Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry. We started the show today with a conversation about the US Senate, but I want to turn out the other chamber of our bicameral system, the House of Representatives. Last week, I had the opportunity to sit down and speak with Representative Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts' 7th Congressional District. Now, as part of our conversation, we discussed last week's voting right speeches in Georgia, those that were given by Vice President Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden.
Ayanna Pressley: I'm glad that the President and the Vice President made the case using the strength of the bully pulpit to restore voting rights and are taking action. It's long ever due. Every option has got to be on the table obviously including eliminating the Jim Crow filibuster. These assaults have been unprecedented, and so we must meet the moment and move with urgency. The urgency that this moment demands.
For me, the most resonant parts of that speech was when the question was prompted, which side of history do you want to be on? I know there were some for whom that did not resonate, but that point was deeply resonant to me. The fact of the matter is that as we approached the national observance of Dr. King's birthday, he spoke about this filibuster, and that it was justice obstructing progress.
The fact that that is still true today. It has obstructed progress on meaningful gun violence reform, on immigration reform, on climate justice, on passing an anti-lynching act a name for Emmett Till. I think the point here for me is that bipartisanship at this point is just an empty talking point. Bipartisanship is not the goal. Justice is the goal, and that's what we must keep in our sightline and remain squarely focused on.
The most marginalized, mobilized, and delivered this democratic majority, and being in the majority, having the House, the Senate, and the White House, that must be more than a talking point. We have a decisive mandate from the people, a responsibility and an obligation to meet the needs of that movement which elected this democratic majority. Of course, we know that Black voters are targeted by this suppression.
We know this is in direct response and a residual effect of the big lie that resulted in the insurrection on January 6th, which was a backlash to the strength of this movement comprised of majority Black and brown voters. The filibuster, in my opinion, should not just be abolished for voting rights. It should be abolished outright. It has blocked progress on everything from voting rights to gun control, to climate change, to immigration reform.
A potential carve out it's a step in the right direction, but we cannot underestimate the ways that the filibuster will be used to block lifesaving aid to our communities in the Build Back Better Act to do the work of the people. The filibuster has got to go. It will obstruct also my legislation, the Women's Health Protection Act to codify Roe v. Wade, and to stop the introduction of harmful state bans like what we see in Mississippi and Texas. We have to meet the urgency of this moment in the assault that is occurring not only on voting rights but for every other right.
Melissa Harris-Perry: You're a Democrat, serving in the House of Representatives. While as you point out there's a Democratic majority in the House, there's a Democrat in the White House, and there is something like a democratic majority in the Senate. Is it feeling these days for you as a lawmaker, like an exciting time when much is possible, or are you frustrated?
Ayanna Pressley: I think it's both at hand. I'm incredibly emboldened by the strength of activists and advocates and everyday people who are weathering this storm, and who have been on the front line of organizing and mobilizing in the midst of all of these assaults on our rights. I'm an eternal optimist here. I have to continue to practice that discipline of hope that I was referencing earlier. I believe in the strength of the movement.
Certainly, there are days when I'm weary especially when you see the obstruction of one lone senator from West Virginia who I believe is governing in a way that will lead us to believe that he has no compassion for everyone who calls this country home in this moment but contempt. His obstruction on the Build Back Better Act alone would deny millions of workers, families, and communities in my district and across the country life-saving resources and relief that they desperately need in this moment.
West Virginia is one of the poorest states in the union. I think it's seventh in child poverty. Policies like the Expanded Child Tax Credit, these have helped countless families in the state lifted children out of poverty. I often say but more importantly seek to practice the belief that the people closest to the pay should be the closest to the power, driving, and informing the policymaking. I don't cast a vote, write a bill, co-sponsor a bill without conferring with those closest to the pay.
Joe Manchin needs to talk to those closest to the pay. I'm sure they would like to see their senator work on their behalf. I have moments where I'm weary in this fight, but for the most part, I maintain in practice a hope for what is possible, but again being in the majority must mean more than a talking point. We have to meet the moment and we have to lead in a way that is unprecedented. We have to legislate in a way that is unprecedented. Especially in the midst of this "reckoning" on racial injustice, the only receipts that matter are policies and budgets.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I keep forgetting that we did start a new year and in this new start perhaps we'll have an opportunity for things to be different. Let me start by asking you-- I know that you just had COVID a few weeks ago, and I'm wondering how you're feeling.
