SOUTH HADLEY — In a wide-ranging interview to kick off a series of online town halls at Mount Holyoke College, the first Black woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts touched on the Capital insurrection, financial help during the pandemic, the housing crisis and the needs of Black and brown women and girls.
U.S. Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Boston, was interviewed by another icon of contemporary politics, Carmen Yulin Cruz, the former mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico, last Friday as part of the college’s inaugural Our Voices, Our Platforms town hall. The town halls are designed to “explore how people can use their voices to make meaningful change and how people can discover and create the platforms necessary to achieve that transformative change.”
Both women expressed admiration for each other at the event.
“I would describe you as a trailblazer,” Cruz told Pressley, and added that she was a “personal hero of mine.”
Cruz, now a Paul M. Weissman Distinguished Fellow in Leadership at Mount Holyoke, said that she’d recently registered to vote in South Hadley.
“You had me at hello,” said Pressley, in describing the first time she’d met Cruz, noting that they’d had a “natural alignment of values.”
“You made such an impression on me that day,” continued Pressley. “I’m thrilled that you’re now in the commonwealth.”
Before her successful run for Congress, Pressley was the first woman of color elected to the Boston City Council. She said that she did this after experiencing young women in need regularly reaching out to her. She also said that the needs of Black and brown girls have been overlooked due to Black and brown boys disproportionately dying on the streets.
“Our Black and brown girls are slowly dying,” Pressley said. “And no one sees it.”
The congresswoman noted that it’s not about being one’s brother’s or sister’s keeper, but the acknowledgment that “our destinies and our freedoms are tied.”
“Once I realized that these were systemic issues, I knew that I needed to put forward systemic solutions,” she said. “Ultimately that’s why I ran for the Boston City Council.”
The congresswoman also talked about the importance of housing.
“Everyone deserves more than just shelter,” she said. “They deserve to have a home.”
Pressley said that she has been fighting for $2,000 recurring survival checks for the duration of the pandemic crisis, as well as the cancellation of rent and mortgages. And she said that she helped secure $5 billion in the American Rescue Plan to support emergency housing.
She also talked about how child care, transportation, housing, education and wages are interconnected.
“People don’t live in silos,” she said. “We live in intersectionality.”
As such, Pressley talked about the need to build a more just and equitable society as the country emerges from the pandemic.
The two women also discussed the Capitol insurrection. Pressley, who was at the Capitol that day, noted that it took such a dramatic event for some to see the threat of white supremacy.
“White supremacy is a threat to every American life,” said the congresswoman.
Both Cruz and Pressley also spoke about their mutual opposition to the death penalty.
“There is no place for the death penalty in a just and humane society,” said Pressley, while also noting her opposition to life without parole sentences.
Pressley was asked questions from a number of Mount Holyoke students, and the congresswoman expressed great admiration for the young scholars.
“I expect great things from you,” said Pressley, to student Maryam Ware.
On the question of how to avoid burnout and stay motivated, asked by student Robin Kerr, Pressley admitted that she does experience burnout herself.
“I get bone-weary tired,” said the congresswoman. “I have days when I want to be in a permanent fetal position.”
However, she said that the movement restores her and that people should also feel joy for joy’s sake and not just as an act of resistance.
“You deserve to be joyful, because you deserve to be joyful,” Pressley said.
Genève Roachford, another Mount Holyoke student, asked what the government has been doing to meet the demands of the Black population since last year’s Black Lives Matter protests.
“If we can legislate hurt and harm for centuries, we can legislate equity healing and justice,” said Pressley.
She noted her work on the People’s Justice Guarantee, a sweeping criminal justice reform resolution that seeks to end cash bail, end the death penalty and decriminalize sex work, among other goals. She also said that canceling student debt is a racial and economic justice issue, in explaining her support for it.
A common thread in the conversation with Pressley was the concept that the people closest to the pain should be closest to the power, which she described as her life’s mantra.
“That isn’t a slogan, it’s a practice,” Pressley said. “I believe the onus is on us to engage community and not the other way around.”
Bera Dunau can be reached at email@example.com.