Ayanna Pressley was the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council, and now she's ready to transform Congress
The November 2018 election is coming up, and more women than ever are running for Congress. In our She’s Running series, HelloGiggles is highlighting some of the young, progressive women candidates who are reshaping the face of politics just by campaigning—and could have a hand in reshaping our future. Still need to register to vote? Do it here.
If a true leader is someone who challenges convention, stands boldly in their truth, and keeps fighting even when it’s inconvenient, then Democratic congressional candidate Ayanna Pressley is a true leader. A lifelong activist and current Boston city councilor, Pressley has devoted herself fully to the uplift of women and girls, and her commitment to them has never wavered.
“I was a Big Sister, I did motivational speaking, and I would give the girls my cell phone number and they would call me at all hours,” she told HelloGiggles in a recent interview. “They would call and say, ‘My uncle touched me, can you help? I know this happened to you, too,’ because I’m a survivor of a decade of childhood sexual abuse and, later in life, campus sexual assault. I’d always been very transparent about these things.”
That’s a big part of the way Pressley leads: She’s transparent about everything she’s survived because she knows countless others have survived the same—and they need an ally.
“I wanted to run for office so that I could champion and advance gender-specific and responsive programming, protocols, and policies to support girls and women. And especially girls, because I do believe that broken girls have an increased likelihood of growing up to be broken women, and our communities simply can’t afford that,” she said.
When she was first elected to the Boston City Council, she asked every department what they were doing specifically for women and girls, and while there were a handful of programs, Pressley pushed her fellow councilors to think about and build policy around the experiences of their female constituents.
“Now when we’re in budget, they come with reports and binders, and that is the power of representation. The power of someone with a new lens that sees different constituencies, and raises and spotlights new issues,” she said. “I’d like to think I’ve done that in my eight years on the council.”
Pressley’s years in local politics have resulted in real change: She pushed through a policy to help teen moms graduate high school, transformed sex ed in public schools, and so much more. Now, she’s ready to take on Congress. Running in Massachusetts’s 7th Congressional District, Pressley will challenge incumbent Rep. Michael Capuano in the state’s Democratic primary on September 4th. Here, she opens up about why she’s running and the kind of leader she’ll be if elected.
HelloGiggles: I’d love to know what first motivated you to get into politics.
Ayanna Pressley: Honestly, the most formidable figure in my life in every way, and certainly in terms of role modeling community organizing, movement-building, [and] political engagement, is my mother. Truthfully it’s hard for me to distill one defining moment. It’s been since I was in utero, since my very inception. But the long and short of it is that my mother, who held many jobs, working to make ends meet while she raised me alone, one of those jobs was as a tenants’ rights organizer for the Urban League of Chicago. She was also, at different points, a social worker, and she was very active in our church and in the ministries at our church.
Because of where we lived and hardships in our family around abuse, incarceration, addiction, not feeling safe in community all the time, there were a lot of reasons why we could have felt invisible, voiceless, small. But my mother made sure that on Election Day, we knew we were powerful and that it was our civic duty and our responsibility to not only hold government accountable—because we deserved to feel safe in community, have quality schools, a job that treats you with dignity and pays you a good wage, affordable, quality health care, all those things—but it was our responsibility to work with government. And that has certainly shaped me. I just remember her taking me to vote with her for every election and standing at her waist, and we would go in, and she would pull the curtain, and I just remember standing up a little bit taller in those moments.
HG: You became Boston’s first black woman city councilor in 2009, is that correct?
AP: I was the first woman of color—period—to be elected to the Boston City Council. I was very honored and humbled to earn the confidence and the trust and the partnership of the electorate, especially championing an agenda prioritizing the safety, development, and health and wellness of women and girls. When I first ran for the city council, I was the only woman running in a field of 15 candidates. I said I was running to save girls, and people told me to go run a nonprofit; that was not the work of municipal government, and certainly not the job of a Boston city councilor. But I think I changed their minds…and the electorate agreed. I’ve been the top vote-getter for three elections, and I was the first person of color to ever do that and the first woman in 30 years. Since I was elected to the council, five more women have been elected. Each of them worked so hard to earn their seats, but I do take some personal pride in having broken a double glass ceiling.
HG: You shared with me that you’re a survivor of sexual assault. Why is it important to you to be open about that experience, and how has it factored into your work?
AP: Before anyone wants to hear what you know, they first need to know that you care, and I think a part of that care is about transparency—to build the integrity of the relationship, to foster empathy and understanding. And so [before I got into politics] I was transparent about my past because I felt as though sometimes the girls [I worked with in communities] would see me come into a meeting in my suit and my pearls and my heels, and they’d make a lot of assumptions about where I came from, what my life was like. I wanted them to know that self-esteem is not an inevitability—it’s something that’s earned, that’s built up over time—and that I was still grappling with a lot of insecurities that were informed by life challenges and traumas and hardships. And I also wanted them to see a path forward, what it could look like on the other side. So I was transparent about these things for the purposes of my own healing, but mostly to create space and dignity for others to feel safe to do the same. Or if they never did disclose it publicly, to disclose it to themselves so they could do the internal work and get on the pathway to the healing they deserve. But also so that they would know that someone sees them.
So I take a lot of pride in being an unapologetic and vocal advocate for my survivor community. I do want to say that what’s missing in [the #MeToo, Time’s Up, and Enough is Enough movements] is domestic violence—we still don’t talk about that. My mother was a survivor of that, so I’ve seen up close and personal how two-generational poverty is often coupled with two-generational trauma, which is often also two-generational poor outcomes in every other way. So the way to disrupt this generational trauma is through advocacy, speaking truth to power, and through lawmaking and making sure that efforts on the ground have the resources they need, because more people are disclosing now than ever before.
