"A More Expansive Definition of Womanhood": Andrea Mercado, Cristina Jimenez, and Nisha Agarwal

"A More Expansive Definition of Womanhood": Andrea Mercado, Cristina Jimenez, and Nisha Agarwal

(New York City Mayor's Office of Immigrant Affairs Commissioner Agarwal greets the 17 new fellows who are part of the Fellowship for Immigrant Women Leaders/ Mayors Office of Immigrant Affairs)

Conversation with Andrea Mercado, Campaign Director of National Domestic Workers Alliance, Cristina Jimenez, Executive Director of United We Dream, and Nisha Agarwal, the New York City Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs:
April 30, 2015

Taryn Higashi (TH): Nisha, could you share with us some of the pionerring work you’re doing on immigrant women’s leadership in New York?

Nisha Agarwal (NA): Thanks to the support of Unbound, we are creating a fellowship for 25-30 emerging immigrant women leaders. The idea is to bring them together once every couple of weeks, so they can build relationships among eachother, and with city government leaders. We want emerging immigrant women leaders to know, ‘You too could work in city government, or wherever you choose.’

Andrea Mercado (AM): I am curious, Nisha, if you are connecting the leadership of women to a policy platform?

NA: There are so many big issues that are moving through the city right now: the reworking of the workforce development system, educational and children’s issues. I don’t know that we’ve lifted up the gender lens as explicitly as we could. My hope is that in these conversations [among the fellows] there is discussion about women’s contributions to these fields, and the particular needs of immigrant women; maybe they will surface new strategies or interventions.

TH: Andrea, can you share with us highlights from the work you’re doing on immigrant women’s leadership or issues?

AM: In our We Belong Together campaign, we illustrated the importance of looking at policy through a gender lens. One example is only a quarter of all employment visas go to women [Ed. note: more than half of all arriving immigrants are women.] So many women who come in to this country—even with visas—are coming in relationship to their husbands’ employment visa and don’t have the ability to work legally. These women not only face obstacles contributing to the economy of our country, but also, a woman on a spousal visa who faces domestic violence may fear speaking out against an abusive spouse because of the fear of deportation, making her more vulnerable.

With We Belong Together, we’ve been looking at evidentiary hurdles and financial barriers for immigrant women to access Administrative Relief; how immigrant women in the labor force are earning less than any other demographic, and how do we strengthen workers’ protections for immigrant women. We’re also asking what are the ways we’re advocating for ending the harsh enforcement and criminalization of undocumented immigrant women, and ending family detention of women and children? Right now, there are women imprisoned with their children inside immigration detention centers, fighting for and demanding freedom. We are figuring out, what are the ways women across the country can stand with detained women on the frontlines?

NA: One of the things that [National Domestic Worker’s Alliance] has done well is build links with immigrant and non-immigrant women. We are trying to make the immigrant movement feel like an issue that affects us all. The example of the family detention center, and the ways in which women are organizing and lifting up their stories has resonance. How do we lift up those stories even more to build solidarity among different communities, so the immigration movement becomes a bigger, connected movement?

AM: In the last few years we’ve witnessed a vibrant and militant immigrant rights movement. There’s also been an explosion of the movement for black self-determination and freedom. In this moment, we can look at the intersection of the incarceration of immigrant women and children, and how that resistance mirrors the resistance amongst black people who are currently incarcerated. Our movements have been pretty narrow, in ways that limit political opportunities for deep and nuanced collaboration. We have the opportunity to come together in new ways, to build the movement infrastructures and relationships that we need if we are serious about dismantling the criminalization that impacts women.

NA: That is totally right. When you talk about local victories, how do you make those ideas real at the local level? I think about the “fight for fifteen” [the fight for a minimum wage of $15] and how there were so many women stepping forward saying ‘Here is why these exploitative jobs and wages don’t work for us.’ This is so similar to immigrant workers—and immigrant women workers in particular—stepping forward. There is a lot to mine for exciting new ideas and campaigns.

(Cristina Jimenez joins)

TH: Cristina, could you update us about the important new work that United We Dream is developing on immigrant women’s leadership?

Cristina Jimenez (CJ): The majority of our leaders, members, organizers and staff are young immigrant women. During our regional retreats and strategy meetings, women started sharing their experiences, about organizing their communities or leading their organizations. In the same way that we developed our LGBTQ program (Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project/QUIP), we decided to create a space for the women in our network to have conversations. Every year during the fall, we host regional gatherings. At these gatherings, we began to create optional meetings for women—after dinner or lunch—and they were all very well attended. What was clear from these conversations is that women in our network are in need and want the network to step in to provide support for their development as leaders and organizers.

The second thing that came up was having space to talk about other issues that women in our constituency are facing. Issues around domestic violence and reproductive rights and alcoholism in households came up a lot. We’re trying to refine what our Women’s Initiative could do in its pilot stage to address some of these needs. A concrete step is a mentorship model, where we have a clear pipeline for women’s leadership development and coaching for their organizing and leadership experience.

