Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) during an April 24 town hall on gender pay inequality at La Doña Cerveceria in North Minneapolis

Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) during an April 24 town hall on gender pay inequality at La Doña Cerveceria in North Minneapolis. 

The talk was about gender and pay equity, but in many ways equity rode in the passenger seat, as it was empowerment that did the driving.

And the most empowering moment was not of anything one woman said, but of what one woman did. In the face of recent death threats, Minnesota’s 5th District congresswoman, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D) was front and center for a public town hall held April 24 at La Doña Cerveceria in North Minneapolis. The meeting drew more than 100 participants who heard from the congresswoman and others on the topic of gender pay equality; in specific, the passage of the Omar co-sponsored bill – the Paycheck Fairness Act – that if passed by the Senate and signed by the president would put legal protections in place to bring about workplace pay equality.

Even prior to Omar walking in, the space seemed to be abuzz, with casual conversation about empowerment as DJ Shannon Blowtorch played an eclectic mix of women’s anthems that included Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5,” Beyoncé’s “Run the World (Girls)” and Blowtorch’s former bandmate, Lizzo’s “Juice.” And after Omar emerged from a side door, flanked by security, and with her young daughter at her side, the conversation – not Omar – was the focal point. That point … we have a serious problem when it comes to gender and pay, and that problem is compounded by ethnicity.

“There’s a strategic and explicit war on people of color,” said Richfield Mayor Maria Regan Gonzalez. “All of these systems … incarceration, education, economic systems … are perfectly designed to disadvantage our people.”

“Women are paid 65 percent less than their male counterparts … that’s 10 months of daycare; one year of college,” said Alex West Steinman, co-founder and CEO of The Coven, a creative workspace for women and non-binary individuals.

The pay equity conversation was more than 15 minutes in before Omar spoke; driving home the point about the dual deficit women of color face.

“Black women are paid 61 cents (to every dollar paid to a white man), Latina women, 53 cents, Native Americans, 58 cents,” said Omar. “Clearly the pay gap is compounded by the racial gap and at the end of the day these pennies add up.”

Omar and Gonzalez stressed the importance of coalition-building in the fight for equity.

“When we’re not approaching (this issue) with an intersectional lens, then we’re often leaving behind someone,” said Omar.

“(Those benefiting from inequality are) doing divide and conquer and it’s working very well,” said Gonzalez.

Many believe one of the reasons Omar is so vilified by those on the right – most notably, President Donald Trump – is because of her own intersectionality as a woman, a Somali-American and a Muslim. Omar agrees.

“The president – and the Republican Party in large – always find ways to demonize and villainize women and women of color,” said Omar, explaining why she and several of her freshmen women in Congress counterparts have drawn almost unmitigated hatred from the right. “But (in fights with Omar, Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez [D-N.Y.], Rashida Tlaib [D-Mich.] and Ayanna Pressley [D-Mass.]) for the first time they’re reckoning with women who know they have equal standing and voice and are not afraid to use it. They know we’re their biggest threat because we’re fighting for the many and not the few. They want to set the narrative that we are ‘other,’ but the people are rejecting their tactics.”

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