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kamala harris empowers the new wave in black politics

November 1, 2018
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Think of the all the brilliant Black people that have etched their names into history as “The First” in their chosen profession. Think of all the things they were told when they dared to venture into territory closed off to people like them. It’s not your turn. It’s not your time. This was the sentiment shared with Kamala Harris when she decided to run for district attorney in San Fransisco. Her reply: “I eat ‘No’ for breakfast,” according to Intelligencer.

Harris is sharing that energy with other women of color entering politics, in the form of mentorship. As the only Black woman in Senate (and the second to ever serve) Harris used to be one of the few Black women figures in politics but, thankfully, that has changed partly because the California Senator had set out, from early in her career, to ensure that she would not remain the only one. “I do feel a responsibility,” said Harris. “It’s about paying it forward: other people did it for me, and it’s kind of like, this is what you do. It’s not whimsical. It’s — literally, I feel — a duty.”

Harris has established a long-running, personal practice of quietly prioritizing young people of color running for office for the first time. One could say she is the First Black women to usher in the new wave of “First Black women” in hopes that “Firsts” one day become redundant.

“The effort has included joint appearances, but also hours of behind-the-scenes advice and political groundwork for a wide range of newcomers.” Harris has built a coast-to-coast network of young and eager politicians that are indebted to the Senator, who insists her work with these new politicians is not a strategy. Her mentorship can be traced back to her early days as district attorney, displayed by her long-time mentorship of London Breed, the current Mayor of San Fransisco. “There’s a saying in the community where I grew up: Each one, pull one,’” Harris said. “The idea being that — you know, it’s self-explanatory. Each one, pull one. You get there, and you pull others up with you.”

The sense of community applied to political office cannot be undersold in its effectiveness. Andrea Dew Steele helped Harris with her pamphlets for her 2002 district attorney run and later founded Emerge America, “which, 16 years later, is now an influential organization that recruits and trains women candidates across the country.” When Jahana Hayes, a Connecticut teacher decided to run for Congress against a local legislator, Harris called and sat down with Hayes to talk strategy, message and endorsements. “I had gotten other endorsements from other people and other groups, but this one meant so much to me because there are only a handful of people who understand, who’ve done it,” said Hayes, who will be the first Black Democrat elected to Congress from Connecticut if she wins next week.

Harris’ advice is practical — sharing the realities of running for office and the importance of a good team — and encouraging, assuring candidates that they too should “Eat ‘No’ for breakfast.” Harris also shows up for her candidates, speaking on behalf of newcomers like Hayes as well as the likes of Democratic nominees for Governor of Georgia and Florida respectively, Stacey Abrams and Andrew Gillum.

“My mother used to tell me, ‘Kamala, you may be the first to do many things. Make sure you are not the last.’” Harris is slowly yet surely nurturing a shift away from the dominant demographic within politics, using that swell of change to build a wave of Black political officials altering the homogenous political landscape. Harris’ duty has allowed her to open up the political world to people who could address the roadblocks likely to be met by a presidential aspirant like herself, who might end up working with a predominantly white, male House and Senate.

Having an ineffective Black women president undercuts the historical significance and there lies the importance of not being the only one. “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” An African proverb highlighting the fact that the liberating power of Blackness lies in community, and the community is taking back the political landscape, one election at a time.

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