THE BLOG
10/20/2016 06:48 pm ET Updated Oct 27, 2017

Together We Thrive: A Better Future For All Women And Girls

Larry Downing / Reuters

Valerie Jarrett Remarks at Together We Thrive
Washington, D.C.
October 19, 2016

To Jennifer, to her Board Chair, Beth Johnson, thank you. To the remainder of your Board, to your sponsors, your grantees, and the few really good brave men who are in the audience - we are delighted to see you as well, you're a part of the solution here.

Together we thrive. Listening to Jennifer talk about that, I couldn't help but to think about my own life. I was one of those single moms out there that you hear so much about, but I was one of the lucky ones. I had two parents who lived a mile away from me and who gave me throughout my life unconditional love and support, and paid for college, and when my daughter was very little came over. They didn't even call themselves babysitters, they just were part of our caregiving circle, because we do know it takes a community. I always had high-paying jobs and I could afford the absolute best child care. I had the same woman who took care of my daughter from the time she was three months old until she went off to college. I was one of the lucky ones, but what we all know and recognize is that there are so many women and girls out there who don't have those advantages. And it is about them that we dedicate ourselves.

The very first conversation I had with President Obama 25 years ago, before he was even married let alone entered public life, was about just that. He shared his story of what it was like being raised by a single mother. About his grandmother with whom he lived for a few years and watched go to work every single day - bright and talented and training men who leap frogged over her. And the disappointment he saw in her eyes when she came home and shared her story with him. His mom, while she was in school, had to depend on food stamps to support their family for a while.

Then he married this amazing woman. And he learned up close and personal what it was like to try to raise two young children when you have two parents with busy careers pulling them in opposite directions. It was a reckoning for him. He and the First Lady speak quite openly about how hard it was when the girls were little and he was in Springfield or on the campaign trail and she was at home bearing a disproportionate share of the responsibilities. But also, he talks quite often about the fact they too were the lucky ones. And now they have these two amazing daughters, and my daughter's full grown, and we talk often about how our wish for our children is the same. We want them to be able to reach their dreams, because that's what every little girl deserves.

You can probably imagine how excited I was, two months into office, when the President created the White House Council on Women and Girls. And since day one, we have had the mandate from President Obama to ensure that in all of our programs, in all of our policies, and in all of the legislation we support, we look out for women and girls - each and every day.

So as we near the sunset of the Obama Administration, it's a good time to take stock and look at just how much we have done, together. We prioritized STEM education, because we know those are the jobs of the future. We've put the spotlight on and worked in partnership with media and toy companies to make sure those unconscious and conscious biases are rooted out - so we know our boys and our girls start out on an even playing field. The First Lady launched Reach Higher, which is intended to help our adolescent girls and boys aspire to go to college, apply to college, make financial aid easier for them to get into college and have the resources they need, and then to graduate from college. We've worked very hard. And as you saw just this past week, we've announced record high school graduation rates throughout the country.

We've also focused on keeping the teenage pregnancy rates on their historic downward trend, because we know teenage pregnancy is a barrier to economic self-sufficiency. The President and the Vice President launched It's On Us, because one in five women are sexually assaulted while in college. That's an epidemic, and we must do everything we can to stop it. And then there's the ACA. So now, women may no longer be discriminated against just because they're a woman. You know, when I was a young adult, I didn't realize that women, just because they're women and of child-bearing age, were paying higher premiums! And we all now know that women, who tend to put ourselves last, can now have regular checkups, which includes, yes birth control, and screening for cancer, and domestic abuse counseling, all without a co-pay. Altogether, our uninsured rate in the United States is at the lowest level it has ever been.

We support working families in everything we do. The very first bill the President signed was the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act. The President is very proud of that, but we also know it's not enough. That's why he called on Congress to pass the Paycheck Fairness Act again to make sure employers are not penalizing their employees for sharing pay. They have failed to act - something to which we have grown accustomed - but it isn't good enough, so the President also signed an Executive Order prohibiting federal contractors from retaliating against their employees from sharing pay information - because how do you know you're not getting equal pay if you can't talk about your pay?

