Black Women Need Build Back Better

October 28, 2021 Josephine Kalipeni

Insights from The Opportunity Agenda

When my father’s chronic illness worsened just a few short months after he started retirement, my mother was thrown into a race against time. On the one hand, she faced the real possibility that she would lose her life partner. And on the other hand, she was in a literal race to collect hours at work in order to raise the money and vacation time that she needed so she could be with her husband — my father — for an extended stretch of time in Malawi.

Unfortunately, my father, who traveled to Malawi in 2019 to seek medical care, died before she could get to him. I can’t help but resent that we have created a world where my parents had to spend their lives working and yet, affordable retirement and care for my dad meant being oceans apart from his family. This must change, and we have that opportunity, but only if Congress passes an uncompromised version of the Build Back Better Act, one that acknowledges the importance of more encompassing support for caregiving and paid leave.

The Build Back Better Act takes a comprehensive approach to the needs of working Black women, instead of making us choose which priority to address first.

Build Back Better would give Black women the support that we need so we can be there for our families while also continuing to make significant contributions to the economy. The legislation advances several policy features, like affordable childcare, comprehensive paid family and medical leave, and investments in-home and community-based services that would significantly address the needs of families of color, especially during a global pandemic. We must pass the legislation with all its components because without it, our society, particularly Black women, stand to lose more than one can imagine.

From enslaved workers to domestic workers, Black women have a long history of supporting families and communities, just like my mother did. Unfortunately, the loss of jobs and the disparate financial impact of the pandemic on Black people, particularly Black women, have placed our communities in a financial hole that will need multiple miracles to overcome. Black women represent a large part of what makes the U.S. economy work, the care economy. For any recovery to occur, it is essential that we survive this pandemic, financially and physically, because we are the ones who care for America’s children, nurse millions of people back to health, and assist people with disabilities in their homes or workplaces. We make it possible for people to go to work by caring for their loved ones. Despite this, working Black women are saddled with unaffordable costs of childcare and the inability to take time off to care for ourselves or our families.

If we hold the line in Build Back Better negotiations, I would be able to dream of a world where millions of Black women like me are holding it down at work and at home, building Black futures and supporting a strong economy.

Rarely does history present us with the opportunity that we have now. We don’t know what next year will bring and, if we do not strike now, we will lose this timely moment to transform our country in ways that will positively impact the lives of millions of working people. The Build Back Better Act takes a comprehensive approach to the needs of working Black women, instead of making us choose which priority to address first. We must not compromise what’s in the legislation; otherwise, we will be stuck with laws that fail to address our fundamental issues, forcing another generation to shoulder the burden of trying to fix them. 

Whenever I think about my parents, I think about how different things might have turned out were our nation to have a robust set of people-centered financial policies and a robust safety net to support Black women. My parents might have been able to spend time together before my father died. Our economy could be stronger than our wildest dreams.  

As I think about a family of my own, I fear the decisions that I may have to face because I am not rich and I live in a country that is making it increasingly difficult to lead a middle-class lifestyle. If we hold the line in Build Back Better negotiations, I would be able to dream of a world where millions of Black women like me are holding it down at work and at home, building Black futures and supporting a strong economy. A world where we don’t have to choose between showing up for our families or showing up for our paychecks. A world where we all benefit by supporting Black women. That’s what I want for our future — humanity, dignity, prosperity for everyone — and we can help get there by passing the Build Back Better Act.


Josephine Kalipeni is the Executive Director of Family Values @ Work, a powerful Network of anchor partners in 27 states working for an equitable working economy for communities of color. Josephine is also a 2021 Communications Institute Fellow at The Opportunity Agenda.