“Together, we stand—but divided we fall.”
This phrase rang out time and again throughout the Black Women’s Political Caucus of Muskegon County’s 42nd annual dinner on Friday, Oct. 25—when community leaders packed the Trillium Center in Spring Lake for a night featuring speeches from Dr. Pamela Pugh, the Chief Public Health Advisor for the city of Flint, and Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel.
“How relevant is that theme in this time we live in now?” Pugh told Friday’s crowd, referring to the dinner’s theme of “together we stand—united.” “When we’re divided, our work is diminished. As African American women, we know we need each other. It’s in our culture, our DNA, to be concerned about our sisters and the wellbeing of our sisters. Our whole existence and survival is built on the whole village mentality.”
These ideas—ones of unity, of wellbeing, of sisterhood, of the weight of history and the life-changing power of community activism—inspired cheers throughout Friday’s dinner, which drew everyone from judges and legislators to attorneys and educators, among many others.
And while the evening itself was often light-hearted, the ideas that inspire the annual gathering and the challenges it tackles are deeply poignant ones: ones rooted in the United States’ history of slavery and the push for civil rights, in faith that has overcome overwhelming darkness, in finding strength and light in the people who have come before you, those who walk alongside you, and the ones who have yet to arrive. From the singing of the “Negro National Anthem” to speeches addressing racism and bias, the night is, each year, a powerful celebration of, and testament to, the strength of community, the resilience of family and faith, and the desire to remember and acknowledge a deeply painful history while paving the way for a future filled with equity.
It is a night filled with discussion of challenges those attending the dinner well understand—and which many have dedicated years, and often decades, to changing: ones of systemic racism and historical trauma, of racism shortening Black Americans lives, of a criminal justice system in which African Americans are five times more likely than their white counterparts to be incarcerated—and in which Black people are 12 times more likely to be wrongly convicted of drug crimes. Of a healthcare system that overwhelmingly fails Black Americans—in some cities in the U.S., the life-expectancy gap between African American residents and white residents is as much as 20 years.
Pugh—who since 2016 has served as the chief public health advisor to Flint, a city where systemic and environmental racism led to its residents, mainly people of color, being poisoned by lead in their own drinking water, and who also serves as the vice president of the Michigan Board of Education—addressed a number of these challenges. She emphasized that while African American women are now the most educated group in the United States, “we still have a long way to go for pay equity.” According to a National Women’s Law Center analysis of 2018 Census Bureau data, Black women make 61 cents for every $1 that their white male counterparts are paid. This wage gap translates to a Black woman earning about $946,000 less than a white male over a 40-year career.
Too, Pugh emphasized the health disparities Black Americans, and particularly Black women, face in the United States.
“The divisiveness takes a toll on our mental and physical health,” she said.
Racism is, quite literally, making people sick, Pugh explained, noting that African American women experience obesity, diabetes, and adverse birth outcomes at higher rates than white women—and African American women are more likely to die from breast and cervical cancer and HIV/AIDS than their white counterparts.
But, in a country that has so deeply wronged, and continues to wrong, Black individuals and communities, there are those working tirelessly to change this world of ours—from the spheres of public health and law to government, education and so much more, attendees at the Black Women’s Political Caucus emphasized. And, Pugh said, they are doing it together.
“Divided, we are alone,” Pugh said. “Divided, we are isolated; our futures are uncertain…our rights are diminished. But together we stand.”
“There’s an African American proverb that says, ‘If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together,’” Pugh continued. “As women, we can choose to be powerful allies and we can choose to go farther and faster together.”
And, Pugh said, as evidenced by the support women give one another in the Black Women’s Political Caucus of Muskegon County, our local community will continue to address marginalization, racism and biases in order to empower, lift and celebrate one another.
“When women help one another, we all benefit,” Pugh said. “When women celebrate one another’s accomplishments, we’re all lifted up. We are a force. A force can overcome racism, overcome sexism, overcome misogyny…vote in first women mayors, vote in women to boards of education, get women hired as principals, and it can vote out hate in the White House. Let’s be fierce, let’s stand together, let’s stand united.”
The Black Women’s Political Caucus of Muskegon County
Founded 42 years ago by Marshea Anderson, the Black Women’s Political Caucus of Muskegon County, a nonprofit and non-partisan group, has for decades worked to empower women of color and encourage women of color to participate in local politics. Over the years, the organization has gone on to award educational scholarships for Muskegon County students, conduct extensive voter registration drives, connect seniors in nursing homes with needed items—such as warm clothing, advocated for expungement, and much more.
Led by Marianne Darnell as the chairperson, the caucus has about 40 women (and men) who are members. Hailing from a wide range of backgrounds, caucus members are lawmakers, leaders in business and nonprofits, attorneys, historians, judges, government officials, and much more.
Each year, the caucus hosts its dinner for which there is a theme.
“This year’s theme is ‘united we stand together,’” Darnell wrote in the annual dinner agenda. “If there is a time to come together, this is it. It’s time to do what Americans do best: pull together. Stop bashing, stop blaming, start doing.”