In addition, the President expanded the Earned Income Tax Credit, the Child Tax Credit, and the College Tax Credit. And he's challenged Congress to do more so that we can put more dollars in the pockets of those hardworking families. The President has encouraged Congress, state and local officials, and the private sector to adopt 21st century workplace policies such as paid family leave and paid sick leave - because we are the only developed country in the world that doesn't have either a paid family or paid sick leave policy. How on earth can we compete globally unless we attack these impediments to working families? Over the last eight years, the number of private sector workers with paid family leave has grown by 6.2 million, and 10.6 million more Americans now have access to paid sick leave. It's time for Congress to act so that we have a national policy.

More than half of our workers who earned the federal minimum wage are women. The minimum wage when the President took office was $6.55, which would translate into $13,100 a year. How can you possibly raise a family on $13,100? And we all know that 40 percent of working women are either the primary or sole breadwinner. Put yourselves for just a moment into the shoes of those women and imagine what their life is like. And then you have to ask yourself why would Congress not act, why would they not raise the minimum wage? I will say though that leaders around the country have stepped up. Since the President called on the nation to action in 2013, 61 communities, 18 states, and the District of Columbia have all taken action to raise the minimum wage.

We've expanded opportunities for entrepreneurs. We're the largest purchasers of goods and services in the country, so we put our buying power behind our values and have ensured that women-owned small businesses receive five percent of federal contracts. And, the Census Bureau recently announced that last year, the poverty rate fell faster than at any point since 1968, and household income grew at the fastest rate on record - a 5.2 percent increase, or nearly $2,800 for the average family.

We helped build a national movement for criminal justice reform at the federal, state, and local levels, because we know that whether you're an incarcerated woman, a mom forced to raise her children alone because your spouse is in prison, or a child being raised without a parent at home, that mass incarceration is tearing our families and our communities apart. We spent $80 billion a year on incarceration. I could think of a lot of other things to do with that $80 billion, couldn't you? And even though the President has commuted 774 sentences since he took office - that's more than the last 11 eleven presidents combined - and the rate of growth of women being incarcerated is outpacing men. And behind each woman is a story.

Several months ago when the President announced a round of commutations, he had lunch with a few of the folks who have had their sentences commuted over the years. And one woman who I am not likely to ever forget was Kemba Smith. She told us her story. She was seven months pregnant when she was convicted and sent to prison. She gave birth two months later. Two days after she gave birth, her child was taken from her, fortunately, and given to her parents. But I've tried to imagine what it must have been like, and I thought of the two days after I gave birth to my daughter and what was going on in my heart and in my mind, and I couldn't even imagine what she went through. And yet, women and girls all across our country are facing that horrible, horrible moment in time that Kemba faced. And so the question should be - shouldn't we be doing everything within our power to ensure people never get caught up in the criminal justice system in the first place, so that never happens?

On the international stage, the First Lady launched Let Girls Learn about a year and half ago. There are nearly 100 million adolescent girls around the world who are not in school. They need to be in school, so we're going to engage our young girls on a worldwide platform to ensure that we keep our children in school, because that's the path to economic prosperity.

So, we've made a lot of progress over the years. But we also know that women and girls of color, as Jennifer said, face some unique challenges. That's why early in the Obama Administration, the White House Council on Women and Girls started an all-of-government process to better understand the challenges that women and girls face. We held listening sessions with a wide range of stakeholders from across our country who are working directly to improve the lives of women and girls of color. We launched a data call throughout the Federal Government. We knew we needed to learn more, for example, about why a typical woman working full time was earning 77 cents on the dollar compared to the typical man. That numbers is only up to about 80 cents on the dollar today, so it's a hard needle to move. And the disparity for women of color is even greater. African American women earn 66 cents on the dollar, and Latina women earn 55 cents on the dollar, compared to the average non-Hispanic white man.

