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Women of Color Opportunities Act is a Good Investment

This piece was written by our treasurer, Beth Anderson, and published on the Savage Pacer website on April 25, 2016.

Minnesota’s 2016 legislative session is well underway in St. Paul and our Legislature is discussing difficult issues like transportation funding and the copper/nickel mining prospects up north. But I want to draw your attention to a lesser-known series of bills introduced by Representative Rena Moran in the House and Senator Sandy Pappas in the Senate, addressing the educational and economic disparities of women of color in our state. Known as the Women of Color Opportunities Act (WOCOA), this legislation is designed to develop programs for women and girls of color in order to increase their economic success in our state.

The legislation consists of five bills that develop programs in key areas of education and employment and economic development. These bills are common sense ideas and programs that promote the tools that all of our young people need to succeed in our city and state. Yet these same tools have been disproportionally unavailable to women and girls of color. Here is a brief summary of the bills proposed:

  • Increase academic success by decreasing the school suspension rate for girls of color, increasing on-time high school graduation rates, and encouraging girls of color to pursue post-secondary education. (HF 3031/SF 2885)
  • Educate women and girls of color in financial literacy to lay the groundwork for an economically secure future. (HF 3032/SF 2865)
  • Encourage girls of color to explore and pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers by funding competitive grants to community-based, STEM-affiliated organizations experienced in serving girls of color. (HF 3033/SF 2916)
  • Increase the number of women of color in high-wage, high-demand, nontraditional jobs through job skills training and apprenticeships. (HF 3098/SF 3056)
  • Provide small business loans and technical assistance to businesses owned by women of color. (HF 3099/SF 2931)

Here in Savage, with an 82 percent white population, you might ask, “Why should Savage care about the Women of Color Opportunities Act?” My answer is several-fold.

Increasingly our business community relies on a diverse, skilled, and educated workforce. If we hope to attract world-class businesses to Savage and the surrounding communities, we have to be able to provide a workforce that is well-trained and ready to produce. This may mean an apprenticeship in a skilled trade, it may mean a two-year college degree, or it may require an accredited four-year college degree. Any way you slice it, high school drop-outs and illiterate citizens do not cut it in today’s work force.

Our community is changing. In 2000, the city of Savage was 10 percent non-white, in 2010 we were 18 percent non-white, and 2013 estimated statistics showed Savage to be 20 percent non-white. These numbers are pretty typical at state levels, too. As our population ages, more diverse communities are following. According to the Minnesota State Demographic Center, younger Minnesotans are more racially diverse than older Minnesotans. There are three counties in Minnesota where the children under 5 are over 50 percent children of color. More people of color are living in Savage than ever before. This brings diversity and vibrant cultures into our local melting pot. It’s a good thing. But we in Savage must make sure that the necessary components for a successful education and successful employment are also available for this growing community.

Making sure that all of our children have the opportunity to succeed in school and at work benefits all of us. There is a bigger tax base when we are all gainfully employed and there is less reliance on government services. Statistically we have heard a lot in Minnesota about the documented employment gap between white Minnesotans and black Minnesotans — a 2013 study found that blacks were three times as likely to be unemployed as whites. And we have heard a lot about the education disparity between whites and blacks — in 2003, white Minnesotan eighth-graders topped the charts on national math tests while black Minnesotan eighth-graders came in 22nd of the 50 states. This achievement gap has been well-documented and discussed. What has not been clear is how to fix it.

Achievement gaps are often attributed to income level and home environment. Low-income families often have few educational resources. Recent immigrants don’t always have the English language skills needed to keep pace in school or the financial literacy that leads to good economic decisions. The Women of Color Opportunities Act attempts to address these resource gaps head on.

Making sure our women and girls of color graduate from high school, increase their financial literacy, pursue post-secondary education, obtain high-paying jobs, and have the tools available to start their own businesses will go a long way towards ending these disparities and making our communities a better place to live.

The bills introduced in the Women of Color Opportunities Act are administered by two departments: the Department of Education and the Department of Employment and Economic Development. The bills ask for a nominal amount of funding for pilot programs and grants to local community groups to achieve the goals of the bill. In this way, local groups who work with girls and women in the community receive the funds they need to make a difference. Reporting and oversight is at the state level and the pilot programs must be developed so they can be transferred and used throughout the state.

According to the bill’s authors, the estimated cost of this set of bills is about $4.9 million. The Minnesota Management and Budget Office is projecting a $900 million surplus in 2016. It seems to me that this small expenditure — 0.5 percent of our projected surplus — is well worth the investment in our future Minnesotans. You can ask Representative Drew Christensen and Senator Dan Hall for their support at rep.drew.christensen@house.mn andsen.dan.hall@senate.mn.