'Change can't wait': Who is Ayanna Pressley, set to become the 1st black woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress?

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
Ayanna Pressley defeated a 10-term Democrat in the primary election for Massachusetts’s Seventh Congressional District. (Photo: Getty Images)

One of the most buzzed-about primary election victories from Tuesday has been that of Ayanna Pressley, 44, a Boston City Council member who soundly defeated 10-term Democratic Rep. Mike Capuano in Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District. The position is uncontested, and she is now set to become the first African-American woman to represent Massachusetts in Congress.

“Change can’t wait,” was the campaign slogan of this Boston mover and shaker who declared at her victory celebration: “It’s not enough for Democrats to be back in power. It matters who those Democrats are.”

So who is Pressley?

She’s a Chicago native who has struggled with tough personal issues. Though Pressley attended one of Chicago’s best private schools, Francis W. Parker School, she had struggles at home — namely, the absence of her father, Martin Terrell, who struggled with drug addiction and was  incarcerated during most of Pressley’s youth (though he is now a retired director for the United Negro College Fund). “I am probably an outsider because I challenge conventional narratives about who should have a seat at the table,” she told the New York Times of her background. Ayanna’s mother, Sandra, was a social worker, community organizer, and legal secretary who died in 2011.

She was a prescient leader, even as a teen. In high school, Pressley was a member of student government as well as a cheerleader. Her senior yearbook quotes included the proverb “Blessed is the woman who finds wisdom, the woman who gains understanding, for she is more profitable than silver and gold” and the original “If nothing else, I am a survivor.”

She took on Boston with a bang. Years after moving from the Midwest to attend Boston University, Pressley made history as the first black woman elected to the city council. Today, six of the city’s 13 council members are women of color. Some local accomplishments include: increasing the number of liquor licenses to benefit restaurants in economically disenfranchised neighborhoods; developing a competent, comprehensive sex-ed and health curriculum for the public school system; and partnering with the National Black Women’s Justice Institute founder to create focus groups and attempt to fix policies that send black and Latina girls on a school-to-prison pipeline.

She’s no political neophyte. By age 10, she had volunteered on her first political campaign — for Harold Washington, who became Chicago’s first black mayor in 1983. As an adult, Pressley worked for Rep. Joseph P. Kennedy II and former Sen. John Kerry, including as the Massachusetts constituency director for Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign.

She spoke out about sexual harassment way before the #MeToo movement began. Since 2011, Pressley has been open about being sexually abused as a child and raped in college. Her experiences have led her to become an advocate for girls and women — volunteering at a range of nonprofits, serving as a mentor and Big Sister, and putting her efforts behind events such as the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center’s annual Walk for Change. “I have dedicated my life to combating trauma in all forms — domestic, sexual, gun violence — and so the opportunity to potentially be in Congress at a moment of elevated consciousness to codify activism in policy change is certainly an exciting prospect,” Pressley told the Nation.

Pressley’s stepdaughter was overcome with emotion on Tuesday. (Photo: Getty Images)

She’s been widely recognized as a winner for years. Pressley was listed in the Ebony Magazine Power 100, which celebrates “heroes in the black community.” She was also named as one of the New York Times’s 14 Young Democrats to Watch in 2016, and in 2015, Emily’s List gave her its annual “Gabrielle Giffords Rising Star Award.” Boston Magazine has named her one of the city’s 50 Most Powerful People, and the Victim Rights Law Center presented her with its leadership award in 2014.

Though her positions on various issues didn’t differ wildly from those of defeated challenger Capuano, she made sure that one of them did. “I would not invest in a Trump hate wall,” she told WBUR in Boston, in contrast to Capuano, who stated that he’d support it in exchange for real immigration reform. “We don’t need to be protected from immigrants that are coming here seeking asylum and refuge. I have worked on some very polarizing third-rail issues,” she said, adding, “I am unwilling to be a moderate when it comes to immigrants’ rights, workers’ rights, women’s rights, and that of the LGBTQ community.”

The moment she won Tuesday’s primary became a viral moment on Twitter, and it speaks volumes about her character:

Her stance on civil rights inspired this supporter’s beautiful Twitter thread, which Pressley called out:

She has a cat named Sojourner Truth … and a husband, Conan Harris, as well as a 9-year-old stepdaughter, Cora, whose close-up photo (above) of her proud, tear-stained face from Tuesday’s victory was one of the most poignant images of the election.

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