Clap back

Women protect their rights, pursue equity and fight Trump

Illustration by Sarah Hansel

It was three years ago that many women responded to a call to action: Don't get comfortable, and don't let “this” become the new normal.

The “this” they were resisting? The misogynistic behavior, stream of anti-immigrant rhetoric and the aversion to facts and accountability demonstrated by the man who occupied the Oval Office in January 2017.

Donald Trump's Make America Great Again presidential campaign was marked by insulting and unfounded remarks about Mexican immigrants and Muslims, with disparaging comments about women thrown in for good measure. Even while apologizing for saying a decade earlier that his fame entitled him to “grab women by the pussy,” he excused the comment as locker-room talk. His campaign promise to nominate pro-life judges posed a threat to safe and legal abortions under Roe v. Wade.

In 2016, nearly 63 million Americans (though only 46.1%) voted for Trump, many attracted to his non-politically correct penchant for “telling it like it is.”

But his nativism and sexism ignited a clap back of epic proportions, which started with global Women's March events on his Inauguration Day three years ago. An estimated 4.6 million demonstrators, including 20,000 in Sacramento, took to the streets in a pledge to fight Trumpian values. (The 2020 Women's March is on Saturday, Jan. 18; the Sacramento one starts at Southside Park at 9:30 a.m. and ends at the state Capitol.)

In 2017, the activism of women launched the #MeToo movement, which has brought justice to longtime sexual abusers, raised public awareness about sexual violence and produced major changes in law and policy.

That energy continued into the 2018 midterms, when voters elected a record number of Democratic women to the U.S. House. And who can forget last year's famous literal clap back during Trump's State of the Union address, when House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, wearing suffragist white, seemed to condescendingly applaud the president for cooperation and the common good.

Pelosi struck again last year by leading House Democrats to impeach Trump over the Ukraine scandal. And now, even as he faces the impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate and talks of war against Iran, the Equal Rights Amendment—first passed by Congress in 1972—was ratified Thursday by Virginia. That could be the 38th and last state required for ratification, but there's a legal battle to come.

Ever since he took office, California has been a state of resistance—standing up for reproductive rights, immigrants, the environment and more. Attorney General Xavier Becerra has challenged the Trump administration in federal court more than 50 times.

But the issues that Trump and his supporters brought to the surface are not new. Racism did not end with the 1964 Civil Rights Act, nor was health care access solved by the Affordable Care Act.

In Sacramento and throughout California, organizations have long worked on issues that affect women, advocating for access to health care and support for children, helping women experiencing homelessness get back on their feet and ensuring that women are protected in workplaces from harassment and discrimination.

It's the daily grind of these grassroots efforts that will guarantee that Trump's war on women turns out to be a brief detour in America's progress toward becoming a better place for all, not a lasting and damaging new path.

From left, Renae Garcia, Lisa Culp and Emily Berger sit at the offices of Women’s Empowerment in Sacramento.

Photo by Kate Gonzales

Changing lives

Walking onto the Women's Empowerment campus, the first greeting you get may be a silent one. The faces of the nonprofit's graduates fill most of the walls, their portraits next to brief biographies. The stories of the 1,676 women who have completed the nine-week program speak volumes.

Robin Kelly-Dunton didn't reveal to many that she and her husband, Justin, were experiencing homelessness. They had both been working full-time and attending Sacramento State University. He has epilepsy and couldn't get his medication, so when his health took a nose-dive, Robin left school and work to become his caregiver. Both unable to work, they soon couldn't afford their rent.

They stayed in hotels or with friends while seeking stability, all the more important as their family was growing. They became parents with the birth of their son, Justin Junior, in January 2016.

“It was very stressful to say the least,” Robin said, “and really hopeless.”

At 38, she was accustomed to supporting herself so she was “a little ashamed, a little apprehensive.”

The program and the camaraderie it fosters helped Robin replace that shame with new skills and greater self-esteem.

Lisa Culp founded Women's Empowerment in 2001 after working for nearby Loaves & Fishes, a nonprofit that also offers homeless services.

“Women who were homeless … were falling further and further behind,” Culp said. “They had dreams and goals beyond their survival.”

