'We Have The Power'

To get a sense of the issues facing black professional women, NEWSWEEK invited a handful of prominent "sisters" to talk about life: Cheryl Mills, the former deputy White House counsel and current vice president at Oxygen Media; Mae Jemison, former astronaut and current director of the Jemison Institute at Dartmouth; Debbie Allen, director, producer, actress, dancer; Lisa Sullivan, founder and president of LISTEN Inc.; Ananda Lewis, MTV host; Amy Holmes, political commentator, and Tracey Kemble, HBO producer. Excerpts:

NEWSWEEK: When you look at the lives of black women today, is the glass half empty or half full?
I think, for me, the snapshot is that the black community is not monolithic. We've got to begin to look at how we are doing across a spectrum.

CHERYL MILLS: We're now getting to this place where we have the privilege to decide if we are all going to be on the same bus or whether or not we are going to get off the bus. I think the black community is finding itself now at this crossroads where it has to decide whether or not we, as a community, are going to continue to be connected or whether our privilege levels and the progress that we're seeing in our community will mean different things for different aspects of our community.

And for women in particular?
When we speak of women we often say something like, "Do women have unique choices?" You know what? We're over 50 percent of the population so we actually should represent the majority choice and we should be asking whether or not men have unique choices. When I look at our role as women, I look at our role as being full-fledged adult human beings, which means we are responsible for where the world goes.

DEBBIE ALLEN: Yes. I just think that women play a real pivotal role, period. And then we add the adjective "black"--then it's really an imperative. We've been dealing with diversity since we were stolen from the continent of Africa. And at the same time, black women have always been liberated. Black women have always worked. Black women have grown up in this country with a certain consciousness and psychological history that will help us push forward.

AMY HOLMES: But in single-headed households where women have so many responsibilities, not only to look after their children but to be able to support them, other influences in their children's lives become overwhelming. One of the biggest challenges that many women are facing is, how do you build a happy, stable family?

DA: Images and who controls them--that becomes a real big battlefield for us because we're not in control of the images. We don't have enough diversity in boardrooms, in executive positions, at networks and movie studios.

TRACEY KEMBLE: You need those executives behind the scenes because, when we're at a conference table and it's filled with all white men or all white women, you know, they're not necessarily racist, but our images or stories will probably be the last thing to come up because that is not their priority.

How can we change some of the images?
I did a show a few years ago called "A Different World." It was about a black college in the South. And because of that show we tripled--tripled--the enrollment of historically black colleges, because black kids saw themselves on television, going to school, having fun, dealing with serious issues from date rape to AIDS, to voter registration.

MJ: To acknowledge, first of all, that you have the power and you're not a victim makes a difference. To be able to have women in the boardrooms who say, "Well, you know what, I don't agree with you." One of the things that I find very difficult is where you have women in those positions and they abdicate their responsibility. "You know, I can't say that because then I might lose my job or somebody might not like me." So they go ahead and they make the common decisions so someone will pat them on the back and say, "You're a good ole boy."

TK: But there's that pressure sometimes that when you are in the boardroom, you want to be hired because you are the right person for the job. And at times you don't want to feel like, "OK, I'm the black woman who is going to know about all the black stories and who's going to know about all the black issues." You want to be able to comment on a variety of things... We go out and we enjoy plays or read books... So when you're in that boardroom, you don't want to be looked at and [asked], "OK, well, what do you think?"... just because you're black.

CM: But I think part of the thing is that we also have an obligation to appreciate that as people make it to those stages, there's a balance. You can live to fight another battle. That was one of the hardest lessons for me to learn, because I felt that burden. When I walked into the White House I certainly felt like it was my obligation to think about and fight every fight, particularly for women of color, particularly for African-Americans. And the real question is, how long can you last and make sure that you are not compromising the values that are important to you so that you can keep fighting the next battle?

Was it hard for you to leave the White House?
While I loved the opportunity to be able to do things that were different, and open different doors, I also loved the opportunity to be able to leave and know I could go do something different and that that opportunity starts all over again.

