My body felt light as I bounced my way through the halls of the U.S. Capitol building. Beside me walked U.S. representatives, senators and other distinguished guests. I was playing a game of “I Spy” with myself, searching for the lawmakers I admired and those I had studied carefully in the newspaper. I clasped my glimmering admission ticket tightly between my fingers. It was a truly a golden ticket, not only to the 2019 State of the Union address but to a coming year of change.
Just eight days prior, I had received a call from Congresswoman Stephanie Murphy, a role model and source of inspiration. I had been selected as her guest at the State of the Union, the Florida Democrat told me. On the evening of Feb. 5, I would be seated in the visitors’ gallery, watching the leaders of America in a joint session from above. This all came about because of an essay I wrote on youth civic engagement.
When I heard of Congresswoman Murphy’s essay contest on youth civic engagement, I couldn’t think of a topic that was more important to me, given the systemic oppression in the world. There are so many issues that require civic action, so many marginalized communities that need to be empowered. As a youth activist, I speak out on matters ranging from gun violence to gender equality. For me, writing has often been the tool to create change. And now with one essay ― 491 words ― I was able to witness a piece of American history and make it a piece of my future.
For years, even before I really understood the dynamics of politics, my dad and I would watch the State of the Union together, huddled in the living room with the volume turned low. As a child, I was intrigued by the power of the words, the calls to action, all of which seemed true in the moment they were said. We weren’t taking part in history, necessarily, but we were watching it play out hundreds of miles away. But 2019 would be different ― my dad and I would be watching the State of the Union not from our living room sofa but from the capital of the United States.
“As a young female of color, those demographics stand in complete contrast to who I am and could serve as a barrier to who I want to be.”
On Feb. 5, I took my seat with jitters, and as members of the Senate began to arrive for the event, I noticed the cluster of males below me. The 116th Congress has been praised for its diversity, yet looking down at the newly elected class of legislators seated in the chamber, there were so many groups that lacked representation. About 90 percent of the Senate and 73 percent of the House is white. About 75 percent of the Senate and the House is male.
As a young female of color, those demographics stand in complete contrast to who I am and could serve as a barrier to who I want to be. When I watched the State of the Union each year as a child, the television camera panned on very few women. It wasn’t necessarily the camera’s fault. American politics has never been truly equal, even today.
It hurts to think that when I was younger, I wasn’t exactly bothered by this. Then, it seemed like a simple fact of life: Little girls, especially brown ones, rarely became senators and never became president. That’s what we were shown as children, and these ideas are hard to change as we become adolescents. In a room that represented American democracy and unity at its core, I was still someone different, in appearance and in identity.
The State of the Union, as an event, is really about identity. It is a portrayal of America’s collective identity and the closest thing that we have to national introspection. As such, it is important to look at the individuals who make up this collective. It is not enough to use our mouths to call for unity if our hands are working to pull unity apart. It is not enough to recognize certain groups and still alienate others because each community is a part of our national self. But the annual State of the Union has the potential to open up America’s mind and reveal the consistencies or inconsistencies inside.
“A feeling of empowerment swept through me when I saw the crowd of congresswomen, dressed in suffragette white, sitting in the House chamber.”
National politics had been something that was far away from me, something that I only saw on television, like celebrities and serials. Being there at the State of the Union and seeing the legislators interact with one another made my dreams feel attainable, as though I could be a part of Congress one day. It also helped me to understand that politicians are here for us. They are not above their constituents; rather, they sit together in the U.S. Capitol to represent their constituents. Seeing the freshman class of legislators, a younger and more representative group than ever before, taught me that there isn’t a certain identity necessary to become a leader.
A feeling of empowerment swept through me when I saw the crowd of congresswomen, dressed in suffragette white, sitting in the House chamber. It was different from any other year. In that group of congresswomen, I could see myself, or someone like myself. Though the past few years have seen troubling political divides, the increasing representation of gender, racial and other minorities in political leadership gives me a glimmer of hope. We still have a long path ahead of us, but the only way to make progress is by moving forward.
I’m extremely grateful both to leaders like Congresswoman Murphy who are devoted to empowering future leaders and to America for making this future possible. Having attended the State of the Union will forever stay with me in my civic engagement. By the end of 2019, this year will look very different from what it is now and from what it sounded like at the State of the Union. I can’t wait to channel my activism to help further the change we need to see in the United States.
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