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By Rep. Ayanna Pressley as told to Erika Alexander
In 2018, Ayanna Pressley made history and became the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. With her arrival to Washington, D.C., she joined the largest, diverse wave of legislators in Congress’ history. Pressley’s charisma and modern style was further displayed when she became part of the outlier team of four freshmen congresswomen self-dubbed “The Squad.” We asked Pressley about her thoughts on another superstar in the House, California’s 43rd District Rep. Maxine Waters.
Erika Alexander: Maxine Waters is my congresswoman. I live in her district in Los Angeles, and I admire her work and tenacity. As a freshman in Congress, how has she inspired you?
Ayanna Pressley: Well, first let me just say of course I’ve derived inspiration from her, and she’s also been a source of strength and great pride. But I think Maxine Waters is all of our congresswoman. Her influence has no boundaries. She is unapologetically in pursuit of deliberation and the upliftment and advancement of all people but unapologetically, especially Black folks.
So I felt mentored by her example before I ever became a member of Congress, and now I have the honor of serving on the Financial Services Committee under her leadership, which is historic in and of itself. This Black woman is the chair of the Financial Services Committee, an incredibly powerful committee. And to have her at the helm of this committee, with all of the important issues under its jurisdiction — from housing to addressing economic injustices like red lining, addressing the crisis of student loan debt, addressing credit invisibility, to the impact of underbanking in our community.
The very first full committee hearing that we had in this democratic majority Congress, under this historic chairwoman of the Financial Services Committee, was on homelessness. First of its kind. I was mentored by her example from afar; I claimed her as my congresswoman even though I lived in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. And now I seek her counsel and benefit from her example every day.
“Reclaiming my time.” That’s become her iconic tagline. What does that mean to you?
It’s more than a tagline. The reason why it struck such a deeply resonant chord is because as Black women, we have been objectified. Our very existence, being in our bodies, our hair criminalized. The world has tried to render us invisible, unseen and unheard. So it was deeply resonant because reclaiming my time is certainly more than just the congresswoman during the full committee hearing reclaiming her “literal” time. It is as metaphorical as it is literal. I often reference her saying that to say, “As Black women, we are not only reclaiming our time, we are reclaiming our healing, and we are reclaiming our justice.”
You came in strong, Ayanna. You upset all expectations, and you have this superpower; you’re an outstanding communicator. And you’ve been vocal about a lot things like Maxine Waters has been about impeachment. Being vocal makes her a target and makes you a target. How does being a powerful communicator isolate you?
You’re very generous in your analysis. I thank you for that, but if there is a superpower or a muscle I’m flexing, it’s not muscle that belongs singularly or uniquely to me. That’s why “reclaiming my time, reclaiming our healing, reclaiming our justice, reclaiming our power” is so important, because this is who we’ve always been. It’s just a matter of our standing firmly in it, owning it, just flat-footed and just standing in it and doing it unapologetically.
Congresswoman Waters has, I believe, created space for us and emboldened more of us to do that because she has been unflappable in the face of many indignities and insults, including from the occupant of this White House. She’s unflinching. And that emboldens all of us to be steadfast in the pursuit of justice. And she’s also a truth teller. So if there is a muscle that I’m flexing, if there’s a superpower that I demonstrate, it is not unique or singular to me. This is our superpower. This is the role that we have played in society. We are table shakers, we are disruptors, we are the truth tellers, we are the seekers of justice, we are the preservers of democracy. So I’m just doing my best to honor that tradition and that role that we have played throughout our history.
The other thing that I want to offer is, she certainly has the grit and the grace. And we talk often of her strength, but I’ve also seen her tenderness. And I feel this from her all the time. She giggles. We have intimate moments, and she is warm and witty, and I’m always teasing her about it — admiring how fashionable she is, how indefatigable she is.
One of the moments that stays with me is my daughter came to visit me, and she recognized Congresswoman Waters right away and was just enamored by her. And that’s a testament to the transcendent, multigenerational impact that Congresswoman Waters has had. My daughter, Cora, knew enough to know that this is someone that fights for us and this was someone she wanted to meet.
And then Congresswoman Waters took her hand, took her away from me and spent so much time. Here’s this incredibly powerful woman, so many people are trying to get her time, to get her attention, and she probably spent 20 minutes with my daughter on the floor of the House. Just gave her full and complete attention while my daughter talked with her about her fears, about heading into middle school, and asked a ton of questions about the process of voting. About so many things.
And I was just struck by the fact that in the midst of all the demands in her life and what can sometimes be dizziness and the intensity of the floor of the House of Representatives, that she made my daughter feel like she was the only person in the room. And that is her gift. That when she speaks, when she legislates, when she tells the truth — heart speaks to heart — and you feel like she’s just speaking to you. To be able to bear witness to that in small spaces, in committee rooms, at a corner at a pull-aside, or on a big stage. It’s just a gift. I’m just in awe of her. Truly just in awe of her.
Recently, at the Congressional Black Caucus ALC week, I went to her annual reception. There were big signs and posters, if you will, throughout the events space. They said “Auntie Maxine!” I was struck by the diversity of people in the room, spanning generations. She has not waned. She’s not waned in her pursuit of justice, and her impact is far-reaching.
This story is part of Moonrakers 2020, the inaugural edition of The Blackness from Color Farm Media, published in partnership with ZORA.