Julian Bond interviews U.S. Senator Barbara Lee in this installment of "Explorations in Black Leadership." The series is presented by the Institute for Public History at the University of Virginia amd was recorded at the Congressional Recording Studio.
BOND: Congresswoman Lee, welcome to Explorations in Black Leadership.
LEE: Good to be with you.
BOND: We want to begin with some questions about Brown v. Board of Education. I know you were eight in 1954 when the decision came down, but do you remember any discussion about it then and any speculation then about what this might mean?
LEE: I remember, vaguely remember, discussion about it, because my grandfather and my mother, of course, were very involved with the El Paso Chapter of the NAACP. One of the reasons that I ended up in Catholic school, which I went to Catholic school during my grammar school years, the schools were segregated. Our black school was a wonderful school where my mother attended — Douglass School, in El Paso. But because they were so adamant about segregation based on principle, they said, "We're not going to participate anymore in segregation." And so they required myself and my two sisters to go to Catholic school, and so I remembered the discussion and I remember knowing that, oh, finally, this would open up the opportunity for me to go to school with all of my other friends in the neighborhood.
BOND: Now, looking back it from today's perspective, what has it turned out to mean?
LEE: What it's turned out to mean, of course, is — I think it paved the way for equal opportunity efforts, for the civil rights laws, and for opening up public institutions for African Americans. In looking at the state, however, of our public schools, I don't think I see the kind of commitment to public schools that I know we wanted with Brown v. Board of Education. When you look at the disparities in funding, when you look at the test scores of our young kids and when you look at the types of programs and curriculum, textbooks, teacher salaries — all of those are efforts that are required for stellar excellent public schools for our children you just don't see. And so I think that when I look back at Brown v. Board of Education, I think that this was the opening for many of us to benefit from the opportunities of the civil rights movement, including public education but just reminds us we have a long way to go.
BOND: Who are the people who've been most significant in helping you develop yourself? You mentioned your grandparents a moment ago. Who else helped make you who you are today?
LEE: Well, of course, my grandfather, W.C. Parish. He was a 33rd Degree Mason, member of the AME Church, and he was an officer in the NAACP. My mother, who now lives in Arizona, eighty-one years old, always has been a strong, I say feminist, because she always had a very clear understanding of who she was as a woman and insisted that we never ever kowtow to anyone, whether it was because of our race or our gender. And I think my mother early on helped me understand that I had a dual role in life and that I better fight against racism and sexism hand in hand.
She never, ever would allow us to say we couldn't do anything. She said, "Can't is not in the dictionary." She said, "Look, if you want to be whatever you want to be, you better do it, you know, regardless of what they tell you you can't do, being a woman or an African American." So I think my mother has really played that kind of a role.
BOND: I find it interesting that your mother emphasized gender equity, because of the -- several women we've had interviewed, none of them has said that someone told them about gender equity or prepared them for battles on gender equity. It's great that it happened, but I just find it unusual that it happened.
LEE: My mother did, from day one. She had three girls and she had two sisters. And so, we grew up and we lived with my grandfather and my grandmother until she passed. And so my mother grew up in a family of women and my grandfather, of course, was a strong African American man, but he had all these women around him and they would not let him get away with anything. And so from day one, my mother emphasized going into non-traditional roles.
For example, she emphasized that I needed to study so I could go to college to be whatever I wanted to be, but she also emphasized the fact -- and she made me take piano lessons and she made me go to sewing classes and she insisted I learn how to type. You know what, she said, "You're going to need to learn how to type so you could figure out how to get through college so you can get the kind of job that you went to college to get," and so she was always very clear on learning all of the skills that we needed to learn and that women needed to learn so they could move forward in their lives, but also she --
And I loved music. I wish I had a chance now to play the piano, but she knew that the arts and cultural activities -- she made sure I was involved in sports. I played basketball. She made sure that I was a cheerleader and part of the drill team. So she made sure that we did everything as a child, so myself and my two sisters as girls could grow up to be the kind of independent women that she thought we should be in a male-dominated and in a racist society.
BOND: And your father, who was in the military, but nonetheless, when you become an advocate of nonviolence, is very supportive of that.
