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.
Most of us have encountered that one person who exudes the air of a well-rehearsed politician. Though they’re often quite personable, you feel a certain distance with each canned answer, practiced smile, and vague, affable claim that they are “just like you.” It can be charming for a moment, but then you have to wonder who the real person is behind the immaculately crafted image, and if that person will have your best interests at heart when it’s time to create policy.
If you’re lucky, though, you’ll get to meet Kerri Evelyn Harris, a Democratic Senate candidate in Delaware, and you’ll be reminded what a person of and for the people looks like.
Harris is not a seasoned politician like her Democratic opponent, three-term incumbent Tom Carper. She is, however, a queer woman of color who was raised in an environment that prioritized public service. As the daughter of two civil rights activists, Harris quickly learned the importance of community organizing and being of service to those in need. This led her to joining the Air Force, where she provided support for troops and volunteered with Habitat for Humanity to rebuild homes after the devastation of Hurricane Katrina. When she returned to civilian life she continued volunteering and doing a host of odd jobs, including frying chicken at a gas station, mowing lawns, and working as an auto mechanic. In short, Harris has always been a person determined to help her community in any way she can.
Her desire to serve others is evident in the reverent way she speaks about the people of Delaware. There are no perfect soundbites, only the passion of a mother who understands what her state—the country, really—needs, and is ready to use her self-described “loud voice” to get it.
It’s a stark contrast from incumbent Carper, but that doesn’t scare her. In fact, she’s been intentional about being vocal and more of an open book than many in her position would be, and she advised other women who wish to run to do the same.
“Put all your dirt out there,” Harris told HelloGiggles. “Because then nobody can ever hold it against you. I’m broke, I struggle with bills every single months like everybody else. I’m divorced, but I am best of friends with my children’s other mother and it’s a dynamic that works…Put it all out there. It’s a part of your journey and it makes you you, and and it makes you beautiful. You control your own narrative, nobody else does.”
Our chat with Harris—who, by the way, has been endorsed by fellow Congressional candidate Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and will face her primary on September 6th—was full of honesty and compassion as we delved into her decision to run for office, her ideas for fairer education, and why she’s currently struggling with her self-care routine.
HelloGiggles: You’ve lived a life through the filter of serving others, from serving in the military to volunteering in between your many jobs. Do you remember the moment you realized that your next stage of service would be through politics, specifically as a congressional candidate?
Kerri Evelyn Harris: Well, it started last year. I had no intentions to ever be a candidate. I always knew that I would be deeply involved in politics, but I always thought I would be a behind-the-scenes type of person. But when I realized that there was an incredible need here in our state and throughout the country for representation that felt different and fought hard for the people, I knew I had to step up and take that charge.
HG: So, you come from parents who were both civil rights activists. Your father worked closely with migrant workers and your mother helped Black sharecroppers register to vote. Is there one particular story from your parents that you feel helped shape your politics today?
KEH: [My mother] grew up in rural Pennsylvania. She never saw a Black person until she was 10. I remember my grandmother saying that the first time my mother met a Black person, she stared and my grandmother was so embarrassed. They moved from rural Pennsylvania to Southern California [for a better education]. So my mom went from a very mono-ethnic area to a very ethnically diverse area and it shaped her. I remember her telling a story that when the news started to televise the Civil Rights movement, she immediately knew what she had to do. She came home and told her father that she was leaving and she was going to work with the movement.
She knew that was, without question, what had to be done. She knew nobody should ever be treated like that, let alone for something so superficial as the color of your skin. She was attacked by KKK members, run out of town by the sheriff. They would put rattlesnakes in their cars so they would never open their glove box. For her this was just what life was, and activism was what was mandated, and she would say that if the decision was never made by civil rights leaders to ensure that the revolution was televised, she would have never known. So she always impressed upon us the need to be loud about what was necessary for change in our communities.
And for my father, his work alongside unions and activism was something they knew they had to do. Nothing I’m doing is new; I’m just piggybacking off my parents.
