U.S. Representative Ayanna S. Pressley (D-Mass.) encouraged students to fight for transformative, radical policies at an Institute of Politics JFK Jr. Forum event Tuesday.
“This is the moment to demonstrate the strength of conviction, to dig deep,” Pressley said.
Pressley, who represents the Seventh Congressional District, made history in 2018 when she was the first woman of color elected to Congress from Massachusetts. On Capitol Hill, she became a member of “the Squad”: four first-term, progessive Democratic congresswomen who have gained attention on the national stage.
Pressley spoke with Institute of Politics Fellow Brittany Packnett Cunningham — a fellow activist who moderated the talk — about the presidential victory of Joseph R. Biden, Jr. and the future of a movement that won back the White House.
The IOP event, entitled “A Conversation with Ayanna Pressley,” consisted of a discussion about the election, Pressley’s “mandate,” policy proposals, and a question-and-answer session.
Pressley credited high voter turnouts for Democratic victories, congratulating organizers and Americans for rising to the challenge of an election conducted in a polarized political climate and a pandemic.
“We met the moment with unprecedented organizing, unprecedented mobilizing,” she said. And because of that we’ve given people unprecedented hope.”
Pressley said she feels grateful, encouraged, and empowered after her re-election.
“I’m going to keep speaking truth to power because I have a mandate from my district to do exactly that,” she added.
But she also reminded the audience that the country has much more work to do.
“We have to continue to center the people. We have to continue to organize,” Pressley said. “Organizing and mobilizing and legislating our values is how we have achieved every gain throughout our society.”
While legislators should be responsive to the needs of all people, Pressley added, there need to be targeted efforts to uplift minority communities that have been disproportionately harmed by the status quo and the pandemic yet played a pivotal role in the election.
Packnett Cunningham then asked Pressley to expound briefly on her policy priorities. The representative advocated for universal healthcare, the Green New Deal, defunding U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, protecting Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals beneficiaries from deportation, re-committing to the Paris Climate Accords, and lowering the voting age to 16.
Pressley said she is driven to improve public trust in the government. She told the story of an 11-year-old girl — whose family is undocumented — forced to care for her nine-month-old brother after her mother became sick with COVID-19. After two weeks, the siblings ran out of groceries and diapers; when authorities came to check on them, the girl pretended that everything was fine, fearing their punishment rather than seeking their help.
In the concluding question-and-answer session, several students asked Pressley about the future of the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.
Pressley said legislators have a mandate to legislate according to the needs and demands of the people. She added that empathy and intersectionality are necessary for radical change, calling upon representatives to consider the stakes all of their constituents have in policy.
The representative called upon students to hold firm in their “radical imagination.”
“The power in the people has always been greater than the people in power,” she said.
Tarina K. Ahuja ’24, who attended the event, said the panel left her feeling “extremely energized.”
“I’m just very ready to continue seeing a change being made and continue working towards that fulfillment of working for people,” Ahuja said.