July 31, 2018
Written by Surina Khan, CEO Women’s Foundation of California
***Below is the keynote address given by Surina Khan during the WPI-State Class of 2018 graduation dinner.
Good evening, Women’s Policy Institute-State Class of 2018! I am delighted to be with you this evening as we celebrate your graduation from the Women’s Policy Institute. This is a special year because it is the 15th anniversary of the Women’s Policy Institute and YOU are the 15th class to graduate from WPI-State. Tonight you will join a growing community of nearly 500 alumni who, like you, are working tirelessly to make California a better place and to set an example for the rest of the country about what progressive gender justice policies can do to improve EVERYONE’S lives.
Tonight, we celebrate you and 15 amazing years of this Institute. WPI has changed millions of lives, it has changed California for the better and is a source of inspiration and hope to so many people across the country. And you are part of the fabric of that story. You are brilliant, fierce, and unstoppable advocates who are making groundbreaking contributions to movements that are advancing gender, racial, and economic justice through numerous strategies and now you are equipped to add public policy advocacy to your strategy toolbox while you carry on your work to make the world a fair and just place for everyone.
You are one of the most diverse classes in WPI history. Eighty percent of you identify as people of color. A third of you are queer or identify as something other than heterosexual, and nearly half of you are based in Southern California. You are multi-generational, ranging in age from 21 to 53. And each one of your policy projects are amazing. Whether they reach the Governor’s desk or not, whether they get signed into law or not, always remember that you made a difference here in Sacramento and across the state and country.
We started the Institute 15 years ago because we heard from state legislators, back around the year 2000, that they were not hearing from our grant partners. I believe it was then State Senator Jackie Speier, now Congresswoman Jackie Speier and Sheila Kuehl when she was in the State Legislature who said to our then CEO, Patti Chang, “we don’t hear from your grant partners. We hear from right wing organizations all the time, but we don’t hear from your grant partners. Why is that?” And we didn’t have an answer. So we went about trying to find one.
The first thing they did was hire someone we have all come to love and respect, Marj Plumb. Marj conducted a landscape analysis to try and learn why our grant partners were not engaging in policy advocacy and what we learned from their research is that our community of grassroots leaders was not engaging in policy advocacy because they didn’t know how. And so the story of WPI begins, 24 years after the Women’s Foundation was founded in 1979, we started to design the program that has become such an important part of California’s success story.
In 2003 when the Women’s Foundation of California started WPI, things in California looked so different than they do today.
Domestic workers did not have overtime protections. Incarcerated pregnant women were being shackled when they were being transported to and from correctional facilities. Farmworkers had no protections against pesticide exposure. Cosmetic manufacturers did not have to disclose harmful chemicals known to cause cancer or reproductive harm in their products. Infants born into families receiving public aid were denied additional public funding.
Now, 15 years later because of the fellows that have been trained through this program, 32 bills have been passed into law and the impact is being felt across California and the nation.
In 2004 your predecessors passed SB1639, the EducationsWorks! Bill, which promotes education and training, including English language proficiency, for CalWORKs participants and foster youth and has helped almost 70,000 people be better served by the CalWorks system.
In 2005, WPI fellows passed the Safe Cosmetics Act requiring cosmetics companies to disclose harmful chemicals that cause cancer or reproductive harm. California is a national leader in terms of cosmetic regulation, with SB484 being the first state legislation governing the safety and reporting of cosmetic ingredients.
There are so many examples of how you and your predecessors are setting an example for state level policy change. We need that not only because of our current political reality, but also so we can show what is possible and provide hope in these hopeless times.
Because of WPI, California became the first state in the country to allow family members with intimate partners to petition a judge directly to temporarily remove firearms from a family member if they believe there is a substantial likelihood that the family member is a significant danger to themselves or others.
It’s thanks to your predecessors that we have some of the strongest protections for farmworkers in the country. California is a leader in providing labor protections for domestic workers. 500,000 domestic workers have labor protections. We’ve repealed the Maximum Family Grant rule that denied public assistance to infants born into families already receiving public assistance-even though the first three attempts failed, our fellows and state legislators, in this case Senator Holly Mitchell, did not give up. Year after year, they stuck with it until we repealed the MFG.
Your predecessors passed a bill mandating that pregnant women who are incarcerated can no longer be shackled when they are being transported. Last year alone, WPI fellows passed three new laws that expanded access to childcare, access to renewable energy for low-income communities and rights for transgender incarcerated people with the Name and Dignity Act, a law that was the first piece of legislation in the country written by currently and formerly incarcerated transgender people.
And this year you are poised to expand access to abortion and lactation accommodations for college students, reform the sentencing policies on which mass incarceration has been built, make healthcare services more accessible to more of our communities, and you won’t give up when it comes to strengthening protections and resources for survivors of violence. We know, too, that you all could not have done this without the guidance and support of your mentors–WPI alumni Emily Harris and Laura Jimenez, Krista Niemczyk, Mike Herald, Kim Chen, and our very own Marj Plumb. And of course, we are grateful for the legislators who were our champions in the Capitol this year–Senator Holly Mitchell, Senator Mike McGuire, Assemblymember Kansen Chu, Assemblymember Blanca Rubio, Senator Connie Leyva, and Assemblymember David Chiu–and the essential contributions of the staff in their offices, many of whom have joined us here tonight. Thank you.
