Download the transcript (PDF) for Hidden Truths Episode 32: Bringing Black Women to the Policy Table with Cassandra Welchlin and Shannon Williams.
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INTRO: While Mississippi is often seen as an outlier of the U.S. economy, the opposite is true: As our nation moves toward a two-tier job market providing starkly different levels of pay, job stability, benefits, and advancement opportunity, a closer look at Mississippi’s highly racialized and gendered labor market reveals that the Magnolia State is not an exception but rather a case study in inequity in the U.S.
Mississippi, along with other Southern states, has long served as a policy laboratory for reducing worker power, and the resulting economic prospects for the state’s women, and Black women in particular, reflect the alarming trends shaping the broader U.S. labor market.
Living and working at the intersection of racial discrimination and gender bias, Black women in Mississippi are locked out of 62 percent of all available jobs through occupational segregation, their pay is among the lowest of any group in the state, and their typical wage in occupations in which they do dominate is just $11.67 an hour — compared to $33 per hour for white men.
At the same time, Mississippi women serve in essential roles as the backbone of the state’s economy, and 8 out of 10 Black mothers in the state are breadwinners for their families.
Facing deeply entrenched economic barriers, Black women have long been at the center of movements to build political power and overhaul the state’s discriminatory laws and policies.
Drawing on a legacy of intergenerational organizing, their push for progressive change continues, with the goal of securing equal pay legislation and a brighter economic future for Mississippi families.
ANNE PRICE: Welcome to Hidden Truths, the podcast where we examine the root causes of economic and racial inequality. I’m Anne Price, and I’m very pleased to be joined by our guests, Cassandra Welchlin and Shannon Williams.
Ms. Welchlin is the executive director and co-convenor of the Mississippi Black Women’s Round Table. She is also the cofounder of the Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative. Ms. Williams is the director of the Equal Pay Today campaign, led by the National Gender Justice Advocacy Organization, Equal Right Advocates. Cassandra and Shannon, thank you so much for joining me today.
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: Thank you for having me.
SHANNON WILLIAMS: Thank you for having me.
ANNE PRICE: Well, let’s just jump right in, I wanted to start our conversation today by discussing the political landscape in Mississippi. We have just born witness to a long-term effort of Stacey Abrams and other great organizers, and even many before her, to reshape an electorate in Georgia, and that’s paid off with the recent victories of now senators Raphael Warnock and Jon Ossoff.
Some pundits are saying that Georgia could serve as the first major battle in what could be a transformative campaign to reclaim the region from the Southern strategy. But when we look at Mississippi, a state with the largest share of Black people in the nation at 38%, we see a much different picture. Mississippi has a more conservative white voter electorate, less population growth than other places in the South that has translated for them into greater racial and ethnic diversity, and Mississippi has experienced somewhat of a brain drain of millennials. They’ve lost the highest share in the country between 2010 and 2016.
So, I want to start with you, Cassandra. Given that backdrop, what do you think is possible to shift the political landscape and improve the lives of Black Mississippians?
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: Well, thank you for, again, having me here to be a part of this conversation, and I’m really excited we’re having it off of the incredible work that Georgians did to turn out the vote at high levels. It’s definitely such a testament to the groundwork that had been done, you know, years prior to this election from Black women. And I start with that because I want to lift that up in the State of Mississippi.
You know, Mississippi has been, particularly Mississippi Black women have really been at the center of all the political, social, economic, justice movements in this state but also in this country. And so, it’s not that what happened in Georgia can’t happen in Mississippi, it’s a recognition that the groundwork has been built. When you talk about a Fannie Lou Hamer, who took such a bold move to form the Freedom Democratic Party, right, it’s such an important—the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party—and you had other women who really organized to get people registered to vote. And so, the groundwork and the movement continues to happen.
The percentage of Black voters in Mississippi definitely was around that 38-39%, and what we have known, you know, even with the elections from 2015—in Mississippi we have elections every year—and we have continued to register voters at high numbers and to turn them out at high numbers. And Black women continue to really push those buttons and push the lead in highest voter turnout in the country when it comes to Presidential elections.