LEE: My father spent twenty-five years in the Army as a lieutenant colonel, and I tell you, he's one of the few individuals who understands very clearly my reasons to be against this war and all wars that I have witnessed in my life, and he knows how much I support him and veterans and the military and how much I support our troops, but he knows good and well and I've seen — he was in two wars, so I've seen what war can do to families and I know what war is about, and I grew up as a military brat. He was stationed at Fort Bliss, and also my dad — I can remember as a child, going to restaurants with him in his uniform, going to theaters in his uniform — my dad, my mother and my two sisters — and being turned away, saying, "I'm sorry, we don't serve," and they'd use the N word and here my dad was serving his country, fighting for his country and still couldn't go to restaurants and so my father's very clear on supporting the troops and why I stand for peace and he was one of the first persons, given some of the tough votes I've cast, that called me and gave me the support and love and said, "You're on the right track, don't back down, you're right, and many of our veterans love you and support you for that."
BOND: What about people outside the family? Teachers or people in the neighborhood, the community, who served as mentors or role models for you?
LEE: I have many. Of course, I have to say Shirley Chisholm.
BOND: I knew you would say Shirley Chisholm, but before that, earlier on.
LEE: Before Shirley Chisholm —
BOND: In high school, college.
LEE: I would say my second grade teacher, Mrs. Sammons; my music teacher, Ms. Buchanan; my music teacher, Ms. Nixon in El Paso. I had so many mentors and teachers in El Paso who encouraged me along the same path that my mother encouraged me. My music teacher, Julie Buchanan, at my school, was a white Irish woman, and my second grade teacher, Mrs. Sammons, was a white American woman. Ms. Nixon was part of the great Nixon family involved in the civil rights movement. Her husband was Dr. Nixon, a dentist, and she was my piano teacher every Saturday at home and these women — boy, they were tough on me, but they insisted that I learn how to read and write. Ms. Buchanan insisted that I learn how to sing and that I knew all of the Catholic kinds of rituals and music and what-have-you, and Mrs. Nixon at home made sure that I knew all the gospel songs and knew how to play the piano, and so it was just a wonderful kind of mix of women that I had in my life as a child who really helped me figure out who I was and where I was going.
BOND: And older when you get to Mills College, teachers there, people in the Oakland community — ?
LEE: Oh yeah, when I get to Mills College, I've got to tell you, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were very influential in my life. They — even though controversial and even though J. Edgar Hoover and his administration took them on, wrongfully so, Bobby Seale and Huey Newton were very important in terms of my involvement in what was our civil rights movement in the Bay area.
At Mills College, I met Shirley Chisholm. I had never registered to vote before, but I was a Black Student Union president. Shirley came per my request to speak to our college. I didn't know that she was running for president then, but after I heard her speak, as a result of my getting ready to flunk a class where I was required to do field work in one of the campaigns — I wasn't going to do anything for [Edmund] Muskie, [George] McGovern, or [Hubert] Humphrey. I didn't feel they were about anything, for me, as a young African American woman, but after I heard Shirley speak I went up to her and I said, "Mrs. Chisholm, I've got this class. Maybe I'll pass it now because I think I like what you stand for. How do I get involved?" And she said, "Well, my dear, the first thing you've got to do is register to vote." Then she said, "The second thing you have to do is figure out how to help." She said, "I don't have a national campaign. I'm counting on my local people." So I ended up organizing her northern California campaign along with Sandre Swanson, Wilson Riles, Jr., and Sandy Gaines out of my class at Mills College, so Shirley Chisholm was very influential.
BOND: What was it about her, particularly? What was it about her that resonated with you?
LEE: Gosh, she was like my mother in a lot of ways. She was independent. She was tough. She wouldn't back down. She spoke her mind. She was against the Vietnam War. She was for peace, and she understood that we had to think globally and yet act locally, and she could put that all together. And then she was the first African American woman elected to Congress. I couldn't figure out how she did that in this white, male-dominated political system and so I just — and over the years I just looked up to Shirley as someone who I loved, who I revered, and who I miss right now very much.
LEE: Ron Dellums — Ron influenced me like you would not believe. I actually came back here during the Watergate era as an intern for Ron. I was one of the few and one of the first black Capitol interns, so I was placed in Ron Dellums' office.
BOND: What about him particularly? What was it in him that influenced you?
