Growing up, my mother was very intentional about raising my sister, Maya, and me as strong, Black women. She knew how the world would view us and try to treat us. But she had an unparalleled optimism that we would see what was possible, unburdened by what has been.

She coupled her teachings of civic duty and fearlessness with actions. We would often go with our mother to protests, where – as I like to say – I had a stroller’s eye view of the Civil Rights Movement. And we would often spend time at Rainbow Sign, a Black cultural center near our home.

One of the beautiful things about growing up in the Bay Area was that it was home to so many incredible Black leaders. Black pride was on glorious display, and Rainbow Sign was no exception. 

Thanks to Rainbow Sign, kids like me were exposed to extraordinary men and women who showed us what we could become. People like Shirley Chisholm, who in 1971, visited Rainbow Sign while she was considering a run for president. Chisholm’s “Unbought and Unbossed” campaign slogan and bold message would inspire generations. People like Nina Simone, who came to perform when I was seven years old – just as I was learning the joy of music. And people like Maya Angelou, the first Black female non-fiction bestselling author, read poetry to little girls and boys who were just starting to use their imaginations.

It was at this young age that I learned something that would stay with me throughout my life: Real leaders don’t ask for anyone’s permission to lead – they just lead. 

Something Shirley Chisholm, Nina Simone, and Maya Angelou all had in common was that they blazed trails that had not yet been walked by those who looked like them. They allowed the possibility of what lies ahead to be their inspiration. They were fearless leaders – bold and courageous. And they never asked for permission.

Given the history of our country, it is important that we – as a people – know who we are and what we stand for. It’s important that when we enter rooms where no one like us has been, we know that our brothers and sisters are behind us in spirit. And it’s important that we pave the way for the next leaders – unapologetically. We must always remember that faith will lead us when the path is uncertain. After all, the fight of Black leaders has always been grounded in faith and the belief in what is possible. 

It is this faith that has given me the courage and strength throughout my career to work in spaces that very few people who look like me have been. 

As only the second Black woman in our country’s history to be elected to the United States Senate and the first Black woman to be elected as Attorney General of any state, I have always been acutely aware that my presence is much bigger than me. I am well aware of the giants whose shoulders I stand on. While it is an honor to carry on in the fight for equality and representation that Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, and many others began, it is also my duty to pay it forward because of the true goal is to lay the groundwork for the next generation. And I realize this goal does not rest on my shoulders alone. It is the responsibility of all of us.

My mother always reminded me, “You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.” These days, as I travel our country and meet young people who aspire to bring great change, I find myself sharing my own refrain: “Never ask for permission to lead. Just lead.”

There is no doubt that Black history is America’s history. That history includes legendary leaders like LaSalle Leffall and Thurgood Marshall, but it also includes the painful reality of slavery and Jim Crow. We must acknowledge both. As we forge ahead in this new decade, let us challenge inequality as we march on toward progress for the next generation. Let us honor the work of Shirley Chisholm, Rosa Parks, Maya Angelou, and others that have inspired so many to follow in their footsteps – including myself. And be reminded that none of these people asked permission to lead – and neither should you.