And so, what we’re working on now is maintaining that but to make sure that it happens not just during Presidential elections but also during local elections, right? And so, we have worked in partnership and in coalition with organizations such as One Voice and the Mississippi NAACP, work in coalition with the ACLU, Southern Poverty Law Center, and so many other wonderful organizations to collectivize our efforts.
That means doing more strong messaging around what are the issues that—and it’s not so much about even the politicians, it’s about the issues that speak to us—and so doing organizing around these issues that’s important to us, issues around healthcare and access to the voting booth, equal pay for equal work, Black maternal health. So, organizing around the issues that we know impact people’s kitchen tables, that’s the work that we’ve been doing at the Black Women’s Round Table, but also, in coalition, speaking on the issues this past election a lot happened.
One, during this pandemic and during the racial unrest in this country, we were able to take down the confederate symbol that was on our flag. We were able to take that down and just two weeks ago, we were able to now fly the new flag. But that was on the ballot. So, if we put issues on the ballot that speak to households, then we get people who see themselves in the voting process. And so, that’s the kind of thing that we are doing.
We’ve been reaching low propensity voters or infrequent voters and particularly infrequent Black women voters, identifying them and getting a real strategy to engage them-engage them around, again, town hall meetings, canvassing. We did a lot this session to do no-contact canvassing, knocking on those doors, and just putting information on those doors. So, we got a lot of response and people really turned out. And we’re going to continue to do that, but the thing is continue investment and continue engagement. That’s how we’re going to get the work done and to elected officials that vote our values and our issues and our kitchen tables.
ANNE PRICE: I’m really, really struck by what happened on the ballot this year in Mississippi, and I think it probably has been overshadowed by a number of other national events, but quite a bit of progressive change and even thinking about taking down a confederate symbol, it goes beyond just something symbolic, but I think you spoke so well to the kind of power that’s being built in Mississippi. You know, I think one of the things that we see in this country really is a bias, a bias towards the South in general and maybe toward Mississippi more particularly.
So, Shannon, I want to ask you a question about how you think we can begin to shift how Mississippi and the South are more broadly viewed at a national level.
SHANNON WILLIAMS: Yeah so, I just want to, again, say thank you. I love talking to you, Anne, and to Cassandra. You’re two of my favorite people so always happy to have a chance to be in conversations with you both.
So, Cassandra touched a little bit on this already, but what happened in Georgia is amazing, right, and is what I imagine will be a pretty strong blueprint going forward with what’s possible to be replicated in the Southern states.
One thing to note about Georgia though. You know, they have a recent history of being a little more progressive politically than some of the other Southern states, and you know, with that comes a base of voting rights organizing that Black women have been building up for years, right? And it is happening in other Southern states but happening at a rapid pace in Georgia.
So, Mississippi can definitely get to that point. I think it’s making the necessary strides to get there, and I think that that’s in big part due to the work of Cassandra and her organization and others that she’s working with, but you know, it didn’t happen overnight in Georgia there either. So, Georgia’s really set an example for other Southern states and, you know, showing that power of grassroots organizing. And so that’s a great place for Mississippi to keep building because they’ve already, they’ve been laying the groundwork. They’re building-they’re building out their networks, they’re mobilizing, and they’re doing it phenomenally.
Also, I think one thing that will help us is if we start to see some more progressive policies come out of Mississippi that kind of like, dispel the notions of the “Old South”—I’m giving air quotes, you can’t see me, but I am—and like, for instance, things like equal pay. Things like raising the minimum wage, policies around pay transparency, anti-retaliation—things that we’re working on, things that Cassandra and her organization are working on, you know, around the clock in Mississippi.
I think if we start to see a big shift in that and an increase in like the progressive policies that are coming out Mississippi, I think that that will help to also change the narrative of what we’re seeing in Mississippi and that will ultimately, you know, help with that big mobilization piece of kind of changing and shifting-shifting how we’re seeing the base on a national scale.
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: You know, it’s interesting that Mississippi has often been, you know, characterized, again, we are this conservative state and you can’t get much done. And so, a couple of things have happened based on that attitude and that belief.
