Nearly 3,000 miles from the White House, in the city where history-making Vice President Kamala Harris’ career began, women of color are seemingly flourishing as they step into new, key leadership roles.
The same election that made Harris Vice President ushered in other firsts for women of color in San Francisco. Supervisor Myrna Melgar is the first Latina supervisor to be elected in her own right, without being appointed, and City College Board of Trustees member Aliya Chisti became The City’s first Muslim woman elected.
“It just feels like it’s a new year and it’s so exciting, to inspire the next generation as well,” said Chisti, who was sworn in on the Quran. “It feels particularly different this year. We have this transfer of support, this network that I’m really humbled to have when I was running for office.”
Women of color stepped into other key positions, too. The Police Commission chose Malia Cohen, a former city supervisor who is Black, as president, and former public defender Cindy Elias, who is Filipina and Mexican, as vice president.
Gabriela Lopez, the youngest woman elected in San Francisco in 2018 and first to take the oath in Spanish, is now president of the Board of Education — the first to be nominated by student delegates — with Alison Collins, a Black parent leader, serving as vice president. Shanell Williams retained her role as the CCSF Board of Trustees president.
Melgar, a former Planning Commission president, also chairs the key Land Use and Transportation Committee. Carmen Chu was recently confirmed as city administrator, the most powerful non-elected position. And of course, Mayor London Breed, the first Black woman to lead San Francisco, was elected in 2018.
Kimberly Ellis, director of the Department on the Status of Women, called Harris’ swearing-in “an incredibly proud moment” for people who have worked to recruit, retain and support women in higher positions. But what needs to happen now, she said, is to use the building power to accelerate and normalize that progress.
“It is inspiring, it is exciting, and it also just reminds us that the work continues,” Ellis said. “When you have women in higher positions, I think the automatic assumption is that therefore suggests that women are on equal footing or doing well. Oftentimes, the exact opposite is true.”
A 2019 gender analysis of commissions and board members by DOSW found that women represent 51 percent of them, a small and steady increase from 45 percent in 2009. People of color, who make up 62 percent of The City’s population, make up 50 percent of policy bodies — a decrease from 53 percent in 2017.
Women of color made up a peak of 31 percent of policy bodies — often those with the smallest budgets — in 2015, but that declined slightly to 28 percent by 2019. Women of color make up 32 percent of San Francisco, while white women, who account for 17 percent of the population, are 23 percent of appointees. Latinas are particularly underrepresented, the report added.
Melgar is keenly aware of the work to be done. She intends to call a hearing related to gender parity in leadership positions and pay. It’s not just about bringing more women and women of color into political or government spaces.
“Despite our progressivism, when it comes to gender and the intersection of race and gender, we’re not doing so good,” said Melgar. “When it comes to hiring or promoting, women of color are underrepresented or underpaid. It’s both the earning power and decision making that we need to work on.”
As women in this space know, representation can come and go unless the issue is constantly paid close attention to. But with positions of power, they can make space for women of color for other leadership roles and build a pipeline.
Kelly Akemi Groth got her start in progressive politics in 2012 as an intern on Supervisor David Campos’ campaign and later organized with the Democratic Socialists of America San Francisco chapter. Supervisor Connie Chan — a Chinese American woman — tapped her as campaign manager and more recently hired her as a legislative aide. Melgar also tapped Lila Carillo, who is Latina, as a legislative aide.
“It’s not only great having representation in office, but also the right representation,” said Akemi Groth, who is Japanese American. “[Chan’s] been such a good mentor in making sure I succeed. Sometimes in City Hall, there’s this bloodsport in tearing one another down. There’s a feeling of mentorship and fostering better relationships.”
Many of the women now highly visible in San Francisco politics were trained by Emerge California, which was inspired by Harris’ run for district attorney. Since 2002, the group has trained more than 300 women in the Bay Area, including Breed, Cohen, Chisti and Melgar. Other alumni include Williams and BART Board of Directors President Lateefah Simon.
Supportive networks that have developed from Emerge and beyond also help women of color prepare for nasty rhetoric or treatment that might come their way as a result of their identities, from microaggressions over Chan’s Hong Kong accent to being targeted with violent imagery, as happened to Lopez and Collins last year.
But when women of color reach a critical mass in leadership, they can breathe a little easier in asserting their positions and better represent different aspects of their communities.
“Representation matters, but so often our representation is tokenized,” Collins said. “The Black community isn’t a monolith, the Latinx community isn’t a monolith. When we have more, we represent more of the complexities of the needs in our communities.”