Meet the Boston City Councilor Who’s Running for Congress on a Mission to Save Girls
Women Who Run highlights female political candidates on both sides of the aisle who are poised to change the face of local, state, and federal government for the better.
A typical day for Ayanna Pressley depends on her daughter. “If I’m not making lunches and doing hair and trying to get my daughter out the door to school or camp, that’s when everything else happens,” she tells us.
For the 43-year-old Boston city councilor, “everything else” is a lot. In 2009, Pressley became the first woman of color to ever be elected to Boston City Council. She subsequently became the first person of color to win the most votes in a city council election in both 2011 and 2013. And now, Pressley is running to serve Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District, a vastly diverse constituency that she hopes to win over by running a “people-powered” grassroots campaign.
“I’m influenced by my lived experience, but also the people I listen to and work with every day,” she says. “It’s their stories, their struggle, their hardship, their ideas, that I carry with me, and influence and inform how I govern and how I problem-solve.”
Her lived experience hasn’t been short on its own share of struggle. Plagued by substance abuse issues, her father was incarcerated for much of her childhood. Pressley eventually had to drop out of college to work when her single mother was laid off from her job. Then in 2011, Pressley revealed during a city council meeting that she had been raped on campus at age 19 while studying at Boston University; she has also spoken about being a victim of child sexual abuse.
Rather than distance herself from her life’s hardships, Pressley draws from them to better represent her constituents.
“Certainly, I’m shaped by my daily experiences as a mother and wife, an elected official and policymaker, as a Black woman, as a survivor of sexual violence, as the child of a formerly incarcerated parent, as the child of a single-parented household, as a caregiver to my mother end-of-life,” she says. “The confluence of all of my experiences, personally and professionally, and those of the people I listen to and govern daily, have shaped the issues that I champion and how I do my work.”
B+C: What inspired you to run for office for the first time?
Ayanna Pressley: My motivation the first time was simple: that I wanted to save girls. That was my platform. I ran as an extension of my values and because I saw a need to champion gender-specific and responsive programming and policies for girls and women on the municipal level. And I knew there was a real need, because outside of my work as a federal aide for [over 15] years — four for former Congressman Joseph Kennedy II, 11 years for former Secretary of State and US Senator John Kerry — I volunteered for every nonprofit I could find committed to the safety, development, and wellness of women and girls.
I would give out my cell phone [number] to every girl that I interviewed with. They were calling me because they felt pressured by a partner to have sex, or they were being abused by family members, or suspended from schools, or grappling with questions of sexuality, or afraid they were pregnant. And I realized it wasn’t sustainable for me to support these girls simply with my cell phone number and 900 square foot condo. The volume of calls showed me there was a need not being met.
When I first told people I was running to save girls, the gatekeepers I spoke to said, “That’s not the work of a city councilor, perhaps you should go run a nonprofit.” I’m proud to report today that the electorate disagreed with that, because I didn’t pander, and that was the agenda I ran for — and was elected in 2009, and again for five terms.
B+C: As you’ve noted, you’re the first woman of color to serve as a city councilor in Boston. How do you think more diverse representation makes a difference in politics?
Pressley: At my first budget meeting as a city councilor, I asked every agency and department what they were doing to help women and girls. Their presentations were brief if there were any at all. Today, when they come to budget [meetings] they come with binders. And I think that speaks to the power of cognitive diversity, and diverse lived experiences. We bring new priorities and new emphasis.
Government is better served by leadership parity: when you have a diversity of perspective, and that diversity is about gender, age, race, culture. If you don’t have that diversity, the issues that are raised and elevated are likely to be more monolithic and homogenized, not as robust and fully explored. And the solutions also suffer. We all benefit from a government that is inclusive in representing the citizenry that it represents and serves, both for the issues being more robust, and the solutions being more innovative and enduring.
B+C: What are some of the key issues you’d focus on if elected?
