Brenda Lynn Siegel: The diversity of the new congress is just the beginning

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On Thursday, Jan. 3 the 116th congress was sworn in. A congress that changed the face of the House of Representatives. More diverse than ever before. More women than ever before. This is the year that many women decided that they would step into leadership. That they would run for office. I was one of those women. I was deeply inspired as these newly elected women were sworn in. Women who did not necessarily climb the traditional ladder. Women who are committed to a progressive agenda. Latina, Black, Native, Samali, bi-sexual and more. Not just native, but, the first Native Americans to ever be in the House. Not just Black but, the first Black woman to ever go to congress from Massachusetts and the youngest Black woman to ever serve in the House. Not just Samali, but, the first first generation Samali American to serve in the House. The youngest woman to ever be elected to congress and she beat out a long term incumbent. The list of firsts goes on. It was incredible and fulfilling to watch.

Watching it is to know that together we are moving the needle. It is to know that before them, there may have been someone like them that ran and lost or maybe they were the first like them to even run. It is to know that we stand on the shoulders of the people that came before us and that we only succeed when we truly leave the ladder down on our way up. We don't want people to have to jump through the same hoops we did. I don't want it to be just as hard next time a low income single mom runs for office as it was for me. I want to have blazed a path that can be walked upon by the next woman like me or by me once again. I want the old belief systems that we have chipped away at, to stay chipped until we break down the entire wall that prevents regular folks from leading and our elected offices from school board to president from being reflective bodies. This only changes when we with our allies continue to march forward.

We are taught throughout our lives as women that there won't be room for all of us, so, when we finally get up the ladder we must quickly close the hatch. We are taught this by design in an effort to keep us out of leadership. Throughout history, when women band together, with their male allies, change happens. What I know is that when we lift up the women around us we all do better. We succeed. Nothing bad happens from supporting folks beside you. My primary opponent was a woman and I became dear friends with her. To this day we lift each other up. We call on each other in moments of need, we laugh and joke together, even though we know that one day we may run against each other again. We lose nothing by supporting one another, we only continue to change the story.

When we all watched collectively the most diverse class of congress with the most women in history, that was the work of everyone who supported them, everyone who lost before them, everyone who won before them, everyone who blazed a path and worked hard to keep the path accessible. It was a success to every woman across the country who decided to run in 2018. It was the opening created by organizations like the White House Project, Emerge, Vote Run Lead, every huddle, Indivisible and many more. It was every straight white man who shelved their own ambition and instead lifted an equally strong progressive woman into leadership. It was the big push of progressive politics that swept our nation and strong group of women standing arm in arm saying together we will move the needle and change this story.

I saw first hand in my own run the sexism prevalent in our political system, the barriers that keep low income and minorities out of office. I see the importance of that reflective body. It is not about identity, it is about representation. If our daughters do not see themselves reflected, if our black and brown children do not see themselves reflected, if Native Americans to not see themselves reflected, if immigrants do not see themselves reflected, if those voices are not at the decision making table, then how will we ever see the change that we want and need to see across this state and across the country?

I teared up throughout the day as I watched the face of the House of Representatives get closer to reflecting all of us. For a moment, I felt the warmth of my grandmothers, of the great women before me, of those who fought long hard battles for change. I knew that each of us, whatever place we have in this fight, has helped this change happen. Together on Thursday Jan. 3, 2019, we watched our strength, our heart and our hard work create change. Together we watched that needle move and today for the first time in the history of the United States we see a more reflective body with more women, religious beliefs and people of color than ever before.

For our daughters and our sons, may it only get more beautiful each election, may we only get more reflective and may we continue to leave our trails blazed for those who come after us. History is made and it is my intention with all of my fiery activist, politically motivated friends (known and not yet known), to keep on making it.

Thank you to everyone who created the change we just saw. We will just keep going until equity is the norm, our political body is reflective and we achieve the true democracy that we all want and need. The time has come and the 116th congress is just the beginning.

Brenda Siegel is a former Democratic candidate for governor, founder and director of the Southern Vermont Dance Festival, vice chair of the Newfane Democratic Committee and delegate to the Windham County Democratic Committee. She is an anti-poverty activist and single mom from Newfane.  The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.

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