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Catching Up with Congresswoman Barbara Lee

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The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation's Annual Legislative Conference has been dubbed one of the most powerful weeks in Washington. On its opening day this week, ESSENCE.com tagged along (or tried to!) with CBC President, Congresswoman Barbara Lee, one of the city's most powerful women. From the panels to the parties, here's a look at some of the happenings about town, through the bustling schedule of the Washington insider... 8:50 A.M. Walking through the marble corridors of the Capitol Visitors Center, toward the auditorium for a "Pathways Out of Poverty" summit, CBC Communications Director Jioni Palmer greets me. I've arrived an hour early and the auditorium (he informs me while busily attending to two Blackberrys) hasn't opened yet. "Excuse me," he says, darting off with one of the event's sign language interpreters to show her the setup. 9:50 A.M. By now the audience has swelled to about 200 people: members of Congress and the public, government staffers, policy experts. Congresswoman Lee -- forgoing a business suit for an animal-printed bronze tunic and cream slacks -- saunters onstage with Dr. Elsie Scott, president and CEO of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation (CBCF) and other lawmakers. Each sits at the table at center stage, as Dr. Scott welcomes us to the official kickoff of the 40th Annual Legislative Conference. 10:00 A.M. Congresswoman Lee takes the podium next, beaming. "Yes, we're going to talk about race, politics and policy!" she says energetically. Serving as Mistress of Ceremonies, she keeps the program moving, introducing presenters including Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, who speaks about the healthcare reform law's emphasis on drawing minorities into the health workforce; and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who wins loud applause with this line: "Tell your friends -- in the first eight months of the Obama Administration, more jobs have been created than in the eight years of the Bush Administration!" 11:14 A.M. Lee spends a bit more time introducing the next speaker, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack. "Secretary Vilsack got to be known as a result of what happened when a great woman, in her quiet strength and courage, was in an inenarrable situation," she says, referring to the forced resignation of former USDA worker Shirley Sherrod. Lee goes on to applaud Vilsack's character for quickly, and sincerely, apologizing for his mistake. Vilsack focuses most of his remarks on the yet-to-be-paid settlement for Black farmers, who suffered discrimination from county USDA officials throughout the rural South. "It's long overdue," he says of the money, which must be allocated by a deadlocked Congress. "And there's no reason why it should not be resolved, to give some measure of justice to people who were so discriminated against over the course of many, many years." 11:53 A.M. Representative Lee's got to run, and gives speedy remarks transitioning into the summit's second segment. She quickly exits the stage, and I spring from my seat to follow. 12:00 P.M. The Congresswoman, Jioni and I power walk through the maze that is the U.S. Capitol Building: winding hallways, the "Members Only" elevator, the basement rail system that transports officials from one side of the building to the other. On the phone with one of her staffers, Lee talks about changes she wants to make to upcoming speeches -- and realizes she's forgotten her file of them back at the auditorium. Jioni and I do an about-face to fetch the papers, while Lee continues on to her office. 12:30 P.M. By the time we've arrived to the Congresswoman's office, she has already left. Lee's Communications Director, Nicole Williams, and scheduler, Tatyana Kalinga, are waiting for us. "We're going to meet the Congresswoman," says Tatyana, already heading out the door. "We're on the move." Back through the Capitol Building maze we go... 12:50 P.M. ...and after stepping off a large freight elevator ("This is the super-secret elevator," jokes Nicole), we walk immediately into a reception hosted by Green for All, an organization ensuring that green jobs are established in minority communities. The spacious room is filled with about 150 young professionals, lawmakers -- and, hey, actor Lamman Rucker! Representative Lee is just beginning her speech about the CBC's commitment to building a green energy economy. 12:58 P.M. After Green for All president and CEO Phaedra Ellis-Lamkins presents Lee and other CBC members with a plaque honoring their dedication, Lee poses for photos. I squeeze in a bite of the reception's macaroni and cheese, greens and mashed sweet potatoes, served on eco-friendly bamboo plates. Yum! 1:00 P.M. Ten minutes after we arrive, Representative Lee and Nicole dash off for the Washington Convention Center. Jioni, two of Lee's interns -- a recent Spelman graduate named DeBrittany, and Ilana, a recent Brown grad -- and I catch a cab to meet them. 1:57 P.M. Jioni and I can't get backstage. Michelle Obama is in the house for this panel, called "The ABCs of Healthy Student Learning: Addressing Disparities in Academic Achievement and Health," and we haven't been cleared by Secret Service. So we sit in the audience in the large convention room, listening to a discussion on health centers in public schools. We haven't heard from Nicole and are not quite sure if the Congresswoman is here. 2:22 P.M. Nicole emails us: "She's at the convention center." 2:24 P.M. And suddenly, Lee appears onstage. Although she's just arrived moments earlier, she appears relaxed, cheerful and goes straight into her introduction of the First Lady. 2:30 P.M. Along with a very excited audience, we watch on as Mrs. Obama passionately explains the pillars of her Let's Move campaign, which tackles the issue of obesity in America with poverty in mind. "We can't just declare that our kids need to get more exercise when they don't have parks to play in or safe streets to walk on," she says. (applause) "We can't just tell folks to put more fruits and vegetables on the dinner table when many a family lives miles from the nearest grocery store." (applause) 6:28 P.M. Having spent the afternoon attending to office work, the Congresswoman arrives at the headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women. We're here for a reception in honor of Susan L. Taylor, the iconic former ESSENCE editor-in-chief, and her National Cares Mentoring Movement. About 80 members from National Cares chapters around the country (there are 56 in total) -- along with author and radio host Michael Eric Dyson, Congressman Ed Towns, and former Congressman J.C. Watts -- stand in the building's stately foyer, chatting over hors d'oeuvres. "You look great!" exclaims Taylor, as she and the Congresswoman embrace. 7:02 P.M. Stepping to the podium, Representative Lee launches into her fourth speech of the day. "I wish I'd had a National Cares Mentoring Movement when I was raising my two young boys as a single mom on public assistance," she says. "I was desperate for mentors. I wanted someone to teach my boys what it meant to be young Black men. I wanted a Black man help them sort through the issues they were dealing with as young kids." 7:10 P.M. The Congresswoman and I part ways after the reception. Standing outside the NCNW headquarters, she apologizes for the day being "a little scattered, but you know how it is." I ask if, based on the first day, this year feels different from past conferences. "Well, it's a continuation," she says. "Each year we beat the drum, but more importantly we want to listen to the voices of people you often don't hear from. My goal is to make sure their elected officials embrace the Congressional Black Caucus' agenda because it's going to affect the entire country. What's good for the Black community is good for America." With that, Representative Lee steps into her SUV, and is off to the next event. For more of Cynthia Gordy's Obama Watch stories, click here.
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