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Women of Color Empowered Speech

In January 2013, Sharon Parker, assistant chancellor for equity and diversity at the University of Washington Tacoma, was honored as a woman of power who "reaches out beyond her own community bringing people together" by Women of Color Empowered. Below is the text of the speech she gave at the recognition luncheon.

I’d like to say a few words about Women of Color Empowered. Wilma Mankiller, who is one of my sheroes, who was a sister-friend, and who is known as the first female Cherokee Principal Chief, was talking with me and a group of women I was with, that she had no fear of taking on difficult tasks since the terrible car crash when she nearly lost her life in 1976. She realized that there was no need for fear and, so, she could tackle big problems such as poverty and prejudice with the full force of her being. I know how crippled we can be by fear, especially we women. Tragically, it keeps us from fulfilling our human potential; so I strive daily to live without the fear of failure and the fear of being wrong. And I can be very wrong sometimes, so that takes a lot to overcome!

I don’t think Wilma set out to become a leader or a “woman of color empowered.” She just set out to make a better life for herself and her family. Of course, her view of family included her tribe, her feminist sisters, and ultimately the nation. Like the great Nelson Mandela (another of my heroes), Wilma realized that there is nothing natural about poverty. He said, “It is man-made and it can be overcome and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

I grew up in family of 5; I was next to youngest. My mother worked and my father worked; they did what had to be done to raise and educate 5 children — because they believed deeply in the power education. I not only grew up with that value of education, but I also learned that I had to work hard and do what was necessary for the betterment of my family and my people. So I became adept at seeing what needed to be done and then doing it. At the time I didn’t know I was breaking down barriers, setting precedents, and creating new paths for women and people of color.

In the women’s movement I could see that those who were called “minority women” had no voice and no visibility in the struggles for equality. So I organized among my sisters who were Native American, Latina, African American, Asian American, and Pacific Islander to bring forth our voices. We stepped away from the limiting concept of being a minority and, looking worldwide, realized that we are the majority globally. Calling ourselves “women of color,” not for the color of our skin but for the political linkage with all those whose lives, histories, languages, cultures, ways of knowing, and successes lay outside of the dominant culture, together we established the National Institute for Women of Color in 1979.

We developed strategies to bring our lives into the mainstream without giving up our identities and heritages. So I went on to serve on national and regional boards and committees; such as the National Steering Committee on Pay Equity or the National Council of the Wilderness Society (for which my role model was environmental activist and former Lt. Governor of Hawaii, Jean Sadako King). Such opportunities allowed me to work to ensure that other women and men of color would also serve on national and regional boards and committees. I also consulted with institutions — corporations, nonprofits, schools, and especially higher education institutions — guiding them to incorporate ever deepening diversity. I worked on education research projects that validated the interests and issues of people of color and helped institutions see how they can meet the needs of diverse populations. I was never so gratified as I was to see the emergence of new research topics such as “Learning Outcomes of URM Students,” “Do Culturally Engaging Reading Materials Matter? An Analysis of Rural Libraries,” “Being-Knowing-Doing: De-Colonising Indigenous Tertiary Education,” “Elders and Knowledgeable Others in Higher Education,” “Educación Intercultural y Bilingüe para todos.”

Today I work at the University of Washington Tacoma campus bringing together students, faculty and staff around equity and diversity issues. I continue to work in teams with women and men who look at the issues from diverse perspectives; such as a Maori colleague from New Zealand. I am continuing my study of transforming institutions through diversity and I expect to continue engaging in such work until I am no longer able to work. To paraphrase another of my sheroes, the feisty and ever-so smart former governor of the State of Texas, Ann Richards, who said, “ I have very strong feelings about how...[to] lead... life... always look ahead, ... never look back.”

I am looking ahead to innovative ways to change our educational institutions for the betterment of our communities and our nation.

In accepting this honor, I thank my colleagues, sisters and brothers for justice, our ancestors whose struggles made it possible for us to be here today, and the people of this land who allow us to meet here. I especially thank Women of Color Empowered for this honor. It is particularly meaningful to me because it comes from my sisters of color.

Sharon Parker
Assistant Chancellor for Equity and Diversity

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