She rounded up volunteers and launched the group, which today offers women who are experiencing homelessness or at risk of becoming homeless with employment training and opportunities, computer classes, mock job interviews, plus a social worker who can connect them with services and childcare. Four times a year, a class of about 40 students take part in the five days a week program. Many are mothers, and about 3,600 children have received daycare and developmental evaluations.

“What we screen for is motivation, and I have found that to be the best indicator of success,” Culp said.

Emily Berger, who started as the employment specialist last year, can see the change in women when they build their resume from scratch. They may enter the program with little hope of getting a job, but Berger and volunteers help reveal their skills.

Robin, for instance, hadn't realized her caregiving skills were marketable. “I was just supporting my husband and trying to get him back to good health,” she said. “I never thought about it in an employment manner.”

The program also offers courses in nutrition, domestic violence, parenting and fitness. Women who attend a certain number of these optional classes receive a certificate of achievement, which they can show to prospective employers or the courts.

Many factors bring students into Women's Empowerment.

“It could be a mental health diagnosis, anxiety. It could be drug use. It could be bereavement or grief,” explained Renae Garcia, a social worker and child development specialist since 2016. In recent years, she's seen more women facing another barrier: affordable housing.

One of the newest offerings, the REStart Program, aims to address that need with paid property management training. The developer of the new 19J apartment building in Midtown has hired two graduates, and plans to employ 50 over the next decade.

Women's Empowerment has also established an internship program with state Assemblyman Kevin McCarty's office. After Robin graduated in fall 2016, she was hired as an intern and has since been promoted to a district representative with full-time benefits.

“That was a game-changer,” she said.

Women's Empowerment also provides services for graduates, including access to a professional clothes, computers and counseling. “After they graduate the session, we don't just close the case,” Garcia said.

Today, Robin's husband is healthy and also working again and they found an apartment soon after she completed the program. Their son, JJ, is about to turn four and he “was able to have his first birthday party in our new apartment,” she said. “That was a real win for us.”

Shannon Shaw, executive director of Her Health First.

Providing care

Her Health First has served women in Sacramento since 1988, with a goal of reducing the African-American infant mortality rate. Based in South Oak Park, the nonprofit's flagship program is Black Mothers United, which offers free prenatal care and support.

“Some of our women are single moms, some … are teen moms, others are married and have supportive partners,” said Shannon Shaw, the nonprofit's executive director. Many clients are low-income.

According to the organization's 2018 evaluation report, 81% of babies of mothers in the program were delivered healthy. A study of child deaths in Sacramento County between 1990 and 2009 revealed a higher death rate for African-American children than any other ethnic group. That report prompted the launch of countywide effort, with First 5 Sacramento providing funding, including some that went to Her Health First.

“Our job is to make sure she has access to every single service that could impact her pregnancy in a positive way,” Shaw said.

That includes education on healthy eating, stress management, parenting skills, breastfeeding and safe sleeping techniques. Each woman is also assigned a pregnancy coach, who helps mothers develop a birthing plan and can connect them with health care, legal services, alcohol and drug counseling, as well as referrals to basic needs like car seats.

Women can also receive transportation assistance to pregnancy-related appointments. “That really could range—it could be their doctor's appointment or it could be going to a food bank,” Shaw said.

The program also offers a sense of kinship. Women often become friends, and meet at monthly Mommy Mingles, which center on a particular topic, sometimes presented by a guest speaker. Following the presentation, there is a craft or stress-release activity that focuses on wellness.

“It really is another way of building community for our pregnant moms,” said Shaw. “Often times women are just in need of an extra support system.”

Betsy Butler, executive director of California Women’s Law Center.

Rewriting laws

Betsy Butler never thought she'd see something like the #Me Too movement in her lifetime. She said she can't count the number of times male colleagues had made inappropriate advances that she ignored or laughed off.

“I always thought women would be treated as second-class citizens,” she said.

In recent years, the Me Too and We Said Enough movements have both aimed to end sexual misconduct in the workplace. Butler, a Sacramento native, said many conditions for women aren't as bad as decades ago, but acknowledged the need for continued improvement, particularly for the most marginalized women.

As the executive director of California Women's Law Center, she and her team are working on that.

Based in Los Angeles and founded in 1989, the center advocates on issues including economic security, housing and reproductive health, across class, race and age.

