With statewide budget cuts on the horizon, Connecticut commissions on gender and race need to take a stand while also remaining in the good graces of legislators who hold the power to decide their future, said Carolyn Treiss, executive director of the Permanent Commission on the Status of Women.
Treiss was one of three panelists who spoke Saturday evening in the Jorgensen Gallery as part of “Amplifying the Voices on the Ground,” a discussion about the barriers to progress facing marginalized communities moderated by Evelyn Simien, a professor of political science and Africana studies at the University of Connecticut, as part of Women’s History month.
Treiss said her commission came to one such crossroad last year when the Connecticut General Assembly considered a bill that would have mandated Connecticut colleges implement an affirmative consent policy for adjudicating cases of sexual assault.
Despite the political implications for her commission’s funding, the PCSW chose to call out victim blaming and other sexist rhetoric displayed by legislators on both sides of the aisle while the bill was up for debate. There were serious repercussions, Treiss said she had trouble getting meetings with the offending parties for almost a year.
“It does put us in this weird position of sometimes being afraid to take a very bold stand on something,” Treiss said. “That is a shame because our jobs are to make waves.”
Glenn Cassis, executive director of the State of Connecticut African-American Affairs Commission, agreed politics often get in the way of common sense issues, such as the “Second Chance Society” bill Gov. Dannel Malloy signed into law in July 2015 to reduce drug possession sentences and establish new parole and pardon programs for nonviolent offenders.
“We have now a society where crime is going down, but we don’t take a look at that and say that it’s going down because we’re helping people get back into society,” Cassis said.
Mui Mui Hin-McCormick, executive director of the Connecticut Asian Pacific American Affairs Commission, said the demands of the legislature and Connecticut’s shrinking budget have forced departments like hers to get creative.
“All of our agencies had to pull back, not because we want to but because realistically we can’t. We’ve given everything, we have limited staff as well as resources,” Hin-McCormick said. “One of the options that I’ve been trying to really access more is partnerships, collaborations.”
This type of inter-departmental work has resulted in an increased emphasis on intersectional legislation. Treiss said that one of the reasons Connecticut is positioned to be the fourth state in the country to mandate paid maternity and medical leave because it is no longer portrayed as a an issue only for middle class white women.
“The people, honestly, who can least afford to take leave are people working in low income jobs. They are the people who are the first to get fired when they say ‘I am ill or I’m going to have a baby,” Treiss said. “This would be a program that would be available to every person working in Connecticut. There is an income threshold but it’s very low, it’s about $10,000.”
Similarly, “Ban the Box” legislation, which would prevent employers from asking job-applicants if they have been convicted of a crime before offering them an interview, is being reframed as an issue that affects women of color as much as it does men.
“Once you get into the criminal justice system, you’re stuck. The only thing you can do when you get out is go back into crime because there’s nothing available to you,” Cassis said. “A person at 17 who makes a bad decision, that should not affect them for the rest of their lives.”
Hin-McCormick, who came to America as a refugee from Laos as a child, said it can be difficult to mobilize her community because many Asian immigrants are reluctant to get involved with politics after being persecuted in their countries of origin.
In Hin-McCormick’s words, they don’t want to rock the boat.
“They had to make a very hard decision, flee the country that they knew to give their children a better opportunity,” Hin-McCormick said. “It becomes really difficult to be heard when you’ve been oppressed and unheard and unseen for such a long time.”
Linking civic engagement with greater opportunities for the next generation—which would benefit from more thorough demographic data as well as better access to mental health and language services – has been met with some success, Hin-McCormick said.
Cassis, who attended UConn during the Civil Rights Movement, urged the audience not to let special interest groups set the agenda. He said understanding the United States’ racial history is integral to making legislative progress.
“Too many people have spilled their blood to give me the right to do the things I do,” Cassis said. “I look at it as an obligation. If we’re going to make things better we have to get on top of it, we have to hold ourselves accountable and you as citizens need to hold us accountable.”
“Amplifying the Voices on the Ground” was sponsored by the African American Cultural Center, the Asian American Cultural Center, the Puerto Rican/Latin American Cultural Center and the Rainbow Center.
Celebration of Women’s History month will continue this Wednesday, March 9 in Hartford at “Women’s Day in the Capital, Intersectional Feminism 101.” Community Outreach is providing free transportation to this event to those who pre-register on the Women’s Center website by Monday, March 7.
Kimberly Armstrong is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.