Santra Denis returned from the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP26) in Glasgow in November with a clear reminder of how women worldwide are more similar than they are different.
Denis attended COP26 as executive director of the Miami Workers Center (MWC), a Miami-Dade County-based organization that supports low-income communities and low-wage workers, particularly Black and Latinx women, in south Florida. Reflecting with Global Citizen over the phone on the conference, which aimed to keep global temperature rise under 1.5 degrees Celsius as outlined by the 2015 Paris agreement and promote climate change mitigation, adaptation, and financing — one phrase came to Denis’ mind: “Poto Mitan.”
“It's Creole for what they consider women to be for society — we are the pillars of society,” she said. “All over the world, you will see women who are hustling and bustling."
“There were communities — Indigenous communities, Black communities — and the majority of those communities were represented by women who take care of the elderly but also work the land. They know the land. They know what it means to plant and to harvest. And they understand how to be one and in sync with the environment.”
The goal of COP26 was to get countries to greatly reduce carbon emissions and achieve net-zero by 2050, and Denis said there’s an opportunity to promote women’s economic justice within that agenda by shifting more extractive industries to care work.
Care work, which includes child care, elder care, cleaning and cooking, and more domestic labor and can be paid or unpaid, is considered low-carbon work that has little to no negative impact on the environment, she explained.
“There's a huge opportunity for us to grow this industry to provide living wages, to provide an on-ramp for folks to grow within their careers and their specific roles.”
Everyone relies on care workers at each stage of life, from infancy to old age, Denis explained. Her daily fight is to create an economy that sees and values care work, which is often invisible because it’s predominantly performed by women, especially women of color.
“Without this work, this nation comes to a halt,” Denis said. “These are people that we need to prop up. That's what economic justice means to me, that the people who we know allow for this country to run, our communities to run, that we support them and provide opportunities for them to thrive.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, as women were pushed out of the workforce to look after their families and make up the majority of essential workers, it became difficult to ignore that their contributions are the backbone of society. MCW launched organizing work in response to the crisis and the increased need for economic justice. In June 2020, the organization released the study “Black Immigrant Domestic Workers in the Time of COVID-19” with the Institute for Policy Studies. MCW has also further prioritized eviction protection for its members since March 2020.
Being a single mother is one of the largest predictors of facing eviction, according to Denis, and she wants to change the eviction narrative.
“It’s mothers with children who are being evicted,” Denis said. “Once you face an eviction that stays with you, it has lasting impacts on your ability to rent again on your ability to even own a home at some point.
“We know that psychologically it has an impact. It also has an impact on the children. These are things that stick with our communities forever. Many of our tenants and members are being evicted from homes that they can’t live in anyway because the conditions are so terrible. We’re talking about infestations [and] landlords who have not done any maintenance on these buildings [in] forever.”
Women tenants have to deal with harassment, and turning advances down from landlords can in some cases lead to discrimination and eviction even if a family isn’t behind on their rent, she added.
“The organization wakes you up, pulls you out of fear. In the organization I learned the meaning of solidarity. We know this work is not easy but we are moved by what we believe is possible to achieve together” Maria de Jesus, housecleaner & member leader addressing our assembly pic.twitter.com/RtH5eJGVml— Miami Workers Center (@MiamiWorkersCtr) December 11, 2021
In Miami-Dade County, the majority of homes are led by women, and ending cycles of poverty starts with empowering those women, Denis said. But for many members of MWC, child care is a challenge getting in the way. With school ending at 2 p.m. — three hours before most parents get out of work at 5 p.m. — women are forced to compromise.
“They have to work less hours in order to coordinate child care as mothers. That has a significant impact on their ability to bring in the income that they need to get out of poverty,” Denis said.
One MWC member wants to attend night school but isn’t sure if she can afford it because she has two small children and has to choose between working full time or picking up her child from preschool.
Denis, whose mother is a Haitian domestic worker, is using her lived experience as a Black woman born in the US to advocate for her family and community.
“As a Black child of Haitian immigrants ... working-class immigrants ... you’re always seeing the injustices that our communities face. And I’m in a position to advocate for my family, for my loved ones, and to be that voice when often folks don't necessarily feel that they can use their voice due to immigration status or due to feeling that the spaces are not for them,” Denis said.
A background in public health sparked her interest in organizing work back to college, a time when she said like most people, she became more politicized. Working with her mentor, Dr. Cynthia Chestnut, who served as a member of the Florida House of Representatives from 1990 to 2000 representing the 23rd District, Denis was exposed to the disparities between different populations in Gainesville, Florida.
“I got to be in spaces with her, really seeing how being a woman, a Black woman, in positions of leadership allows for you to also bring your community with you and ensure that the decisions being made reflect them and are also beneficial to them,” Denis said.
One of the biggest challenges Denis currently faces is knowing that she doesn’t have the same networks or resources that her colleagues might, especially when it comes to ensuring community interventions are available and running successful campaigns.
“My community isn’t affluent when it comes to dollars. Fundraising in this role is often very difficult. Many studies have shown that Black folks, when they're in a leadership position, are trusted less with the dollars and receive less. In terms of the pressure and responsibility, it's a lot to carry,” Denis explained.
“But also, we're always up for the challenge and we do it with style and we find a way to laugh and to dance our way through it. When I think about Black people in general, we always know how to make a way.”
MWC is a grantee of the Ms. Foundation for Women, a nonprofit foundation building women's collective power for social, economic, and reproductive justice. The foundation’s emphasis on ensuring members of affiliated organizations center, ground, and take care of themselves encourages Denis to make time for self-care which, for her, means dedicating Sundays to quality time with her girlfriends.
Even though her position can be demanding, for Denis it’s rewarding to organize women whose experiences hit close to home.
“To see domestic workers standing up for themselves, standing up against wages being stolen, to see them pushing each other, that brings me so much joy,” she said.
Denis believes creating a more equitable world for women isn’t a pipe dream. Policies that secure early child care, flexible work schedules, and paid parental leave could lessen the burden on women in the workforce.
“I think there's work to do, and I don't think it's hard,” she said. “Can we have the political will? It is not that we can't do it. And that's concerning.”
Denis would like to see the private sector and industries that employ a lot of women, like hospitality, exhibit more corporate social responsibility. And maintaining an intersectional approach to community interventions is crucial.
“There are similarities with folks who are women,” she said. “But once you dive down, dive deep down into a race, into immigration status, sexuality, etc., you really start to see disparities between what folks are experiencing.”
MWC members, for instance, who are majority Black and BIPOC, have ended up in Miami by way of everywhere from the Caribbean to the American South to Central America. Denis pointed to findings from the Urban Institute’s “Color of Wealth” study, which revealed a major income gap between white and Black Hispanics.
“It can't be a one size fits all, specifically with all the different jurisdictions that people live in,” Denis said.
Everyday citizens can also relieve the burden of care work put on women.
“Think about the women in your lives; think about how you’re showing up for them,” Denis said. “Think about all the labor that they're carrying on their own and govern yourself accordingly, understanding that they are people, too. Be very mindful of the work on invisible lives that women hold and make a conscious effort to not add to that.”