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A Seat at Every Table

Keshia Pollack Porter

March is Women’s History Month—a time dedicated to celebrating the often overlooked contributions of women to history and society. The National Women’s History Alliance named Women Who Advocate for Equity, Diversity and Inclusion as their 2024 theme—which is timely coming on the heels of February’s Black History Month. And so, this March, I challenge us to celebrate the vital contributions of an often doubly overlooked group: women of color.

As a Black woman, I often reflect on the many Black women who have consistently been a voice for equity. They refused to sit in the back of the bus (Rosa Parks), risked their lives to fight for the right to vote (Fannie Lou Hamer), and were courageous in breaking barriers to desegregate public schools (Elizabeth Eckford, a member of the Little Rock Nine). Their courageous actions have had untold impacts on the physical and mental health of Black Americans and paved the way for other African American women to break barriers and achieve positions of power. These include the first Black woman elected to Congress (Shirley Chisholm), the first to travel to space (Mae Jemison), the first to be Surgeon General (Joycelyn Elders) and the first to serve as President of Harvard University (Claudine Gay).

I also reflect on other women of color. Women like Patty Takemoto Mink, the first Asian American woman elected to Congress, who introduced the Early Childhood Education Act, providing federal childcare, bilingual education and Head Start, and who co-authored Title IX. Or Dolores Huerta, who fought for safer working conditions and healthcare benefits for farm workers. Or Susan La Fleshe, the first female Native American to earn a medical degree, and who fought for health equity for native people.

Today, women of color continue fight for racial equity and justice in the face of attacks against Diversity Equity and Inclusion (DEI) programs. And they are at the forefront of a broad coalition pushing back on censorship in school curricula and libraries, and on harmful policies in sectors ranging from healthcare and housing to transportation and urban planning. Together, we are fighting for the formulation, adoption, and implementation of policies that support women’s health, including those related to reproductive rights, transgender health, intimate partner violence and sexual assault, and equal pay. Policies that support healthy and safe families at the federal, state, and local levels, regarding affordable housing, safe neighborhoods, access to healthy goods, and workplace safety.  

Make no mistake: this is a fight. This is not hyperbole. Opposite us are those who want to retain the status quo or even return us to a time when we had fewer rights than we do today. In this fight, we all have a role; you don’t need to be a CEO, elected official, or hold some other position of authority to influence change.

I applaud all women who are speaking up and making their voices heard in the name of justice and equity—including our own incredibly diverse and accomplished female faculty members, staff, students, postdoctoral fellows, and alumni. I am proud to be the first Black chair and 4th female chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Bloomberg School, supporting research, policy and practice that improves women’s lives and training new female leaders who can make a difference.

Representation matters and we see the change coming. Across the board, more women, particularly women of color, are running for office, and challenging those in positions of authority to make decisions that protect the communities they are from instead of harming them. Today, 155 women are serving in Congress, 100 women are serving in statewide elected offices and 2,400 women are serving in state legislatures, including 722 women of color. We have the first female and first woman of color serving as Vice President (Kamala Harris), the first Native American woman serving as Secretary of the Interior (Deb Haaland), the first woman serving as Secretary of the Treasury (Janet Yellen), and in Maryland, the first South Asian woman to serve as a lieutenant governor (Aruna Miller).

We are nowhere near 50% representation in elected office or in our chosen field of STEM, but I am heartened by the brilliant women that surround me and the wisdom of so many others who have preceded me. We are sitting at more tables where decisions are being made than ever before. But we need to be at every table and be undeterred by efforts to keep us out of the room. I take inspiration from U.S. Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm (1924-2005) who said bluntly, "If they don't give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair."


Keshia Pollack Porter, PhD '06, MPH is the chair of the Department of Health Policy and Management at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.