HG: Looking over your education agenda, the summation of your platform is clear: the playing field needs to be drastically leveled. Your points about universal public Pre-K and ending the school-to-prison pipeline stand out in particular. What do you feel is essential for both of these things to happen?
KEH: Re-prioritization of funding and individuals. There are few people that don’t know the line from Tupac, “We have money for wars, but can’t feed the poor.” We heard that earlier during the Vietnam movement. Now as a veteran, I can tell you the same thing. We are constantly told whenever we want social progress that there is no money. Yet over and over and over again we find ways to be inhumane and violent, and that’s a problem.
We are told over and over again that our children are our future, but we never find a constant investment in them. Especially for communities of color, we’re seeing education gaps as young as 2 years old. We’re talking about possibly having free college and eventually I would love to get to that, but what good is free college if you don’t really have the skills you need when you graduate from high school? We have to seal those cracks in our foundation, and it starts with our youngest.
HG: Is there a particular policy point that you could talk about more?
KEH: My thing is, what we aren’t focusing on enough is the need to meet people’s basic needs. That’s why I push so heavily on universal pre-K, raising the minimum wage, and universal health care. Because if you’re worried about the health of yourself and your family, then you can’t focus and be productive in our society. If you’re working minimum-wage jobs—and I know this first-hand—then you have to work another minimum-wage and then another one, and then you don’t have time to be with your family and then you wonder why children are struggling. There’s no support.
HG: Running a campaign has to be a rewarding, yet grueling, process. Do you practice any self care in order to maintain your energy and ability to keep going?
KEH: I’m getting better at it, but sometimes it’s not so easy, so there isn’t always time. I have someone who is with me all the time—my chief aide. I’m with him probably 16 hours a day and he’s really helpful regarding my schedule. Prior to that and even now sometimes, there’s not enough time to eat, drink, and go to the bathroom, but whenever we can he tries to make it happen. But especially now [since] we’re really close to winning, the time is not mine. It belongs to everyone else, because we need this change. There is no option.
But when I can, I like to go for walks. I like to be in the neighborhood. I tend to be somebody who really likes nature, but that hasn’t been able to happen recently. There’s something about being among trees that brings me peace. But I guess that will happen in November.
And then I have two kids, and they are amazing. So any extra time I have with them, I try to give them everything I can. I have a 1-year-old and he doesn’t know any different, but my 7-year-old, she is so supportive. There are times when I’m so exhausted that I fall asleep while we’re doing things and she’ll just cover me up with a blanket and check on me to make sure I had a good nap.
If anything reenergizes me, it’s them and knowing especially that my daughter also knows how important it is [to be involved]. She was also raised to be an activist, so she’ll tell you, “We’re gonna save the world again! Right, mama?” And I’m like, “Yup, we’re gonna save the world again.”
HG: If there’s one thing that you could advise other women and girls who wish to run for office, especially if they are like yourself and running against a major candidate, what would it be?
KEH: There’s this study that says something like, if a man is asked to run for office, it takes one or two times and he says yes. If a woman is asked to run for office, it takes about six times before she says yes. And that’s because in general we think about a lot more things—and that’s not to say that men are so removed and don’t have concerns. But we have to consider what’s going to happen with our parents and our children.
We need to know that the community needs us. For instance, the office I’m running for, there have been over 1,700 people that served as senators. Of those people all over history, only 52 have been women. Of those 52 women, only four have been minorities. They need our voices. Our legislation doesn’t reflect our needs. And even outside our race and our gender, we need diversity of experience. If everybody is coming from a pipeline, by the time they get to Congress they often have forgotten what it’s like to be a regular American. And so when they’re writing legislation, even when they have the best intentions, they leave us in the margins. Because there’s a difference between saying, “Don’t forget about them” and saying “Whoa, what about us?” And we need that. We need that voice that truly understands our struggles.
And finally, you have to know that you are powerful and you are capable. We run this world, we do it on our own all the time. We have to be encouraging to our entire community. We pick each other up and carry each other on our shoulders every single day. Don’t ever doubt yourself.