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AILEEN HERNANDEZ... "This is going to be a hard class"
May 30, 2008 by Mable Yee
When Aileen Hernandez attended Howard University as a young African American woman, she remembered enrolling in a Political Science class. There was a male teacher whom she recalled announcing on the first day "If you are planning to attend this class, this is going to be a very hard one. If you don't want to work hard, perhaps you should take home economics". Aileen would not move out of the room and the next day she came back and attended the class for the rest of the session.

It was indicative of the type of struggles Aileen faced throughout her life as an African American woman growing up in the 1920's in Brooklyn, New York and attending college at Howard University in Washington, DC. Ever since she was 5 years old, she has had to push back and challenge things that weren't right. Her life has been all about righting the wrongs in our society. She said "the possibilities were so narrow for women in those days".

Aileen's parents came from Jamaica in the 1920's and settled in Brooklyn, New York. Back then, it almost felt like the countryside with cows in the fields. She remembers growing up with families of many different ethnicities: Norwegian, Italian, Jewish all attending the same schools. When she was deciding which college to go to, she was encouraged to attend Howard University in Washington, DC. It was a college that was predominantly attended and supported African American students. Her father went with her from New York to Washington, DC when she went away to school. She vividly recalls when she arrived in Washington, DC someone telling her father that "You have to get the Black Cab" in order to get taxied to the university. It was a rude introduction to a world where people lived in totally segregated communities. There were segregated theaters, restaurants and schools where the Black people could attend separate from the rest of society.

At Howard University, Aileen got a political awakening that would influence her development and interests in the years to come. She became very involved with the Civil Rights movement and NAACP. Later she immersed herself in worker rights, the women's movement through the International Ladies Garment Union and many other women's and political activism issues.

When we asked her why she thought minorities and women don't participate in higher percentages for voting and active engagement, she listed all the reasons. She said that a lot of women don't feel the issues on the ballots affect them directly, a lot of women don't have the time to vote and get involved, they think it's too much trouble to vote, that voting doesn't benefit them and that many women's husbands dictate to them how to vote. She further stated "many women think that they don't matter and that their vote doesn't count".

In order to get more women to vote and get engaged, she said, "It's important to see somebody that looks like you… a woman". She said that seeing Shirley Chisholm, an African American senator running for President fighting for women's issues was very motivating. Seeing Senator Patsy Mink from Hawaii was an important role model for women. Reflecting upon the gains made in the Congress and Senate with women legislators, while it's been improving, it is far below what it should be when you consider that women make up 51% of the population and our elected officials are in the minority.

Aileen said that it is possible for all of us to change the world. Having Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama running for President is important. Her last comment was that "You have your life ahead of you….You can make the difference and help us create a new generation of leaders. You are one of many, not the only one".

Aileen has been an inspired, passionate and committed activist that has dedicated her life to improving our society for everyone. It has been an honor to interview her and to welcome her to our National Advisory Council for Engage Her. We know that she continually inspires many new future leaders with her dedication and passion. Mable

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