Aimee Allison Builds the Power of Women of Color
As the she behind ‘She the People,’ Oakland’s Aimee Allison works hard to network and connect women of color nationwide to transform democracy.
Photo by Kola Shobo
Not many people outside of Georgia had heard of Stacey Abrams when she began her historic run for governor of the state. But Oakland’s Aimee Allison was way ahead of that curve. The founder of She the People, described on its website as “a national network connecting women of color to transform our democracy,” reached out to Abrams to support her work in energizing African-American women to vote, creating a campaign called “Get In Formation.” It worked. By a small and controversial margin, Abrams lost the race — but shot to national prominence.
Allison’s complex journey to political activism began with her parents. Her mother, a civil rights activist, and her father, a scientist, were role models in ways she might not have fully realized at the time, she said. In 1988, at 17, she joined the army, serving in the First Gulf War, but became aware she was morally opposed to war, and was honorably discharged as a conscientious objector.
Fast forward to 2016. Allison, now with a B.A. in history and an M.A. in education from Stanford, had also co-authored 2007’s Army of None: Strategies to Counter Military Recruitment, End War and Build a Better World, and been a candidate for Oakland city council in 2006. She became the president of Democracy in Color, known for its influential podcast — and then, focusing her efforts on energizing the political power of women in color, founded She the People. In September 2018, seven weeks before the midterm elections, the organization’s first summit in San Francisco attracted more than 600 attendees.
“The summit showed the strength of this multiracial, progressive block of women of color,” said Allison. “She the People is the first national organization to elevate [that block’s] voice.” She noted that it has been and is reaching out to Asian, Latinx, and Native American women as part of the coalition, and urging the media to realize it is “missing the most important story” — which, she believes is women “coalescing to lead the country.” One of the summit key speakers was Oakland Congresswoman Barbara Lee, whose national profile has also risen after the 2018 midterms.
In 2019, Allison continues to work on her vision of establishing women of color as visible leaders. The elections of women such as Mayor London Breed in San Francisco and Contra Costa District Attorney Diana Becton, both the first African-American women to hold those positions, is evidence, she agreed, that “California is in a central role, leading the way to a radical change in the way politics is understood.”
And even more specifically, Oakland is at the center of the center, she said. “I have learned so much from my experiences right here in Oakland about how to advocate for issues,” she said. Her own run for city council taught her about traditional political “gatekeepers,” who often prevent women of color from advancing. “We are the group most challenged in the primaries,” she said. She the People is working to bring in new voices and inspire voters with a transformational agenda, so that many more women run for office knowing “it is possible to beat the system, even if you lose the first time.”
An “explicit process” to recruit women of color who “should be leading,” needs to be developed, one that is dependent upon small-dollar donors, not beholden to corporate interests or special-interest groups. These candidates, she said, can succeed using social media savvy, staying closely connected with their communities. She the People has a long-term focus on acting as a pipeline for qualified leaders. “We will encourage and support them, helping to make it possible for all people to do public service,” Allison emphasized.
Allison and She the People have big plans for this year and next. On April 24, 2019, in partnership with the Texas Future Project and the Texas Organizing Project, She the People will host its Presidential Forum 2019 at Texas Southern University in Houston. Allison noted that the choice of site is partly an acknowledgement of Texas’s status as a potential swing state, but is also a tribute to the groundbreaking 1977 National Women’s Conference in Houston. More than 1,000 women of color are expected to attend to hear the declared contenders for the Democratic presidential nomination speak on racial, economic, gender and social justice issues. As the country moves toward the 2020 elections, women of color will be a key deciding group, Allison said. (More information about the forum is available on SheThePeople.org.)
Asked whether She the People plans to endorse a candidate in 2020, Allison responded that it was more likely that the organization would focus on voter turnout and networking to make a difference on election day. She is creating a new She the People podcast to produce up-to-the-minute information on candidates and issues throughout the election cycle.
Would she ever consider another run for public office herself? The answer is: Perhaps. “I am dedicated to helping She the People elect a new president in 2020,” she said. “Beyond, that I am open.”
In the end, it comes back to Oakland. “I’ve had a love affair with Oakland,” Allison said. “Its commitment to social, economic, and racial justice is so beautiful. It grounds what I am doing now.” Her dream, she said, is to take that “Oakland sensibility” to the forefront of the nation’s consciousness — and conscience.