One, the divestment from the state when it comes to can you get anything done. Like philanthropy not investing in the state the way it needs to on a consistent basis, not just when we have a Senate race or a Presidential race, but again in Mississippi, we have elections every year. We’re going to continue to do our work, and we’re going to continue to put our pennies together and our dollars together because that’s just the model and the value in which we do our work anyways without those philanthropic dollars, but it helps to sustain what has already been built. And so-so I want to say that the other thing, and say that’s part of the attitude, is well, we can’t get anything done. Well, we also need the investments to continue so that we can continue to grow.
The other thing I would say is, you know, because of the history of Mississippi and white supremacy and the lynchings that happened, you know, here-and of course, having, you know, conservative politicians pushing back on progressive policies-people oftentimes turn, you know, their back and have that attitude. But the arc continues to bend. There are wins that happen here, you know, in the state.
And so, it’s up to us as advocates, as people in the state, to continue to lift that up. To say, yes, we’re winning, and this is how we’re winning, and yes we do have an infrastructure, you know, with the church-the Black church, with Black women, with Black and brown coalition building, right? And now, with our millennials as well, because our philosophy in the Black Women’s Round Table, and before I even joined the Black Women’s Round Table, my organizing value is around intergenerational organizing.
Like, we must have older folks and younger folks working together, and that’s our model. And so, we can and are getting there, but we need those two things: one, to be recognized, us to tell our stories, but also that continued investment, not just doing special elections but every year, so that organizations like myself and other organizations can build up their civic engagement strategies along the year.
ANNE PRICE: Thank you for that.
SHANNON WILLIAMS: I love that Cassandra talked about that civic engagement strategy and that component and the work that is happening in terms of registering Black and brown people in Mississippi to vote and engaging them in the electoral process.
That acts as a catalyst into engaging them in advocacy around different policy reforms and different progressive policies that organizations like Cassandra’s and others in Mississippi are really trying to push forward. And so that is the perfect stepping stone into really starting to see a lot of that turnover and a lot of that change that kind of leans in that progressive space. So, I love that.
ANNE PRICE: Yeah, I want to go back to a couple of points that have been made.
I mean certainly you, Cassandra, lift up the fact that there has not been the kind of investment in Mississippi and in the South that would help secure the kind infrastructure to enable organizers to do this work year round, do it year after year, and I think a lot of that is based on a bias. And we know that that policy change is slow and it’s iterative and it’s grueling.
You’ve talked about some of the progress that you’ve made—what can you offer advocates working in other states where change is really slow, where there isn’t a lot of movement year by year but change does happen? What can Mississippi teach people?
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: It was interesting, in 2016, when the former President-whom I won’t name-was elected into office. We got a lot of calls, we were on a lot of advocacy calls, just having conversations about man, what do we do, how do we do this? And they were talking to folks like us in the South, and we said, “well welcome to the South.” We’ve been experiencing those kinds of oppressions since the beginning.
And so, we built up enough of a muscle and a strategy to live through it and to continue to make change. And so, it is our story—it is our story, and so we were able to offer and say, you know, for us, what we’ve been able to do is—and let me just congratulate the first Madam VP President Kamala Harris, right, that is just so significant—but we have been able to develop smart strategies, do coalition building. Like that’s the work that we have been doing.
It’s still, for us, that grassroots organizing, that is key. Everything here in Mississippi—and the South, I will say—is relational. So, that relational organizing is so key, so important, and again, people will vote and people will engage based on relationships and if they can see themselves in the work. If they can see and connect the dots that my pocketbook is connected to the lawmakers that are making those laws, they’re making the laws around what my wages are. And so, doing that kind of connectivity that grassroots organizers just constantly talking to people, letting them know we care, we’re concerned.
During this election, what we did that was so incredible was again, our values are we engage the people whom we say we’re serving. And so, we hired to do phone banking. We hired women who had lost their jobs. We hired seniors who were at home and couldn’t, you know, get extra income. We hired them because, again, intergenerational organizing is our work. We hired young people who have been kicked off of the campus due to the pandemic, and they were foster care youth off of university colleges campuses. So, we hired these folks to do phone banking, you know, with us, to go do the no contact canvassing. We hired them because we know that they need to see themselves in this work, and it is our values.
