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How Ayanna Pressley's mother influenced the congresswoman's life and work

Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
Rep. Ayanna Pressley, D-Mass. on Capitol Hill in Washington, Wednesday, March 11, 2020. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley credits her mother's lived experience with helping her succeed in politics, and life.

"From a very young child, I saw her [my mom] as a woman, not just my mother, I saw her humanity," Pressley told WBUR's Radio Boston. "I received an education, a tutelage early on, that to be Black and to be a woman is the dichotomy of being hyper visible and invisible at the same time ... and so because I had a great teacher in my mother, even when those lessons were sometimes heartbreaking, that has informed the space that I take up how I navigate and how I move."

Pressley's mother Sandra passed away in 2011 after a long battle with leukemia. She stopped by Studio 3 on Valentine's Day to talk about her work, what's inspiring her, and what's giving her hope right now.

"Happiness is usually based on a happenstance, a very specific moment in time," Pressley said. "But joy is something so much deeper, so much more abiding, so much more enduring. And I want everyone to know that kind of joy, the joy that comes from living and feeling safe, the joy that comes from having a peace of mind, the joy that comes from dignity, the joy that comes from a government and a community that sees and centers your humanity every day."

Pressley also talked about breaking barriers on the Boston City Council, and in Congress, as well as her alopecia journey.

Below are highlights from their conversation, which have been lightly edited.

Interview Highlights

On being the first Black woman to serve on the Boston City Council:

Pressley: "There were times I tried to discount it. I felt very uncomfortable because people wanted to give me a lot of awards for winning and I would, you know, caution them and say, 'well, let me actually accomplish something first.' And then finally, an elder in the community said, 'Stop denying us, don't deny us, don't rob us of this victory. You are a first.' And I was so focused on the responsibility at times, even the unique burden, that I was missing the blessing. I was missing the beauty, I was missing the gift. I was missing the victory.

"As women, you know, we're so uncomfortable ... to boss up, you know, and own a victory. So I was just really focused on demonstrating humility and focus, because a lot of people at that time were saying my victory was about identity politics"

On her history and work in politics:

Pressley: "The Boston City Council is now majority people of color, majority women. Congress has made great strides in leadership ... but I will say what does bother me is that pundits will credit this to anomalies and flukes or a wave. And when you do that, you deny us the agency and the ownership of strategy, messaging, intellect, sweat, equity, labor ...

"I know there's a narrative sort of for people outside of Massachusetts, like I just fell out of the sky and suddenly was in Congress. I worked on my first campaign to elect the first black mayor in the city of Chicago, Harold Washington, a huge influence in my life when I was 10 years old. I worked for Congressman Joseph Kennedy ... 25-plus years later, I'm now the Congresswoman of the seat. When I came here in 1992 from Chicago, didn't know a soul, found community, refined my purpose, built myself up so that I could build my community up."

On her journey with alopecia as a member of Congress:

Pressley: "I'll never forget the moment at the general election night in 2019 after I'd been elected to Congress, and I just ad-libbed off my speech and I said, 'Can a Congresswoman wear braids, rock a black leather jacket and a bold red lip?' And the room went wild. And I said that because I had finally understood that I could be in alignment, I could show up fully, authentically, unapologetically, as myself ... and I still have community, still have support, still walk the corridors of power and set a policy, in decision making tables that I can wear hoops and rock a bald head. And I'm no less congressional and no less effeminate, no less pretty, no less worthy of belonging.

"I can't pretend that this alopecia journey has been an easy one. There are days when I want to be in a fetal. And it is hard because so much of what I do in this work ... requires me to be a aesthetically scrutinized, digested, and people are always that much harder on women. And I found such ethnic pride in my hair and felt it's such an extension of my femininity and my ... self-worth. And to have been so callously robbed of these things and so abruptly, a lot of people don't understand."

This segment aired on February 16, 2023.

Amanda Beland Producer/Director
Amanda Beland is a producer and director for Radio Boston. She also reports for the WBUR newsroom.


Tiziana Dearing Host, Radio Boston
Tiziana Dearing is the host of Radio Boston.



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