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At Women of Color Summit, a Vow Not to Wait for Change

Meet the progressive group of women who have pushed the Democratic party to the left.
Women attend a We Won't Wait summit in Washington, D.C., on Monday.
Women attend a We Won't Wait summit in Washington, D.C., on Monday.Courtesy of We Won't Wait

NATIONAL HARBOR, Md. — A low hum of interpreters vibrated in the background, murmuring in Cantonese, Portuguese, Nepali, Tagalog, and Spanish. Some women bounced babies on their knees as they listened, having foregone the conference-sponsored childcare.

Co-Founder of Black Lives Matter Alicia Garza attends the VH1 Hip Hop Honors: All Hail The Queens at David Geffen Hall on July 11, 2016 in New York City.Michael Loccisano / Getty Images for VH1, file

“We cannot afford to not build a movement that connects all of our issues, that connects the fullness of who we are,” Alicia Garza, the co-founder of Black Lives Matter and an organizer at the National Domestic Workers Alliance, told the assembled activists at the We Won't Wait Summit, which focused on an economic agenda for women of color and low-income women. “We cannot afford to separate vigilante violence from police violence from gender violence from migrant violence.”

Outside the ballroom here, defense contractors, realtors, and members of the Air Force milled around in business attire for two other conventions. Inside, hundreds, mostly women, were passionately showing what intersectional feminism looked like. They were caregivers or advocates for the undocumented, LGBT, labor, or abortion rights, or criminal justice reform, or all of the above.

CEO and President of Ms. Foundation for Women, Teresa C. Younger speaks onstage during the Ms. Foundation For Women 2016 Gloria Awards Gala at The Pierre Hotel on April 27, 2016 in New York City.Monica Schipper / Getty Images for Ms. Foundation, file

The summit featured its share of pep talks. Teresa Younger, president of the Ms. Foundation, cited her favorite slogan: "Be the kind of woman who, when her feet hit the ground in the morning, the devil says 'oh s--t, she's up.'" But there were even more workshops on voter engagement, political mobilization, and domestic workers' rights.

"Be the kind of woman who, when her feet hit the ground in the morning, the devil says 'oh s--t, she's up.'"

While not a partisan event, the specter of the presidential election hung in the air. Women of color helped Hillary Clinton prevail over Bernie Sanders — if they turn out as they did for Barack Obama, they could hand her the presidency. Meanwhile, the policy ground has shifted such that even Donald Trump has offered a maternity leave and childcare plan, following Clinton's more generous, gender-neutral, and more detailed leave plan. The groundwork was laid by groups at the summit like Family Values @ Work and Make it Work, which have long been organizing on the state and local level, with several legislative successes, for paid sick days and family leave.

Clinton has also followed the lead of the organizers in the room who have pushed for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, a budget rider banning funding abortion for low-income women on Medicaid. The amendment was a focus of the speech by Rep. Gwen Moore, Democrat of Wisconsin, who charged that with her Republican colleagues’ agenda, “It’s not just our ovaries that are at stake. It is the overreaching assault on our humanity.”

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After her speech, Moore candidly discussed the shift by some Democrats away from a tacit acceptance of policies like Hyde, the words "taxpayer funding for abortion" long having been considered political poison. Standard-bearers like Vice President Joe Biden and Tim Kaine have supported the funding ban, and apparently still do.

Moore raised her eyebrows. "You mean all the white men who have never been pregnant?" she said with a laugh. She added, "This is a decision every woman deserves to be able to make ... In the meantime don’t stand in the way of someone’s life."

Though she praised Clinton's stance on the Hyde Amendment, Moore told NBC News she had supported Obama in the 2008 primary because of her disappointment and fury over the welfare reform bill signed by Clinton's husband.

"I’m pissed at Bill Clinton about that," she said. "I had the talk with Hillary about it. It was like, this is not working. If welfare reform did what they said it did, if it actually lifted people out of poverty, women would be storming the White House demanding for it .... What it has done is really essentially just slammed the door closed on poor women and children who are in desperate straits."

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Clinton's response, according to Moore? "She said, 'Oh, we've got to fix this.'" Moore added, "Her husband signed it into law and I think she's the perfect person to un-sign it."

That Clinton had to answer for the centrist policies of her husband's administration is itself a sign of the strength of the progressive movements at the summit. But the fragility of their gains was clear as a group of self-described "Dreamers' Mothers in Action" posed for a photo outside the ballroom, calling for an end to deportations. These are the same people whose presence Trump condemns on the stump, whose deportation he has promised and whom he has vowed to keep out with a wall around the border.

Inside, panelist Dorian Warren had his own theory about what has been happening in the United States lately: "There's a reason fear and hate have been unleashed in this country," he said. "We are winning."