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“Big Sister” Barbara Lee’s Advice for the New Women of Color in Congress

NNPA NEWSWIRE — “…there have been vocal women of color pushing for progressive change in Congress for a long time. California Rep. Barbara Lee, who Pressley called a ‘big sister & mentor’ in her tweet, is one of them.”

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“You have to break through all of that sexism and racism. You have to really confront that all of the time.”

By Christina Cauteruci

There’s a crew of new women in Congress who’ve become fast friends since the election. Reps. Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Pressley, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez have become instant progressive icons and visible markers of a long-overdue shift in legislative demographics. They’ve posted loads of selfies together, called themselves a “squad,” tweeted support for each other’s policy ideas, and defended each other from right-wing detractors. Their fans have seen them as harbingers of hope in a dark time descending on a stalled-out Congress to help save America from itself.

It’s important to remember, though, as Pressley told her Twitter followers over the weekend, that there have been vocal women of color pushing for progressive change in Congress for a long time. California Rep. Barbara Lee, who Pressley called a “big sister & mentor” in her tweet, is one of them. In a phone conversation earlier this month, I spoke to Lee about her role in the new, more progressive Congress, what it was like to be one of the few black women in national office in the 1990s, and what it might mean to have a “critical mass” in the legislature. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Christina Cauterucci: I was looking through all the pictures you and other Democratic women posed for on the first day of the new Congress, and there was a palpable feeling of celebration. What was that day like for you?

Barbara Lee: It was exciting. The younger and new members of Congress are very smart, they’re authentic, they’re passionate, they’re committed to their constituencies and to the country, to the world. And it’s just been wonderful being with them. I hope to be able to help them find their paths.

But also, I have to say, just as a progressive African-American woman, they give me a lot of hope. They strengthen me. They really formed that bond that means a heck of a lot when you’re in a Congress where—for example, in 1998, I was only the 20th African-American woman ever elected to Congress since 1789. So this is really quite a happy moment and a really profound and positive development for the country.

There seems to be an incredible camaraderie among this new class of congresswomen—they’re hugging each other in photos, calling each other sisters in their tweets. Is there always such a strong feeling of solidarity among new progressive members of Congress?

There’s always solidarity. But I think this year is unique because you have so many women of color, and women from diverse backgrounds, and women who have broken so many glass ceilings. For example, Pennsylvania did not have one single woman in their delegation. Now we have—I believe it’s four. This is amazing. This is groundbreaking. It really tells me there’s no way we can ever go back. I think the excitement and the joy and the hope that this election brought was really a special and unique moment in history.

I’ve been thinking a lot about power in numbers when it comes to race and gender representation in Congress. Some studies of women in business leadership suggest that there needs to be a critical mass of people from underrepresented groups to make a tangible difference, because one person alone can be more easily ignored or tokenized. Does that resonate with your experience in Congress?

Absolutely. You know, it’s really good to have allies. And coming to Congress then, as a progressive African-American woman, it took a while to build the level of collegiality that others have, especially white men, because there were so few of us.

In terms of speaking out in a meeting or at a hearing with new ideas—folks would shake their heads and say “Great,” or whatever. Then 10 minutes later they would reiterate the same thing I just said, as if it were new. [Laughs.] It’s just like being invisible. You know what that’s like, being invisible? But let me tell you: I wasn’t gonna let that happen. I was working for former Congressman Ron Dellums, who passed away in July. And when I started working as a chief of staff on Capitol Hill, there were maybe two African-American women as chiefs of staff, OK? Maybe three, but I think it was two. I had to represent Ron at meetings with Cabinet officials. And I’d walk into those meetings, and primarily white men were there, and I would engage in the meeting, and it was almost like I just wasn’t there. Or they didn’t recognize me as a chief of staff, or they would never call on me to ask my question or make my point. Or they sometimes didn’t know that I was a chief of staff, they thought I was another staffer just taking notes to take back to the congressman. You know, it was very ugly and demeaning, disrespectful.

So I remember those days, and we’ve made a lot of progress, but let me tell you, we have a long way to go. You still have institutional biases, you have to break through all of that sexism and racism. You have to really confront that all of the time, whether it’s subconscious or conscious.

