BLACK VOICES

Congresswoman Lauren Underwood Wants To Push Shirley Chisholm’s Legacy Forward

"Representation matters," she said.

Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-Ill.) has accomplished a lot in her relatively short time as a public servant. In half a decade, she went from serving as a senior adviser for the Department of Health and Human Services under President Barack Obama to U.S. Congress, where she is the youngest black woman ever elected.

To win, the now 32-year old had to flip a predominantly white Republican district. She secured nearly 53 percent of the vote. In spite of the district’s demographics, she was confident she could succeed. She was in her own backyard, she knew the turf. “It’s so easy to say, ‘predominantly white, Republican district,’” she told me. “But for me, it’s home. This is where I’m from, it’s where I grew up.”

When I interviewed Underwood for Women’s History Month, I noticed a number of things about her that reminded me of other black women I’ve met. Below is the conversation she and I had about the benefits of embedding yourself in your community, the flip side of black exceptionalism and the black women by whom she is inspired.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.


I wanted to start by asking you about Rep. Shirley Chisholm. During your acceptance speech on election night, you referenced her saying, “She proclaimed that she was ‘unbought and unbossed’ and I’ve adopted that declaration as my own official model.”

How many of her tactics did you loop in when you were campaigning? Because sis was out there speaking Spanish to Spanish speakers, she was riding on the back of a truck with a loudspeaker. She was known as “Fighting Shirley Chisholm.” Tell me about Fighting Lauren Underwood.

Shirley taught me that if they don’t invite you to the table, you bring your own folding chair. To say that we are welcome and should be part of all conversations — “we” being black women and communities of color.

“Unbought and unbossed” spoke to me because so many people are used to elected officials just complying. People come and they’ll say things like, “Hey, I will get you a $5,000 check today if you’ll promise to do X in return.” And I said, “No.” Being “unbought and unbossed” means putting my community first, and having the flexibility to do what I need to do as an elected official to look out for their best interests — not some corporate special interest or lobbyist influence or whatever.

That’s something that felt particularly timely considering the way a lot of elected officials are distant from their communities. They don’t show up. They don’t talk to people. They don’t do town halls. They’re not speaking in peoples’ native languages or engaging in familiar territory. They’re happy being in this ivory tower, almost, sitting on Capitol Hill, and that’s not the model of service that I want to replicate.

That reminds me of almost every black woman I’ve met. My grandmother is so tapped into her community, and she doesn’t fear anyone. People come by and you can get a plate. You can have some water. If she got it, she’ll give it to you. And that’s how she’s solidified herself as a pillar within her community. I mean, she still has smoke if you want smoke, obviously.

Obviously (laughs).

What would you say are the benefits of embedding yourself in a community, outside of just winning the election?

You have a broad approach to identifying problems and potential solutions. So here in Illinois, our state has had a sluggish economic recovery from the recession. My district is outside of Chicago. The majority of people who live in my community go into the city to work every day, which is great, meaning that people have jobs, and they’re able to support their families.

But it’s not great because our economy as a stand-alone is not doing well. We think about long-term success in my district, and long-term success means we need some economic development. Being embedded in the community means I would ask, “Are we engaging everybody in our community and our local economy?” The answer is, “No.”

So many women leave the workforce to start and raise their families and then find themselves in this really tough place when their kids get to be in elementary school, and they want to go to work but they can’t find a job that has a paid leave policy. They can’t find a job that will give them equal pay for equal work. And it ends up being incredibly problematic. 

We found universal support for this economic agenda grounded in the idea of supporting families. Equal pay, paid family leave, affordable childcare. But it wouldn’t have bubbled up if you didn’t change the face of leadership and people who are willing to have expansive and inclusive solutions to problem solving.

Do you think that’s why it’s important to expose everyone to different perspectives?

Oh, sure. But I also think, literally, representation matters. The 116th Congress has the most women serving concurrently ever. Our incoming class is filled with these bright, experienced, talented young women who are setting the agenda and changing the national conversation. It’s really important. The stars of our class are these ladies, and I think that’s wonderful and healthy for our country. 

You told Elle: “With my team, we have to be excellent every day at everything that we do, because we are being underestimated and counted out, and we need to exceed expectations all the time.” It reminded me of things other black candidates have said. So I wanted to get your thoughts on black exceptionalism and the painful reality that we do have to work harder.

Yeah, that’s not a new concept to most individuals who come from communities of color. But I do think that in politics, that is sort of a new concept because of this culture of corruption that has been so pervasive. The idea that you would have candidates who say, “Hey, we want to do everything the right way, the first time, above board, and to be transparent and inclusive and honest and own up to mistakes if we make them, but our intention is to lead by example.” That is rare in politics.

While black exceptionalism might feel like a burden for some people, that realization and commitment to excellence all the time enabled us to be disciplined and focused. And, you know, to show people that we were serious about doing the work, earning their support and winning the election.

For all my personal reservations about black exceptionalism, I admit that it did instill this insane discipline in me. I don’t know how else I would have gotten it.

Right, we’re adults. We’re professionals, and this is high stakes. You’re at a media conglomerate, and it’s competitive. I ran for the United States Congress, it was competitive — and we knew what we were doing coming into it. The challenge is for the eight-year-old who feels that pressure. Or, the 18-year-old college student who sees this scandal situation and feels that pressure. That’s where it gets to be challenging. It’s passed on generationally, and the pressure can be tough for our young people.

But for us? Yeah, the discipline is important. It’s helpful, and it’s fuel.

Who inspires you?

Oh, so many people! I get inspiration from people I meet every day. We get so many letters and notes from kids. Children have such a pure moral compass. They believe that doing the right thing will take you far and that we can solve all the problems in the world. So I want to make them proud. Let’s show them that by keeping your word and fighting hard for people, we will be able to make a change. That inspires me. I am inspired by so many of my colleagues who have been serving in Congress for a long time and have been incredibly impactful leaders.

And I’m inspired by people who you’re probably inspired by, right? Like Michelle Obama. Did you read Becoming? Oh my god, it was so good. She told her story the way she wanted to tell it, and I don’t think a lot of people have the courage to do that. That’s so powerful because it’s relatable and that black middle-class story doesn’t get told often in this country, and it was great to see. Love her.

Are you also inspired by Beyoncé? ’Cause that’s someone else who inspires me.

I love her so much. Beyoncé is somebody that can just get you through the day — and I have a lot of hard days — but I will put in my headphones and get some pep in my step. And the thing about Beyoncé that I love is that it’s not effortless. She gives you her all, and she tries hard, and it is great. I love every moment of it. I really love that you can go online anytime you need that little pick-me-up and just watch a little bit of her at Coachella or her and Jay-Z in Paris. It doesn’t even matter which one. And then you’re like, “Okay. Let’s go and crush it today.”

Maybe I’m the only one that does that, but I do it more times than you imagine.

Oh, believe me, you are not the only one who does that. I often go back to that Super Bowl performance, the first one. ’Cause it just ... woo! There is no one like Beyoncé.

I love her — and Oprah, while we’re just going through the list. The trifecta. Let me just say, I mean, obviously: She’s goals.

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