So, those are some of the lessons that we’ve learned, but it’s also the lesson of us owning our narrative and telling our own story that we are who we see, who we want to be, and we are the change that we want to be, and so engaging even more on that grassroots level is so important. The digital organizing, again, is really key, but nothing beats that door-to-door contact. And it was very difficult during the pandemic, but we had to get out there so that they can see that this was still important, people were still—that their votes still matter, that they still matter.
So, that’s some of the work that we have done, and we built the strength, and we built a model around continuing to get it done during a conservative administration, which has been what we’ve experienced for a long, long, long time. But we work smart, we partner in allyship with unsuspected allies, right, and we’re able to get some things done, particularly like with our equal pay work. Like we built a bipartisan coalition, because the same Republican legislator has constituents in his community who are white and they are not getting paid what a white man gets paid. And so, we can speak from that, and their pocketbooks, and their households, and their kitchen tables are being impacted.
So, messaging and organizing and giving people a way to engage in which they can see themselves. That’s how we’ve been doing it.
ANNE PRICE: Thank you for that, Cassandra, and I think for anyone that’s worked and been in Mississippi, you can’t help to know that you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. Not just from Fannie Lou Hamer but many people and many women whose names we’ll never know, who have actually worked for generations to improve the lives of people in Mississippi.
You know, Shannon, I want to turn to you for a second because certainly Cassandra raises a point about a strategy of organizing that has worked, and it seems as if, you know, from a national perspective, that we haven’t trusted, particularly Black women, and invested in their strategy, right, to know this is what it’s going to take to actually build power and to change rules and policies.
What do you think the kind of investments will be going forward or how will we think about this from a national perspective to invest in the people in Mississippi and trust that they know what’s best in terms of strategies? Where do you think we’ll be going with that given what we’ve seen in these recent elections?
SHANNON WILLIAMS: Yeah, I like that question, because I think we’re kind of currently thinking about what that is too, right? We know that communities of color, specifically Black women, that we needed to be investing in them and that they are—they are the trusted messengers for our communities that we’re really trying to impact.
I think that, you know, going forward, what we’re going to be seeing are—because I know internally at my organization, which is a national organization, Equal Rights Advocates, we’re talking about what it is, what needs to happen for us to be able to, just as a organizing component, really center and place the voices of Black women, Black families, at the center of not just organizing, but also at the center of policy change and policy reform.
And thinking through, you know, what it would look like if we are taking the stories, if we’re shifting the narrative, if we are pulling and extracting the personal testimonies of Black women, of communities of color, and really moving them from the conversations to the legislators and to the policies and to the policy makers. So that when people are—so that when our elected and our legislators are actually thinking about what they’re writing and what they’re putting forth and who it’s going to impact, that it’s these stories that are actually the foundation of the policy change that we’re actually seeking to get.
So, yeah, I think it’s an ongoing struggle. I think it’s going to take a culture shift. I don’t necessarily know if people are ready for it, but they better be, because I think Georgia is a strong testament that this is where we are going as a country and we need to figure it out and keep up or we’re going to be behind.
ANNE PRICE: Most definitely.
Cassandra, you talked about intergenerational organizing. It’s not something that we hear a lot about. And I want to know from you, kind of, what have you learned from older generations of activists and how they shape your own advocacy and your own activism there in Mississippi?
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: I feel so honored, one, living and being a daughter of the South and being a daughter of Mississippi, that I’ve been able to be trained by some of the civil rights activists.
Someone like Hollis Watkins, who was a youth organizer in SNCC, right, and also the founder of Seven Echo. I worked for him, and he really trained me on the importance of intergenerational organizing. Whenever he—it was so amazing—like whenever he had a training or we were in the office, he would always make room and give us a platform. There would be times he was training us, and we didn’t even know he was training us, right? We’ll have a meeting, and he’ll say, “Well Cassandra, we’ll give you an opportunity to, you know, share what you’re thinking, and why don’t you take us through the training.” Or, you know, it was just so incredible. And everything he did was infused with young people. For him, it was, we have to be able—life is a cycle, and so knowledge can’t be left in the grave. Knowledge must live on, and it lives on through the next person.
