The reversal of Roe v. Wade, and the continuing impact of a Supreme Court that does not represent the views and values of the majority of Americans, makes the work of Black Women Organized for Political Action (BWOPA) even more essential.
Yet as BWOPA co-founder and former Oakland city councilmember Dezie Woods-Jones said about the organization’s 1968 founding, “I don’t believe any of the cofounders had a real sense of what our gathering would become. We knew we needed to get Black women involved in politics and public policy making.”
BWOPA developed from “Bay Area Women for Dellums,” 12 politically active women from various Bay Area cities, who grew their group to more than 200 Black women, raised $75,000 and succeeded in electing Ron Dellums to Congress.
Then called “Women for Political Action,” the organization put out a call in April 1971, convened more than 350 women and formed what is now BWOPA.
Said Woods-Jones, “We knew our voices and perspectives were imperative to the laws, policies and regulations being [implemented, but] we had no idea BWOPA would take on a life of its own after [that] meeting. We now have over 5,000 members, allies and organizational partners and networks up and down the state of California and beyond.”
In 2015, BWOPA created a program that has become one of the most important parts of the organization. The Training Institute for Leadership Enrichment (TILE) is an apprenticeship program that selects the DWJ Public Policy Leadership Fellows. Named for Woods-Jones, the fellows are described as “13 highly driven and motivated Black women, passionate to create change within Black communities, utilizing policy development as their vehicle.”
Each year, applicants between ages 25-40 are chosen for the highly selective program. During the pandemic, the program has scaled down from seven months to 14 weeks of intensive programming, with a roster of guest speakers ranging from elected officials, policy makers and leadership development practitioners.
Fellows participate in a series of educational and professional development training and seminars. They are offered opportunities to meet and engage with elected officials and influential leaders who work within the social and political arenas of BWOPA’s core issues of health, education, criminal justice and economic security. In April, the sixth cohort was named, and the fellows individually chose a focus from one of the core issues.
TILE Engagement Leaders Danielle N. Motley-Lewis and Simone Thelemaque are also alumni of the program. Motley-Lewis moved to the Bay Area from Detroit five years ago. She became part of the third cohort in 2017.
“It was a culture shock for me to see how active and informed Black women were in Oakland’s political space,” she said. As part of the program, she traveled to Washington, DC for a Congressional Black Caucus event and met many people with whom she still networks. At the end of her participation, she was asked for her comments about the curriculum, and then asked to become an engagement leader.
In this position, she helps fellows build their own networks, develop confidence and discover “what you need to do to speak to politicians,” she said. Her experience with BWOPA has been invaluable as she builds her own project management/social input consulting business, The Motley Collective.
Thelemaque first encountered Dezie Woods-Jones in 2015, when the BWOPA cofounder moderated a mayoral forum at Merritt College, where Thelemaque was a student. “She was the star of the show…I wanted to be part [of what she was doing],” she said. She Googled BWOPA, applied and was accepted as one of the first fellows.
She described her experience as even more than what she’d expected. “I learned that ‘you don’t know what you don’t know.’ I interrogated my own values and beliefs. It was a peer learning space for me,” she said. She focused both on economic security and health. Each fellow is tasked with a research project, and then feedback is given on both coverage of the topic, and effectiveness of the presentation. “A public speaking coach gave us help on our ‘elevator pitch,’” she said.
In Sacramento, she met with elected officials, and there were many opportunities to attend events. “When I introduced myself as a fellow, they welcomed my questions. It was a safe place to learn,” she said. Now, as an engagement leader, she helps new fellows find similar growth.
Thelemaque discovered her strengths lay behind the scenes. “You don’t have to be elected to office. That is one piece. Leadership has many faces,” she said. As a self-described introvert, queer Black woman, “you can be all these things and still be a leader.”
Germaine Davis and Jessica Travenia were part of the recently completed sixth cohort.
A friend of Davis told her about BWOPA and urged her to apply to be a fellow. The application was due that same day, but, convinced it was a great opportunity, she did apply, and was accepted. Currently, she works for the Oakland Private Industry Council, helping people find employment. “I wanted to get more involved in helping to change the laws, especially for those with background challenges,” she said. Her focus was economic security.
The program met and exceeded her needs. She learned how to go through channels, how to connect with city council members, with the goal of bringing in resources to the communities she serves. “I call myself ‘the Queen of Collaboration.’ I love to put groups together to seek solutions.” She has thought about elected office. “I am an advocate by nature,” she said.
But for now, she is using her empowerment to help her clients—those who are re-entering society, those who are transitioning to a second career, those who want to start businesses. Entrepreneurship for Black women is a special focus.
Davis said she will use her fellowship-acquired knowledge to help people understand how political power works, encouraging them to sit on boards, learn how proposed state legislative bills will affect them and make their voices heard.
“Our work is not done,” she said. “But now I’m at the table.”
And this work, and participation by women like Motley-Lewis, Thelemaque, Davis and Travenia, is needed now, perhaps more than ever, said Dezie Woods-Jones.
The presence of Black women in the White House, in Congress, in state legislatures, on school boards, municipal boards, commissions and other key public policy positions where decisions about their lives are being decided is crucial, she said. “Black women have always been the backbone of politics and getting folks elected to office, although we still don’t have equity in the elected spaces.”
She pointed to statistics showing that while women make up 51% of the American populace, they make up only 27% of the House of Representatives, 30% of statewide elected executives of any kind, and 25% of mayors in cities with populations of over 30,000.
For some demographics, she added, the numbers are even worse. “Women of color, Republican women, young women and low-income women are especially underrepresented. There’s a decimal number of elected Black women,” she said. “We have to do better.”
BWOPA/TILE programming, and in particular, the DWJ Public Policy Fellowship, is the space to support, train and mentor the development of new leaders, she emphasized.
Find out about BWOPA and TILE through the website, urged Motley-Lewis, and join a chapter or apply to be a fellow. “We celebrate one another,” said Thelemaque, “and our sisterhood is huge, and there is power in that name.”
Woods-Jones remains excited about the future contributions of the DWJ fellows. “They will help guide BWOPA in the right direction of critically analyzing state, local and federal legislation, its effects on our Black communities and inserting our voices where needed.”
And they will demand their places at the table.
For more information about BWOPA, TILE and the DWJ Public Policy Leadership Fellows, visit www.bwopatileleads.org.