[Congress is] still just a microcosm of America. It takes a while. But I think that we’re moving forward, we’re making progress. With this new Congress, you know, it’ll never go back to the days of long ago, when Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American congresswoman, was elected in the late ’60s.

You know what it’s like to stand alone on an issue—I’m thinking specifically of your vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force in 2001. [Ed. note: Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the broad, still-active authorization of war.] What advice are you giving new members of Congress on speaking up, even if they’re alone?

I think they all are very courageous and all have to know their bottom lines, what they bring to Congress, their values, who they are, and what they stand for. And it may not be the same thing, but you have to know how far to go for compromise, or how far you will allow yourself to go on any given issue. For me, as a daughter of veteran and someone whose dad was in World War II, Korea, and who was raised in a military family, I know that the use of force should only be the last option, recognizing that we have to make sure that our national security is secure. So for me, that’s a bottom line.

For me, another bottom line is you do not cut public assistance and food stamps. I had a very difficult period in my life—I was a single mother with two young sons. And I was on welfare and food stamps and Medicaid. And I knew what it was like, and it was really hard. But in that moment because I had this bridge over troubled waters, like a lifeline, I’m not gonna allow, on my watch, my involvement in cutting any of this basic support for people and families and children who need it. And I’m gonna look out for others who may be in similar circumstances. So that’s a bottom line for me.

[The new members of Congress] come with a lot of courage. Just to get here took a lot of courage—to break through, given the fundraising barriers and everything that you have to deal with. But now they’re here, and they’ve demonstrated how courageous they are. They just have to know how far they’re willing to compromise and what they stand for. And I think most of them know that.

How do you see your role in this wave of new progressive women, especially women of color, taking seats in Congress?

I hope I am a supportive peer who can really help them navigate the legislative process, and do exactly what they want to do in their congressional career—serving their constituents and how they want to go, what path they want to take. And now as a co-chair of the Steering and Policy Committee, I want to make sure they’re able to get to the committees that they want—to carve out what issues they want to address. In terms of the seniority system and how you navigate that—I’ve had a lot of experience … [with] ways to think out of the box and be creative in what I want to do when there are systemic and institutional kinds of roadblocks.

So I want to help [new members of Congress] figure those out. But also, I have to tell you: They encourage me, and they give me a lot of insight, and I learn a heck of a lot from them. It goes both ways.

Commentary

On Ishmael Reed’s Inclusion and Van Jones’ Amazon Prime

Complain about the media representation of Oakland all you want. Last week, in the national media, Oakland was portrayed as a great place to live, work, and dine, with restaurants where people come up to your table and greet you like a long-lost neighbor. 

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Ishmael Reed/Photo by Emil Guillermo

Complain about the media representation of Oakland all you want. Last week, in the national media, Oakland was portrayed as a great place to live, work, and dine, with restaurants where people come up to your table and greet you like a long-lost neighbor.

That Oakland. You know it? It’s the backdrop of a profile in the New Yorker magazine on Ishmael Reed, novelist, playwright, poet, and resident of Oakland. Hills? Oh no, the flats. Reed is a jazz guy; He B-flat. 

Hopefully, the joker in Reed laughs at that pun. It’s because of Reed that I am a writer. But let me not forget Flossie Lewis, my high school English teacher, and current Oakland resident. Lewis set me up. Reed delivered the punch.  

I first met Reed in St. Louis, Mo., where he was the “artist in residence” for Washington University’s first Writer’s Program. Intended to become a better Iowa Writers Workshop, it had all white writers like William Gass and Stanley Elkin. Reed was the token-in-resident. I was the token minority grad student. When one writer told me to stop writing about my Filipino family, Reed was there to tell me to put them back in. 

That’s what Ishmael did for me. 

The New Yorker profile published on July 19 compelled me to pull out Reed’s work again. “Mumbo Jumbo” (1972) re-read during the pandemic jumps off the page and is funnier than ever. People coming down with a virus that makes people dance the boogie?  It was a finalist for the National Book Award and considered for the Pulitzer Prize. 

The New Yorker also details Reed’s life with his wife, the dancer/choreographer/director Carla Blank, and their daughter, the poet Tennessee Reed. And you’ll learn how the writing all started–as a jazz columnist in the Black press for the Buffalo Empire Star.

That’s the enduring value of the ethnic media, the Black press, and newspapers like the Oakland Post. It’s still a place where diverse voices can let it all out.  

