Reaching “Higher Heights” for Black Women in 2020 and Beyond

Given the newscycle, you couldn't be criticized for thinking that Election Day 2020 has already arrived. As all manner of elections rev up—from small town, local government races to the all important run for the White House—the everyday American has a lot to consider. Which issues matter to them more than others? If they're a first time or infrequent voter, what will motivate them to actually get to the polls? And once they're there, will they find voices on the ballot that actually represent them and the issues they face in their day to day lives?

Every voter deserves to feel as though they're actually represented by their representatives. For Americans who have been traditionally underrepresented in government, both via the outward appearances of their elected officials and by the policies they enact, it can be incredibly difficult to feel as though their vote and voice matter. It’s a difficult problem, but this hurdle hasn’t stopped political strategist Glynda Carr and consultant and political finance director Kimberly Peeler-Allen from doing their part to find a solution.

Higher Heights for America was born from Carr and Peeler-Allen's mutual desire to see more Black women come into their political power. Their non-profit organization exists to invest in the next generation of political leaders, and organize and advocate for Black women who want to run for and win elected positions. With support through the Higher Heights Leadership Fund, the organization intends to execute its mission of expanding Black women's leadership on Election Day 2019, 2020, and beyond.

We sat down to chat with both women about Higher Heights, getting Black women involved, the upcoming presidential election, the role of the ally, and what "progressive" really means.

If you're a Black woman who has no interest in seeking public office, but does want to become active with their local government, what are three key steps you can take to get involved?

Black women and our allies can stand with us to invest in Black women's political leadership. We each have a role to play and Black women have many opportunities to harness our leadership capabilities and strengthen our political engagement, from voting and working on issues we are passionate about, to running for office.  Black women can:

  1. Tell their network about us, and become a part of Higher Heights’ online community. Help us grow the #BlackWomenLead movement, and ask friends to join.

  2. Ensure our voices are heard, and pledge to vote in every election.

  3. Encourage a Black woman to run for office. Be the voice in the ear of a friend, family member, or colleague, and ask a Sister to run.

What are Higher Heights' goals as we approach the 2020 election? What are the key things you would like to hear from each candidate?

Looking ahead to 2020, Black women should build upon successes in recent elections. Black women showed up and showed out to the polls in record number in 2008 and 2012 and continue in every election to be one of the strongest voting blocs and the foundation to a winning coalition. We know that when you invest in a Black woman voter, she does not go to the polls alone. She brings her house, her block, her church, and her sorority. 2019 and 2020 are not expected to be any different.

Higher Heights wants to ensure that Black women have seats at political and economic decision-making tables. Heading into 2020 and beyond, we are focused on strengthening Black women’s civic participation in grassroots advocacy campaigns and the electoral process, thus creating an environment in which more Black women, and other candidates who are committed to advancing policies that affect Black women, can be elected to public office.

It's often said that living every day as a Black woman in America is a political act in and of itself. But, if we were to get more specific, could each of you describe the moment/thing/action that really activated you politically?

Glynda Carr: From an early age, I was exposed to strong community-, civic-, and business-minded Black women. My great-grandmother, grandmother, and mother lived through the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Brown vs. Board of Education, and Roe vs. Wade. They drank from “coloreds only” water fountains, didn’t have the right to vote, and lacked real leadership and career opportunities not only because they were Black, but also women. Yet, my great-grandmother owned two businesses and my mother used her skills in political activism to ensure that my brothers and I had access to the best educational opportunities.

Kimberly Peeler-Allen: Notions of community and public service played an integral part of my upbringing. My mother was a “professional volunteer” and had me in tow for just about everything she did, whether stocking food pantries, working at a phone bank to help people pay their rent and utilities, or getting petitions signed to send to the state capital or Washington, D.C. to stop the death penalty or increase aide for school food programs. It was always understood that you have to be a voice for the voiceless and you must always give in selfless service to others.

Why focus on Black women, and not simply all women as a collective?

Black women have the highest voter turnout of any race or gender subgroup in the country, yet they are underrepresented at every level of elected office, and underserved. Black women deserve to have a seat at the table to ensure we have a say in the policies that impact us the most.

Where do you think Black women have the best opportunities to expand their political reach in between now and 2020? Are there local races, state races that are exciting to you? Perhaps it's a candidate that you think is going to be particularly influential?

Looking ahead to 2020, Black women have an opportunity to build upon the lessons learned from past elections. Mayoral victories among the 100 most populated cities in the 2017 elections, and unexpected wins in congressional districts in which Blacks are not the majority in 2018, show that Black women are viable in different districts with different demographics. Recent and past successes suggest Black women are creating more and different routes to elected office.

Additionally, Black women candidates who can advance issues around racial inequality, health care, and economic justice in key areas of Alabama, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia will strongly influence the outcome of 2020 races, as they did in 2018. (Additional information can be found at in our latest report done in collaboration with with the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program.)

What can allies of Black women do to support Higher Heights?

Invest in Black women. Black women have proven themselves at the polls, on the trail, in office and behind the scenes of democracy—now it’s time to vote, volunteer and donate to support Black women who are prepared to lead this country boldly into the future.

What led you to partner and found Higher Heights?

We weren’t looking to start an organization. We were having coffee in a Brooklyn cafe, talking about progressive politics, how we didn't see Black women showing up in that space, and questioning why that was. Then we said, “Why don’t we start our own organization for Black women who are looking to be deeper engaged in the political process from the voting booth to elected office?” We came up with the name that day.

We saw the possibilities that exist when you organize and engage Black women in a real way. We dug down and focused on building Black women’s political power, creating a national network of Black women and our allies, and creating a space for them to be informed, engaged and take action.

It feels as though the word “progressive” is being thrown around more and more lately, and the definition changes depending on who is using it. How does Higher Heights define 'progressive,' and can you speak about a few candidates/office holders who you think embody that definition?

In the spirit of the late Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, Higher Heights is investing in Unbought and Unbossed Black women leaders who have a vision to build economically stable, educated, healthy, and safe communities for Black women, their families, communities, and nation. 2018 was a great election year in which we saw wins from candidates such as  NY State Attorney General Letitia James, and Congresswomen Lauren Underwood, Lucy McBath, and Ayanna Pressley. These are the types of progressive women candidates that we want to see run, win, and lead.

Kendra James is a writer and editor based in LA. Find her on Twitter @KendraJames_.
This interview has been edited and condensed.

This article was featured in The Riveter, a bi-weekly roundup of thoughts, insight and news about women and work. Subscribe here!