LEE: God, Ron's spirit, first of all, is awesome. He is a political person, a public servant, but he has this inner strength and this spirit and this sense about himself where he could kind of figure out everything — the policy, the politics. Ron operates on a variety of levels and I majored in psychology and psychiatric social work and he did also, and so being around Ron, you can function at the many levels that a lot of people don't function in, and he's one of the greatest statesmen and is a warrior and he's very clear on the nature of progressive politics and Ron always has been unifier. He never would allow any of us on his staff to be divisive. And he always said to us, "Whenever you have to make a decision for me" — because he gave his staff a lot of latitude — "the only question I want you to ask is, 'Is it right?' If it's the right thing to do, then do it, regardless." And so Ron's principles and his integrity are to behold and I tell you, it was wonderful working for him and now, of course —
BOND: Succeeding him.
LEE: Succeeding him, but also in the future, we're working very hard to make sure he's elected as Mayor of Oakland.
BOND: Yes, I saw him announcing. Let me ask you about some people in Berkeley or in the Bay area — Carlton Goodlett.
LEE: Carlton Goodlett — very important person to me. Carlton Goodlett got me very involved, along with Maudelle Shirek, who was a member of the Berkeley City Council. They got me involved in international relations in a big way. Dr. Goodlett was a member of the World Peace Council, Maudelle also. And Dr. Goodlett early on said — and I don't know why he came to me and wanted me involved with him — but he took me on these delegations with him to Czechoslovakia and to Vienna, and he wanted me to be part of the international liaison of peace voices throughout the world. And so Carlton really mentored me. He actually allowed me to be part of his press corps. He gave me press credentials, so when I needed to get to certain conferences like in Cuba and only the press could go, then, of course, I went as press and wrote articles for the National Newspapers Publishers Association and for the Sun Reporter and Dr. Goodlett was an unbelievable close friend and mentor, and he's another person I miss tremendously.
BOND: And Ms. Shirek, what about her?
LEE: Wow, she is ninety-four years old now. Early on again, late '60s early '70s, she took me under her wings. She is the granddaughter of slaves from Arkansas. And Maudelle was working at the Co-Op Credit Union, and I was a young single mother with two kids on public assistance, mind you, and Maudelle — she saw something about me, what I don't know, but she pulled me in and she said, "Look, first, you've got to join the Credit Union. You've got to learn how to manage your money." Financial literacy to her was very important and I said, "Well, how can this woman, this beautiful woman who's progressive talk about money? You know, and be into money like that. I mean — you know, she's not a capitalist." Somebody else said, "It's not about money, it's about how you use your money and how you manage your money, and money's for the good and use it for the good." And she helped me in so many ways get into financial literacy initiatives and she taught me how to manage my own little bit of money that I had when I was on public assistance. She helped me buy a house and my little Volkswagen and she [was] just really unbelievable in terms of being there in the background helping me and guiding me through college.
Maudelle also taught me how to eat better. She was really, in the early '70s, into nutrition. And I always tell people, she bought me this little paperback. I wondered why she bought it for me and she knew I was eating too many unhealthy meals, you know, fast foods and what-have-you and she bought me this little book called Diets for a Healthy Planet. And I still have that little cookbook and it was how to cook and eat healthy. She would call me early in the morning and she made me walk the lake with her so she got a chance — you know, now, as I look back, she was really coaching me and mentoring me, but she also was helping me in terms of my health and walking and exercise and this was in — like I said, this was in the early '70s, you know.
And I've traveled the world with Maudelle also, many times with Carlton Goodlett and Maudelle and to see world leaders, to see NGO leadership and people throughout the world welcomed them as heads of states and revered them both was really, for me as a young African American woman on welfare with two little kids, like, awesome.
BOND: Now, I'm guessing you're going to say Shirley Chisholm in answer to this question, but what made you think about public service as a career?
LEE: No, it wasn't Shirley Chisholm. It was — I never thought about it as a career.
BOND: Well, as your life's work. Your life's work.
LEE: You know. It just sort of evolved. I worked for Ron for 11 years and after working for Ron Dellums, it's all downhill. You just don't go anywhere else. I actually left Ron's staff, took a leave of absence, and set up a small business.
BOND: Yes. What was that business?
LEE: This was primarily facilities management, administrative support services. I actually was a Teamster contractor. I had at one point four hundred fifty, five hundred employees in Oakland, very low-key but it was a very good business and I wanted to see if I could employ people and provide good-paying jobs and I was able to do that with my family for about eleven years. And so after I left Ron's staff, I continued to be involved politically, but I had no intentions of running for public office. It was like nowhere on my radar.
