Kamala Harris’ rise sends message of hope to young girls of color

Kamala Harris‘ place as a Black and South Asian American woman on the Democratic ticket sends a message to young girls of color that she often projected when she was running her own presidential campaign: “I see you, I hear you.”

During her primary run for the Democratic nomination, Harris continuously made time for young girls and boys of color, often bending down to meet them at their eye-level and asking them of their aspirations without breaking eye contact.

“You always keep that chin up, you hear me?” she told a shy young Black girl named Maya in one such moment that went viral last June.

For many of the 2 million people who viewed that video, the moment encompassed a mission statement for Harris’ own presidential run; giving young girls and women — Black, South Asian and from all walks of life — the ability to “see themselves in a presidential candidate,” Jalisa Washington-Price, Harris’ former deputy national political director and South Carolina state director, told CNN.

Her ascension to becoming Biden’s vice presidential pick could provide one of the most tangible rebuttals to any notion that young girls of color should not be ambitious, that they should wait their turn or that their dreams should come second.

Joe Biden alluded to it in the pair’s first joint appearance on Wednesday.

“All across the nation, little girls woke up, especially little Black and brown girls, who so often feel overlooked and undervalued in their communities, but today — today, just maybe, they’re seeing themselves for the first time in a new way. As the stuff of presidents and vice presidents,” the presumptive Democratic nominee said.

‘Black girls like me can go for the big things in life’

After Harris dropped out of the primary race in December, girls who had interacted with her on the campaign trail spoke with CNN about how the California senator’s run had shown them that they too could compete at a high level. When Biden named Harris as his running mate on Tuesday, those same girls said they have a revived sense of hope that they might see someone who looks like them at one of the highest levels of power in the country.

“It just feels like Black girls like me can run for class president, Black girls like me can go for the big things in life like she did,” 14-year-old Paris Bond told CNN in an interview on Tuesday.

Bond was among less than a dozen supporters who met Harris in a conference room in Iowa last October. The teen told Harris she became the first girl to win class president the same day Harris won her Senate seat in 2016. As the first Black woman elected as San Francisco district attorney, the first Black woman elected California attorney general and first South Asian and second Black woman to serve in the US Senate, Harris is no stranger to making history.

Katerina Shadrach, an 11-year-old South Asian and White American, told CNN at an August 2019 Harris rally in Denver that Harris was her role model. Inside a packed gymnasium, Shadrach stood on the outskirts of the rally, next to her father Sheldon, clutching Harris’ memoir, “The Truths We Hold,” as she awaited the senator who looked just like her to take the stage.

An aspiring US senator herself, Shadrach told Harris after the event of her dreams to make it where she was. According to Shadrach, Harris told her that “as long as I put my mind to it and I do the best that I can and be like the best version of me, I will be able to accomplish my goals.”

Now seeing Harris on the Democratic presidential ticket a year later, Shadrach called it a “really big step” for girls and women who look like her.

“She was the one who was able to prove that it’s actually possible,” Shadrach said. “You can see kind of a connection, because we are two similar people. And so if she can get to that, I can get to that. And I can identify with her.”

Last summer, Anna Maddox drove her then-9-year-old sister more than two hours from Peoria, Illinois, to Davenport, Iowa to see Harris in action. A biracial Mexican and Vitenamese woman, Maddox told CNN she wanted her little sister Leah to see a woman who looked like her fighting to become the next president, so when she’s older, she won’t think a woman of color in that role is abnormal. They met Harris after the rally.

More than a year later, on the night Harris’ selection was announced, the 25-year-old watched as her sister’s eyes lit up the moment the senator appeared on screen.

Maddox said her sister was ecstatic.

“She was like, ‘I could have met a potential VP!’ That secures my future because you know, if she ever wanted to run for president, it can happen because she’s already seen it happen,” she said.

Though Harris’ own bid for the presidency ended in December, her outreach to little girls and young women never did.

A week after the killing of George Floyd in May, 12-year-old Alyssa Jennings looked at her computer screen and asked Harris a question that had been burning into her brain for what felt like years: “How do I become a leader?”

Jennings, who has a rare blood disease called chronic cyclic neutropenia which causes her white cell count to drop dramatically low every three months, started a panel called KidsCovid19 to talk to kids her age about what’s going on during the coronavirus pandemic. Her mom, Danielle Jennings, said the Harris aides reached out to the family to organize a call after hearing about the work Jennings was doing to provide essential supplies and personal protective equipment to first responders and to be an avenue for young children to express their feelings about the ongoing crisis.

Jennings says Harris issued one of her typical refrains, one that she has said dozens of times to young girls of color.

“You were born being a leader,” Jennings recalled Harris replying. “And it’s only a matter of when you decide to lead.” Harris then pointed out Jennings had already done so.

“I told her how cool I thought it was to see someone that looks just like me work to do this, the same things that I want to do when I get older,” Jennings said.

