The Blog

Carrying My Grandmother's Dream: Emerge California Graduation Address

No matter how easy some people make it look, this path is a not an escalator: it is a steep and circuitous staircase.You will pause, breathless, along the way. And get tired but keep climbing.
This post was published on the now-closed HuffPost Contributor platform. Contributors control their own work and posted freely to our site. If you need to flag this entry as abusive, send us an email.

Emerge is more than a credential, it is a credo. To emerge is to climb ever higher, ever stronger, ever better able to represent our aspirations and to bring others along with us. To achieve the California Dream, the American Dream of liberty and justice for all, we need full representation of women in leadership and elected office.

We are here tonight because 10 years ago Andrea Dew Steele, who is here with her daughter, and Susie Buell brought together Democratic leaders to found Emerge America to institutionalize mentoring and training women in the Democratic Party and the progressive movement. We salute their vision, Emerge California director Kimberly Ellis, and all the women who have helped other women emerge in this program, doing the hard work of finding yourselves and honing your skills to lead and to serve.

Emerge Graduates, this was the easy part.

Now each of you amazing women leaders will emerge better able to climb a double stair in public service. You climb a double stair because you must ascend as a professional and as a woman, confronting stereotypes and breaking barriers along the way. For women of color, a triple stair. For women of color in the LBGT community, a quadruple stair. You climb and you climb. And soon you find that you can breathe the air at higher altitudes. And so you keep climbing, reaching ever reaching behind you to pull up others along the way,

No matter how easy some people make it look, this path is a not an escalator: it is a steep and circuitous staircase.You will pause, breathless, along the way. And get tired but keep climbing. Some of us climb running as I do with my Bella, carrying diaper pads and iPads. Some are climbing on the mommy track. Some get offtrack on a dead end job or relationship. Maybe your boss loses an election or your nonprofit runs out of money or the Supreme Court decides 5 to 4 that your president isn't your president and hands the job to someone else. But you keep going.

The climb gets steeper from graduation day -- but we are all still in it together. We still have each other -- we just have with hundreds of thousands of other people interspersed among us. So how will we find each other? We hold on to this network and to each other. How will we focus on our goals that drive us to be part of something larger than ourselves? We focus by holding on to the dreams of the people we are climbing for.

I told you earlier during boot camp training to send out Emerge graduation announcements to your friends and family networks -- now I am going to tell you why.

After going to law school, graduating from UC Hastings and passing the bar exam, I got a set of embossed seal invitations from the California State Bar for my swearing in ceremony. This was big. I called a friend -- she said "oh it's a cattle call -- you stand in the civic auditorium with thousands of people and say 'I, state your name.' Nothing personal."

Nevertheless I decided to send a California State Bar invitation to my grandmother Nancy D'Alesandro in Baltimore. Yes, it was in a cavernous auditorium and no she couldn't come all the way out here -- but like my grammar school, high school and college graduation notices sent it anyway just to share the moment.

Now my grandmother had been raised in a traditional Italian Catholic family, married my grandfather when she was barely out of her teens and begun to have many children. We had been told the family lore that she had once taken law school classes but had to stop when one of her boys got sick. She lost one child -- a tragedy. She raised six others, including my mom, and she never went back to school. She did go on to serve however. For decades she and her "moccasin army" of women activists helped my grandfather win campaigns for Maryland House of Delegates, U.S. Congress and Baltimore Mayor. She lived to see her daughter Nancy Pelosi marry, raise 5 kids, and then enter Congress 25 years ago today. Though she did not live long enough to see my mom elected as the first woman Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, I know she would not be surprised and may even have had a heavenly hand in the outcome.

But we her grandchildren were lucky to have her in our lives into our 20s. So I sent her an invite. And she wrote me back. One of my mentors, Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, read it and said "frame that letter. Don't file it -- you'll lose it -- you need to frame it and see it."

My grandmother's letter said that she was the second happiest person [aside from me] to receive the invitation to my swearing in from the State Bar. She wrote: "How proud I am to see you accomplish what I could not finish all those years ago.

Fifty years had gone by but my grandmother had held on to her dream. She hadn't said it much but she remembered.

Until that moment, I hadn't seen gender limitations on women in my generation. From the womb I was a born arguer -- definitely since arriving home to meet my older sister -- and grew up as an advocate thinking I could pursue anything. My parents said work hard, get good grades, and the sky's the limit for your education. Their Democratic values guided belief in education and equality, with the same expectations for their four daughters as for their son.

But when my grandmother wrote her letter, I saw that I didn't just get my degree -- I got her degree. I was the first woman in my family to graduate from law school and the second woman to try.

When I went to court and saw that sometimes I was the only woman in the room -- that made an impression. And when it was just me with a female court reporter or clerk or bailiff and all male lawyers or a deposition in a tall building law firm with me as the only woman in the room, I would remember my grandmother's letter and her dream, seeing just how audacious my parents' dream was for me and how even more audacious my grandmother's dream was for her time. And as I continue to climb, I'm carrying my grandmother's dream with me.

Graduates, you are all audacious dreamers. You are all barrier breakers. And you are not in this alone. Send out your Emerge graduation notices to your family, friends, mentors and networks. Reach out -- otherwise you may never know whose dreams you carry along with your own. But once you know, you take responsibility for those dreams, and you gain the strength you need to keep climbing and keep emerging.