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Women, Influence and the Neoliberal Model

March 6, 2018

On Wednesday, the Grand Rapids Business Journal will celebrate their annual list of the Most Influential Women in West Michigan

This celebration, will feature Lis Wiehl, who was a reporter and legal analyst for Fox News for 15 years. The event, which is March 7, is one day before International Women’s Day. Now, I don’t know if this is intentional, but International Women’s Day and the Grand Rapids Business Journal (GRBJ) event have nothing in common, except that it involves women.

International Women’s Day was started based on the exploitative working conditions of women in the garment industry, which resulted in a fire at the Triangle Factory in New York City, on March 25, 1911. One hundred and twenty-three women died that day, which led to an international outcry and the birth of a new movement led by women.

The GRBJ event doesn’t honor working class women, it honors primarily professional women and mostly women who are part of the business class.

The list of 50 women ranges from women in government, to those in business and women in the non-profit sector. There is one woman who is identified as a community asset and advocate and two women who work in the media business.

The list of 50 most influential women made up most of those in business (25) and those in the non-profit sector (17), with those in government tallying 5.

Since the list was created by the Grand Rapids Business Journal, it is no surprise that women in business dominated the list. However, even though there were 17 women listed as being in the non-profit sector, in many ways it is difficult to distinguish at times the difference between businesses and non-profits.

The non-profit sector is structured like a business, with a board of directors and is often staff with professionals who have little or limited experience with the populations they provide services to.

Before people get all bent out of shape, I am not suggesting that none of these women do good work. Doing good work is not the point of the critique here, instead I want to challenge our notion of what it means to be influential in West Michigan.

The definition of the word influence is, the capacity to have an effect on the character, development, or behavior of someone or something, or the effect itself. The definition is somewhat vague and does not imply that having influence over people is to the benefit of the community.

Those in government often make decisions that have negative consequences for some people, most often communities of color and working class individuals and families. For instance, the tax structure, police policies, housing and education policies can be extremely detrimental to communities who are the most marginalized, as we have seen in West Michigan, when it comes to policing policies, housing and especially how policing impacts communities of color.

Betsy DeVos clearly has influenced education policy in her first year as Secretary of Education. DeVos has pushed her neoliberal education policy preferences that has favor charter and private schools, cut funding for schools that impact communities of color and changed Title IX policies by allowing men’s rights groups a larger say in campus sexual assault policy, as we have been documenting in section called Betsy DeVos Watch. 

In addition, the kind of influence that Mayor Bliss and Commissioner Lenear, both included on the list, has often not faired well for people living in poverty and communities of color. The last year has seen bad decisions or a lack of action on the part of the Grand Rapids City Commission around police violence, immigration status and housing issues that has benefited developers over renters in several neighborhoods.

When we look at how women in business can influence people, here it is also clear that those most vulnerable can be negatively impacted. Women in business can make decisions that perpetuates the wealth gap, impact the environmental justice issues like air quality and food, plus women in business can also make decisions that determine the larger political climate, through contributing to political campaigns, lobbying and what networks or associations they are part of that influences public policy.

Consider Birgit Klohs with the Right Place Inc., one of the 50 Most Influential Women in West MI. The Right Place Inc. tries to attract businesses to set up show in West Michigan, particularly international companies. For instance, the Right Place Inc. has been instrumental in bringing several Israeli military companies to the area,  plus Klohs sits of the board of the Michigan Israel Business Bridge, which develops business relationships with Israel and the companies in Michigan. 

In addition, the Right Place Inc Board is made up of many of the members of the local power structure, a network of people and businesses that make up the wealthiest in West Michigan, who also make it their business to influence public policy to their benefit. 

There are several other business women on the list of 50 most influential, such as bankers, consultants and CEOs of PR firms, which also all tend to serve the interests of those in power.

Then there are all those women who represent non-profits. While many of these non-profits provide necessary services to people who are marginalized, these same non-profits tend to provide those services in a way that keeps the systems of power in place. In other words, all of the services that these non-profits provide, do not address the root causes of poverty, food insecurity, poor public health, racism or patriarchy. Instead these non-profits work within a charity model that focuses on individual opportunity as opposed to dismantling systems of oppression.

Therefore, if we are measuring these women as being the most influential, then what we really mean is that these women are influencing social, political and economic systems which generally do not threaten power. Another way of looking at this list, is that many of these women were chosen for the list of 50 most influential women in West Michigan because their influence serves a larger neoliberal agenda, which means systems of power are not challenged, economic disparities are perpetuated, systemic racism is protected and the transfer of public funds/resources going to the private sector escalates.

If we are determining that these women are the most influential through this neoliberal lens, then yes, they are influential.

Another model

There is another model that runs counter to the neoliberal model. It is based on feminist principles, like mutual aid, where people look out for each other and make sure that any injustice that exists is dismantled. This counter model practices prefigurative politics, which is a feminist principle where groups of people practice relationships that are based on the kind of world we want to live in – horizontal, not hierarchical, autonomous, relational, where justice is practiced and where the most marginal voices are centered.

I can think of lots of women in West Michigan who practice this model, women who do amazing work through grassroots organizing and insurgent cultural practice. There are lots of black and latinx women who are not interested in awards, but in fighting for their communities. These women fight against white supremacy, against male domination and against environmental racism. These amazing women also fight against the violence inflicted on immigrants, police brutality, gentrification, sexual assault and they fight against neoliberal capitalism and philanthro-capitalism.

These amazing women come from a long tradition of women that have fought for collective liberation, women like Harriet Tubman, Sojourner Truth, Fannie Lou Hamer, Diane Nash, Rosa Parks, Ella Baker, Elizabeth Martinez, Angela Davis, Dorothy Day, Audre Lorde and the members of the Combahee River Collective. These women are part of Black Lives Matter and Movimiento Cosecha, they are Indigenous women, women who make up artist collectives, do the work of mutual aid, create safe spaces, do the heavy lifting of emotional labor and community mourning. These are the women I find to be the most human, the most compassionate and the most influential in a world that I want to live in. To all of the amazing women who do not seek recognition, rather justice and collective liberation, I say Thank You!

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