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U.S. Senator Kamala Harris Speaks at Spelman

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Start of QuoteBeing undaunted by the fight means being unburdened by what has been, and instead knowing what can be. ...You don’t let anybody put you in a box. End of Quote


Identifying the Fight Worth Having and Breaking Barriers

Senator Kamala Harris Speaks at SpelmanSo let’s think about speaking truth, and as we approach these challenges before us, we’ve also got to remember something that I found myself saying a lot recently, and my saying is this: if something is worth fighting for, it is a fight worth having.

If something is worth fighting for, it is a fight worth having.

And what I mean by that is this. It cannot be our perspective, when considering whether something is worth fighting for, to do a balancing of the odds of success versus failure. That can’t be a negotiating point when we are talking about something that is worth fighting before because sometimes the odds are going to be against us. Sometimes they may be improbable or even impossible.

But that doesn’t mean something should not be pursued or spoken or fought for. So let’s today speak some truths about the fight worth having.

So let’s today speak some truths about the fight worth having.

Let’s speak truth that the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court was a denial of justice for women and sexual assault survivors. And even though we didn’t prevail, the fight for women and sexual assault survivors, of whatever gender, whatever race, whatever ethnicity, whatever political affiliation, is a fight worth having.

Let’s speak truth—the economy is not working for working people. Black women still earn 63 cents for every dollar paid to their white male counterpart. Building an economy that works for all working people—that is a fight worth having.

Let’s speak truth—our criminal justice system is broken. We have a system where a single mother can be held in jail awaiting trial for days, weeks, months, or even years—maybe lose her job, maybe lose her children—not because she’s a threat to her community, but simply because she cannot afford to make bail. And that’s why I plan in fact to reform our money bail system in this country because that’s a fight worth having.

Let’s speak truth—when a candidate for governor who also happens to be responsible for overseeing Georgia’s elections is trying to purge 53,000 mostly Black voters from the voting rolls, that’s called voter suppression. Let’s speak truth and vote them out of office. Let’s speak that truth.

Let’s also speak the truth that elections matter. Voting matters. And I know many of us have been—and we know this—we have been historically denied the right to vote. And so, Madam President, you know, we make a big deal out of it. We have a ceremony about going to vote on election day, right? We bring the kids. We take selfies. Well here I’m to say one other truth: the truth is, we can honor the ancestors by voting early. We can honor—if you want to light a candle while you go to vote, that’s fine. We can honor the ancestors by voting early.

And certainly in the next 10 days, we can send a message that if someone is trying to suppress our vote, then we will vote them out of office. Because that is a fight worth having.

And let’s speak another truth—that in this moment, a big fight worth having is the fight for the best of who we are as Americans. The fight to live up to those ringing ideals that were written in the Constitution of the United States and the Declaration of Independence.

And let’s fight knowing this truth—that we have more in common than what separates us. And let’s speak that truth in the face of those that are trying to sow hate and division among us.

Because here’s how I think about it. Those ideals—first of all, let’s all be clear, and we know it—they are ideals. They’ve not yet been attained. But one of the things that makes us a strong country when we are strong, is that we aspire to reach those ideals. And we fight to reach those ideals.

And so when I say then that we know we all have so much more in common than what separates us, and let that fuel our fight, I say that because I also know what it means to live a life where we have been perceived to either be on the outside or the inside, but yet we know where our hearts are, we know where our faith is, we know who we are in terms of our fundamental values and priorities.

So when I talk about we have so much more in common than what separates us, part of how I think about that is what I call the middle of the night thought. Some people call it the 3 o’clock in the morning thought. Other people call it the witching hour.

You know that moment in the middle of the night where you wake up with that thought that’s been weighing on you. Sometimes you wake up in a cold sweat.

Well, for the vast majority of us, whoever we are, wherever we are, when we wake up thinking that thought, it is never through the lens of the party with which we’re registered to vote. It is never through the lens of some demographic a pollster puts us in.

For the vast majority of us, when we wake up thinking that thought, it has to do with one of just a very few things. Our personal health, the health of our children or our parents. For so many Americans, can I get a job, keep a job, pay the bills by the end of the month, retire with dignity. For so many of our students, can I pay off my student loans? --We in church!

The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us.

And so in the face of all these fights, let’s also recognize—if you go out there and you see what’s going on in terms of this election season, if you see what’s going on in C suites—women are leading the way, and Black women are leading the way.

And for you Spelman students, already you know this.

You’re fighting for LGBT rights with Afrekete.

You’ve gone on a hunger strike to make sure all Spelman students have a meal plan and enough food to eat.

--You have participated in the Atlanta March for Our Lives and spoken out against gun violence.

And since you are leaders who will continue to take up these fights after you leave here, I want to spend the rest of my time sharing some of my thoughts on how you can remain undaunted in those fights.

So the first thing I’ll point out is this.

Change the System From the Inside

Being undaunted by the fight means identifying the fight worth having—and not, this is important, identifying the fight worth having, and equally important, not asking permission to solve it.

So here’s what I’m talking about.

Growing up, there was no question in my family—and my sister’s here, Maya Harris—there was no question in my family that you will serve. There was no question.

So when I finished law school, and the time came for me to decide on a career, my family gathered around after I graduated law school and they said, “Okay, Kamala, what are you going to do in your fight for justice?”

And I got all excited and I said, “Well… I’ve decided to become a prosecutor!”

