Essence: People, Get Ready. Changes Are Coming To Capitol Hill
By Donna Owens
With natural twists pulled back into her signature chignon, a chic suit and just enough swagger to show that she means business, Ayanna Pressley cuts an impressive figure as she strides through halls of neoclassical architecture, marble columns and sweeping, ornate ceilings. Pressley, who is married and the mother of a 10-year-old stepdaughter, fits in among the bronze statues and busts of sheroes such as Rosa Parks and Sojourner Truth, which now share space with likenesses of former presidents and leaders. Indeed, when one considers the history of the Capitol building, erected in the 1800’s largely through the labor of enslaved African-Americans, there’s something truly momentous yet completely right about a twenty-first-century Black woman owning her place in these chambers. And she’s not alone.
“Fifty years to the day that Shirley Chisholm became the first Black woman elected to the United States Congress, five new Black women won seats in the House of Representatives,” notes Glynda Carr, cofounder of Higher Heights for America, which works to elect Black women nationwide. “They’re all the first Black women to serve their respective states’ or congressional districts.”
Representatives Jahana Hayes of Connecticut, Lucy McBath of Georgia, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Pressley of Massachusetts and Lauren Underwood of Illinois were sworn into the 116th Congress on January 3, a day filled with pomp and circumstance, official class photos and plenty of jubilant selfies. Ever since they won their races, it’s been a veritable whirlwind for the women: going to orientation in the nation’s capital and on Harvard’s campus, attending a retreat in Virginia, choosing Hill offices in a college dorm–like lottery, setting up their new quarters, hiring staff, forging connections and learning all the nuances of representation. The lawmakers are among the so-called blue wave of Democrats elected during a record voter turnout in the November 2018 midterms. The group is also part of a Black wave—sisters who defied the odds to run for office, ultimately disrupting the establishment with their victories.
NEW VOICES AT THE TABLE
“I am tremendously proud to be part of the most diverse, representative freshman class in congressional history, including a record number of women,” says Pressley, 45, a former Boston city councilor who ousted a ten-term White male incumbent in the primary, becoming the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts. “Throughout the campaign, my promise was that if voters saw fit to send me to Washington, I wouldn’t be going alone. I would be taking their voices with me.”
According to the Center for American Women in Politics (CAWP) at Rutgers University and congressional data, an unprecedented number of women (131 out of 540 members) are serving in the U.S. House and Senate. The new Congress also includes the largest cohort of Black women ever—22 representatives, 2 nonvoting delegates and Senator Kamala Harris (who’s running for president). Also elected with them are the first Native American and Muslim women members of the House, as well as Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander and LGBTQ representatives. And there were also a handful of newly elected Republican women.
Longtime Capitol Hill observers point out that this freshman class is ethnically diverse and brings a wealth of professional and life experience to their official roles. “You have a nurse, a teacher, community activists and many women who’ve led lives outside of politics,” says Elsie Scott, Ph.D., a political scientist and interim chair of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Inc., a separate nonprofit entity of the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). The CBC now boasts 55 members, which is the largest number since the organization was founded in 1971. There are nine new members, including four men and the five women featured here.
It is noteworthy that, breaking with the historical pattern, most of the new Black Congress members don’t represent primarily African-American districts. Underwood, for example, is a registered nurse and health policy expert who at age 32 is the youngest African-American woman ever elected to Congress. Her northern Illinois constituents range from farmers to soccer moms. “I spent a lot of time just visiting people,” says Underwood, who takes her place among several millennials in Congress, including fellow rising star Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, 29, of New York, who also upset a longtime Democratic incumbent to nab a seat.
Underwood is no stranger to federal service. Her background includes a stint as a senior adviser at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama, who later endorsed her run for Congress. During her time in the Obama administration, she assisted communities nationwide in preventing, preparing for and responding to public health emergencies and disasters. Underwood also helped implement the Affordable Care Act (ACA). As someone with a preexisting condition herself—during her campaign she disclosed her supraventricular tachycardia, a type of heart arrhythmia, on Facebook—Underwood believes in the ACA’s provisions and plans to propose measures in Congress that protect and expand access to quality health care for all. “This moment in history requires courageous people to stand up and fight to restore our voice in Washington,” says the new congresswoman, who holds degrees from the University of Michigan and Johns Hopkins University. “I’m fighting for families, strong jobs, smart investments and access to affordable health care. America has never succeeded by looking backward. We succeed when we innovate, when we lead and when we build.”
