Naomi Masheti: The race for equality is neverending

The accession to power of vice-president-elect Kamala Harris is an inspiration to young Irish girls of colour and immigrants, writes Naomi Masheti
Naomi Masheti: The race for equality is neverending

US vice-president elect Kamala Harris has been a first at many thing, but it has been a long road for her. Picture: Mark Makela/Getty Images)

"Let's Dream with ambition and lead with conviction’’ – Kamala Harris – Vice President Elect of the United States of America.

These words were loaded in so many ways. Loaded with the emotions of winning an election – for her, for the democrats and for all those who were rooting for a system change. 

For those who had been biting their nails, been on the edge of their seats, and been through countless cups of coffee while awaiting results for a couple of days, these words were warmly received by those relieve- filled hearts. 

As I listened to these words, they touched a chord within the little girl in me and the woman that I am. Rarely are my mind and emotions in sync but this was one of those rare moments.

Taking off my political hat, if I was to apply what Kamala Harris words mean for the girls of colour that my team (Stevie G, Andrea Williams, Fionnuala O’Connell) and I work with at the Cork Migrant Centre, Nano Nagle Place Cork I would be hard pressed to find finer words :

"And to the little girls watching right now, never doubt that you are valuable and powerful and deserving of every chance and opportunity in the world’’.

This is a great story not just for the girls of colour that we work with but also for all of us migrant mothers who want to see our children in positions of leadership. 

It will no doubt soften the edges of scepticism of Irish born girls of colour who dare to dream big. The optics are good and great for inspiration, but we all know that there is a long road ahead not just in America but here in Ireland.

A mural of George Floyd in West Dublin. Demonstrations have taken place across Ireland in the wake of Mr Floyd's death after a white officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck.
A mural of George Floyd in West Dublin. Demonstrations have taken place across Ireland in the wake of Mr Floyd's death after a white officer held him down by pressing a knee into his neck.

Kamala Harris words ‘chance and opportunity’ reminded me of another event in America. The killing of George Floyd that shook people across the globe to their core. 

Not just black people but anyone who watched that video, all eight minutes and 46 seconds as George Floyd pleaded for his life. This stirred something in all of us. 

It was disturbing, leaving many speechless, angry, frustrated. It left many questions unanswered.  It touched the core of our humanity and made us examine ourselves. 

Ireland is no exception and we witnessed widespread accounts of experiences of racism by people of colour reported in the media and in academic and on other institutional webinars and debates. 

At the Nano Nagle Place, Cork, we initiated a public conversation about racism in Ireland in June by bringing together our young people from the CMC YIAR Youth Initiative Against Racism along with leaders of statutory and other organisations (CEO of TUSLA, An Garda Siochana, CEO of Ombudsman for Children, President of Cork Chamber, the city and county mayors and President of Irish Primary Principals Network). 

The aim was to facilitate a conversation about positive change in a multicultural Ireland.

Ten young speakers presented their many heartfelt experiences of racial discrimination and abuse mostly in schools. They spoke about reporting these experiences to their teachers with no redress.

They spoke about normalising racism along with the inferiority complexes that go along with it. They asked the panellists to provide solutions that will begin to resolve this continuing, both overt and subtle, violence. 

The proposed solutions focussed on creating an enabling environment for equity and equality opportunities. This calls for reflection but also actions to ensure that diversity in the schools in the workplace, in government policies is not just in ‘words’ but in ‘deeds’ in shattering the barriers that impact on the implementation of inclusive policies, protocols and practices. 

Barriers that impact, for example, on having people of colour holding positions such as teachers (primary and secondary schools), senior posts in the Gardai and other public offices, non-governmental organisations and in the corporate world. 

It is by shattering such barriers that we can motivate the little girls of colour to aspire for that "chance and opportunity" that Kamala Harris spoke so eloquently about. 

Only then can the young speakers that addressed our webinar about their feelings of being undervalued and excluded begin to see themselves in a different light.

It has been a long road for Kamala Harris who has been a first at many things - black woman elected as San Francisco district attorney; black woman elected California attorney general; first South Asian and second Black woman to serve in the US Senate; and now first black woman vice-president elect.

This gives hope that others can be the first as well -  first but not the last. 

WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - NOVEMBER 07: President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden wave to the crowd after Biden's address to the nation from the Chase Center November 07, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Picture: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images
WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - NOVEMBER 07: President-elect Joe Biden and Jill Biden wave to the crowd after Biden's address to the nation from the Chase Center November 07, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. Picture: Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images

Just like Kamala Harris who has stood on the shoulders of countless black women civil rights activists in the space of equity and social justice, we can now stand on her shoulders as we engage in transformative activism.

I consider myself lucky in that at Nano Nagle Place I am privileged to stand on the shoulders of the great Nano Nagle herself who pioneered individual and collective empowerment of girls in the 19th century led by her motto ‘Deeds not Words’. 

In the 21st century, Nano Nagle herself would no doubt be fighting the compounding racial biases over and above the gender biases that face migrant girls of colour. 

I am confident that by standing on her shoulders and on Kamala Harris’s shoulders and others like her, little girls and women of colour can see the future possibilities.

But we are not under any illusion that this inspiration will automatically reduce inequality. 

At Nano Nagle Place, the Cork Migrant Centre YIAR (Youth Initiative Against Racism), in collaboration with Cork CYPSC (Children and Young People Services), Cork Printmakers, the Glucksman UCC, and climate change activists , we have embarked on a path of transformative activism in the space of equity and social justice mainly through the universal language of art. 

As part of this work, CMC YIAR is part of the UCC group that is planning the commemoration of Fredrick Douglass' visit to Cork back in the 19th century scheduled to take place in February 2020. 

Nano Nagle Place management is committed to facilitating the Cork Migrant Centre YIAR channel their passion and drive into constructive change. To do this while comfortable in their own skins - in their own identities. 

And the message from Kamala Harris is that they can be the first to empower that change.

To borrow other powerful words, change is coming tomorrow.

* Dr. Naomi Masheti, Programme Coordinator at Nano Nagle Place

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