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Profile: Sydney Kamlager Carries the Weight of All Black Women in California Senate

Kamlager says her office used the Budget Act of 2021 to help fund local programs, including art, healthcare and housing initiatives. About $400 million of the state’s $267.1 billion budget this year supports projects to which Kamlager and her team helped steer funding.

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Sen. Sydney Kamlager

In a faded photo from 1975, is a smiling woman, a formerly enslaved person, sporting a metallic gray birthday hat. In front of her is a 3-year-old state Sen. Sydney Kamlager.

“Gram was born a slave and freed by Lincoln. She carried her papers to prove her freedom every day of her life,” the California Senator tweeted, sharing her great-great grandmother’s photo with her followers.

Kamlager, the only Black woman serving in the California Senate, spoke with California Black Media about her career, what inspires her and the priorities she has fought for since her term began.

“It is a heavy and awesome responsibility, feeling like I am speaking for millions of women like me,” Kamlager said, talking about being the only Black woman in the state Senate.

“I don’t take it lightly and I’m trying to get more of us in there,” she said.

Kamlager says her great-great-grandmother is one of her greatest inspirations.

“When she was born, she was not free, and her DNA is inside of me. That’s the thing that motivates me, that this woman in my family was strong enough to live through that circumstance. It’s something that I wake up and think about every day,” said Kamlager.

Kamlager attributes her success to her parents and counts them as another source of inspiration.

“My parents were social justice activists in Chicago, fighting to make sure that community members had access to healthcare and housing,” she said. “I come from a family that was denied housing because they were interracial.”

Her life in public service started in Chicago, she says.

“I got my first taste of politics helping my grandmother work to get Harold Washington elected as the first Black mayor of Chicago,” Kamlager recalled.

She left Chicago to attend the University of Southern California. She was there when the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out. That experience helped strengthen her resolve to enter public life, she says.

“It was the first time I saw what happens when a city stops listening to its communities,” she said. “The next summer, I spent time working to figure out how we could both rebuild L.A. and build bridges between communities.”

Kamlager’s journey to becoming a California elected official began in 2017 when she threw her hat in the race to complete the term of former Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. The next year, she won the special election in the 54th district and was sworn into office in April.

Then, in November 2020, she announced her run for the state Senate when former Sen. Holly Mitchell resigned. Kamlager won that special election in March.

Now, as the state Senator representing the 30th District, criminal justice, health care, housing and racial equity are among Kamlager’s priorities.

“I spend a lot of time in the criminal justice space. I have a number of bills this year that focus on criminal and legal issues,” Kamlager said.

“One is AB 333 which is a due process bill as it relates to gang enhancement charges. Another bill AB 127 got signed into law by the governor this Monday which says that prosecutors can also attest to an arrest warrant of a police officer involved in a police shooting. And ACA 3 which is about taking involuntary servitude out of the state Constitution,” she continued.

The Senator also spoke about economics and how it impacts the lives of Black Californians.

“It is incredibly important to talk about the economics of Black America and Black California and to connect that to issues of housing, transportation, jobs and education,” Kamlager said.

For her, an important part of the Black economic power conversation is reparations.

“I’ve been incredibly supportive of the reparations task force that is moving along and making sure that some of these things get agendized,” she said.

Kamlager mentioned the ongoing inequity in the medical sector, an issue that the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare.

“I introduced a number of implicit bias bills to have training in our medical community because we saw who was getting treated and who wasn’t,” she said.

Kamlager says her office used the Budget Act of 2021 to help fund local programs, including art, healthcare and housing initiatives. About $400 million of the state’s $267.1 billion budget this year supports projects to which Kamlager and her team helped steer funding.

“I was very active in this year’s budget negotiations,” Kamlager continued. “I was instrumental in the work to get $30 million to our public hospitals, which we know were Ground Zero for so many of the COVID cases.”

Childcare providers were heroes who stepped up during the pandemic, she says. They took care of children as their essential worker parents soldiered on to make sure the economy and health care systems kept running.