Take the wage gap. Each April, Equal Pay Day serves as a reminder that women make 79 cents for every dollar earned by men and must work four more months to make what their male counterparts earn in a year. Those are the stats for white women. Black women must work eight more months and Latinas 11 more.

Butler said the pay disparity's impact is even greater when considering long-term earnings and lower retirement savings. The estimated loss of income for Latinas over a lifetime is more than $1 million.

“How differently had she lived her life if she had been paid fairly,” Butler asked rhetorically.

The center takes on causes based on what they hear from women across the state. That includes advocacy for domestic violence survivors, women's reproductive rights and Title IX, which bars gender-based discrimination in schools.

The center also takes positions on proposed state legislation and also files briefs in court cases nationwide. Last year, the center authored or signed onto 29 amicus briefs, including one urging a federal appeals court to overturn a 2014 Louisiana abortion law. In the first week of the new year, more than 200 members of Congress asked the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

“Reproductive rights and justice are paramount here [in California],” Butler said. “It's important we have a voice at the table.”

Lindsey Herring, founder of Grace Project, which helps female science majors at Sacramento State.

Educating the next generation

Sacramento State student Lindsey Herring wants to eliminate barriers to women pursuing a STEM education—especially those who are underrepresented in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Nearly two years ago, Herring was close to switching her dietetics major after bombing a statistics midterm. The problem wasn't her study habits; she was missing a vital tool for the exam—a graphing calculator. It was taken while she was studying on campus, and she couldn't afford to buy a replacement.

“I kind of just felt like, well maybe this is a sign from the universe that I'm not even supposed to be here anyways,” she said. “Or maybe I'm not capable of this.”

A campus counselor urged her to tell her stats professor what happened, and when he allowed her to retake the test with a loaned calculator, she passed.

Still, she felt unprepared compared to other students in class and, on top of that, she was the only African-American woman in the room. “Being a black woman also sometimes can feel like there's a little bit more pressure to prove myself,” she said.

According to a 2019 National Science Foundation report, while black women are earning more degrees in psychology and social and biological sciences, they were awarded fewer science and engineering degrees between 1996 and 2016.

Herring stuck with her STEM classes and is on track to graduate in spring 2021 with a bachelor's degree in dietetics and minors in chemistry and African Studies.

She knows, however, that not everyone overcomes the barriers she faced. She talked with black friends who took STEM courses and who felt judged for their appearance, or who struggled with lab costs, including goggles, a coat and manuals.

Herring wanted to create a solution so in 2019, she founded the Grace Project to help offset those costs. The funds can cover course supplies but also what Herring calls “life supplies” for lab, including close-toed shoes, long-sleeve shirts and pants without holes.

Last fall, Sac State President Robert S. Nelsen gave the project $10,000 from his office. Herring plans to develop partnerships so alumni, hospitals and others can donate used items to the Grace Project.

“I hope my project will allow students to feel like they have a place to go,” she said.

About a half an hour's drive away at Mariposa Avenue Elementary School, fourth grade teacher Valerie Pasdera is part of an effort to foster girls' love of science. She's the coordinator of the school's Snap the Gap program, a statewide effort that connects girls ages 10 to 12 with hands-on learning, mentors and a subscription to, a STEM learning platform and community for kids.

The Disney-funded program, a collaboration between UC Davis STEM Strategies and Million Women Mentors, aims to reach 15,000 girls statewide by June 2020. Through partnerships with school districts, libraries and the Girl Scouts and other youth organizations, girls get 20 hours of engagement that includes mentorships and experiential learning with inventor kits that include templates to make robotic arms and other electronic items and tools to build their own creations.

“At this stage students are still really excited about hands-on activities,” said Beth Broome, senior adviser to the provost for UC Davis STEM Strategies.

When girls created something, they lit up, said Pasdera, who ran the program after school last year, with help from a volunteer mentor from Intel. One girl built a foot that could kick a soccer ball; another made a roaring dinosaur. This spring, she plans to introduce the inventor kits to her regular class as well.

Broome said that by maintaining girls' interest in STEM at a young age, it can help continue closing the gender gap in higher education and the workforce.

“By the time women get to us, we're not working on closing that gap but working on amplifying those skills,” she said.