Last week, my husband Jon and I had the opportunity to attend EMILY's List's annual fete.
This was his first time ever accompanying me to a political event, and sensing him feeling a bit overwhelmed, I tried my best to whisper explanations as we moved through the substantial crowd. "People will look you right in the eye and smile as if they know you, but they don't. Everyone is going to ask you what you do. Don't be offended when you're talking to someone and they start looking over your shoulder and around your head. And remember, this is work for me." I felt as if I were bringing him in to a foreign country for the first time, a country that I was not born in but that I have extensive knowledge of, having traveled in and out of it for over a decade. As I heard myself talk, I started to wonder what we were doing there.
But once we sat down at our table and looked at the evening's program, I could see Jon start to get excited. He grew up in Oakland, and Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer were both on the agenda to speak. "I voted for them both several times!" he whispered. Watching him light up as each one of them took the stage shot me right back to my first year in DC, when I was constantly star struck, in awe of the power I was in proximity to. Seeing him so engaged, nodding and grunting and cheering in agreement and solidarity with the nearly all-female crowd, as the Senators recalled their early assertions that they had just as much right to legislate as any man made me fall deeper in love with him than I've ever been. By the time Gabrielle Giffords took the stage, assuring the room that she's "still fighting to make the world a better place, and you can too", there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Then, Stacey Abrams stepped up to the podium.
I didn't know too much about the Minority Leader from Georgia, other than that she was being honored with the first annual Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award, and that she sure did have some tough acts to follow. What she did next, though, blew me away. She spoke about how she came from "a family of firsts" – her parents were the first in their respective families to graduate from high school, and then college. She talked about how her parents instilled in her the imperative to speak truth to power. She told the story of deciding to run for office, eventually becoming the first woman to lead either party in the Georgia General Assembly and the first African American to lead in the state House. Then she flipped the script.
"I'm here to tell you a secret. I am tried of being first. I want to be last. I want to be the last person to demand that we fully fund public education and defend it against privatization. I want to be the last one that has to go the well to fight bills to drug test the poor at the same time that we expand tax credits for the rich. I want to be the last one who has to first pay homage to the 2nd Amendment before I explain that guns everywhere is wrong... I want to be the very last woman – who ever has to explain to Republicans that my body is not a place for experimental social policy." Because of her predecessors, she is only the first of many rising stars, she said. "We will be the last ones to have to demand our rights, and we will be the first ones to say thank you."
"Watch her", I said to my husband as we participated in the standing ovation that followed. "She's going to be something huge someday, and you'll get to say you saw her speak back when she was in the Georgia legislature." Suddenly I realized exactly why we had come. Nights like these remind me why I come to work every day, what it is that I'm dedicating my life to. The fight for justice rages on, and we are all needed. As we walked out, I asked myself, "If Feinstein can lead a city in the wake of her colleagues' murders, if Gabby Giffords can walk to the podium and give a speech after being shot in the head, if Stacey Abrams can overcome extreme childhood poverty and deep prejudice to become Minority Leader in Georgia…what can you do?"