It might be difficult to see through the veil of celebrity — and the adrenaline from interacting with famous boss women working to change national public policy — that members of the “Squad” have many of the same struggles and challenges that most women of color have.
But I saw this first-hand in early August when three members of “the Squad” — Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan, came to St. Louis to stump for fellow squad member Rep. Cori Bush, a couple of weeks before her August 2 primary. Bush handily won against her challenger, Missouri State Senator Steve Roberts, Jr.
And as we turn our sights toward the midterm, I keep thinking about the Squad’s superpower.
To improve unbearable conditions and fight for equity, the Black women in the Squad are laying claim to painful experiences as women of color. They know about the consequences of inadequate and harmful governmental policies — and the insights they’ve learned from their experiences enable them to take action in their roles as congresswomen.
“Many people really don’t understand that when you’re a member of Congress, and you say you represent the people, that in a representative democracy, you are truly supposed to have fluency in the day-to-day struggles of the people you seek to represent,” Omar said during a conversation with members of the local activist community, who gathered to discuss abortions rights, and later to celebrate Bush’s birthday at Golden Records in St. Louis’ Gravois Park neighborhood.
Together, the members of the Squad keep underscoring the importance of being representatives who understand and relate to poor, working class, and middle class people. In turn, they’re striving to hold the entire nation to higher standards of governance.
This is their superpower, and it allows them to serve the priorities and needs of their constituents. With this knowledge and pride for who they are racially and ethnically, members of the Squad aren’t looking to use old playbooks; they’re seeking a more inclusive, more compassionate mode of operating as members of Congress.
“What we are ushering in is a paradigm shift,” Pressley said. “We know that you can’t poll transformation. We have gone behind the wall where we are making assumptions about who desires and deserves a table at the seat of democracy.”
Before she became a member of Congress, Bush often spoke with courage and candor about previously being homeless and having been sexually assaulted. She continues to talk about having survived domestic abuse and homelessness, which leads St. Louisans and people throughout the nation, especially some of the most marginalized, to believe that she knows how they feel because she’s been there herself, on the margins.
This understanding is an undeniable superpower, and Bush uses it to fight consistently to make a difference, to bring change, and to bring relief to her constituents. She brought $1 billion in federal relief funds to Missouri in less than two years in office and led a demonstration in Washington, D.C, against the lifting of the federal eviction moratorium. She spent the night on the steps of the U.S. Capitol with other members of Congress and activists, including the Squad.
Even with accomplishments like Bush’s, and even though they’re some of the most highly regarded progressive politicians in the United States, members of the Squad still have to weather the daily microaggressions of racism, sexism, and more that most women of color have to contend with at work, in public spaces, and private spheres.
Bush, Omar, and Pressley know the hostility the average Black woman experiences when she ventures into public spaces. True, they receive the support and affection of many of their constituents and admirers nationally, but they also deal with death threats, and they’re subjected to extreme trolling.
“You know with this work, we are vilified,” Pressley told the activists at the Golden Record. She pointed out that as congresswomen of color, they’re quickly blamed or scapegoated when legislation fails. And, when they’re a force behind successful legislation, they don’t get the credit or fanfare that their white colleagues get for similar efforts and accomplishments.
“If there’s a victory and we play a role in it, we’re often erased from it. If there’s a defeat, we’re often blamed for it,” Pressley said.
She admitted, “This work can be incredibly lonely,” and gave credit to their respective teams. “They cover us, they embolden us, they anchor us,” Pressley said. “They become our chosen family.”
“And who knows more about being closest to the pain than Black women?” Pressley asked.
Indeed, Black women face being disrespected at work, in school, while interacting with strangers and acquaintances, and may be told by a medical practitioner — even of the same race — that they’re not really experiencing pain when they’ve made it explicitly clear that they are. Or, they’re called out of their name or harassed while walking down the street. Such is the unprovoked rudeness and hostility one might experience just for being a Black woman, unapologetically.
“And what we’re ushering in is a politic, not of transaction, but of transformation,” Pressley said.“Y’all have heard the Shirley Chisolm quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” But I’ve amended that because if we bring a new chair to an old table, nothing changes, so we bring a whole new [table].”
Pressly said she envisions building this new table inclusively. “You can come with a hoodie…, braids, or with a baldie,” she said.
And then she took off her hat and exposed her striking bald head to cheers and raised fists, “Or you can bring a hijab,” she added, referencing Omar.
Omar said before she became a congresswoman she spent many years watching congressional hearings and yelling at the TV because no member of Congress was asking the kind of questions she wanted to be asked. They didn’t seem “as irritated as they needed to be sitting in front of people who had caused so much pain to us here in the United States and across the world,” Omar said.
Omar then reached out and touched Pressley’s arm. “A lot of people don’t understand why Cori Bush loves you, why we love our constituents, why we love this country, why we fight so hard for everything that we do,” Omar said. “And I’ll tell you the reason. It’s because we wanted to feel that love.
“Many of us have felt what it means to be evicted. Many of us have felt what it means to be uninsured. Many of us have felt what it meant to live in a community where the asthma rates were off the charts. Many of us have felt what it means to be brutalized by our foreign policy. Many of us either know personally or come from generational trauma.
“So our love is real. It’s deep,” Omar said to thunderous applause. “It’s threatening to a lot of people, but it is not going away because the pain that we live through as we serve all of you is never equal to the pain you that you all feel in not having representation that loves you.”
When a woman shouted “preach” from the audience, I felt her so hard.
If their perspectives as people of color and as women are the Squad’s superpower — and if the Squad continues to develop effective new approaches to creating and caucusing for legislation that solves old problems and newer problems too, such as restoring federal reproductive rights and passing legislation to secure them — may the forces and their constituents be with them.