AN INTERVIEW WITH BARBARA LEE

I thought the perspective of Barbara Lee will be especially important especially during the Obama administration. She is currently chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. Below is my enlightening exchange with her about her recent memoir, Renegade For Peace and Justice: Barbara Lee Speaks For Me.
An interview with Barbara Lee about Renegade For Peace and Justice: Congresswoman Barbara Lee Speaks For Me on November 13, 2008. A special thanks to Beth Warshaw-Duncan at WXPN studios in Philadelphia for production assistance.

An audio file on a Hipcast, thanks to Bryan Buchan, Virtual Outreach Coordinator for the Progressive Democrats of America, is available at:
http://blog.pdamerica.org/2009/02/renegade-for-peace-and-justice/

Fraser: In her candid and self-effacing book, U.S. Congresswoman Barbara Lee chronicles the challenges she overcame to break the silence of multigenerational domestic violence, and her rise from being a young single mother of two to being one of the most progressive, respected voices in Congress. Barbara Lee’s willingness to stand on principle earned her unsolicited international attention when she was the only member of congress to vote against the resolution giving President George Bush virtually unlimited authority to wage war against nations he personally deemed capable of terrorism. Some praise her vote as heroic and inspirational, and others called for her death. However this autobiography is about more than politics and votes cast. The name of it, Renegade For Peace and Justice dispels the myth that all members of Congress have led gilded, charmed lives. In this book you’ll learn about the work of Congress in the days that followed September 2001 and you’ll also be inspired by the story of an African American woman who rose from segregation and public assistance to become a member of Congress with a deep commitment to peace and improving the lives of the underprivileged…It is my pleasure to talk with Congresswoman Lee after reading this memoir in its entirety, Congresswoman Lee thank you so much.

Lee: Very good to be with you this morning.

Fraser: My first question for you is…you start very up front by saying you’re standing on the shoulders of giants. You say that you were taught that if you witness an injustice, then you had no choice but to stand and be counted. You write, “I have been fortunate to have met, worked with, or read about incredible people, who have shown me that having faith and doing what is right, is its own reward.” My first question for you, and you talk later about Papa, W.C. Parrish [her grandfather] and also how faith was a bedrock in your home– Could you talk about up to today, in your time of going on your eleventh year as a Congresswoman the role of family and faith in your life?

Lee: Sure, you know that I am a believer. Not that everyone in our country and the world believe in what I believe in. Because of my upbringing, I was actually raised in many churches. I went to Catholic school because the [public] schools were segregated in El Paso, Texas, and my mother, grandfather, and dad, they would not participate in any form of segregation which meant of course, no segregated schools, so we ended up going to Catholic school and I ended up becoming a very devout Catholic…and the sisters of Loretta taught me—they were unbelievably brilliant nuns who were committed to social justice causes, even though they were deeply religious. So I grew up as a very religious person and as an elected official, and I write about this in the book, I strongly believe in the separation of church and state. And I think that that has got to be for people of faith the bottom line, we practice our faith in whatever way we practice it if we have faith. But we cannot allow that separation of church and state to erode. You know I got involved in politics as a result of a great woman, Shirley Chisholm. She was my mentor. I was a student at Mills College. And I was required to work in a presidential campaign—this was in the early seventies, 72, and I had never registered to vote, and my course requirement was to do the fieldwork and I said ‘no, I’ll just flunk it ‘cause I’m not going to work for Muskie, McGovern, and Humphrey,’ you know, I conscientiously made that decision like many young people in the past have made because they don’t think the system works for them. I didn’t believe it worked for me. I was a young student on public assistance, and I just refused to work in any of those campaigns. Well this great woman came to Mills College. As I said, I was president of the Black Student Union, she spoke. And I said ‘my goodness, she’s running for president,’ and I went up and talked to her and told her about the class I had that I was about to flunk and said I might reconsider that after hearing her speak because she talked about the eradication of poverty; she was against the Vietnam War; she was for our children and education; I mean she was a phenomenal woman and I heard this woman and I never heard of her before and I said ‘I’ll work in your campaign, how do I do this?’ And she looked at me and said ‘Well, you first have to register to vote.’ And then she took me to task about being involved politically and why I should get involved. If I really believed in changing the status quo and she said, ‘I don’t have a lot of money so my local people are establishing an organizing campaign.’ I went out to look for her campaign so I could work in it, and so I could pass this class. And, low and behold there was no campaign, and so I ended up actually with some friends organizing the Northern California Shirley Chisholm Presidential primary out of my class at Mills College. And I got an A and the rest is history. And that just speaks to why its so important for young people to have mentors and to have people to encourage them and inspire them because there was no way I would never have gotten involved in politics had it not been for our Beloved, the Honourable Shirley Chisholm.

