BY IZZIE LUND
The White House is not the only place where Black women shattered glass ceilings during the 2020 election. On Nov. 3, three Black women – Jamila Taylor, April Berg and Kirsten Harris-Talley – were elected to Washington’s House of Representatives. They will join incumbents Melanie Morgan and Debra Entenman to create a total of five Black women, more than any other point in the history of the state House. All five women are Democrats.
Seven Black legislators have served in the state’s history, according to a historical report from the Washington State Library. Morgan, Taylor, Berg and Harris-Talley will make it 11. Black people make up about 4.4% of the state population, and after this election, will represent about 6% of the 147-member legislature.
“It’s kind of surreal when you get elected,” Berg said. “For me, it’s great that little Black girls out there can look at us and say, ‘I can do that.’”
The importance of diversity
The increasing number of Black women in the state legislature will give voice to an underrepresented population, making their voices heard on a variety of issues, said Nadia Browne, an African American studies professor at Purdue University and author of “Sisters in the State House: Black Women and Legislative Decision Making.”
“Black women see the world from different vantage points because of their lived experiences as groups of people who are oftentimes doubly marginalized due to racism and sexism,” Browne said. “[So] Black women bring with them a set of policies that are much more inclusive of marginalized groups. And not only do they represent Black women, they often times understand other marginalized groups, too.”
Shasti Conrad, an officer for the Opportunity PAC – an organization dedicated to getting Black women elected in Washington state — emphasized the importance of having several Black women in the legislature as opposed to one or two.
“When it’s just one person, it’s so lonely and so hard to move the needle,” Conrad said. “But when you have a squad, when you have a group that can support one another … there are multiple people bringing this perspective and talking about race and gender and class and equity and all of that. It makes a huge difference, it really matters.”
Not a monolith
However, the politicians, researchers and activists alike caution against lumping all Black women into one group and expecting them to act the same.
“The Black community is not a monolith … [as] individuals, we come from very diverse districts with distinct populations that elect us to serve them,” Berg said. “There is diversity of thought within all of us as legislators and as Black legislators, the same holds true.”
Browne emphasized that even when Black women in state legislatures vote the same way, they are doing it for different reasons. She brought up a scenario concerning a bill to build a new youth rec center. She said one Black woman might vote for the rec center because she has children who could benefit from the rec center; another Black woman might vote for the rec center because she sees the rec center as a place to teach teenagers and help them get jobs in the future; and a third Black woman might vote in favor of the rec center because she sees it as a way for people to get involved in their community and occupy their time.
“These are three different vantage points for this one particular piece of legislation,” Browne said. “[But] if we’re only looking at how [the] women voted, they all voted yes.”
The five women all have different visions for the state as they prepare for January.
When she was elected to represent Washington’s 30th Legislative District, Taylor, a public interest attorney, said it was surreal for her. She ran for Federal Way City Council last year and did not win – which she said ultimately ended up being a good thing, as it made her available to run for the state legislature.
When asked what issues she was most excited to work on, Taylor laughed and said, “COVID, COVID, COVID.”
“Anything related to COVID – the economic recovery, make sure we don’t go into new normal,” Taylor said. “I’m looking for new possibilities.”
She said pre-COVID conditions were great for some people but terrible for others, and that the pandemic has revealed a lot of disproportionate challenges for poor people and people of color. She said she wants to see equity become a component in all the legislature’s decision-making so that resources are distributed equally in communities.
“New residents here [in Washington’s 30th district] have been pushed out of other communities and particularly Seattle,” Taylor said. “And I want them to feel like this place is home. [But we can only do that] with the resources, the jobs, the opportunities to live, work, play and express faith in their district.”
Berg, who has been elected to represent Washington’s 40th Legislative District, has her heart set on education policy. She is a former member of the Edmonds School Board and has been a director of the Everett School Board since 2019.
She is particularly interested in changing the number of votes needed to pass a school bond. Right now, a supermajority is needed to pass a bond, and Berg wants to change it to a simple majority so bonds can be passed easier.
“Our schools need [the bonds] so that we can adequately take care of the students we are entrusted with,” Berg said.
She also wants to preserve social safety nets and make sure that important programs aren’t cut due to the recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.
After a long career in progressive politics, Harris-Talley will represent the 37th Legislative District. She served on the Seattle City Council for 51 days in 2017, filling an interim position. She also founded Surge Reproductive Justice; was the political and program director at Progress Alliance of Washington and is currently the executive director at NARAL Pro-Choice Washington.
According to her website, Harris-Talley aims to address COVID-19 recovery, criminal justice, housing, reproductive rights, campaign finance reform, and universal child care and health care. She also wants to close loopholes that lower taxes on the wealthy, fund public schools and transition Washington’s economy to sustainable production.
Harris-Talley could not be reached before deadline.
Entenman has been the Representative for the 47th district since 2018, although that was not her first experience in politics. She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science from Seattle University in 2003 and worked for Congressman Adam Smith for 12 years.
She has also been a member of Renton Technical College’s Board of Trustees, as well as an employee for the Children’s Alliance.
Entenman said that during her second term, she would really like to focus on police reform and improve the relationship between communities and their police departments.
“The biggest thing I hope to see, the most important and impactful thing, is that we have some comprehensive police reform legislation,” Entenman said. “That touches on training, touches on tactics, touches on tools that the police use, and then there’s a level of accountability for police officers that we haven’t had before.”
According to her website,Morgan wants to work to ensuring equity in state policies – specifically, making sure everyone has the resources to meet their basic needs. She is particularly passionate about housing, having experienced homelessness herself.
Morgan could not be reached by deadline.
A surge of change
Vernon Johnson, a political science professor at Western Washington university, said the women’s victories were a bit surprising due to the state’s demographics, but that Barack Obama’s presidency has created a shift in racial politics across the country.
“It probably started with Obama. White voters are more and more ready to vote for people of color and particularly Black people because historically, up until the beginning of this century, Black candidates could not get elected in majority white constituencies,” Johnson said. “That has started to change.”
Black women went beyond the state House of Representatives. In the 2020 election, T’wina Nobles became the first Black state senator in a decade, and only the second Black woman to serve in the state senate overall. G. Helen Whitener was elected the first Black woman to serve on the Washington state Supreme Court. Finally, former Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland became the first Black person from Washington state to win a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“As we increase diversity, and not just in race and gender, but in region from the state, where people are from, experience of the individual members, all of that makes for a richer, more resourceful [government],” Entenman said. “There’s just so many wonderful things that are happening in Washington state right now when it comes to having more voices heard.”