I learned that also so much from, you know, my grandmother—which is an incredible story of how she, you know, was a foster care mother to my mom and her five siblings, and how she not only trained them on how to be servants in their community, but she also trained me. Like I didn’t do anything, you know, without—like I learned how to cook from her. I learned how to serve from her.
And so, it’s just a part of my being, a part of who I am, and also my faith. It’s so important for me. My faith is, you know, where it talks about, you know, in so many examples that young people, you know, in the bible were—they had leadership. It was expected of them, and they were giving room to grow, right? And so, it’s just a part of who I am, and it has just made me a stronger leader. Also, someone that has stronger values and just a sense of justice, but also a sense of accountability, that I am accountable to the people who’ve poured into me, and so, I’ve got to give it away, right?
And so, in the organization where we work at, we hire young people. We had, you know, this year four interns. Our Black youth vote kicked off during the racial unrest in this country, and we had all these young people come in, and they was like, “What can we do? We want to be involved.” And so, we infused that in the work that we do here, in the organization, but it’s also what I live out loud too.
And my daughter, she challenges me all the time. It’s like, oh my God, who am I raising here? Like she’s challenging her mama. But that’s who I’m raising, right? I’m raising an organizer who can, you know, speak truth to power, and all of her own power. And so, those are the things that I was given and now I’m modelling that and sharing that out, and to build a stronger infrastructure for our communities and the organizations that are left here to really do the work for our people.
ANNE PRICE: That’s so beautiful and so inspirational, I think, and it really is a lesson learned for others and other places that are organizing—the beauty of intergenerational approaches and leaning on each other and building off of each other’s work.
I want to just turn our conversation a bit, because you’ve touched upon it, both of you, in your remarks around kitchen table issues, around pay equity, and, you know, what we’re seeing right now in terms of this economic downturn due to the pandemic is something we’ve never seen before, particularly as it’s affected women in our last recession. It affected men more than women particularly in the labor market, but it’s quite different this time around, and women are being forced out of the labor market in tremendous numbers. Black and Latino women are facing really high rates of joblessness. And we saw just last month that all of the job losses—which is really an incredible thing,—all the job losses that occurred were because of losses that women felt.
So, Shannon, I want to turn to you, because you work to protect women’s rights both in the workplace and in schools, and you’ve done work in Mississippi. I wanted you to talk a bit about the issue of pay equity and why it’s so important, particularly now given what we’re facing in the pandemic.
SHANNON WILLIAMS: You’re right. We’ve never—I’ve never lived through anything like this. I’m sure not very many people can say that they have. So, it’s a really interesting time.
The devastation that we faced in 2020, you know, and is trickling itself into 2021, really exposed—it really exposed disparities in every level of our society and economy to people who might not have really seen them clearly before, including politicians, right? And we saw the country kind of wake up to the fact that there is actually a wealth gap in a new way, because people really realized that there were so many families that were living paycheck to paycheck, that they’re one hospital stay away from not being able to pay rent or from being able to feed their families.
So, equal pay lies really at the heart of that disparity, right? So, it’s not just about women of color receiving less money every paycheck. You know, that accumulates over years and decades, robbing those women of their—and their families, of an average of I think it’s $1 million over a 40-year career. It’s actually robbing families of inherited wealth, property—it’s keeping families in poverty for generations. That’s what’s been happening, you know, for the past hundreds of years.
It’s especially struck in the South, and we’re seeing it now more prevalently because the light has kind of shined on that now. These disparities that were, you know, kind of underneath the surface, particularly issues like pay equity are now being lifted and rising to the top because they’re right in our face. We’re seeing these things happen. They’re playing out in real-time, and now it’s being brought to the forefront of people’s minds.
ANNE PRICE: Cassandra, I’d love you to talk a little bit about pay equity in Mississippi and talk about why Mississippi doesn’t have pay equity, and you’re working to address this issue. Can you tell us a bit more about it?
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: Yes. Really appreciate partners like Shannon and Equal Rights Advocates who have been really working with us on this important issue.
So, Mississippi is the only state in the country that doesn’t have an equal pay law. Of course, we have the federal law, but we do not have an equal pay law in the state. And so, through our Mississippi Women’s Economic Security Initiative, we have been working for the last, I would say five years, to put forth legislation that will bring some equity to women’s wages.
