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Learning Curves: Barbara Lee

First, she registered to vote.
By Barbara Lee
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U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee represents the Ninth Congressional District of California, which she has served since 1998. She was the only member of Congress to vote against the War Powers Act in 2001, but her unpopular stance now seems prescient as well as brave.

Barbara Lee speaks up:

  • Barbara Lee page on the Web site of the U.S. House of Representatives
  • Video: Speech at first Iraq forum of the 110th Congress
  • Video: Meeting with Bono in Oakland for HIV/AIDS discussion
  • Video: Statement about the Iraq War on the fourth anniversary of its start
  • Video: Appearance on Tavis Smiley (PBS)
  • Speech in the U.S. House of Representatives opposing war in Iraq
  • Biography (Wikipedia)

Believe it or not, when I was young, I never imagined I would run for public office.

I had no way of knowing it at the time, but the journey that has taken me to the halls of Congress began in my government class at Mills College, in Oakland, California, in 1972.

When I was in college, I was a single mother on welfare. Like many young people today, I was not registered to vote, because I didn't think the system could or would work for me.

As a requirement for that class, my professor told us we had to choose a presidential campaign and work for a candidate.

When I looked at the white men who were running for president in 1972 -- Nixon, Humphrey, Wallace, Muskie, McGovern -- I thought, "Why bother? None of them care about my community. They aren't going to take on the real issues that matter to me and the people I care about."

So I told my professor she was just going to have to fail me, because that was one requirement I was not going to fulfill. And I had never failed a class in my life!

Meanwhile, as president of the college's Black Student Union, I had invited the first African American woman elected to Congress, Shirley Chisholm, to come and speak at Mills. Lo and behold, she announced she was running for president.

When I introduced myself to her and told her I wanted to work for her, she told me I could, adding, "But the first thing you must do, my dear, is register to vote."

It sounds pretty simple, but there was a larger message there. She was saying, "If you don't like the system, you've got to work to change it." She told me that if you care about what happens, you can't sit back and let other people make decisions that impact your life. She also told me that if you believe in justice, you have to take a stand and then work hard for what is right. That has always stayed with me.

I wound up not only getting an A in that political science class but also leading the Chisholm presidential campaign in northern California. We won about 10 percent of the vote in Alameda County!

When Chisholm announced her candidacy for president, she said, "I stand before you today as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for the presidency of the United States. I am not the candidate of black America, although I am black and proud. I am not the candidate of the women's movement of this country, although I am a woman, and I am equally proud of that. I am not the candidate of any political bosses or special interests. I am the candidate of the people." She was also my candidate, and she became my mentor and one of my dearest friends.

Chisholm kept me from failing that class, but when I look back on what seemed like an impossible assignment at the time, I realize it awakened in me a passion and a commitment to progressive politics that continues to this day.

Learning Curves Home Page  |  Christiane Amanpour  |  Daniel Handler  |  Alice Waters  |  Barbara Lee  |  Carey Winfrey  |  Donald Trump  |  Frederica von Stade

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Margo Wixsom's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am so delighted to read this article about how Barbara Lee started her journey to become a common American Hero! What a well written article about her personal journey. She was my representative when I lived in Oakland and I personally wrote to thank her for being the ONLY sane voice against an insane war when she was getting death threats for speaking the truth. Unfortunately ALL others ran in the direction of the liars that have navigated America to where we NOW stand - in the middle of an unjust war that has devasted the Middle East and doomed American soldiers to a death sentence for NOTHING but the pompousioty of American ideas: which one now? WMDs? Democracy? Stability for the oil region? Daredevil spin from FOX News - DON'T be a Cut-N-Runner? Let's turn the Bush roulette wheel to find out which justification fits today's spin! SHAME on us following this band of idiots! And kudos to Ms. Lee for her abiding truth and sanity about the reality of a complex world filled with people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs. When I finish this email, I will take out a pen and write Ms. Lee a personal thank you letter, even though I have moved out of her district. She DESERVES our abiding thanks for her abiding example of truth and justice.

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