I was inspired and humbled when I talked to Dina Flores-Brewer, a board member of Women of Color Alliance (WOCA) in Idaho. You might be thinking, “There’s an alliance of women of color in Idaho?” I might have not known about them either if they weren’t a member of the Groundwork Strategic Cohort. Groundwork, a collaboration between EMERJ and Western States Center, is working with eight grassroots groups in Oregon, Idaho and Washington to build a movement for reproductive justice in the Pacific Northwest by making change on a range of issues that are core to Strong Families. WOCA has just come out with a fantastic new resource, The WOCA Roadmap to Voting: A Voter Guide for Women of Color.
A second generation Idahoan, Dina grew up taking great pains to deny her Latina roots. It wasn’t until she moved to Portland that she saw diversity embraced. Thirteen years later she returned to Idaho to bring her experience back to her family. As a mother of two, she doesn’t want them to face the same hurdles she did. “I talk to young women in junior high and high school, incredibly bright young women who are withering away because they’re not being encouraged. It’s been 25 years since I’ve been in high school, and nothing has changed.”
Dina became a disability rights attorney, and she’d already been doing advocacy for years when she attended her first WOCA conference in 2003. She participated in a 2-day training on internalized racial oppression (IRO); it struck a chord and she was immediately hooked. She became a member soon after and was invited to join the board in 2004.
Since its founding in 1999, WOCA has been empowering individual women across the state to take action on issues that impact them and their families. The IRO training is their signature program, and they’ve brought it to different communities across the state, including largely rural communities in Eastern and Central Idaho.
Many of them have the same reaction that Dina did. “We’ve heard from some of the women and they say it changed their lives. Their husbands have called and said, ‘what are you going to do for us men?’ It’s funny that something that small – a couple of days working with these ladies – and they start seeing patterns in themselves and why they think the way they do. Here in Idaho, the attitude toward ethnic groups, particularly Hispanics and Natives, is so negative that you can’t help but swallow it in, look in mirror, and try to tell yourself, ‘that’s not me.’”
As a next step to the voter guide, which encourages women of color and their communities to take action to support strong families through the midterm elections, WOCA is launching a public policy training in December to build the skills and knowledge of community members to respond to the legislature when bills come up that impact families and communities.
When I asked her what WOCA was hoping to achieve, Dina answered: “We would love to see an army of women of color testifying in front of the legislature when they try to hack the school budget or criminalize immigration. There are rumors that we’ll be seeing an Arizona-like bill. We’d like to see a room full of ladies.” So would I!
Like most other parts of the country, the reality in Idaho is that if women of color don’t advocate for themselves and their families, no one else is going to do it for them. WOCA is one of two grassroots organizations in the entire state dedicated to advocating for women of color. The State Women’s Commission, which was the only state body specifically geared toward women’s issues, was disbanded by the Governor two years ago. The governor also proposed to de-fund the Idaho Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which is now hanging on by a nail after a large grassroots effort and protests by allies in public office. Similarly, many disability groups have been on the chopping block of state councils and state commissions.
But women of color in Idaho like Dina have been fighting to be visible and keep their families strong. “Being a mother and having children, it would be easy to move out of state and just let it go. But this is where my children are going to grow up and if I don’t fight for them, nobody else is going to.” And her greatest hopes for them? “To have no limits, to do whatever they want, without having someone else put barriers up in their way.” And the work of WOCA just might make that possible.