NA: If you create a space, people will come. Something similar thing happened for us in city government. Informally, a group of women leaders in city government came together and said, ‘There are so many of us, but we don’t know each other—let’s have a dinner where we get together and see each other and interact.’ It was wildly successful, and we are going to keep getting together. [Our meetings] are creating more of an identity for us as women leaders than if we were just carrying on independently in our own role.

TH: Has there been any resistance that you’ve faced, internally or externally? Any challenges to note?

CJ: Within the leadership of the UWD network there was a lot of excitement [about our Women’s Initiative], mainly because we’re mostly women. When we had the meeting at the regional level, some of the men felt uncomfortable. There wasn’t explicit resistance, but implicit resistance from some members. It is similar to when we started to talk about intersectionality with LGBTQ immigrant youth, and now, when we have conversations about black and brown communities, issues of criminalization, and police brutality. The big light bulb is, We can’t assume that our membership is with us, yet. There is work we need to do to get our folks to understand, and for us to do some consciousness-building and awareness work. A challenge is figuring out how we launch the program in a way that meets our capacity. People have a lot of energy, but we need to take it in small steps because we want to do it well.

NA: We face a challenge of how do we have a coherent gender equity approach citywide. There was a committee on the status of women in city government; it will now be reshaped and called the Commission on Gender Equity. What does that mean and look like? The good news is we have smaller projects in each of our agencies, but then, what does that add up to? We are still figuring that out.

TH: Any further thoughts?

AM: How do we have a more expansive definition of womanhood and what women’s priorities are? The women’s movement has been conceptualized and narrowly focused on reproductive rights for some time in the mainstream discourse. Partly what immigrant women’s leadership brings into the women’s movement is understanding that immigrant rights are a women’s issue, like the fight against mass incarceration, and the fight for trans women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights, are women’s issues. How do we reconceptualize the women’s movement for the 21st century?

With Administrative Relief, you can take a gender cut on so many aspects of it, like how so many women are working off the books, as domestic workers, or as restaurant workers, or stay at home moms. How do we make sure programs that are designed to provide relief are accessible to as many women as possible?

NA: There’s a book, This Bridge called My Back, about immigrant women and women of color speaking to the mainstream feminist movement, saying ‘Where are we in this dialogue?’ It captured my attention when I was younger because I never really felt a connection to the mainstream women’s movement, even though I was an activist at an early age. The issues I thought my mom, as an immigrant woman, grappled with, were not reflected in the women’s movement. Meanwhile, I would travel to different parts of the world and see women organizing and I felt like there was a disconnect, and sadly, I think there’s still that disconnect. There needs to be a discussion on what does a revamped women’s movement look like that is truly inclusive of all these perspectives.

When I transitioned into immigration work in a focused way several years ago, it was the moment of my professional career where I felt the most gender inequity. I would be in rooms that were male dominated; men’s voices and men’s leadership were profiled. I felt more silenced than I would have expected in a social justice movement.

CJ: I’m so glad you mentioned that! Just recently, I started to get invitations to panel conversations and meetings hosted by some of the mainstream women’s groups or foundations working on women and girls issues. Because I am in a space of people of color all the time, it’s been an interesting place to transition to, realizing there are few women of color in those spaces. I was also typically the youngest, and the only immigrant woman. My immediate observation is that there aren’t a lot of women who look like me in those spaces. I’ve been questioning why that is, and wanting those spaces to have more people who look like me.

AM: We’ve been creating an on-ramp for mainstream women’s organizations to get into the fight, and not only support the issue but lift up immigrant women in leadership in the immigrant rights movement

TH: If you could make a wish for the funding community—on immigrant rights, women’s rights, broader—what would it be?

NA: Creating more spaces for conversations like this! Some of the best relationships I’ve built, and ideas I’ve had, have come from being in the same space with other likeminded women.

AM: Yes, there should be more resources for women to convene and to bear witness together. There are ideas, creativity, and a spirit of rich thinking that we can build with each other in person that there is not substitute for.

CJ: Particularly for our constituency, there is a need to have a clear pipeline to nurture the leadership of young immigrant women, in different sectors. Currently, the leadership development that happens is informal. I’ve been feeling the urgency to have a more intentional and strategic way to nurture that leadership for our community.

NA:  I totally agree with that. Women don’t see that they can go into certain domains, even if they may want to. Why do we close off doors implicitly without realizing it? Leadership development spaces, in particular for young women of color, is crucial to help create the vision for what women’s leadership looks like in its fullest form.

Also, there’s a concept of sponsorship: we need to shine a light on women leaders doing incredible work. It’s not just enough to give advice to younger women who I mentor, I also need to tell others, ‘Wow, that young woman is a rock star!’ If you don’t tell people what to look at that’s great, they won’t always just naturally look at it, especially when you’re talking about women of color. We need to broaden who people see when they’re looking for women leaders.