“The divisiveness that has been prevalent in our great nation will be our downfall if we don’t step up individually, in our families, communities, and our hometowns and say, ‘United we stand. We will not be divided,’” Darnell continued.
Asaline Scott, the recording secretary of the Black Women’s Political Caucus, also emphasized this during the dinner.
“Let’s all leave this place united, standing together as a force of power,” she told Friday’s crowd.
Throughout the dinner, Pugh, Nessel, caucus members, and attendees celebrated the dedication of the Black Women’s Political Caucus of Muskegon County for their efforts to lift everyone—as well as to shine a light on everything from the marginalization of African American residents, and people of color, to the acts of empowerment happening throughout our area.
“I thank all of you community activists working your hardest to make sure our communities are safer and better and more equitable,” Nessel said at the dinner. “I commend you for the hard work you do here and around the state.”
Racial equity, hate crimes, Line 5 & more
After spending about 25 years working as a lawyer in Detroit, including as a criminal prosecutor and civil rights attorney, Nessel said she was fairly shocked to discover how racially homogenous the Michigan Attorney General’s office was when she arrived in Lansing after winning the election in November of last year.
“I’d spent my entire career working in the city of Detroit, a very diverse area,” Nessel, Michigan’s first openly gay attorney general and first Jewish attorney general, said during her speech at Friday’s dinner. “You meet and work with and live next to people from various different communities. When I got to Lansing, I was startled to find out how incredibly white it was; I’d never seen anything like it in my career.”
“I said, ‘Where do you keep all the people of color?’” Nessel continued. “The answer to that was there just weren’t very many. There are so many levels to be disturbed about there.”
After taking office, Nessel said she has made tackling the lack of racial diversity in her office a priority.
“We’re finally building an office that truly represents the people of this very great state,” Nessel said.
During Friday’s speech, Nessel addressed a wide range of issues, from hate crimes and auto insurance fraud to pharmaceutical companies and toxic drinking water.
In response to an increase in hate crimes in Michigan, Nessel’s office launched a hate crimes unit, the attorney general told Friday’s crowd. According to the most recent FBI statistics, there were 456 hate crimes in Michigan in 2017—an increase from the 399 reported hate crimes in 2016 and the 309 reported hate crimes in 2015.
“This is in response to a 30 percent rise in hate crimes against marginalized communities in our state,” Nessel said.
The attorney general noted she launched her department’s auto insurance fraud unit almost immediately upon taking office.
“We have over a billion dollars in fraud in the no-fault system; it’s one reason auto insurance companies jack up our rates,” said Nessel, who added that the attorney general’s office has created an elder abuse task force in concert with the Michigan Supreme Court in order to better address the 73,000-plus cases of elder abuse and neglect annually reported in Michigan.
“It’s an epidemic,” Nessel said of elder abuse.
She went on to address joining a coalition of 44 attorney generals in a lawsuit against Teva Pharmaceuticals and 19 of the country’s largest generic drug manufacturers; the suit accuses the companies of allegedly inflating and manipulating prices, reducing competition, and unreasonably restraining trade for about 100 different generic drugs.
“We’ve taken a strong stance against pharmaceutical companies,” Nessel said. “…I believe we’ll be able to decrease the prices of medications that do things like treat cancer and epilepsy and depression.”
Additionally, her office has filed cases against pharmaceutical companies with regards to the opioid epidemic, Nessel said.
“My hope is we’ll be able to bring back hundreds of millions of dollars, or even billions of dollars, back to the state of Michigan,” in order to better support those seeking treatment for opioid addiction, the attorney general said.
By the end of 2019, Nessel said her office expects to file a lawsuit against chemical manufacturers “responsible for the PFAS crisis across this state.”
Often referred to as “forever chemicals,” PFAS have, since the 1940s, been used in various industries across the country. For example, PFAS have been used in firefighting foam at airports, Teflon nonstick products, stains and water repellents, paints, cleaning products, and food packaging.
Studies have shown PFAS are linked to certain cancers, increased cholesterol, and reduced fertility, among other health problems, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s toxicology agency.
“These are companies that fully understood how dangerous their products were but they manufactured these products anyway,” Nessel said. “…As a result, there are communities across the state of Michigan where the water isn’t safe.”
Also on the water front, the attorney general said it’s imperative to address Enbridge’s Line 5, a major oil pipeline that runs from Superior, Wisconsin, across Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, directly through the Straits of Mackinac, and down to Sarnia, Michigan. Nessel has filed a lawsuit against Enbridge in an effort to see Line 5 decommissioned.
“To properly protect the Great Lakes, we need to decommission Line 5,” she said and added that a decommissioning would not result in an energy crisis and would prevent an oil spill from an anchor strike or operational failure.
“We won’t have an energy crisis, and we won’t be subject to the biggest oil spill in American history,” Nessel said of the potential decommissioning.