THE POWER OF POSSIBILITY
One of Underwood’s new colleagues in the House, Jahana Hayes, the first African-American woman to represent Connecticut, feels much the same way. Hayes has spent decades fostering the minds of young people. An educator who taught high school social studies, she was the 2016 recipient of the National Teacher of the Year Award. Yet her personal backstory might have proved a “miseducation” had it not been for her perseverance and a village of supporters. Raised in a public housing project by a mother who battled addiction, Hayes struggled within an impoverished household forced to rely on public assistance. Like her grandmother and mother, she became pregnant as a teenager. Even though she felt stuck in a rut, loving bonds of family and community combined with a strong desire for an education propelled her forward. She enrolled in a community college, went on to earn her bachelor’s degree at Southern Connecticut State University and then pursued advanced degrees, all while working to support her family. “It is these experiences that compel me to invest so deeply in my community,” says the 46-year-old married mother of four, who recently became a grandmother. “You have really good people in bad situations, and all they need is an opportunity.”
Her campaign was powered in part by students, to whom she entrusted key roles—from writing letters to editors to organizing fund-raisers and directing social media. “I want young people and all people to know that I will do everything I can to serve and fight hard for them in Washington,” Hayes says, noting that her priorities will be pursuing quality education, addressing college debt and creating sustainable jobs of the future. “Our journey is not determined by where we begin but rather where we are going. Our mistakes don’t define us. I see the possibilities every day in every person I encounter.”
Few people embody the power of possibility and the promise of democracy more completely than Ilhan Omar of Minnesota. Born in Somalia, Omar was only 8 years old when her family fled civil war in their East African homeland. They survived four years in a refugee camp in Kenya before immigrating to the United States, eventually settling in Minnesota in the 1990’s. Omar’s interest in politics began as a teenager: As a high school student, she became an organizer working for change at the grassroots level. She went on to become a community educator at the University of Minnesota and, since that time, has advanced such progressive issues as educational access, environmental protection, racial equity and support for working families.
In 2016 Omar was elected to the Minnesota House of Representatives; she is the first Somali-American Muslim legislator in the country. This January she broke another barrier as one of the two first Muslim women sworn into Congress. She further shatters convention by wearing her hijab, which required working with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to update antiquated rules about head coverings in the chambers. “I hope that in the ways I express myself, I can help young women across the country and world know that if they choose to wear the hijab, that they feel it is okay,” says the 36-year-old, who is raising three children with her husband. “And I hope that people will associate it with power and beauty and pride.”
With previous leadership roles in groups such as the NAACP’s Minneapolis chapter and the Minnesota Council on American Islamic Relations, Omar plans to be a fierce advocate in Congress for the humanitarian promise inscribed on the Statue of Liberty: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” In this cause she has rallied thousands to oppose the President’s selective immigration ban, which affected several Muslim nations, among other countries. She is also deeply concerned about the southern border crisis that led to a government shutdown as the President pressed Congress to fund his wall. “I’ll continue fighting for the human rights of all,” says Omar, noting that her constituents want to see more education funding, affordable health care, college debt solutions and environmentally sound jobs.
SETTING THE AGENDA
Erika West, a principal and policy expert with The Raben Group in Washington, D.C., suggests that the decidedly more diverse Congress offers opportunities to help shift policy in specific ways. “Women and people of color are setting the agenda, not fighting for space in it,” she observes. “Their impact will be felt beyond issues that we know women of color, in particular, care deeply about, such as family leave, pay equity and voting rights.” West notes that with the new Congress featuring multiple committees led by women and people of color—five CBC members will chair full committees, for example, while 28 will chair subcommittees—the members of the 116th Congress are more apt to put forward legislation that is racially, economically and geographically inclusive. “The needs of more communities will be considered,” West says, “as will their access to often ignored infrastructure issues such as transit, broadband and clean water. And that’s the important thing: It means we have new power to lobby for the kinds of policies we’ve long wanted.”
One of those issues is gun control, and Lucy McBath of Georgia hopes to lead that charge. After a 30-year career as a flight attendant, McBath faced a personal tragedy that inspired her journey as a national advocate for gun safety, focused on making America’s neighborhoods safer. “I never planned to run for office,” McBath says. “But after my son, Jordan, was shot and killed, my life completely changed.” On the day after Thanksgiving in 2012, Jordan Davis was slain at a Jacksonville, Florida, gas station by a man who objected to the volume of the music the 17-year-old and his friends were playing on their car stereo. The shooter invoked Florida’s stand-your-ground law as part of his defense. He was ultimately convicted at retrial of first-degree murder and sentenced to life in prison.
Losing her child in such a violent, senseless manner prodded McBath—whose parents had actively championed civil rights causes throughout their lives—to engage in her own form of activism and political engagement. Before running for Congress was ever a thought, she held dual roles as the national spokesperson for Everytown for Gun Safety and Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America. Her efforts included testifying before federal and state lawmakers and engaging with social justice organizers, faith communities, universities and grassroots movements. In 2016 she and fellow Mothers of The Movement—Black women whose offspring had been slain by police or in vigilante violence—took the stage at the Democratic National Convention in support of Hillary Clinton.