What’s interesting when we first introduced equal pay to the Mississippi legislature, we really did it as a way to talk about wages, not really trying to get it passed, but really, we was thinking that we can just get a minimum wage law passed. And so, it gave us the platform to really talk about it, around, you know, what women were bringing in, and it began—through that process, we began to find that there were other people in the Mississippi legislature that had actually introduced equal pay legislation. And there was Republicans, and there were Democrats. And interestingly, they were male. And we—I’m sorry—okay, we’re on to something here. And we began to have conversations with them, and that’s how we formed the bipartisan coalition.
We were able to do that because we could talk about wages that were impacting all of us, that was impacting Black women, and white women, and brown women, and we began to make the economic case for it. And the economic case was women were losing, that Black women were making 56 cents on the dollar. So, we began to break that down and say, well, how much is that, like a month? Like that’s so much a month that could go towards rent, go towards utilities, go towards childcare, and people began to really see those numbers there. And then, we began to say, well white women, you know, they’re making 75 cents on the dollar. So, they’re even losing money. And we began to work with, you know, our partners, like Shannon and also the National Women’s Law Center too, to help us put together the numbers. And the numbers began to say that at the age of 91, that will be the age when a Black woman could retire, to make up the wages to that of a white male, right? At the age of 91, that’s when she could retire, right? She’s losing over the course of her life period almost a million dollars.
And so, we began to put these forward. We began to put the numbers there. We began to say this is how much money households are losing. You’re talking about a single mother earning a median income of $26,000, and we know that, you know, she is the breadwinner and the co-breadwinner, and we’re talking about the poverty rate here in this country. It’s pretty high, and for Black women, we’re the largest group of women working in low-wage jobs, and yet, we’re half the workforce in Mississippi, right? Women are half the workforce.
And so, we said, we’ve got to do something in order to reclaim those wages or to get those wages. And from our data, we said if equal pay was passed in the State of Mississippi, billions of dollars would be put back into Mississippi’s economy. And that will cut the poverty rate in half. And we began to make that economic case. And so, we have introduced the legislation. We’ve been able to get bipartisanship, but of course, politics always play a part in it. And the argument has been, well we have a federal law, but we know the federal laws also have these loopholes that Shannon could speak to, right, and have all these loopholes in there. And so, it’s not enough just to have coverage from the federal law, because it doesn’t work. Employers can find a way to get around that.
And so, we’ve introduced legislation that will give employers an opportunity just to get it right in their own companies. Get it right, do an analysis, and then give you an opportunity to bring up the equity, the wages, to equity so that women can get an opportunity to make what they’re supposed to make. We’ve heard, you know—we’ve also heard that women, this is a trial lawyer’s dream, and so if we put this in law, we’re going to have a lot of women, you know, suing. Which to me, brings to the point well you know something is wrong so you need to do something.
And so, we’ve been pushing this legislation. We passed on one side of the house but not on the other side. So, this year we’re still pushing forward. We need all the help that we can get to help us to say, you know, Mississippi needs equal pay in this state, and so, we’ve been doing education. We have a virtual advocacy day coming up, and we’re reframing it, talking about the power of the pocketbook. And if you level and bring equity to women’s wages, not only would their households, their pocketbooks be okay, but the state economy’s pocketbook will also be more successful.
ANNE PRICE: Well, let me go back to you, Shannon, and talk about why it’s so important for states to pass pay equity. Cassandra talked about loopholes that are now in place. What will really need to happen for this law to actually have its full impact, once it’s actually passed, for women to be able to sue and receive the pay that they deserve?
SHANNON WILLIAMS: Well, first, what’s great is that there are organizations like Equal Rights Advocates that are—and legal advocacy organizations that are really focused on making sure that the things that are needed to close the gender wage gap and the things that women are experiencing in the workplace, that they do have the possibility for a legal recourse.
