Kamala Harris is the second African American woman ever to serve in the United States Senate.
Senator Harris was born in Oakland, California to a Jamaican Father and Indian mother, attended Howard University for her undergraduate degree and received a law degree from UC Hastings. She worked as a Deputy District Attorney in Alameda County, California, she served as Managing Attorney of the Career Criminal Unit in the San Francisco District Attorney's Office, Chief of the Community and Neighborhood Division in the office of San Francisco City Attorney and also served two terms as District Attorney of San Francisco.
Harris was elected California's Attorney General in 2010, and re-elected in 2014. She was the first African American and first woman to serve as Attorney General of California.
Ahead of her commencement speech at Howard University this weekend, we sat down with Senator Harris and talked to her about the current political climate, healthcare and criminal justice reform.
"People should stop playing politics with Public Health" - Senator Kamala Harris
An issue fresh on everyone's mind is the passing of a detrimental healthcare bill in the House of Representatives that preys on women, poor people and communities of color in the United States. When asked about her initial reactions to the bill Senator Harris said the following: "It is clear to me that these folks believe that access to healthcare is a privilege and not a right. I know that poor people in this country are dying everyday because they are poor. That is immoral. It is wrong to strip about 24 million people of their healthcare." Harris' outspoken moral stances on issues is quite refreshing, she has done anything but shy away from her position on pressing issues both nationally and globally. She emphasizes, "let's look at it also in terms of the cut to Planned Parenthood which serves low income women and men. Let's look at what they'll do in terms of cutting Medicaid, which serves low income people. We need to fight on this. I'd like to remind everyone that access to healthcare is a civil rights issue."
While on the topic of institutions that fail poor people of color, Senator Harris and I shifted our discussion towards criminal justice reform and the pressing need for it, especially under the current administration. The Private Prison Stock surged in the days following Trump’s victory—a blatant indicator of a shift toward a militarized society that will continue to criminalize black and brown youth. With regards to criminal justice reform, Senator Harris said the following:
"Let's first talk about the appointment of Jeff Sessions to be attorney general. We should all be deeply troubled and concerned about his perspective. The war on drugs was an abject failure, and I say that as a career prosecutor. He has directed the Justice Department to intervene in favor of states that enact measures that are discriminatory, in terms of restricting access to the ballot—voting rights issues. He has ordered immigration officials to charge undocumented immigrants with higher penalty crimes. He has reversed Obama's policy of phasing out the use of private prisons. This is a huge problem."
As Attorney General of California, Senator Harris faced scrutiny for the stances she took on human rights violations in California prisons, and for her lack of stances on key reform measures such as Proposition 47, which declassified nonviolent crimes to misdemeanors instead of felonies. However, as Senator, Harris appears to be more outspoken on where she stands.
When asked about what institutional solutions can look like from her position as Senator, Harris elaborated, "part of what I've been doing is reaching out to Republicans in the Senate to enact criminal justice reform legislation. I've co-sponsored a bill called the National Criminal Justice Commission Act, which will create a comprehensive review of national criminal justice trends and issue recommendations for changes and oversight, policies and practices."
As the only black female Senator, Harris touched on the importance of inclusive and diverse workplaces. "There are still so many disparities and there's so much work that we need to do to have all of these places be a reflection of the people that are impacted by the work that we do. Let's emphasize the need for true commitment for diversifying. That means hiring practices, mentoring, looking at what we do to actively recruit so that we can ensure that across the board everyone who is present understands that this is not an aberration, but part of the business model. Our diversity is our strength and our power as a country."
While white supremacy runs rampant and the future of our country rests in the hands of unqualified bigots, civic engagement and faith in the "democratic" process remains elusive for many of us. When asked for words of wisdom for millennials who are disillusioned by the politics, Senator Harris shared the following: "The first thing I want to emphasize is to remind our young people that you are not in those rooms alone. I know what that's like being in a room where you're the only one that looks like you. When you're in those rooms, you can feel really alone. My advice is to remind folks that we are all in it with you. You've gotta hold that in your heart and in your mind. We are encouraging you to speak up and speak out. And all of the thoughts you are having about whatever is happening are legitimate and will be heard."