Well, my family looked at me and they were like, “Oh, that is interesting.” And in some ways, in many ways, frankly, I had to defend that decision like one would a thesis.

And what I said then, and what I maintain today, is there is a very important role to be played to change systems from the outside—knocking down the door or on bended knee. And we should consider how we can change that system from the inside, being at that table where the decision are being made, and forcing people to acknowledge our presence and our perspective.

And so that’s why I decided that that’s what I would do. I mean, my sister, for example, went on to lead the ACLU, but I thought I would do a different thing.

And after years of prosecuting everything, including homicides cases then, I decided to run for District Attorney of San Francisco. So you all have heard Roz tell you about that part of my background.

And I decided because I felt that one, I wanted to continue to be a voice for the vulnerable and the voiceless, but two, I decided to run because I recognized that the person who was leading the office at the time was not doing a very good job.

Now let me tell you about that story. So the person leading the office comes from an old political family. He was the second term district attorney.

His nickname was KO, cause he was known for being a boxer who knocked people out.

So when I decided to run, you can imagine what I was told. It’s what you will be told many times in your life.

“It’s not your turn.” “It’s not your time.” “There is nobody like you who has done that before.”

“It’s going to be a lot of work.”—god forbid we want to work hard.

And I didn’t listen. And part of what my advice to you is, you don’t listen either. You do not listen when people tell you that. In fact, I like to say, I eat “no” for breakfast.

And so, I decided to run.

And I started out at 6 points in the polls—now that means 6 out of 100. Undaunted, I’m talking about being undaunted.

But what we did, is we pulled together a coalition of people. Who came together. Understanding we all had so much more in common than what separates us.

And let me tell you the way that I would do it. Donna knows what this is like to run. You go out and you shake hands, and you talk with people, and you make that point in real time, about “we all have so much more in common.”

And in fact, the way I would do it is, I would take my ironing board to go campaign.

Now, you all are looking at me like, “Why your ironing board?” Well, I’ll tell you, because an ironing board makes a really terrific standing desk. And I would take my ironing board, I’d put it in the back seat of my car, I’d drive to the grocery store, I would then take my ironing board out, with some duct tape and a poster. I would set up my ironing board, up to this level, I would put up my poster with the duct tape. And I would have all my literature. And I would stand in front of the grocery store, requiring people to talk to me as they walk in and out, asking them for their vote.

And of course, I was elected. And as you heard from Roz, I was elected as the first woman to be district attorney of that city. And the first Black woman to be elected district attorney of any city in the state of California.

So then, after two terms, I thought, “Well, the work we’re doing, focused on reentry, for example, right? Where it was innovative—this was a long time ago, when I became district attorney it was 2004, nobody was really talking about reentry initiatives as a prosecutor. But I said “We need to do this. We can do it in a DA’s office.”

So we created reentry initiatives focused on former offenders, and getting them jobs and counseling. I said, “Well, I want to take this statewide. I’m going to run for attorney general.”

So, I was told the same thing then that I was told when I ran for DA.

“Well, there’s nobody like you that’s done that before.”

“You want to run to be the top cop of the biggest state in this country? You are a Black woman from San Francisco who is personally opposed to the death penalty. That won’t happen. That can’t be done.”

In fact, after the election—not before, because my friends were supportive enough of me to know not to send to me—people showed me videos of major Democratic pundits, who were being interviewed during the course of the election. And one of them was sitting in a little chair next to the interviewer. And she said, “Kamala’s terrific. She’s so good. She would make an excellent attorney general. Too bad she can’t win.”

But undaunted. Undaunted. And so we pulled together folks. We pulled together folks. But let me tell you the story doesn’t end here. We pulled together folks- we ran that campaign. I was out there shaking hands, talking with everybody. And then election night came around. So we went and had a dinner with family and friends and then we went to the hall where we were joined with our supporters. And my consultants said, you know the TV cameras are out there and it’s gonna be a long night waiting for the count, but you should go out and speak to the cameras.

And so I went to the room filled with people and I walked out and I walked into the room and people were crying. I was like Oh, my goodness this has been so personal for all of us. This election has really just touched us all so much. I was so touched. And I got up to the stage. And I talked, but I didn’t have notes really. And I just talked. It’s gonna be a long night, and this is what we stood for about being smart on crime, and we’re going to be progressive in terms of what we’re doing.

And I could feel kinda the mood in the room shifting. And then one of my staff came up to me, came up to the stage and said, “Go back to the room. Go back to the inside room.” And you know when you get to that point and you’ve been in a fight and somebody comes up and looks at you and says you don’t ask questions. So I said OK and I walked back. And this reporter kept following me. “Well, what do you think happened?” I said we ran a great race. And I’m walking back to the back room. And then I realized while I had been on stage the major newspaper had declared victory for my opponent. And everybody in the room had been crying because they thought we had lost, and I was the only one who thought we were still in the game.

Undaunted. And sure enough that election night lasted 21 days for those votes to be counted. And during those 21 days, my opponent had declared his victory. He went and picked up the transition book. Started having meetings about where he would go assign staff, he got lapel pins made in his name as Attorney General. Meanwhile, we were all out there going to all the different elections offices watching the count. And sure enough, 21 days later, I became the first black woman elected Attorney General.

And so then after two terms in that position I decided to run for Senate and now I stand before you as only the second black woman elected to the United States Senate.

And it bears noting that one of the leaders in my office who is my key foreign policy advisor, Ariel Eckblad, who was the valedictorian of the Spelman class of 2010.