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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.

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Activism

Over 500 Attend Police-Free Event to Reimagine Safety in Oakland

Night Out for Safety and Liberation started in 2013 by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain and is held as an alternative to the police-centric National Night Out. Since 2013, the event has spread across the country with over 50 events scheduled this year where communities make the night about the power of community, not cops.

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Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson
Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

Night Out for Safety and Liberation Events Held in More Than 50 Communities Across the Country

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

OAKLAND, CA — Over 500 people and families filled Josie de la Cruz Park in Oakland’s Fruitvale neighborhood on Aug. 2 to enjoy performances, kids activities, and mutual aid to celebrate Night Out for Safety and Liberation (NOSL), an annual national event that redefines what safety and joy is without policing. The free community event included free diapers and books for all ages, food, bike giveaways, air purifiers, self defense training, a drag show, and performances from poets and artists such as Lauren Adams, TJ Sykes and Voces Mexicanas.

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

Night Out for Safety and Liberation started in 2013 by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin by a neighborhood watch captain and is held as an alternative to the police-centric National Night Out. Since 2013, the event has spread across the country with over 50 events scheduled this year where communities make the night about the power of community, not cops.

“We have been reimagining what safety means beyond police for our communities for over 25 years at the Ella Baker Center. When we create safe spaces for our community to come together and support each other, when we provide living-wage jobs so people are able to put food on their table, when we empower our children and provide opportunities for them to thrive, when we invest in healthcare and mental health resources, this is how we create real safety,” said Marlene Sanchez, Executive Director of the Ella Baker Center.

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

Through Night Out for Safety and Liberation, communities are creating safety not through policing but through healing and restorative justice, through creating gender affirming spaces and protecting trans and LGBTQIA communities, through reinvesting funding into community-based alternatives and solutions that truly keep communities safe.

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

“We don’t need more police in our streets. We don’t need more surveillance. What we need is resources!” said Jose Bernal, Organizing Director with the Ella Baker Center. “What we need is housing, diapers, legal resources, jobs. This [Night Out for Safety and Liberation] is what keeps us safe. This is resilience.”

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson

The event was emceed by Nifa Akosua, Senior Organizer and Advocate with the Ella Baker Center, and TJ Sykes, author and community activist–both natives of Richmond, California. The show included entertaining performances from Oakland Originalz break dancers, Voces Mexicanas mariachi band, singer Lauren Adams and a drag show from Afrika America.

“Night Out for Safety and Liberation is about neighborhood love and neighborhood safety. It’s about connecting, showing up for each other and staying connected as a community. That’s how we keep each other safe,” said Nifa.

More than 20 organizations and vendors participated in Tuesday’s event, offering community resources, face painting, giving away 500 books for all ages, and free diapers. Those participating included: Help A Mother Out, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, ACLU of Northern California, TGI Justice Project, Urban Peace Movement, Ella Baker’s Readers & Cesar Chavez Public Library, Alliance for Girls, Bay Area Women Against Rape, Centro Legal de la Raza, Common Humanity Collective, Street Level Health Project, Malikah – Self Defense, East Bay Community Law Center, Unity Council, Young Women’s Freedom Center, East Bay Family Defenders, Bay Area Workers Support, L’Artiste A La Carte, Education Super Highway, Cut Fruit Collective, and WIC.

Other Night Out for Safety and Liberation events were held in Oakland, San Francisco, Chicago, Portland, Phoenix, Denver, Minneapolis, Atlanta, St. Louis, Dallas, Houston, Waco, Hampden, Conway, Washington D.C. and other cities. Follow the conversation and see photos from events in other cities using #SafetyIs and #NOSL22.

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Activism

OPINION: Are We About to See the Permanent Exclusion of Most Black People from Construction Jobs in Oakland?

How is that possible in this city that is believed by the world to be very progressive? Most of the work goes to members of the construction unions that have historically and currently excluded Black people through a complex set of membership requirements.

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The City Council established a task force to discuss the racial issues involved in construction and the possibility of a Project Labor Agreement. The task force included some community members, including the publisher of the Oakland Post, and was mandated to address racial discrimination first.
The City Council established a task force to discuss the racial issues involved in construction and the possibility of a Project Labor Agreement. The task force included some community members, including the publisher of the Oakland Post, and was mandated to address racial discrimination first.

By Kitty Epstein

For decades Black people in Oakland have obtained 9% or less of the work hours on publicly funded construction projects. So…for jobs that are paid for by all of our tax dollars, Black residents, who make up 23% of Oakland’s population, get only 9% of the relatively well-paid work doing construction.

How is that possible in this city that is believed by the world to be very progressive? Most of the work goes to members of the construction unions that have historically and currently excluded Black people through a complex set of membership requirements.

Nationally, only 7.2% of the carpenters’ union members are Black; 8.3% of the electricians’ union members and so on. The City of Oakland has done two very thorough reports of these racial equity issues. You can find this important information at the end of this story.

But the leadership of the construction trades now insist that that they should obtain an even larger portion of the construction hours and that this practice should be set in stone by something called a Project Labor Agreement. It is now being inaccurately called a “Community Workforce Agreement,” which is nonsense because it doesn’t help the community.

