Black women played a crucial role in Democrat Doug Jones’ win over embattled Republican Roy Moore in Alabama’s December special Senate election. With 98 percent of black female voters casting ballots for Jones, they proved to to the nation that they’re kingmakers and a powerful force in American politics.
Activists and strategists Kimberly Peeler-Allen and Glynda C. Carr were not surprised by the importance of black women in that race, which overpowered ongoing voter suppression that seeks to hinder their political participation. Indeed, the power of black women working together is precisely why they launched Brooklyn, N.Y.,- based Higher Heights for America in 2011 — and a desire to meet a pressing need for “a space for us, by us,” Peeler-Allen says, one that gives black women an opportunity to learn, engage and get active in ways that empower.
Among America’s elected officials, black women are scarce. Just two black women hold statewide offices today, and only 11 have ever held them — and no black woman has ever been elected governor — according to research by Higher Heights and the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. Black female representation is similarly low in Congress. There is only one black woman in the U.S. Senate, and just 18 in the U.S. House of Representatives. Yet there are about 23 million black women in the country, according to U.S. Census data, making them about 7 percent of the population.
But Peeler-Allen and Carr aim to change all of that, using a three-pronged approach. Higher Heights for America, the 501(c)(4) they launched in 2011, endorses candidates and advocates for black women’s interests. The Higher Heights Leadership Fund, a sister 501(c)(3) nonprofit launched soon after, funds research and makes grants. The Higher Heights for America PAC, meanwhile, raises money for candidates.
Peeler-Allen and Carr’s work has resonated with tens of thousands of people over the years. Today, Higher Heights for America has a national network of volunteers and a paid membership roll of 60,000 people, who contribute in amounts of $25 or greater, as well as online activists and allies.
Peeler-Allen says that approaching black women authentically — as both candidates and as voters — is crucial to increasing their representation in government. And making that effort matters, she adds, because they bring strength in numbers when engaged politically. “When we fire up a black woman, she doesn’t go to the polls alone. She brings her household, she brings her water cooler, she brings her sorority and her church all to the polls with her.”
Getting Up and Running
Peeler-Allen’s career in politics began in Washington, D.C., working for the Congressional Affairs Department at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 2000, she married and moved to New York City, where she quickly got involved in the local political scene.
She was working on former New York state comptroller Carl McCall’s gubernatorial campaign in 2002 when “I really saw how people treated candidates of color,” she says. “There was no reason that a man with that amount of life experience and credentials should not have had a cakewalk into the governor’s mansion.”
His loss inspired a drive “to work for candidates of color that I care about, in particular, women,” and in 2003 she opened a consulting and fundraising firm, Peeler Allen Consulting. Through her work there, “I really started to see that there were black women who were kind of behind the scenes pushing things, and they weren’t given their credit.”
Meanwhile, Carr, who was working for Education Voters of New York at the time, shared her frustrations. They agreed that “something needs to give, because we know from our personal networks that there are women out here who have the money, have the expertise, have the interest to be involved in the process — but there’s no space for them,” Peeler-Allen says. “And Higher Heights was born.”
Reaching Black Women
Higher Heights looks to endorse black female candidates who believe in progressive ideals like reproductive choice, affordable housing and healthcare, and community safety. “It’s not just electing a black woman for black women’s sake,” Peeler-Allen says.
But first, they help black women choose to run, which can be a fraught decision. Even amid the surge in women running for office around the nation, roadblocks like restrictive gatekeepers or a leaky pipeline can dampen black women’s chances at winning, or hold them back from running at all, Peeler-Allen says. Black women often act as the leaders of their households and families, leaving many potential candidates to worry, “What happens to the rest of your family ecosystem if the center pillar of the tent is otherwise occupied?”
So, Higher Heights talks with women directly about their specific needs and concerns, while sharing encouraging success stories — for example, spotlighting a woman who ran for state legislature and won, all while pregnant.
Of course, the organization knows “black women are not a monolith,” Peeler-Allen says. To ensure the organization is speaking to as many as possible, Higher Heights hosts in-person salon chats around the nation where women “talk about the challenges and opportunities in their communities.”
It also uses research to examine black women’s diverse concerns and obstructions. Its annual Status of Black Women in American Politics report provides important insights into the roles of black women in politics. The 2017 update found that less money and “constrained ideals of what it looks like to be a candidate or office holder” hurt black women’s political aspirations. The next edition of the report is expected to be published in March, in honor of Women’s History Month.
Higher Heights is also very active on social media, a move it made after reading Nielsen reports spotlight black women’s online clout. It hosts numerous Twitter chats, including its popular Sunday brunches that focus on pressing matters of the day.
Keeping informed and engaged isn’t the only way Higher Heights works for change — collaboration is also key. Last year, it released an open letter to the Democratic National Committee, co-signed by 30 black women leaders from across the country, that sparked a conversation about “tangible next steps to make sure that black women’s voices, votes and leadership were really invested in by the party.” Because of the letter, the DNC did long-term voter engagement and worked with community groups on the ground. The results, she says, were seen in big wins in Virginia and Alabama.
That success demonstrates the power of teamwork, Peeler-Allen says, and is why the organization also works with groups like Vote Run Lead and Power Rising, which encourage women to get politically active, to ensure those partner programs are inclusive of black women.
Rising to Higher Heights
Higher Heights has big plans for the future.
In the short term, the organization aspires to grow the number of black women showing up to the polls, while making sure that the activists and volunteers working locally to get them there are recognized for the work they do. As part of that effort, Peeler-Allen and Carr are preparing to launch the organization’s 2018 #BlackWomenVote campaign, a follow-up to a 2016 effort, which will provide black female voters with sample social media posts, voter registration and polling location information, and details on candidates.
Higher Heights is hyper-focused on the candidates in the 2018 midterm elections, too. “One of our biggest priorities is electing a black woman governor, because in our nation’s 241 years we have never had that,” Peeler-Allen says, adding that the organization is “extremely excited” about Stacey Abrams’ gubernatorial campaign in Georgia.
And ahead of 2020, Higher Heights is working to expand the number of black women in Congress and who hold large-city mayor positions.
Eventually, it wants to target races further down the ballot, too. Many black women in Congress started out in local elected bodies and worked their way up, so Peeler-Allen wants to work more with women at earlier stages in their political careers. Higher Heights will begin laying that groundwork over the summer through a series of campaign webinars designed to help potential candidates learn how to put together a campaign from their homes.
A great deal of work lies ahead, but Peeler-Allen is optimistic about all that Higher Heights can accomplish. “We’ve been extremely blessed that we were in the right place at the right time to be able to capture this energy and hopefully turn it into a sustainable growth and investment in black women’s voices.”