Ayanna Pressley: Oh, I'm well. Thank you so much for asking. Fortunately, I was vaccinated and boosted, and so I'm fully recovered, back at it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm very glad to hear that. I know it's a time when, again, as we're at the start of this new year, we're trying to think through what are the possibilities for what 2022 might be like, but it also means in the world of politics, it is officially an election year. Let me also then ask, how are the people of the 7th Congressional District of Massachusetts doing? How is your district faring in this moment?
Ayanna Pressley: I think unprecedented has been the word du jour or at least the last three years. The Massachusetts' 7th, like communities and districts across the country, is experiencing unprecedented hardship. They have demonstrated the power and the resiliency of community, and that they have met that unprecedented hardship with unprecedented community, with unprecedented mutual aid, and with unprecedented hope, which they have had to have in the midst of these very challenging times.
I'm reminded of the words of a close friend of mine. It's something I say a lot and that I share with my constituents the idea that hope is a discipline. It is a practice. As the mantra goes here offered by my dear sister-friend, I choose the discipline of hope over the ease of cynicism. I choose fortitude over fatalism.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, sometimes the personal is political, and that's why Representative Pressley and I talked about student loans. Let me just note that last Thursday, Navient, a major student loan collection company, agreed to cancel $1.7 billion in private student loan debt for more than 66,000 borrowers across 39 states. Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the company "engaged in deceptive and abusive practices, and targeted students who it knew would struggle to pay the loans back."
Now the loans that are going to be forgiven through this settlement are private loans, and it only affects those who have loans managed through Navient. Lawmakers, including Representative Pressley, are pushing President Biden to end federal student loan debt for many students across the country. I ask Pressley about her fight to end student debt.
Ayanna Pressley: Student loans, this is a nearly $2 trillion crisis that is affecting people from every walk of life. Melissa, you're talking about your students and many people characterize this issue strictly within the millennial and Gen Z context. The fact of the matter is that it affecting people from every walk of life. It is an intergenerational issue. The fastest constituency of student borrowers and debtors are 50 plus. I have 76 years old in my district who are still paying on student loans. We have seniors who have had their benefits garnished for defaulting on student loans. I have teachers in my district at the risk of losing licensure because they cannot afford the monthly minimums. I have parents who are still paying on their student debt and now absorbing the cost of their children's student debt.
Then, of course, we have a whole generation of those who we are de-incentivizing to pursue higher education, because they do not want to be in debt for the rest of their lives. This is choking at the promise of our communities. This is choking at the promise of this country, and there's something that can be done about it.
A moment ago, we were speaking about fortitude, and I'm inspired by that fortitude that everyday people demonstrate every day. This unprecedented moment we find ourselves in where families are experiencing unprecedented hardship, which is including these student loans. We must match that with unprecedented leadership and legislating. President Biden has the executive authority to cancel billions in student debt with the stroke of a pen. He was given that authority through the Higher Education Act by Congress.
Canceling student debt, this will reduce the racial wealth gap. We know that 85% of Black students have no choice but to take out loans to pursue higher education because of discriminatory policies, what I would call policy violence like redlining, which obstructed our family's abilities to build generational wealth. Eighty-five percent of Black students have no choice but to take out loans to pursue higher education. Then we are five times more likely to default. Women carry more than two-thirds of all student loan debt, and Black women in particular owe 20% more than their white peers.
You can save the accolades about the role that Black women play on the front lines in the fight for democracy on the ballot and at the ballot box. Policy is my love language. This is a racial justice issue. Canceling student debt will help reduce the racial wealth gap. It will jumpstart the economy. It will ensure that we have an equitable recovery from this pandemic-induced recession. My resolution with Senator Warren and Leader Schumer lays out exactly how President Biden can cancel student debt, and finally make good on his campaign promise.
Again, he doesn't need Congress to provide this sweeping relief to alleviate the burdens that our families are feeling. He was already granted that authority through the Higher Education Act. Might I ask, since there's been much conjecture about, does he have the authority? This is the same authority that the administration has used to extend the payment pause. I thank the administration for heeding our calls. We organized, we mobilized, we fought for those pauses, and that has been game changing for families in the midst of this pandemic to have those monies to spend towards more critical things.