Another one of her priorities is housing equity through efforts like Project Room Key, a state program created in response to the pandemic. It provides motel and hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness.

Programs like that expose some of the same inequities they were designed to diminish, Kamlager points out.

“With Project Room Key, the majority of the homeless individuals that got placed during the pandemic were white, homeless individuals even though we know 62% of the folks who are homeless are Black,” she said.

The senator also addressed the rise of hate crimes.

“We can elevate the issues of African Americans when we are on the floor giving speeches,” she continued. “We have done that. We will do that. But there is an element of fear that is predicated on the history of this country, and it’s based on the fact that Black people, one, are feared, and two, are not valued.”

“Legislation doesn’t fix that, she added. “It is the collective energy and voices of Black Californians, Black Americans and their allies elevating those discrepancies and disparities so that folks are able to reflect on them.”

Commentary

First in a Series on Jobs in Oakland. City Government; Please Do No (More) Harm

Oakland city government declares war on the unemployed. An overstatement? Not really.

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High Quality stock aerial photos of downtown Oakland with Lake Merritt in the foreground.

Oakland city government declares war on the unemployed. An overstatement? Not really.

City administration professes concern for its residents who need help with access to jobs and training, while at the same time failing to issue contracts to the community organizations that stand ready to provide needed services.

The city council approved these contracts in June. As of late September, they have not been issued by the city administration.

Q: What does this mean? A: Non-profit organizations, operating on shoestring budgets in the best of times, have been required to advance their own funds in July, August, and September to serve the unemployed, with no reimbursement by the city because as the administration says, “Your contract has not been signed yet.”

Another impact: the workers who provide front line job services may not receive their paychecks on time…. creating unnecessary instability in their own households.

And who is responsible for issuing these contracts? Yup…it’s the city…. painfully tone deaf to the needs of the community, particularly those on the economic margins. Most of those served with job help are Black and Latinx residents who consistently suffer double digit unemployment. Many are returning home after incarceration.

And for this level of harmful disregard, the city receives  28 percent of scarce job training funds. Astonishing, since the city provides no direct services to job seekers.

As Oakland struggles with its horrific crime wave, it seems that attention would be paid to root causes, joblessness being paramount among them. Instead, the city administration seems intent on hobbling the very groups who stand ready to help. This happens year after year…. with no apparent consequences to an impenetrable bureaucracy.

Oakland, we can do  better than this.

We must.

The Oakland Post’s coverage of local news in Alameda County is supported by the Ethnic Media Sustainability Initiative, a program created by California Black Media and Ethnic Media Services to support community newspapers across California.

 

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Let’s Talk Black Education; Governor Newsom Should Close the Vaccination Loophole for School Employees

It leaves the rest of us — including the students — without a teacher, cafeteria worker, or janitorial staff. We have to throw on five or six hats in order to ensure that our students are educated.

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Let's Talk Black Education with Margaret Fortune

The honeymoon is over in communities where the Delta variant has taken hold.

Since back-to-school, I’ve spent weeks filling in for principals, supervising children, checking children’s temperatures and providing them masks, directing traffic in the parking lot, picking up garbage, wiping down cafeteria tables — all of which are required to run safe schools in these times.

I’ve talked to other heads of schools that can say the same thing or something similar since the start of this school year. The same culprit continues to affect us all — COVID-19. However, normally we have a village to manage these tasks. Now, we don’t.

Staffing shortages are severe and there are no substitutes to be had.

Further aggravating the situation, are public health rules that require paid school staff who test negative for COVID-19 but remain unvaccinated to stay home for 10 days at a time when they are exposed to someone who tests positive.

It leaves the rest of us — including the students — without a teacher, cafeteria worker, or janitorial staff. We have to throw on five or six hats in order to ensure that our students are educated.

Necessary? Yes. Sustainable? No.

Gov. Gavin Newsom took a good first step when he required school employees to be vaccinated, but he left a gaping loophole. He allowed school staff to ‘test out’ of being vaccinated by committing to take a COVID test twice a week.  Then he put the burden on schools to become COVID testing centers overnight for the employees who refuse to get vaccinated.