As McBath turned her heartbreak into a platform to save lives, her reputation grew, and now the Virginia State University political science alum is a member of the very body that she once appealed to for legislative solutions. “My team and I anticipated this outcome, but many people did not,” says McBath, 58, who ran as a Democrat in a traditionally Republican district. “People constantly told us at cookouts, barbecues and churches that I was the first candidate to ever visit those communities and ask for their votes.” Initially the Marietta-based candidate had planned to seek a Georgia State House seat, but the 2017 Parkland High School shooting shifted her focus to a congressional bid. She says she was inspired by the students from Parkland, Florida, who lobbied for gun reform in the aftermath of the tragedy. In the end, despite being the underdog, McBath eked out a victory in a nail-biting race against an incumbent in Georgia’s Sixth District, the first for a Democrat in these Atlanta suburbs since 1979.
In addition to sensible gun reform, McBath’s goals include making government more effective so that small-business owners can acquire the resources they need to make their businesses grow. “I will also fight so that everyone can obtain quality and affordable health care, regardless of preexisting conditions,” adds the two-time breast cancer survivor. “I want to make sure that all citizens of Georgia’s Sixth Congressional District, whether they voted for me or not, have a government that prioritizes them.”
A MANDATE FOR HOPE
That theme—making government accountable to all its people—underscores the goals of many of the women who ran for political office in the 2018 midterms. The team at Emily’s List, which works to elect pro-choice Democratic women, sensed a sea change was happening not long after Trump’s inauguration. “We had over 40,000 women inquire about running for office,” says Muthoni Wambu Kraal, the organization’s vice-president of national outreach and training. “It started soon after the historic 2017 Women’s March and continued right up to the midterms.”
Other organizations such as Woke Vote, The Collective PAC, BlackPAC, Black Voters Matter Fund and Higher Heights for America, to name a few, tapped the leadership skills of African-American women for the midterm election cycle. So did churches, labor unions, civil rights groups, Black sororities and civic groups such as the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, which staged nonpartisan get-out-the-vote efforts focused on Black women, among other campaigns.
All these efforts yielded results: Women of color, including dozens of Blacks, won national, regional, state and local races. Juliana Stratton became the first African-American woman elected to serve as lieutenant governor in Illinois. Melanie Levesque is the first Black to be elected to the New Hampshire State Senate. Andrea Stewart-Cousins will lead the New York State Senate (she’s the first African-American to do so). Letitia “Tish” James is now the first Black attorney general of New York. And the list goes on.
Emily’s List was among those groups that endorsed the five Black women who recently won congressional seats. Its president, Stephanie Schriock, praises the quintet as “bold, brilliant talent.” She says, “Their very presence represents the kind of change that America so desperately needs at a time when we are so divided. I cannot wait to see the policies and legislation that result from the years of work and commitment that each of these women has given to their communities in various capacities.”
Pressley, who recently moved into Shirley Chisholm’s onetime office on the Hill, is already getting media buzz. Her election to the Boston City Council in 2009 marked the first time a woman of color was elected to the council in its 100-year history. Raised in Chicago as the only child of an activist mother who instilled in her the value of civic participation, Pressley grew up in politics. She previously worked for 16 years as an aide to Representative Joseph P. Kennedy II as well as to former Secretary of State John Kerry. A longtime champion of families, women’s rights and those impacted by sexual violence (she herself is a sexual assault survivor), Pressley admits she “didn’t anticipate much support from the Democratic establishment” and instead gleaned inspiration from everyday folks in Boston’s Seventh Congressional District.
“I didn’t run for Congress to make history; I ran to make change,” she notes. “I ran to tackle the entrenched disparities in our communities, which have existed for decades.” Voters responded to her promise to do more than just resist a callous White House; she pledged to make real progress on issues like gun violence and trauma, income inequality, health care access and immigration. Says Pressley now, “Even as my heart breaks in the face of the cruel and inhumane policies advanced by this administration, it swells at the renewed sense of activism and resolve among so many.”
Congresswoman Barbara Lee, a progressive who has represented California since 1988, admits she’s impressed and inspired by Pressley and the new class of Black women in Congress. “We’re happy to mentor them, but we are learning from them too,” she says. And Karen Bass, the new chair of the CBC, is heartened by the closeness of the group, which hosts a weekly lunch, prays together and brainstorms on issues. “There’s a real sisterhood,” she says. Pressley couldn’t agree more. “I believe this election was a mandate for hope,” she says, “and I intend to work every day to fulfill it.”