Instead of extending that payment pause one more time, he should just cancel student debt outright at $50,000. We've already, thanks to the strength of this movement, made strides on this issue. Momentum is on our side. The Biden administration has already canceled that debt for disabled student borrowers, for veterans, those victimized by for-profit colleges and universities, and for those participating in the Public Service Loan Forgiveness Program.
We're making strides. Thanks to the strength of this movement. We're closer than we've ever been before, and he must cancel student debt at $50,000. He has the authority. Like Nike said, "Just do it."
Melissa Harris-Perry: When I very first met you was at an event that you were hosting during the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation weekend, and you were launching the film Pushout by Monique Morris. I know that in both 2019 and in 2021, you worked with other colleagues in the House to introduce that End School Pushout for Girls of Color bill. I'm wondering where that legislation is right now.
Ayanna Pressley: Melissa, thank you for taking me back to that moment, talk about a moment where I felt hope. I'm getting emotional thinking about it. As Black women, we were once Black girls, and certainly know what it is to be criminalized simply for how we show up in the world. Our experience is very akin to this unique dichotomy of being hypervisible and invisible at the same time.
When we brought together or had this convening during Congressional Black Caucus around my legislation, the End Pushout Act, to stop the criminalization of Black girls in our schools, alongside my thought partner in this work and my teacher as well, Dr. Monique Morris, the National Black Women's Justice Institute, and now the Black Girl Freedom Fund, I was so moved by how many people cared about Black girls. There were hundreds of people there. I think ours was the most well attended or ranked high up there, and so that was an incredibly validating and affirming moment, and emboldened us in this work.
So far as the End Pushout Act, we continue to grow the list of co-sponsors for that, and I look forward to as soon as possible getting this before the committee of jurisdiction. I've been in consultation with the Chair Bobby Scott about that, and hopefully, getting it to the floor for a vote soon. Please do stay tuned on that, and thank you for taking me back to that day and that moment, and, of course, for your solidarity on that issue and so many other issues of consequence to us.
Melissa Harris-Perry: It was just really one of those amazing moments where you just kept looking around the room and seeing faces that you knew and didn't know, and folks of great import that everyone in the room knew, and folks of great import who no one in the room knew, and it really was awesome. I'll say when you're in a room with hundreds of Black women, there's a lot of hair happening, lots of different kinds of hair, lots of beautiful hair doing all of the beautiful things that our hair does.
I just wanted to ask you because two years ago, this week, in fact, you did something that is actually a rather stunning act of personal vulnerability of I think for anyone, but particularly for a sitting member of Congress and particularly for a Black woman sitting member of Congress in a time of we'll call it social media brutality. You revealed that you've been living with alopecia, and since then, you've mostly shown up in the world as a badass bald Black woman. I'm wondering what you've learned as part of that experience over the past two years?
Ayanna Pressley: You're right. That anniversary is approaching. I'm not sure people realized that I had not been living with alopecia for a long time. In a span of five weeks is when this occurred. What I'm living with now is alopecia totalis. There are several types of alopecia totalis. This is an autoimmune disease where your immune system attacks your hair follicles, and some 7 million Americans live with this.
I was so squarely focused on mourning my hair, mourning this relationship with my hair, mourning the community and the sisterhood of being in the salon, being at the beauty shop, mourning my progress and embracing my natural hair, and how authentic it felt for me even when folks thought it disruptive to show up with a protective hairstyle in many of the rooms and spaces that I have been in as an elected official that is what felt in the greatest alignment for me.
I was in such deep mourning and so focused on the laws. I think I underestimated what I would gain. I'm a work in progress, but I have gained an incredible alopecia community. I have gleaned new insights about myself, and ultimately, self-acceptance. The alopecia revealing was a moment of liberation for me because I knew that I could not govern and lead authentically, feeling as if I was in costume. I was increasingly resentful of one more piece of armor that I was having to put on in order to be socially acceptable in order to navigate these spaces, because, of course, how I show up as a bald Black woman is immediately disruptive. It challenges conventional and societal norms of what is professional, what is pretty, what is feminine. That's exactly why we had to introduce, and I'm one of the lead sponsors of the CROWN Act. Because, again, we are so often criminalized or experienced punitive things everything from not being promoted in a job or to losing a job or never being interviewed for a job simply for how we wear our hair. Everything that I do as a woman, as a Black woman who is elected official is political, including what sort of crown I'm rocking at the moment.
