Originally published: 8/14/2020.
Pittsburgh Post Gazette
Reporter: Alexis Johnson

Kathi Elliott is very familiar with stories of history-making Black women.

Her mother, Gwen Elliott, founded the North Side women’s advocacy group Gwen’s Girls nearly 30 years after she became one of the first Black police officers in the city of Pittsburgh. Gwen Elliott eventually went on to become the first woman promoted to sergeant and then first Black female commander during her tenure with the police.

Kathi Elliott said she thought of her late mother immediately following Tuesday’s announcement from presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden that he had chosen Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate. Ms. Harris marked a first of her own becoming the only Black woman to ever be named on a major party’s presidential ticket.

The importance of this moment was far from lost upon Ms. Elliott, who runs her mother’s organization. She has been reflecting upon what Ms. Harris’ representation means for young girls in the Gwen’s Girls programs.

“We always have our parents and mentors tell us we can be what we want to be,” Ms. Elliott said Thursday. “But we know that on a real level, there are barriers and systemic issues that prevent us from being able to be what we want to be. So this is a step in the right direction for a woman of color to be a part of leadership to hopefully change the trajectory of our nation.”

Gwen’s Girls honored Black Women’s Equal Pay Day on Thursday, and Ms. Elliott said Ms. Harris’ presumptive vice presidential candidacy is reflective of how Black women are consistently battling to prove their worth and value in this country.

In the 48 hours after Mr. Biden’s declaration, Ms. Harris has faced criticism from some voters and constituents about her record — as California’s attorney general and as district attorney in San Francisco — during a time of unrest surrounding law enforcement and criminal justice reform.

But beyond that, the Oakland, Calif., native — born to an Indian mother and Jamaican father and who identifies as Black — is already facing birther questions from President Donald Trump’s campaign while also having her ethnic identity littered with public commentary about what her true race is.

Barbara Johnson, director of race and gender equity at YWCA of Greater Pittsburgh, said for her, these challenges that Ms. Harris faces make her all the more relatable.

Ms. Johnson’s parents are both Jamaican born, and as someone who spent her career focusing on racial justice education and advocacy, she understands the nuance in the experience of being Black but not considered African American.

“I have a Jamaican background, so I was excited about [Ms. Harris] because I relate to her,” she said. “My experience in America with a Jamaican background is that it’s kind of depleted. No one ever asks me what my ethnic heritage is. There is always an assumption that I am an African American.”

Ms. Johnson empathized with Ms. Harris and said while the senator’s mixed race may contribute to questions surrounding her Blackness, she is glad that a woman with that specific background is now at the forefront of the discussion that may help to educate people on the intersectionalities of race and ethnicity.

“For me it was really exciting because when I got to be older and started to learn more about my own history and heritage from relatives, then I was more able to embrace it. It’s hard to embrace a culture when no one around you has any concept of what you are talking about except your inner-circle family,” Ms. Johnson said.

Race and policies aside, Mr. Trump and his campaign have also made attacks on Ms. Harris’ character since Mr. Biden’s announcement. Mr. Trump called in to Maria Bartiromo’s show on the Fox Business Network Thursday morning for an interview in which he referred to Ms. Harris as a “mad woman.” Mr. Trump also said Ms. Harris was “angry” during her questioning of Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings.

The president’s comments have come under fire from Democratic Party members and social media users alike who called his words racist and misogynistic.

For Cheryl Hall-Russell, former chief executive of the Hill House Association and founder of Black Women, Wise Women, Mr. Trump’s “angry Black woman” narrative is one that she looks to combat through her daily work.

Ms. Hall-Russell’s doctoral studies focused on intersectional leadership and the experiences of Black women in executive leadership roles. Her professional career eventually led her to start BW3 in 2017, an agency that offers diversity, equity and inclusion training in corporate settings throughout Pittsburgh.

The Indianapolis native called Mr. Trump’s remarks “not creative and incredibly predictable,” while arguing that her research over the last few decades shows Black women are often scrutinized at higher levels than their peers.

“There are no mistakes that can be forgiven. There is no wiggle room. Our smallest mistakes become massive. Our big mistakes become insurmountable,” Ms. Hall-Russell said. “[Ms. Harris’] work ethic is very emblematic of Black women because if we’ve gotten that far, we had to go above and beyond or we never would have been allowed in these positions. So we have to be super smart, very talented and have some kind of broad appeal, or we never get to where she is now.”

Ms. Hall-Russell said she was elated to use Ms. Harris’ story as a teaching moment for her 17-year-old daughter as they have personal discussions about what it means to be a Black woman in America.

“I love being able to tell my daughter that Kamala Harris is now a vice presidential candidate. I love talking to her about different shades of Black women. I love having an intelligent exchange with her about what this meant and warning her about the red herrings that will be thrown her way,” she said. “I told her to watch and look because her path is also going to be littered

with all types of sharp objects in her way too. As a Black woman, she is going to learn how to deal with the fact that she is beautiful and strong and smart and she is going to be ready for the challenges that come with that. I am able to use this moment to educate her on that.”

Longtime Urban League of Greater Pittsburgh president and CEO Esther Bush said that as a Black woman, she was excited that Mr. Biden kept his promise to choose a woman of color as his running mate, but her support for Ms. Harris goes beyond race.

“Kamala Harris 100% deserves this nomination. Not because she is a woman. Not because she is a woman of color. She deserves this nomination because she is a proven professional: qualified and experienced. Her previous professional positions underscore her intelligence and commitment to the citizenry,” Ms. Bush said in an emailed statement Thursday.

Ms. Bush, who has served on the state Board of Education, Law Enforcement and Community Relations Task Force, and the Voting Modernization Task Force among other committees, said that while she hopes Ms. Harris helps to motivate women of color to go after goals they may have thought were unobtainable, she realizes the work that is still left to do to combat systemic racism and inequality in America.

“Just as the nomination and election of President [Barack] Obama did not end systemic racism, Senator Harris’ role as vice presidential candidate or vice president will not be the end of systemic racism,” Ms. Bush said. “That work relies on each of us individually. It takes local actions, decisions and intentionality to untwine the long and deeply entrenched vines of structural racism. It is up to [us] to make the difference.”

Kathi Elliott agrees that Ms. Harris’ nomination is a step in the right direction. She said her focus through the work of Gwen’s Girls looks to continue to reinforce what Ms. Harris represents for women of color.

“We have to change the narrative and image of how people see Black women and girls, and that is the mission of Gwen’s Girls. And I am hoping that Biden’s pick of Kamala Harris will help to do that as well.”

The Associated Press contributed.

Alexis Johnson: ajohnson@post-gazette.com and Twitter @alexisjreports.