Asked about his legacy, Reed was simple and humble. “I made American literature more democratic for writers from different backgrounds,” he said. “I was part of that movement to be heard.”

I heard that. 

Van Jones’ $100 Millon Speech

Ishmael Reed is one of the only MacArthur Genius grant winners I know.

But Van Jones is the first winner of the Courage and Civility Award, which he received on July 20. Yes, that Van Jones of the Ella Baker Center. Way before CNN. I hope he remembers how he was a guest on my old New California Media roundtable talk TV show on the ethnic media more than 20 years ago on KCSM-TV. 

Because the Courage and Civility Award is $100 million unattached–from Jeff Bezos.

I wasn’t crazy about Richard Branson’s flight, so you know I’m not out-of-this-world over Bezos’s 63-mile jaunt, which I call the Neo-Space Age’s white flight. You can go beyond the suburbs.
Bezos has been hammered over not paying his taxes, and how spending billions of dollars into space travel during a time of real humanitarian need on Earth is on its face one word–obscene.

To his credit, he did what all rich people of money do when they stretch the limits of tasteful behavior.

They use their money by giving it away. It’s how the Rockefellers, the Fords, the Sacklers, the Mellons, etc., etc., can live with themselves. Albeit, far away from everyone else. Hence, the Courage and Civility Award. 

Jones was gracious about the hun mill gift. 

“I haven’t always been courageous,” said Jones.  “But I know people who are. They get up every day on the frontlines of grassroots communities. They don’t have much. But they’re good people and they fight hard. And they don’t have enough support.”
All true. And then he delivered the penance for Bezos sins.

“Can you imagine,” said Jones. “Grassroots folks from Appalachia, from the Native American reservation, having enough money to be able to connect with the geniuses that disrupted the space industry, disrupted taxis, hotels, and bookstores. Let’s start disrupting poverty. Let’s start disrupting pollution. 

“Start disrupting the $90 billion prison industry together. You take people on the frontlines and their wisdom and their genius and creativity, and you give them a shot. They’re not gonna turn around neighborhoods, they’re gonna turnaround this nation. That’s what’s going to happen.”

Then Jones had this for Bezos. “I appreciate you lifting the ceiling off of people’s dreams,” Jones said, then turned back to us. “Don’t be mad about it when you see somebody reaching for the heavens, be glad to know there’s a lot more heaven to reach for. And we can do that together.”

Bezos’ $100 million doesn’t buy a lot in the space biz. But handing it to Jones? Let’s see the disruptive good it can do on Earth.

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Commentary

Community Responds to OPD Chief’s Call for Help in Stopping Violence

Oakland Chief of Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong has reached out to the community asking for support, and rightfully so.  For this is not just an Oakland Police Department fight but our fight.    

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stop gun violence sign photo courtesy Chip Vincent via Unsplash

Seventy-five.

That’s the number of homicides that have occurred so far this year here in Oakland.  There have also been at least 300 acts of violence injuries perpetrated against the citizens of Oakland, many of them gun related.

Oakland Chief of Police Chief LeRonne Armstrong has reached out to the community asking for support, and rightfully so.  For this is not just an Oakland Police Department fight but our fight.

Those 75 families who lost loved ones to senseless acts of reckless violence are families from our communities. They’re our neighbors, our co-workers, and our friends.

The word of God reminds us to “Love our Neighbor as we love ourselves.” The Bible compels us to want the best and do the best for one another.

What would you want if one of your family members were one of those 75 who had been shot and killed in the streets of Oakland? What would you want?

The answer is simple.

You would want someone to care!  To shout with outrage and do something to end this cycle of violence!

On July 27, a group of community activists met with Armstrong to discuss how they could come together organizing in a city-wide community coalition to bring holistic ideas to create a wrap-around approach to combating violence. Those ideas include a) mental wellness, b) community chaplaincy, c) ask the formerly incarcerated to mentor and encourage youth in crisis, d) job development, e) entrepreneurship opportunities, and – last but not least — address our ever-growing homeless issues.

For more information on how you can be a good neighbor, please call 510-688-7437

All for the Peace — “Shalom” — of our Great City.

Pastor Scott is the president of Pastors of Oakland and leader of Tree of Life Empowerment Ministries.

