Saturday, November 16, 2013

Assemblywoman Shirley Weber speaks on diversity at Grossmont College

Shirley Weber
Simply putting people with differences in background at the same table does not assure that a workplace will have the benefits of diversity, Assemblywoman Shirley N. Weber (D-79) recently told students and faculty in a crowded Grossmont College lecture hall. “All the people around the table must feel empowered to speak up and advocate for their points of view,” she explained.

Assemblymember Weber, whose  Nov. 7 appearance was sponsored by the College’s Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Committee, was a featured speaker during its Political Economy Week  which included 30 lectures delivered by faculty and visitors on a broad array of political and economic topics.

Being African-American, female, and from an economically disadvantaged family, the Assemblymember said that she has been able to bring a different perspective to decision making by elected officials.  Assemblymember Weber is a former board member of the San Diego Unified School District and currently serves as a member of the California State Assembly representing District 79.

The Assemblywoman recounted a time when she was on the school board for the San Diego Unified School District, and the district’s legislative advocate in Sacramento needed to be replaced.  The administration brought before the board a young white male with no previous experience as a lobbyist, whom they said could learn the job quickly.  Well, “what about the woman who had served as the previous lobbyist’s deputy?” Assemblymember Weber asked. 

She said the administrators responded by saying that they didn’t believe the woman was interested in the job because of family obligations.  Assemblymember Weber insisted that the deputy be asked anyway, and it turned out she was interested indeed.  Because the Assemblymember felt empowered to speak up, she was able to ensure that the woman was considered.  Having the requisite experience, and the interpersonal skills, the woman ultimately was appointed.
African-American women have been “forever training our supervisors,” said Assemblymember Weber, but because she was able to share her different perspective, the school board was able to avoid a tremendous error.

As an Assemblymember, Dr. Weber likewise brings new perspective both to legislation and to cultural events.  On one occasion, Assemblymember Weber sponsored a performance of the South African Kliptown boot dancers on the Assembly floor. This renowned dance troupe of youth was touring the United States.  The boot dancers reside in a shanty town in South Africa, called Kliptown. The dancers are participants of the Kliptown Youth Program, which was founded in 2007 in Johannesburg, South Africa to eradicate the poverty of mind, body, and soul.  The program, which has a membership of 400 children, provides educational support and after school activities that focus on tutoring, athletics and the performance arts, including the traditional South African Gumboot Dance. Gumboot Dance originated in the African mines of Capetown. The miners were not allowed to talk with one another, so they developed a system where they would hit their boots. This soon became more than just a communication system as they started to incorporate dance and step into it. In fact, this form of dance is mimicked today by many sororities and fraternities throughout the country.

 “We’ve never seen anything like this before,” she said other legislators exclaimed after the performance.”   “That’s because you never had an African-American woman legislator from San Diego , she responded.

Assemblymember Weber told the students of Grossmont Community College that they should not feel self-conscious if other students say things like, “Oh she is always talking black” or always talking about the rights of women, or about LGBT issues.  “The question isn’t how often I bring it up.  The question is ‘Am I right?’”

Although she disagrees with people who saw the election of Barack Obama as meaning that America is past racism, she said the election of an African-American to the highest office in the land does indicate that the United States is on the verge of greatness.  She said there are still setbacks, such as the shooting last year of Trayvon Martin by a Neighborhood Watch coordinator in Sanford, Florida, but added that California and the nation have made many strides toward enabling people of all different backgrounds to have influence in the making of public policy.

Asked what prompted Weber’s passion, the legislator responded that she had been a “radical” all her life, always looking at things a little differently.  What really was formative, however, was the support and encouragement from other African-Americans whose example she wants to emulate.

Driving to UCLA via the Santa Monica Freeway, she said, she would navigate her way through nice neighborhoods in which African-American women would be walking up the hills to clean someone else’s house.  Sometimes, she would stop and give them a lift.  “Girl, you get yourself an education,” they told her.

In her own neighborhood was a woman who perhaps had an income of only $100 per month, yet every month that woman would give Assemblymember Weber $5 “to help me stay in school.”  “I was fortunate in always having a group who believed in me,” she stated. 

With their support, Assemblymember Weber earned a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and a doctorate by the time she was 26.  And even earlier, she was teaching African Studies in the State University system.  In 1972, she said, every student who took her class was an African-American.  In 2008, about half the students were African-American, and the other half were members of other racial groups.   That, she said, is progress.