Estimated reading time: 10 minutes
Describing herself as a culturally conscious communicator and storyteller, Kriselle Gabriel is passionate about changing the narrative for women of color in politics. As founder of Empowered in Color and former social media manager at She the People, Kriselle helps support women of color who have historically been sidelined in politics. In this fireside chat, Kriselle dives deeper into what it means to approach politics with an intersectional and inclusive lens.
Here’s what we’ll cover:
Highlighting the history of women in politics, Kriselle describes how She the People is changing the game for women of color in politics and the importance of inclusion in this space.
What does the work at She the People entail?
She The People is a national nonprofit that builds political power for women of color. It’s the only nonprofit in the US that focuses specifically on mobilizing women of color. Politically and historically, She the People has recently shifted the focus of what they’re doing and how they want to accomplish this goal. But historically, She The People, like many other political and civic engagement organizations, originally did events to encourage people to vote and help provide voting guides to communities around election season to help them understand how a ballot is going to affect them.
However, She The People recently shifted towards wanting to focus on the narrative change of women of color in politics. They are doing that through storytelling and telling the stories of women of color leaders.
We’re starting with women of color that are already in office. I previously worked with Congresswoman Mary Peltola of Alaska and Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib of Michigan to create content around their stories and what they stand for.
Women of color are most likely to be on the receiving end of political attacks. We all saw it when Ilhan Omar was removed from her committee position by the Republican Party. In the debate prior to that vote, Congresswoman AOC went to the podium and spoke about how it was an attack on women of color. She spoke about her experience of receiving death threats and how another colleague on the Republican side released an anime video of him murdering her. She spoke about how he still had his job and was rewarded with leadership positions, but he would have been fired immediately if it was in any other workplace.
She The People is working with these women to share their stores, empower them, and show support behind them. They help frame the way they’re viewed differently than what the media says. Even though media and publications can be seen as liberal and progressive, they’ll sometimes still publish insensitive articles about these women.
We’re trying to be their cheerleaders. We’re not only talking about people who look like us, but people who are also advocating for our best interests.
What has historically been the role of women in politics? How has it evolved over time?
Historically, the role of women in politics has been more behind the scenes. Women of color, especially Black women, are really the people who move our country forward and push the progressive policies. They’re the reason we’ve gotten to where we are today. One of four voters in the US are women of color—we make up a quarter of all eligible voters in the US. Our role was spotlighted and highlighted especially in the 2020 election with the election of current VP Kamala Harris where women of color began to publicly advocate for women of color. They organized in their communities to get our friends and family to vote.
Going back, the Women’s Suffrage Movement was really about white women, but women of color kept pushing the message that this movement needs to benefit all of us. The term ‘women of color’ was coined in the 70s by Black women because there was a Women’s Political Caucus that was run mostly by white women who didn’t want to give space for Black women to speak. So, a bunch of Black women came together and created their own agenda called the Black Women’s Agenda. A bunch of women of color came up to them and asked if they could also be included. After agreeing to push forward together, they renamed themselves to be “women of color.” It was created to be in solidarity with all of us because we know there’s power when all of us are together.
Our opinions matter, but we’ve been relegated to the sidelines and taking action behind the scenes without getting any recognition. Sometimes other people, especially white men, take ownership over our success and efforts.
Why is it important to appeal to women of color and to have more inclusion in politics?
People in politics don’t want to give up their power because it means they have to step down to allow others a chance. This is an issue even within progressive groups for Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC). It goes back to intersectionality and privilege.
We’re all unfortunately victims of white supremacy and it’s so deep. That’s why we need more platforms and more women of color in leadership positions. It’s not going to happen on a societal level anytime soon, so that needs to happen on individual levels, where we have the opportunities to share our voices and stories without the barriers that seeking leadership roles in traditional methods may present. Studies have shown that women are more likely to feel like we’re unqualified for a leadership role, but in other studies, organizations are more likely to succeed and have less operational issues when they are led by women. It's going to take people individually getting into power (and maintaining their integrity once they receive it) to push forward systemic change.