On the federal level, and this might speak to some of the loopholes that Cassandra had mentioned, there’s the Equal Pay Act, and that was signed into law in 1963, and that has since really been weakened by a lot of loopholes and kind of adverse court rulings, basically resulting in a protection that is much less effective and less impactful than Congress had really intended it to be from the beginning. I focus a lot on the federal level and things that obviously, you know, once implemented, will trickle down into Mississippi and would be something that would be, I think, a good catalyst and a good foundation for a lot of the work and a lot of the laws and legislation that is aiming to come out of Mississippi over the next year, especially with the introduction of that equal pay law.
And one of those things is the Paycheck Fairness Act, and the passing of that legislation would be an important piece to really addressing the wage gap if it were to pass and pass in this cycle. And just—really quickly—that act would do four things. It would increase pay transparency by making it illegal for employers to retaliate against workers for discussing their pay with colleagues. It would make it illegal for employers to ask a job applicant about their salary history, what they currently make or what they used to make; and you know, this would really help to break the cycle of unfair pay. Because using prior pay to set someone’s new pay allows for discrimination to follow women, and specifically women of color, from job to job, and that’s something we’re really trying to eradicate and the same thing with Cassandra in Mississippi. It would also require employers to prove that pay disparities exist for legitimate and job-related reasons, which is a huge component there. And then it would remove obstacles for workers who want to join forces against discrimination in a class-action lawsuit.
So, by, you know, trying to plug up some of those loopholes at the federal level by getting some federal legislation passed, we’re hoping from our end that those types of things can really help to advance what’s happening in Mississippi in the work that Cassandra is doing.
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: You know, what’s important is that we found while we were pushing this equal pay legislation but also our women’s agenda is that we have to be very intentional, and that’s why we created the Women’s Economic Security Initiative.
So, Shirley Chisholm said, you know, bring your chair to the table, and today, you know, I hear is the anniversary in which she, you know, announced her bid to be President of the United States. If women don’t bring their chair and bring their priorities to the policy table, it will not—it won’t happen. It will be overlooked. And so, we continue to bring it before our legislative body because we know it’s made mostly of men, and mostly of white men, and they’re not thinking about our needs. It is so important that, for us, that we tell them this is what we need in order to make our families work and our communities work, and we want to remind you who is really in the workforce as you’re setting your budgets.
You know, women are the ones that’s carrying, you know, half of the workforce in this state, but yet the wages are poverty wages. And so, it’s so important for us to continue to bring this and to knock on the door until, you know, that wall breaks down. We’re going to get this equal pay law, not just that, but we’re also going to make sure that we are a part of, you know, the budget priority process, that we are a part of every process in that legislative body, because we’re the ones that pay their salaries, and we also carry this economy. We’re the women driving the change here in the state of Mississippi, and Black women are really getting the short end of that stick.
And so, again, that’s why voting is important, and that’s why having these conversations together—integrated, you know—on these policy issues, so they can see themselves across the board. They go hand in hand, but we are very intentional about bringing these policies to the table, whether they say we don’t have time, we continue to bang on that door and say, no, you’re going to listen to us. This is important to our families.
ANNE PRICE: That is so powerful. And let’s talk about women bringing our chairs to the table, because you talked about these kitchen table issues. I think women know their communities. They know what’s happening with children in their schools. They know about caring for elders and for their parents, and they know about work, given that we’ve seen, that women had some of the highest employment rates in decades, just prior to the pandemic, and now that has shifted.
So, I want to talk about what that means in the context of a new administration, bringing our chair to the table. Now that we’re seeing that action is already taking place to jump start our economy and provide relief to Americans, I would love to hear from you. First, what do you really think is possible in this first year and under this administration to actually truly change the lives of women and their families, and what should be the priorities of the administration? Let’s start with you, Shannon.
SHANNON WILLIAMS: Yeah so, I am optimistic about a lot of this. I think that there’s a lot of possibilities in terms of closing the gender wage gap, putting women—particular women of color—in the forefront of the thoughts of how we can really be mindful of building up economic security and really hopeful that these types of things will be prioritized.
And actually, I’m very hopeful about the Paycheck Fairness Act. I think that passing something like that is going to be extremely beneficial on a national scale to a lot of the work that we’re doing, things like raising the minimum wage.