Pressley: The 7th Congressional district is the most diverse district and the most unequal, and that’s why I’m running — to address and disrupt these disparate outcomes around affordable housing, trans equity, climate justice, highly-performing schools, peaceable communities. I want to address the inequality, these disparities that are only becoming further entrenched under this presidential administration. Additionally, of course, gun violence, criminal justice reform, and anything and everything to empower and protect women’s rights — that ranges from health care access to reproductive justice to supporting my fellow survivors of sexual violence. I’ve developed an equity agenda, [which you can find on my] campaign website.
B+C: Your campaign has shared ads about ending the Hyde Amendment, a law that prohibits federal funding from paying for elective abortions. Why is this an issue you’ve chosen to emphasize?
Pressley: Given the current climate, unfortunately, I’m not sure how to answer, because it’s plausible that Roe v. Wade will be overturned. [Under previous circumstances], I would be actively working to fight the Hyde Amendment, simply because abortion is a legal right and medical procedure with everything to do with family planning, which has everything to do with economic mobility, freedom, and justice. And certainly, we know the work of Planned Parenthood and why so many of us, myself included, fight to protect them — because they’re also providing so much important preventative work, breast cancer screenings, pap smears.
In Massachusetts, I just authored and unanimously passed on the city council a resolution to pass state legislation to overturn an archaic law on our book which banned abortion. This is an issue in state statute that’s been ignored, because it could be — because we had Roe v. Wade. But in light of what’s happening at the Supreme Court, and the threats to civil rights and protections and access, I was one of the people advocating for the repeal of this law. The legislation to repeal it was called the NASTY Women Act, and it passed.
B+C: Drawing on your experiences as a survivor of sexual violence and your advocacy of survivors’ rights, do you have plans to be an advocate in Congress if elected?
Pressley: In the midst of today’s elevated consciousness around issues related to rape culture and sexual harassment, we have an opportunity to codify this activism in lawmaking, support victims into getting on a path to being survivors, to heal and receive justice. I worked right now on the city council to revise our sexual harassment reporting protocol and policies, and to include city councilors in training, oversight, and accountability.
I’m emboldened by these national movements, but ultimately, the work will happen locally. So you need someone that will fight for local agencies and organizations to get the resources they need, since more people are disclosing now than maybe ever before.
B+C: More women are running for office than ever before. What advice would you give to young women who want to get politically engaged in their communities, but are unsure how to get started?
Pressley: First, I’d say they need to be clear on the impact they wish to have. If you think about the problem and how you want to impact that problem, do your research on what might be the best avenue or vehicle to affect that change. Sometimes, in our aspirations, we can obsess about a position or post or title. But I think that’s putting the cart before the horse.
You must be clear on what is your purpose, your passion, the impact you seek. Then, you have to work — or rather, run, before you run. When I ran for city council saying I wanted to save girls, I could substantiate and back that up based on my experiences, making the agenda more resonant, authentic. If you haven’t been doing the work and you contrive a platform that has a dissonance for the electorate.
My advice is, figure out what you care about. Do your homework. Run before you run. Put in the work long before you decide to be a candidate. And I’d also caution anyone who thinks their only option for public service is to run and be on the ballot when there are many other options to serve and engage. It’s not just about voting and running — we need people and women that know how to raise money, know how to write a communications plan, how to write field strategy, how to cut turf, how to organize constituencies, write policies. We need as many women behind the women, as we do women running.
B+C: What are some ways people who support your campaign can help?
Pressley: They can follow me on all of my social media platforms, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, to keep up with the campaign. They can help with door-knocking, phone banking, or go to my website and learn more about my equity agenda, and share it widely within their networks. You can also sign up to volunteer through my website. And of course, people can make an investment in my campaign by making a donation.
I’m not accepting corporate PAC money, so we’re completely people-powered. And we need as many people as possible, who will make a financial investment of any level. In order to run a campaign consistent with my values, but also be successful, I knew it would have to be a broad, diverse, grassroots coalition. And I want everyone to feel a part of this process, this movement, this community. I didn’t want anyone to feel they were unworthy of participation based on their financial contribution.
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(Photo via Ayanna Pressley; Design by San Trieu/Brit+Co)