By Ann-Derrick Gaillot
Two years ago, Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley won her seat in the House of Representatives after running against a 10-time incumbent. That was one of the nation’s first clues that the Chicago-born and raised politician was game for taking on the seemingly unchangeable. Upon doing so, she, who in 2009 became the first black woman ever elected to Boston City Council in over 100 years, took on a new, trailblazing superlative: first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress. She’s taken a similarly undaunted approach in Congress, having thrown her support and efforts behind a number of fair housing and racial justice policies and efforts, tackling other seemingly inescapable, entrenched national realities, like homelessness and police brutality.
Earlier this year, she and Rep. Rashida Tlaib introduced the Public Health Emergency Shelter Act, calling for $11 billion of grants for emergency funding for those the pandemic has left homeless and housing insecure. She also secured $4 billion dollars in homelessness assistance funding in the CARES Act, passed in March. Meanwhile, Rep. Pressley has steadily emerged as one of Congress’s more relatable members, often speaking to how her formative experiences in Chicago, as well as her specific experiences as a black woman in America, inform her policy work. Now up for re-election, Rep. Pressley took a moment to speak to INSP about housing justice, racial justice, and holding on to hope in turbulent times.
Ann-Derrick Gaillot: You introduced the antiracism and public health act calling to formally declare racism as a public health crisis, which Boston did. Can you talk more to our readers about this legislation and the impacts that it could have across the country?
Ayanna Pressley: The Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District, my district, has been the hardest hit in the Commonwealth by this pandemic, and that has everything to do with the comorbidity of structural racism. Unequal access to healthcare, transportation deserts, food apartheid systems, lack of safe, affordable housing, a confluence of all of those things which, by the way, are not naturally occurring. They are policy choices and decisions. And so, during this moment of national reckoning on racial injustice, it’s not enough to simply call out racism. The federal government really has a moral obligation to actively pursue anti-racist policies and to dismantle systemic racism once and for all. I’m grateful for the Boston City Council, which I served on, the Somerville City Council, and Cambridge as well in the Massachusetts 7th, Boston, who have all declared racism a public health crisis. But I introduced this bill, the Anti-racism in Public Health Act, with Senator Elizabeth Warren and Congresswoman Barbara Lee specifically so that we can be actively anti-racist when it comes to dismantling structural racism and improving policy when it comes to public health.
There are three things that I think are important to highlight here. The first is that we’re confronting and dismantling these racist systems and practices, which have created these racial disparities, by creating the National Center for Anti-Racism at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), which first declares racism as the public health crisis that it is and then provides the critical research needed to develop anti-racist health policy. The other matter is the bill will also establish a law enforcement violence prevention program at the CDC, because police brutality is also a public health crisis. In fact, this is the sixth leading cause of death for young black men.
I really do ultimately believe that that which gets measured gets done. So, if we’re really serious about ending systemic racism, then we have to invest in the policies and the research that are actively anti-racist. And that’s what the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act does.
What does the federal government need to do to meaningfully address the housing crisis and homelessness in this country?
Again, housing is a critical determinant of health, but also social and economic mobility. So, access to safe and affordable housing is a matter of public health. The fact that we find so many people on the precipice of eviction, contributing to growing homelessness in the midst of a pandemic, is unconscionable. We have arrived at this moment not only because of the failings of the federal government to meet the scale and scope of the crisis, but [also] because of a confluence of a lack of political will and leadership and policy. When I was a Boston city councilor, the number one calls my office received were related to housing. And now as a member of Congress, that’s still the case. This is about choices, ultimately. For the price of one military aircraft carrier, we could end homelessness. That’s $13 billion. And I know that because I serve on the Financial Services Committee. Housing and homelessness are under that jurisdiction. And the very first bill to be considered in the 116th Congress in full committee was an act to end homelessness. And I so appreciate that it says “to end,” because it is possible. But it really is about the choices that we make in our budgets on the city and state level and the choices that we make when it comes to federal policy.
Can you talk to our readers a bit more about the intersections of racial justice and housing justice?