Fraser: The role she played you talked about a lot, its responsible for a lot of your policies as well. You mentioned the separation between church and state that you also write, that explains why you are in full support of gay marriage. It also explains why you were against faith-based initiatives. This memoir really provides—I think for anybody that may not necessarily agree with your political stances you have—explanations, but you provide reasons for every one of your initiatives. Before you met Shirley Chisholm, could you talk about how you were working with the Black Panther Party. And you write how the Black Panther Party had a cadre of people called community workers. And you write that you were one of those. You knew Bobby Seale; you said you were his fundraising coordinator and raised money from a variety of middle income individuals. But I think most importantly about your experience with the Black Panther Party, Congresswoman Lee, I think, is the fact that you didn’t see necessarily a conflict between what the Black Panthers were trying to do and what your faith calls you to do. And I think today so many people, churches included, when you mention the Black Panther Party, very much like mainstream America, red flags are raised as it [is seen as] being too militant. But you expose a very humane side about them. Could you talk about how the Black Panther Party, your personal experience with them and how that shaped where you are?

Lee: Sure. The Black Panther Party was an organization that really was a revolutionary organization. But it also had as central to its mission survival programs. They had a ten point program. Feeding children breakfasts. Hungry children can’t learn. And actually the national movement for free breakfasts came, or had its genesis with the Black Panther Party. Medical care, they had survival rallies. I can remember my children and I bagging groceries and thousands of people would show up just to get a bag of groceries. The Black Panther Party led in the Sickle Cell Anemia testing efforts. There were so many unbelievable initiatives as part of the Ten Point Program that began under the Black Panther Party. I wrote about it because as a community worker, I saw that side of it. I was not a Party member but I was very involved in their survival programs. I helped them write proposals and raise money for the School, which was a phenomenal school. I think it was called the Oakland Community Learning Center. And yes Bobby Seale ran for the mayor of Oakland. And he got into the runoff. And so being a community worker and not a Party member allowed me the opportunity to talk to people who were more middle class, had a little money [to] help Bobby Seale in his efforts to take on the power structure in Oakland. And it was quite a profound time. I write about COINTELPRO, my FBI files. I looked at that and saw how I was targeted by J. Edgar Hoover. You know we still don’t know: what was real and what wasn’t real, who provoked what, in terms of the violence that was taking place during that time. But COINTELPRO was real, the FBI had a real program to go after Black organizations and the Black Panther Party was one of those. And I tell you one thing, that period in my life was a period that allowed me to really understand how economic systems oppress people and the Panthers were very clear about being a coalition organization; they were not a Black nationalist group: they had people of color, white progressives; they had all kinds of people, so it really helped me become more of a coalition builder and understand—and I write about this in the book that we all have roots. Of course my roots are in Africa. And we’re proud of our roots; we are who we are. But we also take that culture and those experiences as being people of African descent to the larger world and to the larger community. And that doesn’t mean you hate other people. That means you are proud to be who you are and you work with everybody to try to make this a better world.

Fraser: Thank you. You talk later about how Bush, in terms of policy…ignored a provision that banned permanent military bases in order to keep a military presence there. And in light of a very important transition in presidential administrations from Bush to Obama, I ask, especially [in terms of] policy…How can we as progressives…address the issue of military spending that Obama says he will commit and the troop increase he is interested in sending to Afghanistan?

Lee: I think we have to wait and see how the foreign and defense policies of the new administration will evolve. I was the first member of the California Congressional delegation to endorse Senator Obama and served as his Western region co-chair and I am, like everyone in the world, so excited, so relieved, that we’re going to break from the past and move forward…and so I think it’s going to be very important to be engaged in dialogue and see what’s going to happen in terms of the overall budget and really let Senator Obama put together his team and then we’ll see where to go from there but I’m certain he’s going to do the right thing. He was out against the war and the invasion and occupation of Iraq early on, and I’m confident. I believe in him and I think the progressive community should really work with him to make sure that our young women and men are brought home in a responsible and a safe way. And we’re going to continue to make sure we have a strong national defense while making sure that the resources are there for our domestic priorities.

