Putting “People Over Profits”: Meet 3 Black Women Aiming for Progress in Congress
From Left: Mckayla Wilkes campaiGN; Salwan Georges/ The Washington Post via Getty Images; Odessa Kelly campaign.

The coronavirus pandemic brought to light what many Black women already knew: Our communities have endured generations of inequality, and it manifests in every segment of society. In the past year, Black Americans acutely felt the pain of a weak social safety net, governmental neglect and business interests eager to “get back to normal,” often at the expense of public health. But “normal” isn’t the priority for a group of -congressional hopefuls with their sights on joining the House of Representatives. Meet three Black women aiming to be the real change America needs.  

In 2014, Mckayla Wilkes, the executive director of Schools Not Jails, was several months pregnant with her daughter and made repeated trips to the hospital to treat chest pain. The hospital staff dismissed her symptoms, concluding she was having a panic attack. But doctors finally discovered she had blood clots behind both knees. “I had health insurance that didn’t want to pay for my medicine, even though I was pregnant,” she says. “To me it felt like they were just going to let me die.” 

This experience pushed Wilkes to advocate for better health care, through Medicare for All, as she campaigns to represent Maryland’s 5th Congressional District. “For me, -making sure that everyone has free, public health care is important,” she says. In a 2018 audit, the Department of Health and Human Services expressed concern that some insurers, by denying care, may be acting more in their financial interests than in the interest of patients. Wilkes believes this sort of corporate practice could have ended her life. The pandemic has also illustrated the dangers of tying health insurance to employment—as Black women and Latinas have suffered a higher rate of job losses than any other demographic since February 2020, according to a Pew Research Center study. Wilkes stresses that having public health care independent of employment, through Medicare for All for example, could address that gap. “When we talk about universal health care, we must discuss medical -racism,” she adds, suggesting that substandard care led to her initial misdiagnosis. 

Though the incumbent in her district, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, is a founding member of the Black Maternal Health Caucus, he has not expressed support for Medicare for All. Says Wilkes, “Pharmaceutical companies and insurance agencies are among his contributors.”  

Wilkes, former Ohio state senator Nina Turner and Nashville-based organizer Odessa Kelly all make clear that Black households often endure conditions our predecessors fought, with limited success, to improve. The pandemic has only increased the urgency for meaningful change. 

Black Americans have made some symbolic gains in politics and media, but signals of progress are no substitute for implementing policies necessary to achieve it. “The key word,” Wilkes notes, “is progress”—which she says includes “putting people over profits. If you put profit over people and take special-interest money, there’s no way you can be -progressive. Progress is going full-throttle, and fighting just as hard for people as those on the right do to maintain the status quo.” 

Nina Turner agrees. “Progressivism is very much rooted in a liberation doctrine,” she says. A candidate in Ohio’s August 3rd special election, she is running to fill a seat left vacant by newly appointed HUD Secretary Marcia Fudge. Turner speaks with a pastor’s conviction, drawing upon the dictate of -“liberation doctrine” that we do unto others as we would have them do unto us. “Love your neighbor as yourself,” she says. “Fight like hell for other people. I want to help create an -America, and a world, as good as its promise.”  

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Many residents in Ohio’s 11th Congressional District, which spans the majority-Black neighborhoods between Cleveland and Akron, have yet to see this promise realized. Cleveland is America’s poorest big city, according to data analysis by the Cleveland-based think tank the Center for Community -Solutions. The area’s poverty, Turner observes, is painfully juxtaposed with a legacy of exorbitant wealth.  

Economic inequality has only grown more entrenched in the past 40 years, and Turner insists that “systemic problems deserve systemic solutions.” For her, this demands a progressive platform that, like Wilkes’s, supports transformative policies—such as instituting Medicare for All and canceling all student-loan debt. “Black women hold the greatest amount of student-loan debt in the country,” says Turner. “If you want to talk about a racial-justice measure that would have immediate positive impact for Black women and their communities, canceling student-loan debt would achieve that.”  

Two states to the south, Odessa Kelly is also running on a progressive platform, as she sees firsthand how corporate interests impact her neighbors in Tennessee’s 5th Congressional District. “Corporations have taken over Nashville and the Middle Tennessee area, exacerbating gentrification, especially for Black communities,” she says. “It’s so hard for us to get a $15 minimum wage across the country, because you have corporate lobbyists and business models that make money off the oppression of someone or some class of people. Unfortunately, it’s always Black and Brown people.”  

Kelly, an HBCU graduate of Tennessee State University, leads the nonprofit Stand Up Nashville. She once worked for the city’s parks department, helping to operate a food bank. “The majority of people coming into the food bank had on work uniforms,” she recalls. “When you don’t pay employees a living wage, this is the type of need you create.”  

The candidate’s appreciation for working-class Black families undergirds her labor-centric priorities, including her support for Green New Deal union jobs and the PRO Act (H.R. 842). The latter, which passed the House in March, protects workers who want to unionize and penalizes companies that violate workers’ rights. “It’s highly important that we build union power,” Kelly states, “so workers have some autonomy over their lives—so they can advocate for themselves and negotiate what a workplace looks like.” 

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