Interview With Chioke Barkari, Assistant Director of Development at the National Organization for Women
Conducted by Araliya Ming Senerat
Thank you so much for taking the time to speak with me, Chioke! Can you start off by telling me a bit about yourself, as well as your experiences working with NOW?
Sure! My name is Chioke Barkari and I am the Assistant Director of Development at the National Organization for Women (NOW). I’ve been at the organization for a little over two years, and in my role I steer most of our fundraising efforts. These efforts rely heavily on direct mail, digital funding, and some telemarketing.
We also have different partnerships, such as the one we’re establishing now with the Women's Strength Coalition, where third parties assist in fundraising and outreach to a broader audience. With a lean staff at our national office, my role is ever-evolving and with our current climate there is even more necessity for our work. There has been a heightened enthusiasm for giving, so my work has definitely increased in the recent year.
That’s great. Tell me a bit about the National Organization for Women, the history behind it, and how it was started.
NOW began in 1966. Last year we celebrated our 50th anniversary. We were founded by a large group of women, including Betty Friedan, our most famous founder.
NOW is the largest grassroots feminist organization in the country. All of our members are entitled to vote for NOW policies and our national leadership. We have annual conferences that change location each year where our governing body elects new officers.
All of our current and past officers have started as grassroots activists at NOW and developed more experience, became a leader of their local chapter or state or board member, and then ran for the national level. Tori Van Pelt and Gilda Yazzie are our new President and Vice President and they took office on August 1, 2017.
Some new initiatives that NOW is working on are 5 national action campaigns, including reproductive health care. We are looking at how to expand access to birth control and abortion, curb clinic closures, and ensure the full range of care for reproductive health. We also have a campaign to advance voting rights, which became even more necessary after our recent election.
We focus on voter suppression efforts in that facet as well, and also mobilize feminist women to run for office. NOW has worked on that for a long time. We have a political action committee, the NOW PAC, where we directly support candidates with financial and strategic help. Now we have a dedicated action campaign, where the national office works on this, and other campaigns to distill information and resources to all grassroots chapter. This way they can uplift these issues in their local community.
Our three other action campaigns include ratifying the ERA, protecting immigrants rights, and ending the criminalization of trauma. The latter campaign advocates for policies and procedures that support women and girls impacted by trauma. We do this through legislation, such as the Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, or creating action plans to advocate for Title IX resources.
Often young women, and particularly young women of color, don’t receive trauma-informed services due to their circumstances and residence. They are instead funneled into the criminal justice system. There is a stark disparity between how white young women and young women of color are treated who are criminalized for similar behavior. These women are not being treated properly, so they can heal and lead a productive life. They are instead forced down this very bleak path. It feeds into a cyclical criminal justice system, as opposed to addressing the trauma. We’re working with our members and community partners to advocate and create resources to help young women going through this. To help our most vulnerable communities.
NOW is an advocacy organization, so we do not provide direct services to the community. We advocate and mobilize at the grassroots level for issues and policies, like access to birth control and abortion, that improve women’s lives.
What types of projects is NOW working on locally in New York?
Our headquarters is based in Washington, D.C. and we have chapters all around the country. We have a very active New York City NOW Local Chapter.
NOW-NYC has played a large role in supporting women in New York City. Currently their efforts are focused on bringing the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein revelations to push for an end to sexual harassment. They protested the Manhattan DA for his handling of the case, and their state chapter launched a sexual harassment hotline for women/men in politics. In addition, they have a Take Rape Seriously NOW campaign that actively works with survivors of sexual assault who are navigating the criminal justice system.
NOW-NYC also launched #HealMeToo, an effort to educate about the lasting impacts of sexual assault and rape. They support getting local candidates elected and are working to ensure our city council has stronger women's representation. There is an ongoing RESIST campaign to send regular info and updates to members about the women and the Trump agenda and how to take action.
Our NOW New York State annual conference is coming up in Rochester, NY on November 18th. Our chapters do have autonomy to develop additional programs on their own that really speak to anything pressing in their community.
Lift for NOW, our first weightlifting competition, will be held on Nov 19. All proceeds will go to NOW. Can you tell us and the donors where exactly the money will be going to/dispersed to/communities they will help?
Donations from this event will go towards advancing our five action campaigns that I discussed earlier. Additionally, it will support other core advocacy efforts including increasing women’s economic security, strengthening LGBTQIA+ rights, and ending violence and harassment against women.
What’s your favorite part of working for NOW and what has made you interested in staying over these two years?
I work full-time on issues I really care about and support my values. It feels even more fulfilling and good to be able to do this work in the time that we are in now, because there’s so much to work to do to retain our rights. There’s still many advances that we need to make to create a more just and equal society. It feels good to be advocating for that every day.
My previous job was working for an abortion clinic in the midwest so I supported direct services. We were always under attack and not always able to fully defend ourselves given our position. So, to be able to support and advocate for the people I used to serve at the clinic and protect access to reproductive health care feels great. NOW can advocate for these things and help create the society that I want to see. It’s fulfilling work.
I think especially after the election, a lot of women felt they can’t make a change with only one voice. This may have changed in the light of the #MeToo campaign. Do you have any advice for women?
We’re seeing this change. It’s one voice, but it’s collective. So many people have experienced what’s going on with the #MeToo campaign. It’s a matter of people coming together and collectively supporting and uplifting one another.
This campaign reminds me of how NOW was founded. We started in the time when women came together in non-public spaces to have conscious-raising circles. They gathered to say, “I’m experiencing that, too.” It was kind of the “me too” of that era. Our organization was formed in that collective storytelling space of saying: You are not alone. Now look where we are.
There’s still so much work to do and it can be frustrating that we are still advocating for some of these same things, but I there has been a lot of progress since NOW was founded.
It shows that there’s a lot of power in people speaking up and sharing their stories, and having that support for one another.
There is power in knowing you are not alone.
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The NOW Foundation focuses on a broad range of women’s rights issues, including economic justice, pay equity, racial discrimination, women’s health and body image, women with disabilities, reproductive rights and justice, family law, term paper help, marriage and family formation rights of same-sex couples, representation of women in the media, and global feminist issues.