It has been a gift for all the ways in which I was grappling with a sense of loss in many ways it has been a gift, and I am blessed in my husband Conan have someone who reminds me in those moments when I feel plagued with self-doubt and don't feel beautiful that I don't need hair to wear a crown. I'm grateful for that. Then, finally, I would say that I've used my position as a lawmaker to advance this issue, stewarding my platform to raise awareness. I was able to secure some federal funds in our appropriations bill for more research on alopecia and other autoimmune diseases that disproportionately impact women of color.
I've introduced a legislation with one of my colleagues, Congressman Jim McGovern, for medically durable wigs which are very costly to be covered by insurance. Currently, that is not the case because many consider alopecia to be cosmetic and don't understand the psychological toll or the discrimination that many of us experience
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm struck by a particular intersection where you stand. I think about studying as a political scientist, kind of American politics 101, that members of Congress who are African American for so much of the initial experience of CBC members, Black members came from predominantly Black districts. They could both represent national interest concerned with questions like racial health disparities, like the issues that you've been talking about with us.
You are part of a relatively new generation of members of the Congressional Black Caucus who are elected from districts where you do not have a majority Black district, where you are simultaneously serving multiple interests not necessarily countervailing interests but both speaking to a national, even global Black community that wants you to see us that sees you back, that is asking for you to address and press our issues, and responding to all of the concerns of the 7th Congressional District of Massachusetts which is not a predominantly Black district. Do you feel yourself at a challenging intersection or are those forms of representation for you intertwined? Are they one and the same?
Ayanna Pressley: I certainly seek to advocate and to legislate in a way that is intersectional because the everyday experience for people is that they do live in intersectionality. We do live in complexity and nuance. That has always been as a voter. One of the things that has pained and outraged me is when elected officials with single issue, a constituency, and they still do come to Black folks and only talk about mass incarceration, come to the Hispanic or Latinx community and only talk about immigration reform, come to women and only talk about choice, come to the LGBTQ community and at that time only talk about a marriage equality. Again, we live in nuance, and this is the way that I seek to legislate and to lead because that's my lived experience. We don't live in these big checked boxes. For me, it feels organic because it's akin to my own lived experience, and I'm certainly no anomaly, but I do seek to be intentional in that way.
There isn't a pool for me. I've been a Black woman and at the intersection of these things for my whole life, and so it is not challenging. I will say about my district. I am the first person of color in the 230-year history of the Massachusetts delegation to be elected. This seat was once held by John F. Kennedy. A little known fact some know prior to being in Congress, I was on the city council for eight years, an aid in the Senate for 11, and worked for a member of Congress for four years.
I started in that office as an unpaid intern. I worked three paid jobs to do that internship, and that is the seat that I sit in today. I started as an intern for former Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, and he eventually hired me, and 25 plus years ago, I was a BU student and an unpaid intern in that office. Now, I am the congresswoman for the Massachusetts 7th Congressional District, which is a vibrant diverse dynamic district, Melissa, but one of the most unequal in the country.
The district just to offer this is 53% people of color actually and 40% foreign born and almost 30% single-headed households. This is the hardest hit district by the pandemic, the most unequal district in our delegation, and one of the most unequal in the country. We're in a three mile radius from Cambridge to Roxbury, the blackest part of my district. Life expectancy drops by 30 years in median household income by $50,000. I want to change the legacy of this district. I say policy is my love language because these inequities and disparities and racial injustices are not naturally occurring. They are man made. That's the work that I seek to do every day and to do that in a way that is intersectional and that is bold and that is intentional and urgent.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Representative Ayanna Pressley of the Massachusetts' 7th District. Not sure if you either just announced that you are running for President or maybe that your intern is running for Congress but either way, I'll take it.
Ayanna Pressley: By the way, we pay our interns now [laughs], and they make a living wage. Shout out to all the interns running the country, honestly.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Representative Pressley, thank you so much for joining The Takeaway.
Ayanna Pressley: Thank you.
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