Our analysis led to a report we released in November called Advancing Equity for Women and Girls of Color, and we determined our focus should be on five issue areas that are especially affecting this population: school discipline, unplanned pregnancy, access to STEM education, meeting the needs of vulnerable youth through appropriate responses from public systems, and economic opportunity.

This valuable work has led to two important coalitions that we also announced in November of last year and which are vital in carrying our progress into the future. The first deals with the fact that there just isn't enough data to show us the exact, full range of disparities that women and girls of color face and how to address them. So what did we do? We worked with Melissa Harris Perry and the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest to launch a $75 million academic collaborative to expand the research that's being done for and by women and girls of color. And I just want to thank Melissa Harris Perry for all of her incredible work in this space.

Second, we launched Prosperity Together with 20 women's foundations committed to investing $100 million over the next five years to create opportunity and advance equity for women and girls of color.

Prosperity Together is investing in low income women and families with a special focus on job training and childcare programs. And we're proud that our efforts are bearing fruit across the country. Earlier this year, at the United State of Women Summit, eight foundations, including the Washington Area Women's Foundation, committed to starting Young Women Initiatives in their communities to empower the very voices of women of color that we're trying to help. And all across our country, the same is happening, from Colorado to Dallas to Iowa to Minnesota. And just a few weeks ago at the White House, we hosted a Forum on trauma informed school discipline that brought together educational leaders from around the country. Black Girls are eight percent of enrolled students, but 14 percent of the students receiving one or more out-of-school suspensions. We have got to keep our children in the classroom and we have to give our teachers the tools they need to enable them to do so.

Throughout the last nearly eight years, I've had the privilege of travelling our country. I've seen the best and the most challenging. Right here in Washington, I visited an Educare center where I saw these delicious, newborn babies to age four getting the kind of quality early childhood education that we know every child deserves. I also visited a detention center with girls ages 12 to 16 who had been determined to be too dangerous to stay with their families while they were awaiting trial. And after spending an hour and half with those girls, you know what I thought? What they actually needed was some love. They needed somebody to set some high expectations for them. They needed consistency. They needed to be fed, on a regular basis. They needed to go to sleep not terrified about what might happen to them over the course of the night. They needed to be able to walk to school without being in fear. They needed to know that they were safe from assault whether physical, or sexual, or mental. They needed us. They needed each and every one of us.

I've travelled as far away as Compton, CA and visited a juvenile court room where young girls were coming in time and time again from various offenses. And finally, thankfully, one observant judge discovered what all of those girls had in common. Each of them was a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. She created a program out of thin air that helps those girls get back on their feet, get the social services they need, temporary housing in the event their houses were not suitable - whatever they needed to nurture them and get them back on track. And then she dismissed the charges against them, because she realized they were not the criminals - they were the victims. And she wanted them to survive and thrive. And as a result, one woman has made the difference in hundreds and hundreds of lives, just to show you the power that we have.

Here again in Washington, I visited a center called Fair Girls. These were amazing young women who have been victims of sexual trafficking. And thanks again to an incredible program, these young women are getting help getting back on their feet, finding their self-esteem, and healing. Mary Zients invited me out to the Urban Alliance, and I sat around a conference room table with some amazing young people who asked me questions that were really hard and challenging, and they made me think in a way that was so refreshing and encouraging. I watched them just stand taller and taller and taller again, because we're investing in our young people, because we value them.

So in closing, I've seen what works and what doesn't. We know what the solutions are and we have a blueprint for how we can continue to do the important research to find our way and ensure that every girl and every women has an opportunity to compete on an even playing field in this greatest country on earth.

But in order to make our progress go forward, we need all of you. As I mentioned, we are in the last few months of the Obama Administration. But as the President reminds me every day when I start to get teary eyed about the inevitable, he says, "Valerie we're about to join the most important office of all and that's the office of citizen." So one of my favorite expressions now, which kind of sums up the last eight years, is that things seem absolutely impossible until they're inevitable. And with your help, the future of our young girls will be bright - now let's make that inevitable.

This blog is authored by White House Senior Advisor and Assistant to the President for Intergovernmental Affairs and Public Engagement Valerie Jarrett.