One of the things that we know, Black and brown women have been the face of the front-line worker during this time, and I think that we’re in a position where we can really start to value. I know our country has been in a space where we’ve been devaluing women’s work, especially devaluing the work of women of color, but really passing and doing things like raising the minimum wage will really place Black women and brown women as essential workers. We’ve been calling them essential workers, but we haven’t really been treating them as such, especially in their paychecks. So, you know, passing things like that would really be a huge step in terms of really making the essential worker essential and making some strides in closing that wealth gap for women of color.
ANNE PRICE: What are your thoughts, Cassandra, about what’s possible? What are your priorities in Mississippi for federal change?
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: I think a couple of things. One, I think we’re really excited, again, about having, you know, the first Black woman to be, you know, the Vice President, to have that representation there. So, I can’t get past that, right, so that’s really important. But in saying that I don’t want—I don’t want to become complacent.
I think it’s still very important that we want to route all of our work around racial equity, gender equity, you know, just routing the work around race and gender is so important in this administration, in the time that we’re living in. And so, I’m hoping that the administration will really take an opportunity to have racial equity and gender equity, you know, rise through everything in their policy making. So, in saying that, I think it’s going to be really important when we talk about—I agree with Shannon—you know, raising these wages is going to be really key, though I am concerned about the small businesses, how do we make sure that they survive given, you know, the hit that they took.
That’s really on our minds. We work with childcare centers a lot. They’re my superheroes, and I know that these childcare centers, the workers live from paycheck to paycheck because they’re serving poor, low-income families and they don’t want to pass those costs off to, you know, those families. And so, I would like to see, you know, small businesses be incentivized if we’re going to raise the wage, and I think that is important. But I think you got to be able to balance that, raise the wages but also make sure that these small businesses, particularly small businesses owned by Black women, can still be sustainable.
The other thing I think is so important is, again, you know, COVID is still running rampant, and it’s going to be really important to get, you know, these vaccinations into communities that are brown but also making sure that the messenger is a credible messenger from our communities. That’s what we’ve been hearing. Even in my own family—and I was still on the fence about it as well—do we get this COVID vaccination? I’ve changed courses because my own doctors, my Black women doctors are saying it is safe. And so, having credible messengers to come to communities and making sure that that is, you know, that is important.
I think the other thing the administration is really talking about, again, you know, the stimulus checks, and making sure that those families have that. I think we’ve got to be able to do this integrated strategy of, yes, making sure that people get a livable wage, you know, and not a poverty wage, but what are these safety net programs that are out there—not, you know, investing in the childcare subsidy program, making sure that SNAP benefits are going where they’re supposed to go and increasing those, taking out the red tape and the bureaucracies that are embedded in white supremacy, that’s really important.
So, those are some of the things that I am thinking about as we go forward in that and definitely, you know, making sure that the criminal justice system is reformed in such a way that we won’t get anymore—that our Black and brown bodies won’t be on these streets. We’ve got to do a better job of putting funding where it’s supposed to be and dismantling these systems from the inside out. So, those are some of the things that I’m really thinking about, is how do we get more money into the households of these families, and so, if that’s through, you know, raising the wages but also incentivizing these small businesses, that would be really important.
But we got to make sure that the whole system works. We can’t think about it in silos. We have to make sure it works, and we got to base all this work on a racial equity lens and a gender equity lens running through it.
ANNE PRICE: Thank you for that, Cassandra, and I want to thank you both, Cassandra Welchlin and Shannon Williams, for such a rich discussion today. Thank you so much for joining us.
CASSANDRA WELCHLIN: Thank you so much for having me.
SHANNON WILLIAMS: Thank you.
ANNE PRICE: And thank all of you for tuning into this episode of Hidden Truths, the podcast of the Insight Center. To learn more about Cassandra’s work with the Mississippi Black Women’s Round Table, visit msblackwomensroundtable.org. And to learn more about Shannon’s work with the Equal Rights Advocates and the Equal Pay Today campaign, visit equalrights.org. And finally, for more information about the Insight Center, visit insightcced.org. And if you like what you’ve heard today, please leave a review for Hidden Truths on Apple Podcast, Stitcher, Spotify, or wherever you’re listening. Thanks everyone.