Fraser: On a personal note, you talk very strongly…for women who are addressing or wondering how to address a domestic violence situation, this book really addresses that. You talk very personally and candidly about your dealing with domestic violence not only through your mother but also yourself. And I encourage, highly encourage, anybody who has had to confront a domestic violence situation to really read this and be inspired, be encouraged, and to get inspiration. You write on page 126: “Some of the women in my family were victims of battered women’s syndrome so I am intimately aware that this is not an easy problem to overcome or escape.” And then later you say “Because women are devalued as human beings, male abusers have elaborate denial systems that are designed to justify or excuse their violent attacks.” And I couldn’t really help, Congresswoman Lee but to make a connection between the culture that you fight against, that you’ve fought against in September 13th in voting against the war and also the…gender roles that males have constructed. I think immediately of James Baldwin’s monumental essay [article] in Playboy called “Freaks and the American Ideal of Manhood” where he said that the American notion of manhood is so paralytically infantile that it prevents boys from becoming men. And in talking about your experience with domestic violence, I couldn’t help but make a connection. You also write on how you appeared on Oprah on September 26, 2001, to explain your vote with a group of other very influential women. And in that address to Oprah’s September 26th show, you said as women we must insist that a response is instructed to our children on how they deal with violence and that our response reassures our children that they will inherit a peaceful world. I wanted to ask you, what connection do you think is between your dealing with domestic violence and your stance against war?

Lee: You know this was a really hard chapter to write; I didn’t want to write about it but my editors and publishers insisted because I’ve taken that experience and worked a lot on domestic violence policy. I carried the Violence Against Women Act when I was in the legislature. And I carried many bills trying to bring domestic violence…to the forefront of the political agenda so it was very difficult. But I think out of that, what you’re saying is absolutely right. Violence should not be an option in our families, nor should it be an option in our communities. I’m dealing with the violence in my city in Oakland, California. Violence is so embedded in our culture and we’ve got to break that cycle. And one of the initiatives that I think is very important is a Department of Peace. Some people laugh at that, but we talked about establishing a Department of Peace to look at conflict throughout the world but also in our own communities as it relates to domestic violence, as it relates to gun violence. We’ve got to begin to talk about violence. Our young people, they watch television and they see our country invading another country and bombing another country. They see that violence is oftentimes the first option that we use. And so I think we have to have some serious dialogue, some serious debate, and some serious initiatives both in our own communities, in our families, as it relates to conflict resolution, mediation, and violence prevention. We must do that. Young people have got to have a world where they feel safe, where they understand that peace should prevail. And it starts at home.

Fraser: Could you talk about the policy initiatives in California that you spearheaded?

Lee: Vice President elect Joe Biden introduced the Violence Against Women Act. I was in the California Legislature and the National Bill allowed states to introduce their own measures within the contexts of federal laws. And so I authored the Violence Against Women Act for the state of California. Really that entails a lot of initiatives for women: counseling, battered women’s shelters; we’ve put in provisions for culturally and linguistically appropriate strategies and programs. And I wrote legislation to increase penalties for harassing by telephone and there are many violence prevention and domestic violence initiatives that I authored when I was in California. And working with the women’s shelters, battered women’s shelters, trying to protect women from their abusers…as I look back in writing this memoir, and like I said, it was the hardest thing to do but what it did—and the editors made me do this—that’s part of the motivation for working on all these issues. People would say, ‘why are you doing so much on women’s issues?’ You know, well, we’ve got to have some protection for women and children in these situations and I assume I draw a lot of that from my personal experiences.

Fraser: Not only in dealing with domestic violence but also dealing with comprehensive sex education. And the challenges that I faced that you’re especially. You know, you motivated me to be more genuine in my own understandings about sexuality. You do as well when you talk about your first husband and just before that phase—that phase of learning about what that is. And you discuss your policy initiatives with Senator Frank Lautenberg about educating people and taking time, not just to bash people over the head with abstinence only, but also efforts to provide comprehensive work. Could you talk about the potential of that in an Obama administration?

Lee: Let me tell you, we have to have comprehensive sex education for our young people. HIV and AIDS, the transmission of sexually transmitted diseases is off the scale now especially with young women and men of color. And its outrageous that the federal government [now, as in November 2008] will not fund comprehensive sex education for our schools and that abstinence only has been the policy. Actually it was instituted under the Welfare Reform Bill when President Clinton signed it, and what happened was federal funds were not allowed to be used in school districts throughout the country unless they were used to teach abstinence only. Well, fortunately, and I was in the legislature then, California, opted out. And so we have been teaching comprehensive sex education. But we don’t receive federal funding at all. Now I believe there have been fifteen or sixteen states that have declined federal funding because comprehensive sex education is the only way you can teach young people how to protect themselves. Sure abstinence, that’s the ideal. But it’s got to be abstinence plus. You have to be realistic and the dangers are too great in terms of HIV and AIDS and young people…young women with unwanted pregnancies and all of the issues I had to deal with. Roe v. Wade, we’ve got to uphold and never let to choose, a woman’s right to privacy be taken away. Some young people think that it’s always been the case. The government should not be allowed to make private decisions that women, their spouses or partners, their clergy persons should be making. And so I’m adamant in terms of being a pro choice woman. And being a person who’s going to continue to work to make sure that our young people, sooner or later, have the opportunity for comprehensive sex education. That’s the only way to help them lead healthy lives.