WPI and the growing network of fellows are a force in California. If California is a state that can still advance progressive change and is a leader in the nation, it is because WPI has its fingerprints all over the good things we have been able to accomplish here. And I could not be more inspired than I am by your dedication, your courage and your commitment. Your work feeds my soul and allows me to lead this incredible institution.
The Women’s Foundation of California sits at a unique and powerful nexus as a statewide, publicly supported community foundation dedicated to achieving gender, racial and economic justice. Since our founding in 1979, almost 40 years ago, we have organized our work on one core belief: that people who are closest to the problems in their communities are in the best position to solve those problems. That principle guides our three strategies of 1) investing in community-based organizations to build power, 2) training grassroots community leaders to be effective public policy advocates through our Women’s Policy Institute State and Local Programs and 3) connecting key partners across the state to learn, collaborate, and coordinate.
In spite of powerful gains, and despite the fact that earlier this year, California became the fifth largest economy in the world we still have the highest poverty rates in the nation. Women and especially women of color, trans women and trans women of color continue to earn less, experience unacceptable rates of discrimination and gender-based violence, struggle to find adequate health care and are underrepresented in positions of public and private sector leadership. Our collective work plays an essential role in addressing these challenges.
And it’s just one of the reasons we have taken a trans-inclusive approach to our work in the last few years. If we truly believe that people closest to the problems in their communities are in the best position, given that they have the resources they need, to solve those problems, then we have to center trans women of color in our work. If we want to solve poverty in California, we have to look and support the leadership of those who are most likely to live in poverty and we know that trans women of color are much more likely to live in poverty. And our role as the WFC and WPI is to support the leadership of grassroots community-based leaders across the gender spectrum so that together, we can solve some of the most intractable problems of our time. Our team, led by the amazing Tania Flores and her colleagues, have done an amazing job in the last couple of years articulating our commitment to being gender-inclusive.
You may be graduating from WPI, but that doesn’t mean you are leaving us. As an alum of the Women’s Policy Institute, you will always be a part of the Women’s Foundation of California community. We are here for you, just as we know you are here for all Californians.
California is a place of hope for the entire country right now as we see the winds of authoritarianism blowing in every direction.
We’re counting on you. We need you and we appreciate you. As does the California legislature. Our state legislators wait in anticipation every year to see who the new class of WPI will be because they know that you–you who are rooted in community–will bring forward meaningful policy changes.
15 years ago, our state legislators were asking why they weren’t hearing from our grant partners. Now, 15 years later, the Women’s Policy Institute is an important part of the state Capitol. In the words of Mike Herald, you can’t go anywhere in the Capitol without running into a WPI alum or current fellow. Our legislators need you, we need you. How awesome was it to see our Criminal Justice Team introduced on the floor of the State Senate by Senator Holly Mitchell? That is just one example of how highly regarded your work is and how important this Institute is to the State.
My hope for you is that you take this year’s learnings, the relationships you have made with each other, your enhanced knowledge of policy advocacy and use it to continue to develop the solutions we all need you to develop. You embody what we strive to support everyday at the Foundation: building community power. So take your power, step right into it, don’t take no for an answer and don’t give up on making the changes we all need you to continue making. Without your work, and the work of WPI alums, California would not be what it is today, and the rest of the country would not know that not only is it possible to advance progressive change even in the most challenging of political times, it is imperative that we do it with community-based leadership and the leadership of those impacted by systemic oppression.
Policy advocacy is one piece of a broader movement approach. And whether you stick with it or not, you now know how the process works. My hope for you is that you will go on to lead–whether it is in policy or becoming the executive director of an organization rooted in intersectional feminism and social justice, running for office, being a staffer, writing, researching or setting legal strategy, leading coalitions or organizing. Because we need you. We are not represented nearly enough in any sector, so let’s rise to the occasion and step into our power.
It is truly my honor to support you in your work. When we support your success, we all succeed. The Foundation wouldn’t be a leader in the gender justice philanthropy sector without your work, and your accomplishments.
So take this experience, and build on it. On the relationships you’ve made with your fellows, with Foundation staff, policy makers, staffers and use it for all of our greater good. You are being called to serve in ways you may not think you know how, but you do. Step into your power because we need you, California needs you, the country needs you.
In the words of President Barack Obama “Don’t just get involved. Fight for your seat at the table. Better yet, fight for a seat at the head of the table.”
Because if we don’t speak for ourselves, someone else will. Which means our lives, our bodies and our futures are being legislated in our absence. As June Jordan said, “we are the ones we have been waiting for.”
So take that with you everywhere you go and know that each of us has to speak for ourselves and our communities.