What happened was Elihu Harris decided — he was in the California legislature — and he decided he was going to run for mayor. And there was another person who was really very close to me and involved with guiding me and a mentor, Supervisor John George in Oakland, California. John just kept calling me and kept saying — he had dinner with myself and two other African American women, said, "You guys gotta surface. You've been behind the scenes. You're progressive. You know what's happening. You're a woman. You're black. Why don't you think about running for office?" I said, "John, please. Not me, you know, I've worked for Ron. He's the greatest. How do you run for anything?" You know, and I was a little shy. I'm still a little shy.
BOND: Hard to believe.
LEE: I am, and so I said, "I've been behind the scenes, no, no, no." The week John George died it was really unbelievable. I saw him. I'll never forget this. I was driving down Webster Street in Oakland. John was crossing the street and he stopped in the middle of the street and he looked at me. He says, "Barbara, I'm going to tell you I need to run for the Assembly since Elihu is running for Mayor. Now, you've got to make your mind up. You've got to do it. You must do it. It's because we need you," and he knew I was very active with the Rainbow Coalition. He said, "You've got to do this. As a woman, it's your responsibility." I said, "John, no, no, no." That Saturday, John died. John George died and people knew — evidently he'd told people that he was trying to encourage me to run — and it was kind of, it snowballed from that, that I made the decision to run for the California Assembly. And then when I told Ron, he says, "Oh, my God, not you," and then Ron told me, he says, "You know, the more I think about it, who else?" And so I started trying to figure out how to do all this, but it wasn't that I had planned to run for public office. Then I called Congresswoman Chisholm, talked to her. She said, "Oh, yes, whatever I need to do to help you, I will." And I started calling people up to kind of see what they thought. Me? I've never run for anything. "Yes, Barbara, you've got to do it." And so it was — I won't say it was a draft effort, but it was something I did. I sort of fell into it and evolved.
BOND: But is it fair to say that the life you'd lived up to then was at least unconscious preparation for this?
LEE: It was unconscious, for sure.
BOND: But it was preparation for this?
LEE: It was preparation. As you look back, you never know and as a person of faith, you know, you have to kind of move by faith and walk by faith and kind of trust in the Lord and that's how my life has been. I never have planned it, but unconsciously, yeah, I guess this is part of the plan.
BOND: You mentioned a moment ago being President of the Black Student Union at Mills, but go back to high school and even before then. Did you exercise leadership roles in student council, student government, that kind of thing? Or other groups?
LEE: Oh, yeah. In grammar school, in our neighborhood, of course, I started the El Paso Girls, Alamogordo Girls Club, so we had a community club of girls in our neighborhood. At Catholic school, St. Joseph's, I was in the drill team and cheerleader and, of course, being the only the African American there I was kind of like leading the pack and all. And so in grammar school, and of course, I tried to get all A's and go to the head of the class and I tried to be the model student, which sort of put me in leadership positions within the school.
When I was in high school and junior high, I became part of the Ephesians Honor Society. I was the first African American cheerleader at San Fernando High School, thanks to the NAACP and John Mance.
BOND: Oh, sure, John Mance.
LEE: My first job was with the credit union where he worked and he was part of the NAACP, and the NAACP fought to make sure that the rules that governed the election of cheerleaders were changed so I'd have an opportunity to try out for it, and I won. So I was the first black cheerleader at San Fernando High School. I won Bank of America Music Scholarship, the Rotary Music Scholarship when I graduated, and I was in the Honor Society and, you know, so I was kind of like — I was the columnist for our senior class for the newspaper, ValVisions, and so every — I think I was Class Secretary, so, you know, I was kind of doing stuff in high school also.
BOND: And all of this stuff — in grade school and high school and college — is there ever a time when you, not consciously perhaps, but think to yourself, "I am a leader. I influence other people, other people follow in what I do. I set the pace"? Did you ever — ?