HG: What are the types of policies or laws that you feel would address these issues and support your goals? How would you address these issues if elected to Congress?
AP: To be clear, I’m running for Congress because the issues I’ve dedicated my life to addressing—economic inequality, the wealth and wage gap, structural racism, gun violence—all of these inequalities and disparities are worsening…under this administration, with their draconian, bigoted, cruel, and short-sighted politics. But the reality for the Mass. 7th is that these systemic inequalities existed long before Trump occupied the White House.
So I’ve developed an Equity Agenda to improve these disparate outcomes and change the legacy of the Mass. 7th from being the most diverse and the most unequal district in our delegation, and arguably one of the most unequal in our country. This was a seat that was previously held by John F. Kennedy, which says to me, as one of if not the most progressive seats in the country, that it’s an incredible platform and seat and vantage point with which to lead, to be bold, and to be innovative.
Certainly the safety, development, and health and wellness of women and girls remains a priority for me, and that’s about preserving the [Affordable Care Act], as much as it is about pushing for single-payer health care, Medicare for all, as much as it is right now about organizing a phone bank in resistance to the [Brett] Kavanaugh nomination [to the Supreme Court]. I reject the notion that because we’re in the minority [as Democrats] that there’s nothing we can do. If this administration is coming at us like a locomotive to undo every civil right, protection, and freedom that we’ve fought for and we’ve earned, I’m gonna make it damn hard for them. But I’m not gonna do it alone. I’m going to organize and mobilize in the resistance, but also legislate our values to advance and improve the Massachusetts 7th.
Specifically where survivors are concerned, there is a Survivors’ Bill of Rights, but I want to take a look at it and see if there are other things we could consider in that, and I also want us to more broadly define ‘survivor.’ I’d like to include in that surviving family members who have lost loved ones to gun violence. They’re often not seen as stakeholders in the peace process for how to break cycles of violence, and they need to be. It’s something I’ve done locally and want to do nationally. One of the things we need to do a much better job at, particularly in the Mass. 7th, is ensuring those family members get the justice they deserve, because not only are they robbed of a loved one, they rarely get justice.
HG: There’s been a lot of criticism of your candidacy based on what certain groups call ‘identity politics.’ I’d like to ask what your response to that is, and why it’s important to you to lead from your lived experience.
AP: This question just upsets me so much. The thing is, this ‘identity politics’ play is a very predictable play out of the GOP handbook, and the fact that Democrats—people who call themselves Democrats—would lobby this charge against me and candidates like me is infuriating and offensive, and makes me very sad. These charges are only lobbied against women and candidates of color. We’re the big-tent party, [and] a big-tent party believes that diversity is our strength. We say that all the time. So are we a party that espouses values that make for great hashtags and bumper stickers, but we’re not prepared to put in the work to actualize and make real? I am black, and I am a woman, and I am unapologetically proud to be both. And I am an elected official, and a policymaker, and a wife, and a mother, and I was a caregiver to my mother at the end of [her] life battling a chronic, terminal illness, and I am an activist leader and a problem solver. That’s what these times require, and that’s what this district deserves.
HG: Thanks so much for answering that question. I’ve read a bit about your Democratic primary opponent, Rep. Michael Capuano, and have seen claims that the two of you share very similar policy positions. What are the biggest things that you think set you apart?
AP: We will vote the same, because this is Massachusetts and a dark blue district. All or most Democrats will vote the same. We will lead differently. This is the most progressive seat in the country, so to have a progressive voting record is not a profile in courage, that is baseline doing your job and keeping your job. We have got to build different muscle in these times. A reliable vote is not enough, and we have got to define leadership as more than how someone votes or how many years they’ve served. Because seniority and being in the majority doesn’t mean anything about leadership, and I want to lead—whether we’re in the minority, or whether we’re in the majority.
As an example, when we were in the majority and my opponent had seniority and advocates came to him after the Virginia Tech shooting and said, ‘Will you push for a vote on gun control?’, he said, ‘No, because we already know we’re going to lose.’ That is a key difference in how we will lead differently. I’m not going to abdicate my responsibility to lead, especially on an issue like gun violence, which is not just about Virginia Tech and Parkland, Florida. It is an issue in [my district]; in Roxbury, in Mattapan, in Dorchester, and it has been for 20 years and it’s only been worsening.
Now, violence is a byproduct of many other social determinants, and I have been working my entire adult life to address the issue and the root causes of gun violence. It’s one of the reasons why I’m running. It’s why I’ve been endorsed by Moms Demand [Action for Gun Sense in America]. One of my rallying cries is to treat this as a public health crisis and epidemic. I’m running for Congress because that’s what I want to go there and do. If the CDC can study influenza, they can study the root causes of gun violence. And I want to fight for a federal investment in trauma-sensitive and trauma-informed schools to ensure student and school safety. School nurses, social workers, guidance counselors. My opponent thinks the solution is more school police. That is not the fix.
HG: Finally, what message do you want to send to young black women, young women of color, who might want to run for office but don’t feel ready, feel nervous, feel unqualified?
AP: Don’t let anyone tell you that you’re not qualified or that you have nothing to contribute. By the very nature of existing, and I would say this to anyone, you are qualified. You have a point of view, and you have something to contribute. The greatest thing about activism is that there is no eligibility age, and there is no shelf life. My advice is, don’t obsess about a position. Crystalize and be clear on your purpose, and the rest will fall into place. You have to run before you run. Because what voters want is authenticity. Our platforms are supposed to be an extension and an actualization of our values—what we believe, what we hold dearest. So my advice is, don’t let anyone discount you and discredit you and say you’re not qualified, you’re not capable, and you’re not ready. Secondly, stand in your truth. Be unapologetically you. Continue to build you up so you can build your community and the world up. We need you.
This interview has been edited and condensed.