Homelessness, single motherhood, loss of identity, stereotyping and discrimination are just a few of the experiences that Washington state women of color legislators had to overcome on their paths to politics, they told an audience at The Evergreen State College as part of the college’s second annual Equity Symposium on Nov. 14 and 15.
Sitting shoulder-to-shoulder in Evergreen’s Purce Lecture Hall, the five legislators spoke candidly about their lives and what motivated them to run for office on a panel called “Transforming Dialogue into Action: Washington Womxn of Color Legislators.”
One story came from Rep. Melanie Morgan, a former school board director, U.S. Army veteran and a black woman of Jamaican descent who represents the 29th Legislative District, which includes parts of Tacoma, Lakewood, and Spanaway.
She told the crowd that she got her start on the board of the Franklin-Pierce School District and that her road to the legislature had not been easy as a single, divorced mother of four. She went on to say “If any of you are single parents out there, do not let the circumstances predict what could be.”
Morgan explained she faced poverty after divorce and her family spent a decade on section-8 housing vouchers and food stamps—and eventually she became homeless. But she didn’t let that stop her from reaching her goal of leadership in public office.
She said she won her seat by 22% due to one thing: “Engaging with community members who had not been engaged civically for 20 years.”
In 2019, Morgan was welcomed into the Washington State Legislature’s most diverse cohorts of elected officials in state history. It includes a female majority in the House Democratic Caucus with women of color serving in both the House and Senate leadership.
Morgan was recently appointed to the newly-created Office of Equity Task Force to promote equitable opportunities across all sectors of government.
This year’s theme of Evergreen’s Equity Symposium was “Transforming Dialogue into Collective Action.” The campus-wide gathering of workshops, speakers and dialogues is dedicated to advancing diversity, equity and inclusive excellence.
Also participating in the panel were Rep. Debra Entenman and Sen. Mona Das, who work on behalf of the 47th Legislative District, Rep. My-Linh Thai, from the 41st Legislative District, and Sen. Emily Randall, from the 26th district.
The legislators cited several key barriers which made achieving political leadership difficult including: Few role models who looked like them or came from their communities; people dismissing them because English was not their first language; being discouraged by educators to achieve higher education goals; lack of resources; and pressure to assimilate.
“Why is it that all of us have the story that we had to abandon our ethnic and cultural identities in order to be successful?” said Morgan.
The legislators encouraged more women of color to join their ranks and to get more diverse representation in the Washington state legislature.