“I want to be President,” Jennings recalled telling Harris.

“You have my vote,” the senator replied.

Since their discussion, Danielle Jennings says her daughter has been wearing her natural hair now out more often than she was before.

According to Washington-Price, Harris used to often repeat a phrase that her mother, Shyamala Gopalan Harris, told her and her sister: “You may be the first to do many things but make sure you’re not the last.”

“To me it meant, yes, we’re all in positions to break barriers, but it’s incumbent upon us not to be the last to leave that door open for other women who look like us. And this is definitely a step in that direction,” Washington-Price, who is now pregnant with her own baby girl, said of Harris’ pick to be Biden’s running mate.

“I cannot wait to tell my daughter I worked on her campaign, how she fought through and how she became the first Black woman on the ticket. It’s a big deal.”

Harris’ barrier breaking touches women of all ages. Twenty-three-year-old Chelsea Miller, who co-founded Freedom March NYC, a youth-led civil rights organization, described to CNN the immeasurable effect of seeing a woman who shares so many similarities with herself make history.

“The first Black woman to be picked on a major ticket, that is powerful within and of itself,” she said.

A Black woman, Miller is also a member of the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, the same sorority to which Harris belonged.

“This has been the work that a lot of our predecessors have been doing in the space of civil rights reform, in the space of equity, injustice, really fighting for that, and so I think it’s really powerful to see that now in 2020 manifest, as a Black woman, as a woman who has been doing the work,” Miller said.

Harris also inspired Paris Bond’s mother, Athena Gilbraith. Gilbraith, a precinct captain for Harris in Davenport, Iowa, is now the chair of the Black Caucus in Scott County in an effort to promote stand up for racial justice and equity.

“I cried tears of joy,” Gillibrand said, describing the moment she heard of Harris’ selection. She remarked on how Harris never stopped working despite falling short of clinching the Democratic nomination. “She was right back up on Capitol Hill in that pink blazer doing what she does, and that’s an inspiration to never give up the fight.”

Knocks against ambition

Women have told CNN that Harris’ selection is not just about herself, but providing a base for something for all women of color across the country to aspire to.

Democratic operative Minyon Moore said Harris’ nomination is “for every Black woman, for every Black child that has been hidden in America, or who has worked behind the same scenes.”

“For every woman that is changing the bedpan, for every woman that is standing in a grocery store, Harris becomes the embodiment of that. She becomes the embodiment of Asian America, she becomes the embodiment of Indian Americans, she becomes the embodiment of a Black woman,” Moore added.

Harris’ name had been discussed as a top contender for vice president since before she even declared her own candidacy to run for the Democratic nomination in January 2019. And criticisms of the California senator’s ambition came in the closing weeks of Biden’s vice president search, provoking complaints of sexism and racial bias.

In a livestream in early August, Harris appeared to address the personal attacks on whether she would be a trustworthy partner to Biden.

“There will be a resistance to your ambition, there will be people who say to you, ‘You are out of your lane,'” Harris said during a livestream conversation for the Black Girls Lead 2020 conference. “They are burdened by only having the capacity to see what has always been instead of what can be. But don’t you let that burden you.”

View Trump and Biden head-to-head polling

These tropes will still continue to exist — one person of color breaking a ceiling does not erode bias against all people of color — but Harris’ nomination could chip away at it.

“There are unique challenges that a Black woman running for executive office will face,” said Karen Finney, a CNN contributor and Democratic strategist who formerly worked for 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton and Georgia politician Stacey Abrams. “It challenges the way we think about power. And it challenges the way we think about women but in this instance, I think America has shown they’re ready. Poll after poll has shown Americans wanted a Black woman, that tells me they’re ready”

In terms of attacks that Harris may face, Finney said Trump calling Harris “nasty” and reverting to old stereotypical tropes of women and specifically women of color was just a preview of what’s to come.

“I do think that that’s part of why you’ve seen women galvanized behind her so forcefully — it’s an understanding that we’ve got to have her back and help her do her best in order to win,” Finney said.

Still, some women have anxiety about the attacks to come. Trump has already called Harris “nasty,” “the meanest” and “disrespectful,” playing into racist and sexist stereotypes of Black women.

“The last four years, it’s made a lot of people comfortable with these racial biases,” Maddox said, pointing to inflection moments like the shooting at a Black church in Charleston, South Carolina, in 2015. She said it made people “comfortable being a little racist and being a little radical.”

“Yeah, she’s definitely going to be attacked,” Maddox said.”That’s definitely a concern.”

Still — Moore said the impact of Harris’ selection will be that women of all ages can finally see themselves in the political process.

“I think what Joe Biden did today, is he said, ‘You are enough. You’ve got enough qualifications, you’ve got enough experience to help me restore this country to greatness,’ ” Moore said.

“She’s the future. She really does represent this tapestry of America.”