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Women’s Fund Leaders Attend White House Forum

Opening Doors

Elizabeth Barajas-Román visits the White House

Elizabeth Barajas-Román visits the White House during her recent foray to D.C. for a forum on cultivating economic opportunities for women of color.

Expanding opportunities for women is not just a regional issue.

As an example, Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts CEO Elizabeth Barajas-Román and Program Officer Ellen Moorhouse recently joined stakeholders from the academic, private, government, and philanthropic sectors at the White House for a forum hosted by senior administration officials.

The forum, “Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color: Continuing Progress and Building Toward Change,” focused on developing strategies that break down barriers to success and create more opportunity for all Americans, including women and girls of color.

“This forum focused on women of color and how to be successful economically, education-wise, and in their daily lives,” Barajas-Román said. “The Women’s Fund has been working closely with the White House Council on Women and Girls in regard to our work here in the region with young women of color.”

She explained that the Women’s Fund has focused on economic security and prosperity for women of color, and the White House Council has been a strong resource for gathering data and unveiling some of the trends at play on a region-by-region level.

“We’ve been able to take a deeper look at our region, and one of the trends that stands out is how many young people are leaving the region right after high school; they’re going away to college and not returning — so much that the Census indicates Springfield and Holyoke have a statistical shortage of young people,” she told BusinessWest. “We know this means these people are not buying homes, not investing in the community. So much happens when we lose these people right when they’re starting to make a life for themselves.”

As part of the forum, Barajas-Román took part in a roundtable discussion with several national figures, including Tina Tchen, assistant to President Obama, chief of staff to First Lady Michelle Obama, and executive director of the White House Council on Women and Girls; Valerie Jarrett, senior advisor to President Obama, who oversees the White House offices of Public Engagement and Intergovernmental Affairs and chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls; and Melissa Harris-Perry, editor-at-large for Elle magazine.

As one of about 20 women’s foundation leaders from across the U.S. who participated, she was able to talk about how organizations like the Women’s Fund are trying to make Springfield a model for raising the economic status of young women.

“It was a tremendous opportunity to be invited among organizations from New York City, California, these large areas — and interesting to hear their feedback,” Barajas-Román said. “Springfield really does look like the rest of the country, and they’re watching to see if we’re successful and it’s a model that can be taken to other areas that look like us. There were national funders in the room, national organizations that work with young people. It was a great opportunity to talk about all the ways Springfield is innovating, and we were hoping to not only bring back some additional ideas and partners, but to attract more attention to what’s happening here.”

The forum built on Obama’s efforts on behalf of women and girls, like the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, expanding fair pay and paid-leave protections, and convening the first-ever White House summit focused on building workplaces that support working families and business.

The White House Council on Women and Girls has identified five data-driven issue areas where interventions can promote opportunities for success at school, at work, and in the community. Continuing research in these areas and exploration of new efforts can help advance equality for women and girls of color.

Under Obama’s leadership, the Council on Women and Girls has worked to ensure government policies appropriately consider these kinds of challenges and persistent opportunity gaps faced by many disadvantaged, marginalized, or underrepresented girls. The council also aims to inspire the private sector to do the same, to ensure that everyone who aspires to get ahead has a chance to succeed.

“By representing Western Massachusetts at the White House, we can ensure that our collective voice is heard on important policy matters,” Moorhouse said. “Only by having a seat at the table can we work to safeguard the progress we’ve made, while simultaneously laying the groundwork for future policy and social change.”

—Joseph Bednar