While she was growing up on the Northside of Chicago, Ayanna Pressley’s focus was mostly, if not always, on the world outside of her Lincoln Park apartment window. At the age of eight, her first coloring book wasn’t filled with teddy bears and enchanted forests. Instead she remembers coloring in the vivid red, black and green lines of the the Pan-African flag.
“My first coloring book, I remember it very distinctly, was produced by The Chicago Defender, the Black newspaper of Chicago. And I was learning my colors by learning the meaning of the colors of the Black liberation flag,” Pressley recalls.
Two years later, at age 10, she volunteered on Harold Washington’s first political campaign, who ultimately became the city’s first Black mayor in 1983. Despite her young age and Washington’s devastatingly short tenure, the experience was foundational. She was voted most likely to be the mayor of Chicago when she graduated high school.
Pressley was a serious kid whose stern worldview crystalized into the building blocks needed to sustain a steady career. Despite frequently being hailed as some kind of overnight millennial politico, the 46-year old is not new to this. Nearly twenty-five years ago, Pressley began as an unpaid intern for then Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II. She then worked for United States Senator John Kerry for 11 years and before running for Congress, she was on the Boston City Council for eight years.
These were legislated hurts. The path to equity and to justice and to healing is also through lawmaking.—Ayanna Pressley
In 2018 Pressley made history as Massachusetts’ first Black woman elected to congress. She defeated 10-term incumbent Michael Capuano, an outcome that she remains humbled by two years later, describing her victory as “improbable.”
“When [myself and my team] took our oath of office, we entered in the midst of a federal government shutdown, a year from the date of our being in Congress, we were voting on articles of impeachment. Of course, I voted in the affirmative,” she says.
Weeks later, she was diagnosed with alopecia universalis—an autoimmune disease which causes hair to fall out from the scalp, face and other parts of the body. All of this was compounded by the fact that she, like so many of us during that time, was fearful that we were on the brink of another war. Then in 2020, COVID-19 struck.
Everything is Political
When it comes to Black women navigating the political landscape, everything is political. Even the not so political stuff. The same rings true for Pressley. In January, the Congresswoman bared her soul with the world after she appeared in a video for The Root, announcing that she not only had alopecia but that she would no longer be donning a wig. While Pressley doesn’t particularly think that she is any more brave or bold for her actions, she understands the weight of her decision.
“For me, I think ultimately it’s about authentically showing up for yourself, and just knowing that I think we all have a responsibility to not only occupy space, but to create space for others,” she says. “And you get to decide what that looks like for you. But I know for me as a Black woman in politics, that everything I do is political, how I enter a room, how I show up, how I’m dressed, what I wrap these curves in.”
Despite Pressley’s confidence, and decades of experience under her belt, she admits that there are days that she’s thought about quitting. Though, she isn’t one to linger on the bad or her accolades, there’s work to do and people to serve. Afterall she’s the granddaughter of a Baptist preacher. Her leadership training began in the church.
On her legacy as a Congresswoman she says, “It’s important to me that I’m more than a first, that I’m not the last and that I have a long legislative record because the disproportionate hate, hurt, and harm that Black folks have experienced was not a naturally occurring event. These were legislated hurts. The path to equity and to justice and to healing is also through lawmaking.”
When it comes to lawmaking, one of the first bills that Pressley wrote within 14 days as a member of Congress was a workers’ rights bill. “I’m very proud that I have introduced more bills than any other freshman member of Congress because that’s what I went to Washington to do,” she says. As someone who’s been the caretaker of her family since a young age—from working at Foot Locker as a teen to help her mother pay the bills, to juggling multiple jobs while working her first paid job for an elected official—she’s acutely tapped into the hardships of those often left behind.
“My very first paid job working for an elected official, I was making $7,000 annually,” Pressley says. “I had to work a lot of other jobs in order to make the rent, and to support my mother, who had been laid off, and was also battling cancer. I remember going into that interview after having been an intern and now they wanted to offer me a paid position and I said, “What’s the salary?” They said $7,000. I thought I got it all up front,” she says recalling the novice mistake.
Luckily the once freshman Democrat is now a seasoned pro. And on the heels of an election and under the weight of unprecedented times, Pressley remains unmoved.
“People always ask me if I’m weary, if I’m growing cynical or apathetic. And my response is always the same, ‘I don’t have the luxury. We don’t have the luxury,” she says.
To hear more about Ayanna Pressley’s political rise and the radical importance of Black joy check out the latest episode of UnBossed podcast.