Fraser: Part of the problem is I think the popularization of the word ‘abortion.’ The fact that, you know, and I think it really came about in the late seventies and early eighties when ‘abortion,’ is not the root of the problem when in some cases women are raped. You talked very graphically about some people, some doctors who literally have would have women be tortured because of the unsafe way that the…experience happens, but just the popularization of the word abortion really absolves, essentially, the man from his role, and that’s part of the issue that you really discuss throughout the theme of this book…the men can force the conception, but the women are placed with the burden. The whole abortion debate from the late seventies throughout the eighties problematizes and places disproportionately the burden on women. And that’s why its important that women have reproductive rights over their own bodies and not allow the media to just stigmatize women for that decision.

Lee: Thank you and I appreciate your saying that as a male. It’s a really hard ethical and moral dilemma. And its something that I think that women and their private world should address. I don’t think government needs to dictate any direction or any policy that erodes a woman’s right to choice and woman’s right to privacy. I’m adamant about government staying out of the private lives of the people.

Fraser: Finally…I’ll read from [for me what was] the most moving part of the memoir, and then have a concluding question. You write on page 144: “I will never forget participating in a women’s caucus hearing at the California Institution for Women in Frontera. We were at the prison trying to get testimony from women who had killed their spouses in self-defense. All of these women had been continuously battered for years. And we were trying to get Governor Pete Wilson to grant them pardons. Well during this meeting, an African American woman told her story which was very similar to mine. All I could think of was, only by the grace of God that I wasn’t sitting there in jail with them because they fought back and I didn’t. There were press and cameras at the hearing. I broke down, ran out of the hearing and cried like a baby. So its obvious you had a direct connection to the policy and later you talk about how you had the Lee Amendment address these issues and how your perspective, your experience in shaping public policy is essential because you experience the issues that society tends to ignore.

Lee: You know its important I think that people whether they’re public officials, whatever one is doing, that if you have experienced certain injustices, certain traumas, certain obstacles which we all experience, that we try to fix it, if we have the opportunity. And as I look back, its very interesting because I really…wasn’t that happy interested in having to write this memoir, I decided to do it. But as I look back now, I’m saying yes. We have got to try to help others. This is about using our lives and what I hope I’ve been able to do in writing this, is for those who read, is to inspire others to use their obstacles or whatever they’ve gone through and if they have an opportunity to make things better for other people, do it. You only have this chance once. And don’t miss the opportunity to weigh in and do what it takes so that others don’t have to go through what you went through.

Fraser: Finally, my final question is: any suggestions after people are inspired, reading this in terms of policy lobbying efforts that you think the progressive community should be engaged in?

Lee: I think it’s important that we engage. Whatever issues people care about, I mean whether it’s school, whether its healthcare, whether its foreign policy. Find an organization that’s working on those issues. I think the next four years are going to be incredible in terms of finally moving forward in terms of participatory democracy. You know the last eight years have been pretty bad. And now we have an opportunity to be engaged and to do things, and to let our voices be heard. And so my suggestion is to just get involved however: whatever group, whatever issue you care about, whatever you want to do to use your life to change, make this world a better place, do it. You only come this way once. We’ve got to make sure our voices are heard in every decision that is being made, in every program, in every institution, in every business, in whatever world you’re in, in terms of your own private world. Try to do something for others and let your voice be heard.

Fraser: Congresswoman Lee is the author of the new book Renegade For Peace and Justice: Barbara Lee Speaks For Me. Congresswoman Lee thank you for your time.

Lee: Good talking with you.

Also see this very important interview with Barbara Lee and Brian Lamb, first aired on February 22, 2009 on C-SPAN’S Q & A program. The link to this program: http://www.q-and-a.org/Program/index.asp?ProgramID=1220

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Author: Dr. Rhone Fraser

Dr. Rhone Fraser is an independent writer and journalist born of Jamaican immigrants in Brooklyn, New York, on October 12, 1979. He moved to Florida in 1989 and graduated from Zephyrhills (FL) High School in 1997. He graduated from Yale University in 2001, after which time he taught in the public school systems in New Haven (CT) and the Bronx for three years. He then began writing independently and finished a documentary play on the life of Fannie Lou Hamer entitled, "Living Sacrifice," for which he still seeks publication. He earned his Ph.D. in African American Studies from Temple as of August 31, 2012. His dissertation was a literary and historical analysis of Pauline Hopkins, A. Philip Randolph and Paul Robeson. He also is a freelance editor and radio producer, and is currently producer of WPEB's Freedom Readers on 88.1 FM in Philadelphia.