The result is that these staff who refuse vaccination have to be benched for two weeks every time they get exposed to someone who tests positive for COVID-19. Imagine, if you will, being a part of a 40-person team and every week there are 10 people who are forced to quarantine for two weeks, leaving 30 team members to do the work of 40 during that first week.

That’s one person doing their job and the additional work of three coworkers. These types of staffing outages are debilitating schools across the state. There are news reports of schools having to shut down classrooms for lack of staff.

Some major school systems with the political clout have taken matters into their own hands. Los Angeles Unified, for example, has closed the loophole and is requiring all school employees to be vaccinated.  The state of California should do the same.

California has over 6 million students who can’t afford for us to agree to anything less than 100% vaccination for school employees.

Yes, the policy could force out educators who refuse to get vaccinated but, they won’t be working anyway if they get exposed to a positive case.  Essentially, the unvaccinated have become hard to employ in a school setting.  They can go out at any time and take down our schools with them.

We can’t risk that.

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Pass the Freedom to Vote Act: Time Running Out to Protect Right to Vote in 2022 and Beyond

Ideally, voting rights should be a nonpartisan issue. Congress repeatedly passed extensions of the Voting Rights Act that were signed by Republican presidents. But right-wing politicians and judges have spent years trying to undermine the Voting Rights Act in the name of “states’ rights” or “state sovereignty.”

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US Bill of Rights and Flag with spot lighting

Republican-controlled state legislatures have imposed new voting restrictions. They are getting ready to create more safe congressional seats for Republicans through abusive partisan redistricting. They are undermining faith in elections with false claims about election fraud and demands for fake “audits.”

The good news is that there is new momentum in Congress and a new bill to protect our democracy. We need to get it passed.

The new Freedom to Vote Act would protect the right to vote, end unfair partisan gerrymandering, and shine a light on the flood of dark money that allows billionaires to buy our elections in secret. It includes key sections of the earlier For the People Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives but was blocked in the Senate by Republican filibusters.

The Freedom to Vote act also addresses one of the worst things about some of the new voter suppression laws: provisions that give state officials the power to override voters and overturn election results.

There are other good things in the bill. It would make Election Day a federal holiday. Every state would have automatic voter registration, early voting and drop box accessibility. These would be major advances in making voting more accessible to everyone.

Voting rights advocates are rallying support for the Freedom to Vote Act. One of the sponsors, Democratic Sen. Joe Machin of West Virginia, worked hard to come up with a bill that he could support. He still hopes to get some Republican senators to join him.

That is an uphill battle. Republican Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has signaled that no Republican senators will support this compromise. And he will use the Senate’s filibuster rules to prevent the Senate from passing election protections that are supported by huge majorities of the American people—something he has already done with the For the People Act.

Ideally, voting rights should be a nonpartisan issue. Congress repeatedly passed extensions of the Voting Rights Act that were signed by Republican presidents. But right-wing politicians and judges have spent years trying to undermine the Voting Rights Act in the name of “states’ rights” or “state sovereignty.”

With help from right-wing justices on the Supreme Court, states have imposed all kinds of new voting restrictions in recent years.

The number of new restrictive voting laws jumped massively after former President Donald Trump was defeated in last year’s presidential election. Grassroots organizing helped drive strong turnout among Black voters in key states, and Republicans have decided to respond by making it harder for people to register and vote.

That makes it clear that the new voter suppression rules have nothing to do with “election integrity” and everything to do with maintaining power at all costs.

The Constitution very clearly gives the federal government the right to step in when states undermine democracy with restrictive and discriminatory voting rules. That’s what Congress did more than 50 years ago when it passed the Voting Rights Act.

President Joe Biden and Democratic leaders in the U.S. Senate must do whatever it takes to pass the Freedom to Vote Act. With democracy and voting rights at stake, we cannot let Jim Crow-era filibuster rules in the U.S. Senate have the final word.

Ben Jealous serves as president of People For the American Way.

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