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Deborah Owhin Is Eradicating Violence Against Women & Girls One Strategy At A Time

Standing at the intersection of local and global change for women, Deborah Owhin is no exception; she's the rule.

BOSS UP

It's typically the people behind the scenes that are the driving force of true cultural, political, and social shift. Often, those people are Black women. These powerhouses fight the good fight for effective change in ways that push the culture forward. When Black women take up the battle to fight for gender equality and against violence against women and girls, things happen.

Standing at the intersection of local and global change for women, Deborah Owhin is no exception; she's the rule.

"From a young age, I was an advocate, I did not know that was what it was called but I would stand up for other girls who wa being bullied in school. At an early age, I was exposed to domestic abuse as a result of the extended community I belong to. I would see my maternal aunt and my mother's friends come to our house with bloodied faces full of tears and voices filled with pain."

Witnessing the effect of bullying and the aftermath of domestic violence as a child, Deborah found her calling and career in becoming a fervent advocate for women and girls. As a sought-after global strategist with McKinsey & Company, the #1 consulting firm in the world, she fights gender inequality and violence against women and girls on multiple fronts and is doing it all with grit, grace, and gravitas.

Her global commitment is woven throughout her life story. With degrees from Spelman College and Oxford University, Owhin has held strategist positions where she led the charge for the rights of women and girls through programming and policy. In 2013, she was invited to join the United Kingdom's delegation to The United Nations' 57th Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. Recognizing the extreme lack of diversity within the delegation, she founded Made Equal that same year, a nonprofit that empowers first generation professionals to end gender inequity and violence against women and girls on both a local and global scale.

Her current work with McKinsey & Company has put Owhin in the company of advocacy and entertainment giants like Malala Yousafzai, Angelina Jolie, and Meryl Streep to secure rights, protections, and opportunities for women and girls across the globe. xoNecole chatted with Deborah about her career trajectory as a Black woman in global strategy, the importance of women speaking up for themselves, and her advice for pushing forward the fight for the rights of women and girls.

Having championed women for so long and now in a global setting, what is your ultimate goal?

One of my major goals is to share the things I have learned and educate women with non-academic skills, which I believe will serve the opportunity to connect women globally. I have always believed I would create a global platform to teach women and girls how to develop their dreams, their leadership vision and the communities they want! I believe this will change nations by giving them the tools to use their voices.

What does all of your well-earned acclaim mean to you?

It means that I can be the image for other young women and people of color that I did not see growing up. It means that others can believe they can because I am daily pushing to achieve my dreams. It means that it's never too late to pivot or change into a career or industry that you have an interest, we no longer live in a world where people stay in jobs for 20 years. The role I expect to do in 10 years has not even been created yet... I am still working on it!

"It's never too late to pivot or change into a career or industry that you have an interest, we no longer live in a world where people stay in jobs for 20 years. The role I expect to do in 10 years has not even been created yet... I am still working on it!"

What advice do you have for women who want to assert themselves, to ask for what they are worth but are afraid of rocking the boat?

Stop short-changing yourself! The very worst that could happen is a person says "no" at that point. You then have a decision to make and reflect on the reason for that "no". Was it a premature ask you made? Are you being undervalued? Could you go somewhere else and get a "yes"? I learned a lot about negotiating during my MBA and also about going for things that I did not think women like me would achieve, such as the Skoll Scholarship, which I was the first African, first Black woman to receive at the University of Oxford to fully fund my MBA. Secondly, find other people who you believe have rocked the boat and taken a risk in their careers... Listen to their journeys and I hope you find the courage to see no limits!

What has been the largest challenge you've faced as a Black woman strategist in the global space? How did you overcome that challenge?

Being visible. I have sat in rooms where physically I am the only person who looks like me— a woman or a black person— and you would expect that to create a space to participate but if often does not. It's as though being different from those sitting in the room and at the decision tables makes it easier to ignore.

Firstly, as Michelle Obama has shared in her intimate talk in London last December, I must work harder. Secondly, I find allies who naturally are leaders who naturally make space for my voice to be heard. They give credit to my work in front of partners and clients and often open the floor for me to share my ideas.

"I have sat in rooms where physically I am the only person who looks like me— a woman or a black person— and you would expect that to create a space to participate but if often does not. It's as though being different from those sitting in the room and at the decision tables makes it easier to ignore."

Who inspired you to launch your current career path?

I was inspired by the lack of representation of women of color in leadership positions in government and the private sector. I was inspired by the young women who desired to also become champions of humans rights work but could not even get an opportunity to volunteer, as the UK government had made some many cuts in budgets affecting services that supported women. I was inspired by the women I have met from around the world, championing an end to violence against women and girls in their villages, towns, cities and nations. I was inspired because I believe I can make a difference. Spelman College propelled me to believe that every day I can 'make a choice to change the world'. That's our legacy!

If you are interested in learning more about how you can help fight for women and girls, check out these resources:

RAINN.org

National Sexual Violence Resource Center

No More Campaigns

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.

Reparations

We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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