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Bay Area

Where Do Negotiations Go Now After A’s “Howard Terminal” or Bust Ultimatum?

The A’s are seeking to develop 55 acres at the Port of Oakland. The proposal includes a 35,000-seat baseball stadium, which would cost $1 billion, or 8.3% of the total project.

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Oakland A's Photo Courtesy of Rick Rodriquez via Unsplash

FILE – In this Nov. 17, 2016, file photo, Oakland Athletics President David Kaval gestures during a news conference in Oakland, Calif. TheAthletics will be phased out of revenue sharing in the coming years as part of baseball’s new labor deal, and that puts even more urgency on the small-budget franchise’s plan to find the right spot soon to build a new, privately funded ballpark. Kaval, named to his new A’s leadership position last month, is committed to making quick progress but also doing this right. That means strong communication with city and civic leaders as well as the community and fan base. (AP Photo/Ben Margot, File)

John Fisher

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Nikki Fortunato

Rebecca Kaplan

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Oakland’s City Council rejected the A’s proposed non-binding term sheet, which the team had presented to the City along with an ultimatum, “Howard Terminal or Bust.”

At a packed City Council meeting last week, attended by 1,000 people on Zoom, many residents were angry at what they viewed as the A’s real estate “land grab” at the Port of Oakland and either said that the team should leave or stay at the Oakland Coliseum in East Oakland.
Rejecting the A’s term sheet, councilmembers at the July 20th meeting voted 6-1 with one abstention to make a counteroffer, approving city staff’s and Council’s amendments to the A’s term sheet.

Council’s vote was to continue negotiating with the A’s, and the A’s gained substantial concessions, $352 million, enough to return for further negotiations, in Oakland. The Council’s vote didn’t derail A’s pursuit of Las Vegas.

Now, over a week since Council’s vote, neither A’s President Dave Kaval nor owner John Fisher have spoken publically on the A’s intent to continue bargaining with Oakland for their proposed $12 billion waterfront development at Howard Terminal.

The A’s are seeking to develop 55 acres at the Port of Oakland. The proposal includes a 35,000-seat baseball stadium, which would cost $1 billion, or 8.3% of the total project.

In addition to the stadium, the development features 3,000 condominium/housing units; over a million square feet of commercial space (office and retail); a 3,500-seat performance theater, 400 hotel rooms and approximately 18 acres of parks and open space.

The most fundamental sticking point, along with all the other complications, is whether a commercial/residential development, ‘a city within a city,” in the middle of a working seaport are compatible uses for the land. Many experts are saying that the existence of upscale residences and thousands of tourists strolling around will eventually destroy the Port of Oakland, which is the economic engine of the city and the region.

According to Kaval, who had pushed for the Council to approve the ultimatum, “We’re disappointed that the city did not vote on our proposal … we’re going to take some time and really dig in and understand and ‘vet’ what they did pass and what all the amendments mean.”

Although the A’s stated a willingness to be open to the amended terms Council approved, Kaval expressed uncertainty whether the Council’s amended term sheet offers “a path forward.”

“The current [amended] term sheet as its constructed is not a business partnership that works for us,” said Kaval, saying the team would have to examine the Council’s counter-offer before deciding to resume negotiations or return to Las Vegas or focus on finding a new home someplace else.

City Council President Bas and Mayor Libby Schaaf joined city and labor leaders to discuss the Council’s vote. Vice Mayor Rebecca Kaplan made it clear that the amended term sheet the Council approved should be considered a “road map for future negotiations … a baseline for further discussions.”

Upon Kaval’s dismissal of the Council’s stated positions, Fife said, “I don’t know where we go from here,” abstaining from the vote on the proposed term sheet.

Many find Kaval’s statement confusing because he used words like partnership but apparently ignored and/or disregarded the City of Oakland – the A’s major stakeholder and a business partnership since 1968, more than 53 years.

Some are asking if the A’s understand that Oakland’s 53-year relationship with the team is the basis for the meme “Rooted in Oakland?” Are the A’s willing to accept, as the Council has determined, that the terms of the business “partnership” must be equitable and mutually beneficial for all of “us”?

And the question remains after a 53-year relationship, is it reasonable to terminate that relationship or negotiate further for an equitable and mutually beneficial business partnership?

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