Let's talk about hip-hop and its increasingly negative portrayals of black women. How damaging is it?
It's really easy to look at a video on television and say, you know, "They shouldn't be doing that, and look how they're showing women." But these aren't computer-generated images. These are real women who have taken the job, and doing the job, and who, most of the time, have similar jobs outside the video world...

But is the disproportionality of the portrayals damaging?
I mean, we can watch Jay-Z and Eminem. We can watch them objectifying women in their videos. But we can also turn on a Macy Gray or a Kina. I don't want just one image of women to exist. I want to see something and go, "I shouldn't be like that." Sometimes learning what not to do is much more important than being told what the right thing is.

MJ: I think it's a great reflection of society. I don't think it's just what music is dealing with, but music is reflecting something that's going on in society. Maybe the pendulum is swinging to where people are trying to get women to go back into a certain position and make them less powerful. If you look at greater society, and what you get famous for--a lot of times it doesn't have anything to do with your intellect, it's who you were with, or who they thought you were with.

Do new pressures make women feel less powerful?
I think one of the hardest things to do is to say out loud, "I want to be that. And I should be there." Particularly when you don't have those role models in the family, because someone hasn't done it before you.

TK: And also being able to not just see it on television or in the movies, but to actually be able to hold someone's hand and let it be tangible. I have a mentee, and when she came in she was in the 10th grade. Sometimes she would just kind of sit back on the couch and just watch the entire atmosphere. It was the phones going, the multitasking, the computers, those things that we consider very simple and just take for granted, those are the things that we have to give our young girls and the next generation. If they can't see it, feel it and touch it, they think it happens to other people. They don't think it can happen to them.

MJ: Images are important, too, because, going back to the 1960s, when I was convinced I was going to go into space, I had to be very stubborn. When I would say I want to be an astronaut, [people] said that women couldn't go up. There were no African-Americans. You know, people laughed at me. Literally outright, straight-up laughed. And so there was a certain stubbornness that I had to have, just to keep on. It would have been wonderful just to have seen an image. But I didn't have to sit and hold and touch and feel. Sometimes it was enough just to see somebody in a book.

Do you think the'60s, the civil-rights movement, the feminist movement, resonate with young black women?
I think that the civil-rights movement and the feminist movement, while [they] may not be on the edge of a person's consciousness, it's there and it's certainly appreciated that I am here because of who came before me.

LS: I disagree--that's certainly not the case with a lot of the kids I work with. They make no connections between now and then.

Why is that?
It's about education. A lot of our children are not getting fed. They are not being nurtured. The character, the talent, it's not being developed. And where are they supposed to get it? And there are all these images and this marketing of everything. I compare young people who have grown up in poor communities [to] a computer with no software. There is this hardware but they don't have anything in them that is going to help them make effective decisions and process and even figure out who and what they want to be and aspire to. And they've got junk being thrown at them.

And how do young women respond to feminism?
I get the sense that they reject it. Don't understand it, and don't relate to it. And certainly don't experience that as a part of their lives, and as having any relevance to any opportunities out there in the world.

Is that because our generation has done a poor job of translating the goals and meaning of feminism to them?
Like affirmative action, [feminism] is a term that's been appropriated. It now has a different meaning, and so it's never going to be brought back. So many people infuse it with all these other meanings it never had in the beginning, so they reject it because we reject the additional things that are attached to it.

MJ: The frightening part about that is that we may be afraid of moving things forward because we've attached other things to those labels and terms.

How tough is it to balance the desire for career and family?
I don't have any children. Maybe I'll have some, I don't know, who knows. But one of the things that's been bothering me is when women say that they want to be out in the work force and yet I have a project that I'm working on and mothers are taking a day off.

TK: The challenge of work and family is twofold. [Women] want to have a career, yet they still want to remain interested and be passionate about something. And yet they've chosen to bring children into the world and they do want to be good to their kids. And it's an everyday struggle.

AL: All the business and everything, that's great. But at the same time, I can't wait to be a mom. I can't wait to raise some really good children, and prove that that's possible. And prove that I can be a savvy TV entrepreneur and still do right by my children. Because I think our kids are getting lost in our success.

