Representative Emilia Sykes Launches #WeBelongHere Movement After Repeat Racial Profiling From Workplace Security
"I can't get to the table if you won't let me in the building," Sykes told Blavity
Black women are fed up.
Imagine showing up to work not knowing what to expect from security at your job -- as if they don't see you walk through the gates, with identification in hand, every single day. Can you say, #WorkingWhileBlack?
Ohio State legislator Emilia Sykes of Akron, Ohio spoke with Blavity about her efforts to take the conversation surrounding the experiences of black women at work a bit further. With #WeBelongHere -- an urgent movement created to fight against the false narrative black women cannot be leaders, should not be in positions of power and do not deserve the same respect as their male and/or pale colleagues.
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I am one of 276 Black women elected to a state legislature. 19 Black women serve in the United States Congress. Countless Black women serve as public servants at the local level. We demand to be respected in every policy house, at every table, in every seat! #WeBelongHere pic.twitter.com/0BYoKFBZJt— Emilia Sykes (@EmiliaSykesOH) June 14, 2018
In 2015, during Sykes' first term as a state legislator, the state house started implementing new security procedures for the its employee entrance. The new procedure incorporated new badges personalized with numbers for each legislator -- meant to serve specifically for identification purposes.
"We were told if you show your badge, that will get you in," said Sykes.
While the numbered badges were supposed to serve as a clear status indicator, Sykes was stopped plenty of times, and told her bag must be searched, but on this particular day, the Akron native was fed up. A highway patrol officer stopped her and not only checked her bag, but informed Sykes he'd have to search her bag.
"I asked him why. He said, 'If you want to get in the building I have to search your bag.'"
"I'm going to get in this building, but you're not searching my bag," Sykes assured the officer.
Even her white, male colleague who was with her at the time intervened and attempted to clarify Sykes' status as legislator.
Once the officer let her through (without a bag search) Sykes anxiously asked him, "Why did you feel you needed to search my bag?"
"Well, you don't look like a legislator," *the officer said, according to Sykes.* At the sight of Sykes' facial expression, *she said* the officer quickly followed his ignorant statement with "You you just look too young to be a legislator."
Last week, Sykes tweeted out the letter she wrote to the Ohio Dept. of Public Safety, in which she spoke out about several unfriendly and unfair encounters with law enforcement.
Yesterday I filed a complaint w/ the Ohio Dept of Public Safety about repeated scrutiny & questioning by Troopers & Statehouse security. No longer can my race, gender, age, or any other characteristic subject me to differential treatment as I'm serving my community. #WeBelongHere pic.twitter.com/WkQBPYFk5o— Emilia Sykes (@EmiliaSykesOH) June 14, 2018
The movement also comes in the wake of Juneteenth, and shining a light on all black women who have shown they belong through their powerful leadership. One of Sykes' inspirations includes the iconic Shirley Chisholm, who paved the way for many black politicians today.
50 years ago, Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to Congress. I am a part of her legacy and serve everyday to make sure marginalized voices are heard. #WeBelongHere pic.twitter.com/oMLUG6Nzqj— Emilia Sykes (@EmiliaSykesOH) June 14, 2018
This Juneteenth week, we’re honoring Black women at the table of liberation and equity.
Who are the public servants that work everyday to ensure we all belong? #WeBelongHere #Juneteenth2018 pic.twitter.com/mqc0tVwBpW— We Belong Here (@WeBelongHere2) June 18, 2018
The following day, Sykes, along with other powerful black women from the Congressional Women's Alliance and the Ohio Legislative Black Caucus held a conference call powered by Think Rubix to create a space for women nationwide to join in together and hear, first hand, the rise of a powerful movement, #WeBelongHere.
What's most concerning about the way the officer treated Sykes is understanding Highway State Patrol are the most well trained police force in the entire sate. "If they are checking me, walking into my work place, with all of my credentials? What are they doing on the highways? What is it they're doing out in these streets, if they feel comfortable enough doing that in the state house?" asked Sykes.
In light of #WeBelongHere, it's important for young black women to understand someone does not have the authority make a judgement on you about where where you should and should not belong. The notion because you are a black woman, you couldn't possibly be a mayor, state legislator, CEO, president, etc., is so two centuries ago, and just not true.
Aside from state highway patrol, Sykes mentioned she has also has received judgement from other colleagues, visiting constituents, lobbyists, and advocates who simply did not expect her to be in her current seat as state legislator.
"That's fine, but you cannot project that on me, because you have not taken the time to research that there are black women in positions of authority," Rep. Sykes said.
Black women are leaders, and have been leaders for a long time despite the endless side eyes from those who believe black women simply don't belong.
"They should not only tolerate us in that space, but they should be excited that we're in that space," Sykes told Blavity. "They should be embracing us in that space because we bring a lot to the table. But I can't get to the table if you won't let me in the building."
Emilia acknowledges it can be difficult for black women to speak up and stand up for themselves in certain spaces, particularly in the workplace, but she hopes her voice carries from Ohio to other states across the country empowering other working black women to continue to stand tall in their spaces, despite what others may say or think.
"They have to get over this, not us. Because we're doing exactly what we're supposed to do."
To support the movement, share your experiences using the hashtag #WeBelongHere and follow @WeBelongHere2.