Illinois Democrat Lauren Underwood Is Youngest Black Woman Elected To Congress09:50
Download

Play
Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., arriving for orientation for new members of Congress, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood, D-Ill., arriving for orientation for new members of Congress, Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Washington. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

At 32, Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood is one of the youngest people to gain a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives this year, and the youngest black woman ever elected to Congress.

She is among a group of young lawmakers recently elected to the House that includes California's Katie Hill and Josh Harder, and New York's Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

"It's very clear that the American people are interested in a new generation of leadership," Underwood (@LUnderwood630) tells Here & Now's Jeremy Hobson. "We have lowered the average age of Congress with our election because at 32 years old, I am not the youngest member, so that says something."

House Democrats nominated Rep. Nancy Pelosi to be the next speaker of the House, despite strong support within the Democratic caucus for someone younger to lead the House. Even though she supported Pelosi, Underwood says it's important for younger members to take on leadership positions.

"In terms of a pipeline, I do think that they have heard the message loud and clear, and I have offered myself as someone who is willing to step up when needed to help as situations arise. And I know I'm not the only one," she says. "So many of us ran because it's very clear that this moment in our country is calling for great leadership, and that type of leadership is not one that's limited to any one generation."

Interview Highlights

On her plans to tackle the student loan debt crisis 

"It's very clear that we are in the midst of a student loan crisis in our country. So many of my peers — I graduated from college in 2008, in the spring of 2008, and as we all know, in the fall of 2008 our economy and our country just collapsed — and so many in my cohort specifically remain underemployed, perhaps underpaid and have significant loan debt that has become a real barrier, an obstacle to be able to meet major life milestones like purchasing a home, saving for retirement, being able to plan forward in the future.

"And when I think about the opportunities for intervention, I really identify a few things. No. 1: We have to have a financial aid system that reflects the way that the modern student approaches higher education. So we know that in this country the average college student is not 18 or 19 years old, the average college student is maybe 27 or 35, and is going to a four-year institution year-round in order to complete their degree as quickly as possible. And our current financial aid system, specifically Pell Grants, don't allow for those students to use their grant in perhaps like a spring or summer term, right? They're not allowed to use that year-round. I think that that is an opportunity for some modernization.

"Second thing we can do is make sure that the subsidized student loans and that Pell Grants are now in combination going to reflect the total cost of tuition. It's no secret that tuition prices have been rising as the share of federal and state investment in higher education has been dropping, and so those costs are now being passed on directly to the students and families. And so we have an opportunity at the federal level to make sure that the Pell Grants and the subsidized loans are reflecting the true cost of tuition payments, and that's going to be one of my priorities certainly heading into Congress, making sure that we have a modern federal financial aid system."

"Lack of government investment in higher education is really coming to a head. And so burying our heads in the sand as a Congress is not an option."

Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood

On the lack of support from the White House to tackle student loan debt

"One of the opportunities here is that in our oversight role, it's very clear that Betsy DeVos of the Department of Education has been trying to unilaterally dismantle public education in our country, take away protections from K12 students and college students. And so this is going to be an area where like it or not people are going to have to intervene in this education space. So it's my hope that after doing some oversight activities to protect these core civil rights and protections, we're also going to be able to work on this looming economic crisis that is really holding back millennials and Generation Z. This is not a problem that our generation created. We are simply experiencing some market forces and lack of government investment in higher education is really coming to a head. And so burying our heads in the sand as a Congress is not an option. And so I am looking forward to being a strong voice in support of reform."

On the opposition to Nancy Pelosi as House Speaker and the desire for young leaders

"I believe that Leader Pelosi recognizes this, recognizes this desire in the caucus. We certainly have younger leaders in ... the elected leadership in our caucus now, and I think that this is something that we are going to continue to see occur over the next several years. I am not going to say that this is just a Nancy Pelosi problem. This is something that all of the Democrats in the caucus as we vote for leadership, certainly should keep in mind and recognize the potential in so many of our colleagues."

"When we think about our country and the changing demographics of our country, it's vitally important that all of us are represented."

Rep.-elect Lauren Underwood

On being the youngest black woman ever elected to Congress

"The Congress is an institution that at the dawn of our country, only white, wealthy, male landowners were allowed to serve in the Congress, were allowed to cast a vote in this country. We have not seen or heard from younger women of color in any type of cohort or any significant way — and when I say significant I mean beyond just one pioneering voice — and now ... there are a few of us under 40 serving in Congress, you know, younger women of color. And I think that this is a really special moment in our nation's history because when we think about our country and the changing demographics of our country, it's vitally important that all of us are represented. It's clear that representation matters in the policies we address, how we approach the job and the perspectives that we bring to the work.

"And I am so honored to stand on the shoulders of giants who came before me. Our Election Day was 50 years and one day after [Rep.] Shirley Chisholm was first elected to the Congress. And I know that I have been inspired by her leadership in addition to so many of the other members who are incoming. I don't think that Shirley Chisholm's portrait has been on social media more than it had been during our two weeks of orientation because as I watch the Twitter and Instagram of my new colleagues, I saw so many of us stopping by Miss Shirley's portrait and reflecting on the wonderful opportunity that all of us have to lead and to cast a vote in this esteemed body. And so it's not just my story, right? But I'm thinking of the icon of the Ayanna Pressley's and the Jahana Hayes' and Lucy McBath and [Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez] and all of our new colleagues coming into the Congress who have been inspired by her exceptional leadership."


Chris Bentley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Samantha Raphelson adapted it for the web.

This segment aired on December 11, 2018.

Jeremy Hobson Twitter Co-Host, Here & Now
Before coming to WBUR to co-host Here & Now, Jeremy Hobson hosted the Marketplace Morning Report, a daily business news program with an audience of more than six million.

More…

Support the news

+Join the discussion
TwitterfacebookEmail

Support the news