LEE: It wasn't as a leader. I can remember when I left El Paso, Texas, and I kept diaries. Every day I wrote a diary until I was about eighteen and I said that day when I was leaving El Paso, I said, you know, "Things are so bad for black people, I've got to somehow do something to help my people. I said I don't know what it is." This is when I'm thirteen years old. I said, "I have no idea I'm going to do, but I can't allow this country to keep doing what it's doing to my people," and I wrote that in my diary in June of 1960, and when I became the first black cheerleader at San Fernando High, everybody was really happy and said, "Oh, God, now others can follow in your footsteps," and you know, so it was kind of like the word on the street, but I just said, "Oh, good, now other people can have this same opportunity." Or when I was put into the, whatever, the Honor Society, I don't know if there were any other African Americans in it, but it was always like, "Oh, good, now somebody else can do this." When I became part of the drill teams, like, "Oh, good, now there're more African Americans can get into the drill team," so it was always kind of like — when I was playing the piano at my graduation, I said, "Gee, I hope somebody black next year plays the piano, too." You know, so it was kind of that, just always hoping that it's not just me.
BOND: At least some consciousness of what you were achieving, these firsts, that you're achieving are making the way for there to be a second and a third and a fourth and —
LEE: Yeah. That's kind of where my head was and still is, but I never saw myself as being a leader.
BOND: Let me ask you some questions about leadership philosophy. What do you see as the difference between vision, philosophy and style? What are the differences between these things — vision, philosophy and style.
LEE: Vision, I still say, is your dream, and we have all have to have dreams, regardless of where we are and what we're doing. The difference between vision and philosophy I think is how you implement that vision, what's the philosophical basis upon which that vision will be implemented. It could be religion. It could be faith. It could be morals. It could be values. It could be whatever, but, you know, like my philosophy comes from my training in Catholic school, part of the Scriptures. That's kind of my philosophical bent to hopefully create this vision or be part of creating a vision that I think should be for all people in terms of a better world.
And then style, I think, has to do with just how you do all this stuff. Do you do it by yourself? Do you do it in a democratic fashion? Do you try to pull people to accept your philosophical point of view, leading to your vision? The style thing is kind of the how to do it and the way in which you're going to create this vision that you have, based on your philosophy.
BOND: Has your vision, as far as you can recall, has your vision been constant or has it changed, has it altered in some way — grown, changed?
LEE: I think it's been constant, but grown, you know. It's always been — God, this world is in turmoil and it has been for most part, since I've been alive. How do we make a better world for people? And it's always been not only here in America but throughout the world. And so it's been constant in terms of how do we connect people throughout the world, especially people of color to be together, to try to make things better and how do we become more powerful to do that. And so it's always — it's been, ever since that time in El Paso when I wrote that in my diary until right now, I'm still trying to figure that out.
BOND: But if it's changed, grown, if it's grown, how has it grown? What would be different today than, say, ten, fifteen, twenty years ago, about your vision?
LEE: I think it's how to deal politically, how to use this framework to get the legislation passed, for instance, that I think takes us closer to that dream or how to fight against the legislation or policies that help us — that push us back from that vision, how to get the resources to implement that vision. I think the skill set and the knowledge base has developed a little bit more than ten, fifteen years ago and each day, you know, you learn more and you just do more and you figure out that part of it a little bit better.
BOND: And speaking of consistency, I know not only did you vote against the Iraqi war, but you cast a no vote in Serbia and the Afghanistan investigation — not investigation, but the attack on Afghanistan. Did you know then about Jeannette Rankin?
LEE: You know, somewhere way back when I read about Jeannette Rankin since, of course, 9/11, 9/14 [National Day of Prayer and Remembrance], I know a lot more about Jeannette Rankin. I didn't know she was a social worker, for example.
BOND: Oh, I didn't know that. She retired to Georgia. I met her when she was up in years.
LEE: Oh, you're kidding?
LEE: I tell you, I've learned so much about her since then, but to answer is quite frankly no. I didn't know a lot about Jeannette Rankin at all. I actually was the lecturer at the Jeannette Rankin Lecture Series at Wellesley College about three years ago in Massachusetts and it was phenomenal just preparing for that lecture, learning even more about her then. And so now as I — I walk past her statue in the Capitol and I give her my due. This woman, boom boom boom, and it was always great to see her standing there, but I never stopped to really reflect on her as who she was in terms of war and peace, in terms of who she was as a social worker, and in terms of who she was as a member of Congress.
BOND: She was a feisty woman even in her older years.
LEE: I tell you.
BOND: Back to leadership — people talk about leadership creation, how leaders are created in three ways. Great people cause great events, movements make leaders, or unpredictable events create leaders appropriate for the times. Does one of these seem to be your path to leadership? Great people cause great events, movements make leaders, or unpredictable events create leaders appropriate for the times.
