The Prince George's County Commission for Women hosted its first Women's Legislative Conference Oct. 28 at Prince George's Community College in Largo, Md. Despite the concern many had that Hurricane Sandy might disrupt the conference, scores of women--and a few men-- gathered for what was billed as a day of education, empowerment and engagement.
Jennifer Jones, Prince George's County Commission for Women chairwoman, said that she intends the conference to be an annual event on par with the Women's Legislative Briefing in Montgomery County and an annual legislative reception in Annapolis, both held in January.
"Women in Prince George's County are very politically active. We're 52 percent of the voting bloc, in a hub for the state and the country," Jones said. "We hope to start the conversation in the fall in Prince George's County and have everyone excited. The State of Maryland is unique the country in the number of women who are politically engaged."
The Prince George's County Commission for Women aims to be a nonpartisan advocacy group. The participants in this year's conference, however, offered few conservative perspectives on the issues emphasized during the day's panel discussions of health care, social security and other constituent services, education, the economy and abortion.
"I'm here to support the power of women in Prince George's County to be focused on policy's impacts not just on women but on all our families and communities," said Congresswoman Donna Edwards (D-Md. Dist. 4). "It's the beginning of a very powerful and growing force among the women of our community and young girls."
Edwards went on to praise "the power of our women leaders who are really helping to build this county," and call upon them to support legislation including the Affordable Care Act, abortion rights and programs such as food stamps and Pell grants.
"Whether or not you have use of those services, we have to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with our sisters in our community," Edwards said.
Though the conference was dominated by women, Edwards encouraged those in attendance to look beyond traditional "women's issues."
"There are 140,000 federal workers in Prince George's County. People like to say women are interested in 'women's issues,' but please do not allow us to be ghettoized like that. Every single decision made in federal, state and in our county's (legislative bodies) are 'women's issues.'"
Maryland State Senator Joanne C. Benson (D-Dist. 24) used her time at the podium to say, "we've got to kick it up. We've got to have more funding for breast cancer and any cancer in Prince George's County." Benson went on to state that Prince George's County leads the state in breast cancer, heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes and infant mortality.
"We've got to do better. We've got to understand the importance of health disparity reduction," Benson said. "Some communities are doing well. Others are neglected, with no access to doctors and health care for our women."
Benson also called for efforts to streamline domestic violence assistance programs through a countywide Justice Center, increased shelter and housing spaces for women in the county, stronger protective orders for victims of domestic violence, reductions in child abuse and "pay equity" for women and praised awareness campaigns aimed at helping female victims of human trafficking.
Prince George's County Council Chairwoman Andrea Harrison (D) spoke on the need to create jobs in the county.
"Sixty percent of the population leaves Prince George's County to go to work," Harrison said. "When you are close to home you can get involved in your community."
After a morning networking session and presentations by a variety of health care and social services organizations, the afternoon focused on a large panel discussion.
Panelists included Maryland state Senator Dr. Beatrice Tignor (D-Dist. 25) discussing the role of political leadership, Maryland Delegate Joseline Pena-Melnyk (D-Dist. 21) on the role of advocates, activists and lobbyists, Emerge Maryland Executive Director Diane Fink on constituent services and civil servants, Maryland Women's Coalition for Health Care Reform Chairwoman Leni Preston and Black Women's Health Imperative's Director of Program Development and Training Valerie Rochester on health care, 7th Judicial Circuit Associate Judge the Honorable Cathy H. Serrette on domestic violence statistics and the plans to create a one-stop domestic violence assistance center in the county, Maryland Secretary of Aging Gloria Lawlah and AARP Suitland Chapter 939 President Wilma Smith on issues of concern to senior citizens, Maryland State Superintendent of Schools Dr. Lillian Lowery discussing educational achievement disparities, and CEO and Chief Strategist of KSG Strategic Consulting Kesi Stribling and Prince George's County Human relations Commission Executive Director Michael Lyles on economics and demographics.
"I hope this conference can give women on base at Andrews some ideas on how to get involved in the community," said Lyles in an interview before the afternoon's panel discussion.
Keynote speaker Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, president and CEO of Washington, D.C.-based social change consulting firm Global Policy Solutions, spoke on her conviction that much budget-cutting legislation being discussed on the state and national level is inherently racist and sexist, because of the disparate impacts those cuts can have on certain sectors of the community.
County Executive Rushern L. Baker III (D) spoke on the important roles women fill in Prince George's County government, both as grassroots activists and members of his cabinet.
"It's important that we understand that voice. The people decide, and in Prince George's County that's mostly women, and mostly Democratic women. Democratic women in Prince George's County determine the direction of the state of Maryland on health care, gaming and economic development," Baker said.
Congressman Steny Hoyer (D-Md. Dist. 5), calling himself "today's token," at the overwhelmingly female and African American event, praised those committed to grassroots political action, saying, "It makes a difference to be women engaged, women educated, women empowered, for you, but more importantly from a community standpoint it makes a difference for your community."
Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) praised Prince George's County's female voters and activists.
"You put in three shifts. One to make a living, one to make the living worthwhile, and then you attend forums to learn how to make a difference. I say, 'Hats off to you,'" Mikulski said. "In Congress, we deal with the macro issues of society. Here, you're focusing on the 'macaroni and cheese' issues of health care, Head Start, public schools you can count on, and getting our troops, money and jobs back home."
Mikulski was presented with an award for her longstanding efforts on behalf of women and families at the close of the conference.
Next year, the commission plans to expand the Women's Legislative Conference to two days.