WASHINGTON — As thousands gather in the nation's capital for the Congressional Black Caucus Foundations' Annual Legislative Conference, leaders say the message and motto is simple: And Still I Rise.
While political leaders, experts and a 'who's who' in media, entertainment and politics come together to network (and party), it is also a time for serious conversations on issues affecting communities of color.
On Wednesday, black women led the discussion on criminal justice, voting rights and job creation. At the highly anticipated Black Women's Roundtable policy forum discussion, political leaders, activists, and experts discussed results from the Power of the Sister Vote Poll conducted by the roundtable and Essence Magazine.
According to the poll, key issues among black women are affordable health care, criminal justice reform, jobs and public education. The survey also found that there is a growing belief that no political party represents black women. Black women's support for the Democratic Party dropped 11 percent over the past year. This is an alarming decline activists said the Democratic National Committee should pay attention to.
"We found this survey to be quite revealing, regarding the shift in the attitudes black women have toward the current political environment," Melanie Campbell, president of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, said. "These results may well be a 'wake-up call' for our mainstream political parties and the folks currently holding office."
Black women gave President Trump, an 'F' approval rating, the survey said and found an increase in black women wanting to run for local office. Ashley Allison, senior adviser of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights and former deputy director of the Office of Public Engagement under the Obama administration said the results of the survey aren't surprising. She also sees the fall in Democratic support as a positive sign of political independence among black women.
"I don't owe anything except myself, and that includes my vote. So if you want my vote you better earn it and you better talk about issues that are important to me," Allison said.
Black women were visible in other ways at the conference, held at the Washington Convention Center. In order to bring attention to the number of black women and girls who are missing or have died in police custody, poster boards of some of them, including Sandra Bland, were placed around the arena as part of the "Do You Know My Name?" campaign, created by the Congressional Caucus on Black Women and Girls.
"We want to bring to the consciousness of everyone who walks through these doors today — it could be their mother, it could be their sister, it could be their aunt, it could be their daughter," Rep. Yvette D. Clarke, D-N.Y., co-chairwoman of the caucus, said at a news conference. "We want to make sure when justice rains down, it rains down on everyone equally, and we expect that justice will come for black women and girls."
218,818 black people were reported missing in 2016, according to a report by the FBI National Crime Information Center. The Black and Missing Foundation reports that out of 647,435 people who were missing in 2016, 242,295 of them were people of color, Derrica Wilson, co-founder of the foundation, said.
"Missing persons isn't a black issue or a white issue — it is an American issue, " Wilson said. "We all must take a stand for this overlooked and voiceless group."
As robust conversations about criminal justice, voting rights and other issues continue over the five-day conference, Andra Gillespie, a political science professor at Emory University, says other issues such as hate crimes should be on the the table. Gillespie said the focus can't be solely on navigating the Trump administration and one must engage all three branches of government.
"It is figuring out whether there is someone in the administration who can not necessarily influence the presidency, but has a certain level of autonomy that they can do things that can work in the favor of African-Americans or do things to try to minimize harm to African-Americans," Gillespie said, adding that the question is "how to engage the president in an attempt to educate him and hold his feet to the fire in a way that African-American legislatures can maintain their own agency and being able to speak truth to power."