So again, I serve on the Financial Services Committee, and I wanted to do that because of my lived experiences growing up in the residual aftermath of precisely discriminatory policies like redlining. That practice still exists, which is also why we need to modernize the Community Reinvestment Act. The fact that 98 per cent of our financial institutions continue to pass those examinations, meanwhile, the practice of redlining persists, then the 2008 foreclosure crisis, and now our current eviction crisis, black folks are suffering from generations of systemic discrimination in housing. If you’re black, you’re more likely to face housing insecurity, less able to build generational wealth and home ownership. It’s why black students borrow more and default more, because of the policies that have obstructed our abilities, our families’ abilities, to build generational wealth. What’s happening during this COVID-19 pandemic has really only laid bare and worsened these longstanding racial disparities and health outcomes. One of the things that I’m going to continue to fight for is the cancellation of rent and mortgage, for eviction and foreclosure moratoriums. They’ve been a critical lifeline for folks during this pandemic. We know that evictions disproportionately impact black folks, especially black women. We’ve seen in Massachusetts and across the country, landlords are illegally attempting to evict tenants despite moratoriums banning them from doing so. It’s also why I introduced legislation with Senator Kamala Harris and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro, the Housing Emergency Lifeline Program, or HELP Act, which would guarantee a right to legal counsel for those who do face eviction. What it provides is an added layer of renters’ protections for those facing eviction. We know that there is an increased likelihood that they will not be evicted if they do have legal representation.
How have the activists and protestors taking to the streets over the past several months influenced your work?
Oh, the past several months. No, my entire life. I grew up in a household of a single parent. Our household was destabilized for many reasons, not only because of short-sighted, discriminatory policies, but other destabilizing, social factors. Poverty, incarceration, substance use, trauma. My mother was a tenant’s rights activists. And so, I grew up in the activist household and tradition and my mother made it very clear to me early on that I had a role to play in the movement and in that struggle. It was her expectation that I would. And so now as a policymaker, I’m very intentional about engaging activists because I believe the people closest to the pain should be the closest to the power driving and informing the policymaking. Of the 11 housing bills I’ve either authored or co-sponsored, eight out of the eleven have been directly shaped and informed by my co-authoring legislation with those closest to the issue. People are experts based on their lived experiences. So, my mother’s example really just demonstrated for me the power of activism, of organizing, of mobilizing, the power of movement building. And so as a legislator, I just seek to affirm that our freedoms and our destinies are tied, and to legislate in a way that is bold and intersectional, because each issue builds upon the next. None of these things happen in a silo.
In talking with friends and family, about the upcoming election, what keeps coming up is this fear that no matter what happens, things will get worse as far as racist violence and political violence. What words do you have for people with marginalized identities as far as resisting hopelessness or resignation as all this comes to a head?
Much of my work on the city council and now in Congress has been informed by my commitment to mitigate the impacts of trauma and to prevent it. I think many things cause trauma. Some things are more obvious, like being besieged and accosted by the consecutive murders on video of unarmed black Americans. I think trauma is also caused by policy that is violent, policy that is precise in the hurt and harm that it causes. [Recently], we asked the City of Boston to respond to the trauma that is all around us and the gravity of our challenges. An activist in the community, Thaddeus Miles, partnered with Boston City Councilman Julia Mejia to designate Black Joy Day in the city of Boston [on 12 September 2020]. One of the affirmations that came out of that was “our greatness is older than our oppression.” So that’s what I would say to all marginalized communities, who are marginalized because of structural racism and systemic oppression, that our greatness is older than our oppression. This is the time to call upon our ancestors. This is the time to revisit the blueprint of what the early chapters of the Civil Rights Movement taught us. We have to dig deep.
A dear friend of mine recently challenged all of us to choose the discipline of hope over the ease of cynicism and to choose fortitude over fatalism. My mother taught me to believe in the power of the people, and my conviction and my belief in that has not waned because every transformative systemic change that has been ushered in in this country was made possible because of the power of the people. I would bet on that movement and the American people every day.