Rural Development Leadership Network, Co-sponsor

National Council of Women of the United States of America

March 2, 2012

We are Making Progress: There are Many Hurdles to Overcome

Good morning, ladies, and colleagues.   

I want to thank Mary Singletary and the National Council of Women for giving Rural Development Leadership Network an opportunity to participate in this important panel. I also want to thank the CSW 56 for choosing the theme, “The empowerment of rural women and their role in poverty and hunger eradication, development and current challenges.” It is long overdue.  I currently work for Rural Development Leadership Network (RDLN), a national multicultural social change organization founded in 1983, supports community-based development in poor rural areas through hands-on projects, education, skills building, leadership development and networking.  Through RDLN, emerging leaders from poor rural areas spearhead development projects and design related study through which they may earn a certificate or academic credential.

Today, I want to share with you a few facts and challenges facing African American rural women.  According to the USA Census Bureau there are 311,000,000 people in the USA of whom 157,260,000 are women and 34,000,000 are rural women. There are approximately  20,000,000 African American women in the US of whom 2,163,893 live in rural areas.  Of the 34,000,000 rural women in America, African American women make up 2,163,893, Asian American women 521,793, Native American women make up 488,600, Caucasian women make up nearly 30,000,000 while Hispanic women make up 1,989,151.   

I am a rural African American woman living in Holly Springs, North Carolina, in southeastern USA.   I was born there many years ago to parents who were sharecroppers.  A sharecropper is a farmer who does not own the land he farms.  The landowner gives the sharecropper a place to live and buys seeds to plant. The sharecropper and his family provide labor in exchange for a share of the profit. Sharecroppers were usually cheated as many could not read or write or keep tally of what their share really was.  Sharecropping was a cruel and unjust economic system of the South and in other places around the world.  My father and mother and my seven siblings survived like many other African Americans in spite of the injustices.  But, the grinding poverty and hunger left unshakable memories for me as a young African American girl.   Those memories were to color and influence the rest of my life.

Today, I am a rural practitioner.  My work with other organizations and RDLN has taken me into some of the poorest communities in America and other countrie, communities far away from the centers of power.  I have worked primarily, though not exclusively, with rural poor African American women.  I have never been to a rural poor community where I did not find a strong African American woman or women working as best they could to improve their community with very few resources.  Quite frankly, I am impressed with rural, poor African American women doing good work for their families and their communities with very few resources.

When I have gone into these communities, I did not have money to give.  But I did have an abiding faith that with a few more tools and skills transformation and empowerment could be taken to a higher level.  Transformation does not take place immediately.  Rural women living in deprivation and desperate conditions have been scared and hurt mentally and physically.  They must have time and a place to heal , start to believe in themselves begin advocating for the things they need.  For example, in one poor rural community in eastern North Carolina I met a young lady who was trying to do a summer program for young children.  She was using some of her small income to try to feed neighborhood children.  As I spent time with her, she was able learn that she could attend her town meeting to ask for help. She found a federally funded food program that provided food for the children, she spearheaded a community garden on a vacant lot, went to her state legislature and advocated for things needed for her community.  I talked to Linda in preparation for this panel. Today, Linda serves as a commissioner on her town board and is thinking about running for mayor.

Demystifying the legislative and political processes are very helpful to rural women.  Trips to Washington DC to speak directly to their US House of Representatives and Senators made these rural women have a sense of ownership.  Though it was a few years ago, some of these women had never been to their Capitol of Raleigh, NC.  So, going to the Capitol of the United States was an awesome experience. 

RDLN taught women and others how to review the Federal budget, and write letters to appropriate government officials.

Now, a few of the challenges we face.  African American women face wage discrimination.  For every  $1.00 earned by a Caucasian male, an African American woman earns $0.69, even as costs are rising for everything including car insurance, car maintenance, food, utilities, dilapidated housing. And more and more, African American women are trying to raise their children in rural areas, where drug dealers are flourishing, along with violence.  African American rural women suffer more with untreated depression.  We must continue to function in order to feed our children.   Most states are slashing mental health programs and budgets.Although Congress has passed President Obama's healthcare bill, it is under attack and is in the hands of the United States Supreme Court.  At the same time, there has been an increase in the number of health clinics in rural areas, and, in some rural areas mobile units visit areas to provide healthcare including mammograms.  Even with these services, African American women have less breast cancer than Caucasian women, but die more often because of late detection.

Yes, African American rural women’s history is one of survival, struggle, strength, tenacity, love, forgiveness, and hard work.  We have excelled in all fields of endeavors, including agriculture, medicine, education, the arts, religion, business, technology, science, justice, politics, and many others.  And still, today, we are dealing with the remaining vestiges of prejudice, discrimination, injustice, unfair wages, inadequate healthcare, housing, food, education, and financial business support.  

African American women have overcome and made strides in improving ourselves, our families, and communities.  What we need now is a fair shake, a hand up not a hand out in accessing governmental and private resources distributed in our communities.  We pay taxes too.

In conclusion:

  1. We must learn to love ourselves and expect the very best of everything
  2. We must find our collective voices and learn to ask and demand our fair share of governmental resources
  3. Many times our share of financial resources are often siphoned off before ever reaching our communities.  This must stop.
  4. We must run for local, state, national public office, get on boards and committees of towns, county, state and national entities.
  5. We must develop more outreach programs that are headed by rural African American women who are trained to know of their rights and of the roles and responsibilities of national and local governments in protecting these rights.
  6. We must find time to heal from our pain of deprivation and discrimination.
  7. We must join with our sisters from every state, country, and every race to address our commonalities and our differences and work in solidarity with all women.

Shirley Williams McClain, Issues Coordinator

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