Why would progressive Oakland consider giving exclusive benefits to organizations that practice well-documented racial discrimination? At least one part of the reason is that the construction unions spend enormous amounts of money on Oakland elections. They were instrumental in former City Councilmember Desley Brooks’ defeat in District 6, for example, because they did not consider her sufficiently compliant with their demands.

The City Council established a task force to discuss the racial issues involved in construction and the possibility of a Project Labor Agreement. The task force included some community members, including the publisher of the Oakland Post, and was mandated to address racial discrimination first.

The community members proposed that the entire task force work collectively throughout the process of making proposals and negotiating solutions. The City rejected this proposal and began meeting with the building trades alone, saying that they would return with a proposed Project Labor Agreement, although there has been no demonstrated change in the racial exclusivity practiced by the construction trades.

This is outrageous on three levels:

  1. These are the tax dollars of Black residents, as well as others.
  2. The community’s interests in racial justice have not been resolved in any policy venue.
  3. The community belongs at the table throughout whatever process takes place.

The usual arguments for labor/employer negotiations do not apply. The construction unions are NOT city workers. If they were city employees, they would have both the rights (negotiations) and the responsibilities (non-discriminatory hiring) of the city. Since they are not held responsible to Include Black people in their organizations, they should not have the right to exclusive negotiations about anything

I am hopeful, of course, that the City will reject the continuation and expansion of racial discrimination policies practiced by the leadership of the trades unions and will insist on the drastic changes necessary for Black people to obtain 23% of the work hours they are due by virtue of their proportion of the population and tax dollars contributed.

These two documents below provide information that is both illuminating and horrifying.

Oakland Equity Indicators: https://www.oaklandca.gov/projects/oakland-equity-indicators

Disparity Study – https://www.postnewsgroup.com/disparity-study-examines-patterns-of-discrimination-seeks-remedies-for-city-practices-of-selecting-contractors-in-construction-goods-and-services/

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Activism

Black Mental Health Part 9 – The Anti Police-Terror Project

APTP saw their desire for change come to fruition when Oakland adopted the MACRO program. The Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program handles non-emergency and non-violent 911 calls. APTP trains MACRO participants and pushed to establish a community advisory board. They work with Elliott Jones, director of MACRO, to replace services the police once provided. The MACRO model is grounded in empathetic service to the community while reducing responses by police.

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Cat Brooks seen at a recent rally.
Cat Brooks seen at a recent rally.

By Tanya Dennis

The Anti Police-Terror Project was formed by a hodge-podge of organizations led by community activist Tur-Ha Ak; nurse, Asantewaa Boykin; poet, Michael Walker, Tha Ghetto Prophet; and performer, organizer and activist Cat Brooks.

They were in the streets between Los Angeles and Oakland in 2010 training organizers on how to respond to police-resident encounters to ensure that the killing people of color ceased. Instead, they witnessed an increase.

According to Brooks, “We questioned what communities would look like if we did not call the police, and what we learned in the data was the only way to decrease the number of killings was to decrease police presence in our communities.”

Brooks said that the community’s demand for change stemmed from numerous atrocities perpetrated by the Oakland Police Department (OPD) where 11 Black men were killed in one year, and Celeste Guap reported in 2016 that she had been raped and trafficked by 14 law enforcement officers including OPD.

Brooks added, “. . .and there was a definite shift against the police after they gunned down Yuvette Henderson in 2015 for shoplifting. I believe that was part of what gave birth to the ‘Say Her Name’ movement.”

APTP, recognizing the need to create alternative responses, birthed their “Defund the Police” movement. “Even though our Defund the Police campaign drew a lot of negative responses, it was important for people to get together and say their names, to express their rage and talk about, not just the physical impact these killings were having on our emotional health, but the impact of them killing us one after another, and our lack of power to do anything about it.”

Redefining what public safety looked like, APTP engaged Oakland and Sacramento communities with de-escalation training, developing a mental health model that did not involve the police.

“We developed Mental Health First, a First Responders Program, Rapid Response Program, and a Jail Support Program. Our Mental Health First program is an assembly of doctors, nurses and people affected. As people learned about our services our phone began ringing off the hook, from people grateful to have a number to call other than 911.

“The problem is that there’s no place a Black person can go to get long-term care for mental issues. We’re building a clinic where we can hold people for longer than 24 hours. Sometimes a person just needs a warm blanket, some food and to be heard.”

About 40% of the City of Oakland’s general funds go to the police. APTP proposes that the police budget be cut in half and funds instead go to the community and provide 24/7 mental health services in Oakland.

APTP saw their desire for change come to fruition when Oakland adopted the MACRO program. The Mobile Assistance Community Responders of Oakland (MACRO) program handles non-emergency and non-violent 911 calls.

APTP trains MACRO participants and pushed to establish a community advisory board. They work with Elliott Jones, director of MACRO, to replace services the police once provided. The MACRO model is grounded in empathetic service to the community while reducing responses by police.

APTP is continuing to build infrastructure and is looking to hire a statewide advocate to create policy to decriminalize people with mental health disabilities. APTP accepts no government money and is supported by the Akonodi and Rosenberg Foundations, California Endowment, and Lateefah Simon, a BART Board Director, among others.

The MH First hotline number in Oakland, 510-999-9MH1, is operational between 8:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays.

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Photos courtesy of Ella Baker Center, photography by Brooke Anderson
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