With the current disparity in graduation rates between black women and black men, how hard is it to find someone with similar interests, similar outlook?
[Loud laughter.] AL:
There are a lot of really good black men out there. It's just that there are not a lot of good people, period, who are willing to make the kind of sacrifice and compromises that it takes to make a relationship work.

LS: I think it's really about whether or not you can find a partner who is trying to reach their full human potential.

AL: There may be a man who has never been to college who can do that.

LS: He might be the UPS man.

AL: And he is still a good man.

DA: Or a woman.

TK: Let's put it on the table. I think sometimes, you know, because we have achieved a certain degree of success there will be those people who will say, "Well, have you looked at the"--and these are wonderful jobs, but you know--"Have you looked at the mailman, or the construction worker?" But why should we have to? I mean, how will we meet him? If we're in a certain demographic then shouldn't we be meeting the people who are in that demographic?

LS: Black men are having a very difficult time. I tell brothers that I know that they're going to have to find a way to survive in a patriarchal society that never intends for them to be able to play it out.

DA: That's right.

LS: And that is a deep thing because that means that they have to redefine manhood for themselves. And they've got to start that conversation with themselves.

CM: It is us who are raising them.

DA: Yeah.

MJ: One of the things that I'm very concerned about is that as African-Americans, as women, many times we do not feel that we have the power to change the world and society as a whole.

CM: Power is a very challenging issue for women, and that is one of the things that we're looking at at Oxygen: how can we talk about women and power? Their relationship to it. We want a woman president. Yet we are the hardest on women politicians out there. We don't like women who are only about power--those are the women that we will criticize and we will try to bring down. And every man can run for office and be about power and we are just as happy to support him. So I actually think the problem is one of considerable complexity.

In your Oxygen Markle Pulse Poll, you found that 62 percent of black women felt it was important to talk about politics. Yet most of those women felt more comfortable getting involved in community action than going to a local politician. Is that a problem of trust?
It's about, we have a crack house on our block. We have something else going on. My problems require the community to act. Whereas if I'm on a different level, if I am a white woman, I might not have the same problem on my block. My problem might be that I don't think that there's enough money going to X, so I'm going to write my congressman.

TK: When we take part in those grass-roots organizations we want to be able to see progress quickly. And I think when we get involved in those groups we do believe that we can see it, that it's not about waiting.

DA: I think it has a lot to do with the word "passion." Empowerment and passion. When we had the Rodney King civil unrest, I had never fund-raised or anything before. I raised a million dollars to rebuild two libraries that got burned down. And it was purely passion, because I just felt for those kids without those books. I had women from Nebraska sending me two and three dollars. And we rebuilt those libraries even better than they were before, but it was a grass-roots effort. It was not waiting for a bureaucracy or for some insurance policy to come through. Those children needed those books now and we went and got them.

AL: I think that's where our salvation still lies, in the grass roots.

DA: Right.

MJ: Wait, wait, wait, guys. We have to have votes [too]. There is something going on where we have shied away from grasping what we rightfully can do with the world. If we start to change governments, then we can make those responses more rapid.

LS: For a long time in our community the women organized, and the men led... Now black women who historically have done the organizing are crossing over into leadership.

CM: In all communities, when it comes to leadership... women are uncomfortable. We lead by consensus, generally speaking.

So where does all of this lead black women as they move forward into the future?
MJ: I think the issue becomes what your parents do with you...

AL: We need to allow our kids to stay stubborn, which most of them are. All those skills are needed to get through life. It's what I used--stubborn, hardheadedness and a smartass mouth. If we can let our kids keep that, peer pressure will no longer be a problem. It doesn't matter whose video is playing, they are going to have a strong enough sense of right and wrong on their own, so that it doesn't matter what choice is in front of them. They're choosing based on what's good for them.

As a little black girl, it was more important for me to be taught about education and to witness the women who raised me being lawyers and running their own businesses and seeing them survive. Though it would have also been nice for them to incorporate men into that framework, it just wasn't the case in my family. It was much more important for me to see them do that, than for them to take me to the hair place all the time, or for me to see them getting their nails done. I wasn't raised with that, thinking that as a woman I'm supposed to be cute. That came much later.

MJ: It all comes back to power. We have to understand that it's our responsibility, and that we have the authority and the permission to work on changing the world.