii, women are often missing from the public policy and decision-making tables. We are talking about women business owners and employees across sectors, heads of households, mothers and students. But this is not a comfortable conversation to have in a state that proudly boasts being the most diverse state in the nation.

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm advised women, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Shirley Chisholm was the first Black woman elected to Congress (in 1968 and in 1972) and the first woman and Black person to seek the nomination for president of the United States. Around 1985, as a young teenager, I was one of six young women of color invited to a personal meeting with the former Congresswomen in Boston, Massachusetts, a defining moment when she told the six of us to carry our folding chairs and lead. For a financially struggling Latina girl from the South Bronx, with lived experiences of discrimination pushing back against me, Ms. Chisholm’s words reinforced the stubborn fire in my belly to pursue the right to be at the decision-making table.

The time has come for a folding chair movement.  Women need to demand equity of voice at policy tables at the local, state, and federal levels that impact their quality of life, access to services, and pathways for success. Attaining equity requires intentionality and leveraging one’s positional power to create change. If we are to help change the trajectory created by poverty, under-employment, limited education, racial and gender bias and lack of social networks for economic success, then we need greater focus on women in seats of power and influence taking unified policy positions and providing supportive pathways for women who are voiceless in any community. This requires a shift away from the token woman selected to serve on influential boards, commissions, and on corporate teams.

Women Influencers in Hawaii

Hawaii has a long history of influential women who made change happen. Whether it was Queen Liliuokalani who led the Hawaiian nation and was a fierce advocate for quality education, or Bernice Pauahi Bishop who was a philanthropist and successful business woman. A more contemporary policy leader,  Patsy T. Mink shattered the glass ceiling serving as the nation’s first Asian and woman of color elected to Congress in 1964. She tenaciously advocated for legislation related to gender equity including Title IX legislation, rights of women in the workplace, Head Start, and Bilingual Education.  Patricia Saiki, who began her distinguished career in Hawaii as a school teacher, became the first Republican from Hawaii to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, and went on to serve as the head of the Small Business Administration under President George W. Bush and today continues to share her policy perspectives as an author. Most recently, we have U.S. Senator Mazie Hirono who co-authored and ensured the successful passage of the 2021 Anti-Asian Hate Crime Bill despite a highly partisan and  divided Congress. Hawaii is a place where women leaders have had great successes.

Despite this history, the dearth of women at the policy table at levels equal to men often leaves communities with public policy constructs that fail to take into account their specific needs. Women need quality health care, child care, food security, safe and accessible housing, quality public education, competitive jobs and a reliable public infrastructure. Because leadership and governance still remain unbalanced from both a race and gender perspective, policies will continue to be adopted, or remain unchallenged, that support continued gender and racial biases. The current COVID-19 health pandemic has exposed and exacerbated many of these gender and racial disparities.

In a field that has historically been female dominant, education, one might assume that there is greater access and success for women executives. In the United States today, 76% of the nation’s K-12 teachers are women, according to the National Center for Education Statisticsand 2020 survey conducted by AASA, the nation’s superintendents’ association.  Yet, at the leadership level only 27% of school superintendents are women.

Additionally, despite the continued diversification of our nation’s racial makeup, nearly two-thirds of public school superintendents are white men. At the State Superintendent level, where there is today a nearly 50% split male to female, the majority of women appointed by Governors are white. Hawaii is the only state in the nation that has had three consecutive women of color serving as State Superintendent in its most recent history. As a profession, the education power structure nationally is predominantly male at the leadership and policy development level, while curriculum and instructional implementation is led mostly by women who are experiencing impediments to executive leadership access.

At the more local level, compelling data related to gender policy inequities are reiterated by the United Way ALICE (Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed) metrics which reports on people who live above the federal poverty level but do not make enough income within each state’s cost of living structure.  In Hawaii, the ALICE report states that 42% of Hawaii’s families are struggling. These families rely heavily on social networks and support, including public school food programs, and still struggle with housing, food and income insecurities. The report also shows that women heads of households with children and Hawaiians make up the majority of poor and ALICE families. This data reiterates the differential impact on women head-of -households who struggle with access to childcare and public PreK programs, who also bear the costlier burden of children and women’s healthcare. With such day to day income struggles, ALICE women do not have the personal resources to bring their voices to the policy table, despite the direct impact on their quality of life.

From the governance perspective, both public and private boards were noted during Hawaii’s 2021 legislative session as being male dominant and lacking in gender diversity, even if and when meeting racial diversity.  Again, the absence of women at the board table means that the voices of half of our population are missing in policy decision-making,  creating a greater likelihood for gender bias in serving our families, clients, customers and communities.

The Folding Chair

Women leaders in Hawaii have the potential to use their positional and political power to create organizational, community and policy changes that empower girls and women to develop their policy voice. With policy voice, they can collectively lead for equity, becoming designers of solutions that improve their community and change the trajectory for girls and women of color. Understanding gender equity in policy will inevitably lead to discourse around racial, social, economic and regional disparities that impact equity of access to success pathways in Hawaii and beyond. As our nation grapples broadly with these issues of racial and gender equity, we have a unique opportunity to support women to lead organizational change to bring a more equitable lens to policy development, governance and decision-making. In the absence of an equity policy ecosystem, the very forces that have been used to disempower women and communities of color increase in prevalence or support the status quo.

It is time for a seat at the table!