What does intersectionality mean? Why is the intersection of different identities important in this space?
Intersectionality is a framework used to view how equitable and inclusive anything is. It examines us by how complex our identities are. It doesn’t look at each identity in a vacuum—it looks at identities as they’re coming together. Yes, we’re all women of color, but being a woman and being a person of color is not separate.
Intersectionality is not meant to promote “oppression olympics.” It means to take into account how people’s identities will impact their experiences, even if they’re the same. For example, people who may have the same identity but may have a different physical appearance may have different experiences that need to be taken into consideration. Historically, the complexity of our experiences have been left out of the narrative and we haven’t been the ones in power. That’s why it’s so important to function in intersectionality.
Intersectionality also helps breed solidarity because it shows people that we have so much in common and we can work together toward a common cause of liberation for all.
How do you build solidarity given the complexity of intersectionality? What has that looked like within your experience and organizations in general?
I’m from Carson, CA and I didn’t grow up around white people. I grew up in a community with a lot of Filipinos, Southeast Asians, Pacific Islanders, Black and Latine folks. Then, I went to college at a private Christian school that was predominantly white. It was my first time being in that kind of setting and some girls I lived with said, “I’m colorblind.” Growing up, I’d never heard of that term before because I grew up thinking that acknowledging someone’s race isn’t inherently racist—it’s just a fact. I remember not really knowing what to think. I’d never heard this word before, but it didn’t sound and feel right.
I started talking to more upperclassmen who were people of color at school, and I started understanding the vocabulary more. In navigating it, you really do have to pick and choose your battles. But also, individual conversations are going to be the most productive. It’s hard to communicate on social media when you have a limited amount of time to speak or you have people bad mouthing you for talking about race and other “controversial” issues. I’ve been working on being better at choosing when to respond online.
Now most organizations, even if they say they are “for” and “prioritize” DEI, it is unfortunately, not usually the case even in the most progressive organizations. It’s easy to tell people to speak up in the workplace, but it's also important to consider other factors when it comes to intersectionality. For example, what are the implications of speaking up? Would you lose your job? Even though it’s technically illegal, businesses do have their ways. It’s justified to think how unsafe it will be for someone to speak up. How will they be ostracized in the workplace?
If you have the emotional capacity and feel compelled to speak up despite the pending consequences, I recommend speaking up.
Why is it important to have women of color as political commentators (or in any political role) in helping to change the narrative?
Political commentators have a huge influence over the media, journalists, and their audiences. However, political commentators are visual. If you see them, you’re more likely to remember what they’re saying vs. reading what a journalist wrote.
We’re starting to see women of color in big media conglomerates. However, many millennials and Gen Z are moving towards becoming independent creators. Women of color are able to bring a level of nuance that most white creators can’t bring to their content. People like us can see ourselves represented and think, “Oh she has a similar background to me.” People will feel more empowered to participate in politics if they see someone who looks like them and is echoing similar sentiments. It’s important to normalize women of color doing political commentary. Many of these discussions are already happening in private, so we should also be sharing our opinions and commentary publicly.
Another reason why women of color should be more involved in the political space, whether as commentators, running for office, or simply being engaged beyond voting, is because we’re more optimistic than men are. Having us being able to vocalize that we’re able to make a difference in this space can make our world feel less hopeless. We’ve seen similar cases in other areas like entrepreneurship. For example, women of color-founded businesses that are less likely to fail because we have more tact. Because we're judged so harshly no matter what we do, we are more likely to produce things at a higher quality.
It’s also a confidence issue. When women say they’re not engaged in politics, we usually blame it internally. It’s an US problem. But when men say it, it’s an external problem and say we can’t access information. We have a gap in confidence. Brittany Cunningham, who’s a black activist that worked on President Obama’s task force on policing, said confidence is the difference between being inspired and actually getting started and keeping the momentum.
Also, since we are already doing behind the scenes work already, we, especially Black women, are 80% more likely to mobilize their friends and family to vote and be politically engaged compared to 68% of white women. We’re already doing the work behind the scenes and we need to be front and center.
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