Congresswoman-elect Ayanna Pressley will make history next month when she is sworn into office, becoming the first black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.
But before she takes the helm of the 7th Congressional District, her tenure as the first woman of color to serve on the Boston City Council was on full display Wednesday as the Democrat offered her story and reflections during an impassioned speech before the council.
Pressley, who received gifts and words of praise from Mayor Marty Walsh and fellow councilors, told a packed crowd she ran for the at-large council seat nearly a decade ago to, first and foremost, make certain that the city’s girls had a say, and a partner, in its highest offices.
“I wanted to fight for girls, not be their voice, but to lift up their voices, their stories, their struggles, and their ideas to create room and space and dignity for them at the policy table and in committee hearings,” she said. “I made a vow to myself to listen and to value their voices and lived experiences, to push and to demand more from government, to develop gender specific and responsive programming and policies and protocols, and I made the decision to run for an at-large Boston City Council seat to do exactly that.”
Thanking a wealth of supporters, advisers, staff, and family, Pressley recalled how she was first approached about running for the seat in 2009, how she quickly dismissed the idea before letting it sit with her, and how, eventually, her personal experiences with the city’s black girls and teenagers motivated her to enter the race.
As she mulled over the prospect of an election bid, she gave out her cell phone number while she continued her career and immersed herself “in every endeavor dedicated to the help, well-being, safety, and development of women and girls,” she said.
“They would call me at all hours in distress,” Pressley said. “‘Miss Ayanna, I just came out to my parents as queer. They kicked me out. Can I stay with you?’ ‘Miss Ayanna, I feel pressure to do things I’m not ready to do with my boyfriend. What should I do?’ And, ‘Miss Ayanna, Somebody in my family is molesting me. I’m scared. Can you help me?’ ‘Miss Ayanna, I think I might be pregnant. May I come to your place to take a pregnancy test?’ ‘Miss Ayanna, I don’t have money for feminine hygiene products. Can I borrow some from you?’ And I can go on.
“And I realized, for all of the emphasis and well-deserved spotlighting of the needs of black and brown boys and men, how at and proven risk many of them were, the girls were somehow getting lost — or worse, being ignored,” Pressley continued.
She recalled the critics who were skeptical of her — Pressley’s government resume included working for then-U.S. Sen. John Kerry and as a senior aide for former U.S. Rep. Joseph Kennedy II. Some said “saving girls wasn’t the job of a Boston city councilor, but rather a mission statement for a nonprofit,” she said.
“Representative government only works when everyone is represented and the solutions we devise together with our different backgrounds and social networks are more informed and more enduring because we fought and we argue together,” Pressley said. “It can be messy. It can be easily oversimplified and turned into an age-old ‘us versus them.’ But representative democracy at its core is an awesome and sometimes terrifying experiment in how we do work together when we don’t agree, and part of that solution is that someone has to ask the question, and that one question changes the conversation and shifts the air.”
Pressley is also reminded that the country currently finds itself at a crossroads and paralyzed, full of uncertainty and fragility, she said. She urged fellow lawmakers to “worry less about elections and more about future generations” — to make government “more transformational than transactional.”
She conjured to mind a prayer she dwells on daily from “The President’s Devotional,” paraphrasing how it explains every day is a “gentle battle” where one must decide whether to go in the direction of peace, joy, justice, and equality or to march among indifference, worry, and weariness.
Out of all the decisions each day, this one is the most important, she said.
“I hope that all of you will continue winning that gentle battle because we need you.”
Watch Pressley’s full remarks: