Photograph by Sophia Whyte
“It’s good to be home,” said Congresswoman Barbara Lee to a packed Berkeley High School Community Theater at the “Get out the Vote” rally on October 27. Lee moved to California when she was a teenager, and later attended Mills College, where she was president of the Black Student Union, while raising her two sons as a young single mother. Lee later earned her master’s degree at UC Berkeley.
In the following years, she worked to provide mental health services for East Bay residents, went from intern to Chief of Staff for Congressman Ron Dellums, volunteered with the Black Panthers, founded a small business, served on the California State Assembly, was elected to the State Senate, and in 1998, after an already exceptional career, was elected to Congress. Lee has since represented the East Bay in Congress for 20 years. At the forefront of Lee’s re-election campaign, are issues concerning affordable housing, healthcare, and a strong public education system.
One of the most pressing issues surrounding this election, however, has been voter turnout, which is why Congresswoman Lee and Senator Bernie Sanders are encouraging citizens everywhere to “get out the vote.” Just an hour before they were welcomed on stage by the roaring cheers of adoring Bay Area fans, Lee took a moment to talk with me about the Midterm Elections and the role of young Americans as future voters.
“We just need to engage more young people,” said Lee. “When I was 15, at San Fernando High School, I wanted to be a cheerleader. Cheerleaders were selected by a committee, and I didn’t look like what they thought a cheerleader should look like; I was black. And so I went to the NAACP and we organized and made my high school change the selection rules to where I could try out. And guess what? I was the first black cheerleader at San Fernando High.” 37 years later, Lee became the first African American woman in Northern California elected to the state legislature. “While it’s an honor to be the first, it’s not good,” said Lee. “We need to have more women, more black women, and women of color elected to legislative bodies.”
Lee had never considered becoming a politician before she worked on Shirley Chisholm’s campaign. “When I met Shirley Chisholm, I was President of Black Student Union, but I had never registered to vote.” This election marks the 50th anniversary of Chisholm being elected to Congress as the first African American woman. “We have a long way to go,” said Lee. “I’m only the 20th, can you believe that?”
Lee fights for a future of Americans who see themselves represented by their elected officials, and this future lies in the hands of young voters.
“Young people can make significant changes even though they may not be eligible yet to vote. But boy, when you are, you’ll be ready and woke,” said Lee, pointing to the shiny “stay woke” pin on her chest. Lee is often credited with coining the phrase, and is even quoted in the Merriam-Webster definition of the word “woke.” As this election passes, and our world continues to turn, Lee wants students to remember their power. “You are the revolution that will build progressive leadership and policy,” she tells young Americans.
This passion and hope that radiates from Congresswoman Lee would soon bring thousands of people to their feet, and just before she was whisked away for her speech, she shook my hand and said “get involved in politics, get involved in something you care about, talk to your friends, talk to your neighbors, and talk to every single person you know that can vote.”