Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Barbara Lee on What Fuels Her Fire for Change

The desire to make a difference in the world came at an early age for Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA). “My life has got to be about changing things,” she wrote in her diary as a girl of only 13. In her new book, Renegade for Peace & Justice: Congresswoman Barbara Lee Speaks for Me, she wrote about growing up in segregated El Paso, Texas, where African Americans made up 2 percent of the population. The congresswoman said she was very young when she was made aware of the injustices many Americans faced and became determined to help rectify them.

In an August 17 conversation with Belva Davis, a Bay Area news veteran and host of KQED’s “This Week in Northern California,” Lee shared with a Commonwealth Club of California audience the story of her birth, and stated that her passion comes from “almost not being born.” She revealed that her mother, who was scheduled to have a c-section at the local hospital, was refused admittance because of the color of her skin. “The story confused me as a girl,” she said. “I began learning about racism at a very early age.”

Lee moved to California when she was 13 years old, and she attended Oakland's Mills College, where she was elected president of the Black Student Union. Lee told the story of a political science course she took while at the university, for which she was required to work on a presidential campaign in order to pass. However, “I didn’t believe in any of the candidates,” she said. “I told the professor I would rather fail than support someone I didn’t believe in.”

Yet, that all changed when Shirley Chisholm, the first black woman to run for president, visited her campus. Chisholm inspired Lee, who was previously unregistered to vote, to become active in her campaign. As a result she “passed the class with an A, registered to vote, and basically founded Chisholm’s campaign in Northern California,” she said. “The rest is history.” Lee also credited her predecessor, Rep. Ron Dellums, with her successful run in 1998 for Congress’s 9th District, a constituency she called “the most enlightened in the country.”

She chronicled her rise from being a young, single mother of two, working for the Black Panther Party’s Community Learning Center to one of Congress’s most progressive voices. As congresswoman, Lee has taken on causes in both the United States and abroad. She said she believes her political career has become defined by her personal experiences, and she explained why she strives to speak for those in need of a voice in Washington. From the HIV/AIDS pandemic to the genocide in Darfur, Lee has fought what she called the grossest injustices of our time.

Lee is now tackling health-care reform head-on, and she has been very vocal about her support for President Obama’s health care proposal. “You have to go against the grain if you want to take on the status quo,” she said. Over the weekend, Lee, who also chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, issued a statement noting that "the Congressional Black Caucus remains committed to ensuring that health reform is meaningful, and that means making sure that a public option is part of the package." The proposed health-care option has become one of the most contentious elements of legislation taking shape in Congress, with critics maintaining that it is a step toward a federal takeover of health care and supporters arguing it is essential to create competition with private firms.

Rep. Lee said that she has visited Cuba on a number of occasions and believes that the United States could greatly benefit from studying their comprehensive health-care system. She was adamant that the embargo must be lifted, as she believes it has only served to isolate the United States, rather than Cuba. “I think we’re moving forward,” she said. “But it’s not fast enough.”

Another cause about which she is passionate is the genocide occurring in Darfur. She has visited the war-torn impoverished country on three occasions, and she stated that she believes that she can’t relinquish her activist role on this issue, even though it did result in her arrest in 2006 during a protest in Washington, D.C.

The congresswoman garnered national attention in 2001 when she was the only member of Congress to vote against a resolution granting President George Bush almost unlimited authority to declare war against nations he deemed responsible for terrorism. Lee, who has become one of Congress’s most vocal opponents to the war in Iraq, has long promoted policies that she believes foster international peace, security and human rights.

--Commonwealth Club Media and Public Relations Department


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