Four years ago today, as Donald Trump was being sworn in as president, a number of local women who were inspired to enter politics attended a campaign school in Brooklyn -- a one-day program designed to teach potential candidates how to run for office. Kimberly Roberts, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants, was one of them, motivated by the racism she saw pervading national politics and segregating New York City.

“I take the train from Queens and you can see the racial division as you travel through Queens despite the fact that it is the most diverse borough in New York City in a diverse city,” she told a room filled mainly with white women. “We don't necessarily talk about the divisions that exist between us.”

Four years later, Roberts, who chose philanthropy over running for political office, said the same issues that prompted her to get involved in 2017 feel even more urgent with the pandemic, the death of George Floyd, and her fear that the Trump administration was just a preview of something worse. 

Kimberly Roberts

“I have a lot of anxiety and apprehension around whether or not we've learned enough in the last four years,” she said.

While a historic number of women ran for office in both 2018 and 2020, they remain underrepresented as candidates, according to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. The obstacles facing them are well-documented, whether it’s having to do more to prove they are qualified or facing financial and structural challenges. 

Here in New York, the last four years saw several women of color elected to some of the highest political leadership posts, including Letitia James to New York Attorney General and Andrea Stewart-Cousins as State Senate Majority Leader. Still, women comprise just 13 of 51 members of the New York City Council and there has never been a woman elected mayor (several are vying for the post this year). 

Listen to reporter Brigid Bergin's radio story for WNYC:

Even as Kamala Harris, the nation’s first Black woman and the first of Indian descent to ascend to the office of the Vice President, takes her oath of office, Roberts and several other politically active women of color told Gothamist/WNYC that there is much work to be done.

Roberts believes what happened on January 6th in the U.S. Capitol was a backlash to the progress that has been made in this country. She also said that it happened on the same day that Democrats won control of the Senate by winning two seats in Georgia, thanks largely to the work of Stacey Abrams, another Black woman who ran for office, was no accident. 

“The thing that pisses me off the most is that we constantly bear that burden and do that work because we know no one else is going to do it, and that if we allow our democracy to crumble and slip into God knows what, we are the first to go, we are the sacrificial lambs. So we do this for ourselves because we know that we don't have any other choice,” Roberts said.

That’s a sentiment that Afua Atta-Mensah knows well. As head of Community Voices Heard, a social justice and political action organization, she has worked since 2016 helping Black women voters across New York State organize around issues that matter most to them. 

Afua Atta-Mensah

While praising the work done by organizers like Abrams to get out the vote in Georgia, and other organizers mobilizing to flip Republican strongholds, Atta-Mensah notes:  “Similarly at times [I’m] gobsmacked and annoyed that folks think that in the state of New York, similar work doesn't need to happen.”

Since the fall of 2019, her organization has surveyed nearly 4,000 Black women across New York. The effort is part organizing, and part data-gathering. Health care, affordable housing, criminal justice, and family care top the list. Atta-Mensah makes the effort to link those concerns to the act of voting and holding leaders accountable.

“We have to hold the people who we elect accountable so we don't just put them there and they act like they're deities,” said Atta-Mensah. “They’re targets to be moved and hopefully, these are people who see themselves, as part of a larger work of changing the world and this nation for the better.”

Monique Hardial

For Monique Hardial, part of the work is deciding how to make the most difference, even after failing in a bid for office. She attended the same campaign training school four years ago as Kimberly Roberts and made a run for a seat on the Nassau County legislature in 2019. She lost to an incumbent who took a plea bargain in a domestic violence case

She said the bar for women of color to achieve elected office still felt too high. “It's just the same questions that we face. ‘Why are you qualified? What makes you qualified?” said Hardial. 

She said seeing someone who looks like her in the office of Vice President does give her comfort, and maybe another jolt of inspiration. Like Harris, her parents are first-generation immigrants. Her mother is Dominican, her father is Jamaican, her great grandparents were from India and Pakistan who migrated to Jamaica. 

“So, yes, it is an incredible feeling. It's indescribable,” she said, adding that it might be enough to prompt her to run again, with another primary set for this June. 

“I don't know. I've been asked,” said Hardial, “But I'm not quite sure."