LEE: I think movement makes leaders. I think a little bit of each, but, you know, I think if it weren't for the Black Panther movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the movements that I've been involved in for social justice — personally, I'm not sure what I'd be doing now so I think that's the path. Then, of course, there's what they talk about in terms of visibility, like events that, you know, may heighten your visibility. For instance, when I voted against these wars, being the only one certainly in many ways in an uncomfortable sense, heightened my visibility, so I think that events also create, you know — maybe it's a certain personality or creates a certain, you know, space for people to see a different side of you than they may not have seen before.
I know someone told me that, "Gee, maybe now" — and this is very insightful on her part, after I cast that tough vote — they said, "Well, maybe now everyone will know what we know about you." My mother, she was the first one — "Well, they could've called me. I would've told them you were gonna vote no, if they'd just asked me, you know, because I know you, and they just don't know you." And so I think events may put you out there in terms of who you are that may not have been revealed before.
BOND: If I were thinking about this, I would say that for you, a great leader, Shirley Chisholm, inspired you to join her movement, and from that movement you emerged as a leader. Is that — ?
LEE: Well, you know, she inspired me to get involved in politics, but I've been involved in so many movements.
BOND: Yes, before that.
LEE: There were not-partisan political movements before that. Bagging groceries with the Black Panther Party. I started my own community mental health center, which was a movement. Working with the Black Panther Party helping to start their school in Oakland, California. Protesting, getting arrested protesting apartheid in South Africa, being very involved in the End the Blockade movement against Cuba, so there've been so many movements that weren't necessarily part of my political life that I have been involved in that I guess kind of were stepping stones.
BOND: In many ways, something about your biography is on the one hand similar to that of many others who've come up to politics through the state assembly and then into Congress. A couple of the people we've interviewed here have been just like that — childhood or young involvement in a variety of movements. But what strikes me as different about you is that you've had from an earlier period this international focus, which is unusual for black political activists. I mean, there have been people like Carlton Goodlett and others who've had this as a concern, but it is unusual. Why do you think that attracted you, this international focus, as opposed to strictly domestic?
LEE: Well, first, my dad again was in the military. Now, while my mother and dad wanted us to stay in El Paso so we could go to the same school. We did not really travel abroad with my father, but he was always in Korea or Japan or Germany, you know, Italy, all over. So I knew about the world, but when I got married very young, my former husband joined the Air Force. And he was stationed in England. I went to England and lived for two years. And this was in the '60s, '64 to '66. When I was in England, I met many people from the West Indies, from Africa, from Europe. I traveled to Europe every summer. We'd take the car down to Dover, England, and drive over to Calais, France, and then we'd drive to every country on the continent and everywhere in every country I found Africans and West Indians, and it was just a phenomenal eye-opener for me, and that was it, I think. I mean, being part of the world as I became when I was in England probably has informed everything I've done since then and that was when I was seventeen years old.
BOND: So, it'd be fair to say you owe the U.S. military for making you into an internationalist?
LEE: Oh, yes. I owe the U.S. military for a lot of who I am.
BOND: Do you see your legitimacy as a leader — is it in your ability to persuade people to follow your vision or your ability to articulate the agenda of a movement?
LEE: Again, it's not either/or.
BOND: Okay. It could be both.
LEE: It's not either/or. You have to convince people, but you have to be able to articulate this agenda to convince people to follow you. And I have found especially in this place, this is a tough place — the House of Representatives and the Senate — and if you can't convince your colleagues that this an agenda that they should support, then you're not very effective, and so you have to have an agenda that's supportive. Like, for instance, and I'll give you an example.
HIV and AIDs — no one was really tackling that before, except for Ron Dellums and myself on a global basis before 1998, and I decided I was going to come here and really take on the global AIDS pandemic. And I convinced a lot of members of Congress who hadn't even thought about it to support me in legislation that actually established the World AIDS Trust Fund that you hear about today. And that was my bill that set up that trust fund with Congressman Leach out of Iowa, and since then we've passed three strong, tough bills on HIV and AIDS. I don't think this administration — they're not implementing them appropriately, but these were laws that I actually wrote, and I got the help of my colleagues and convinced them that this was an agenda that the United States should be on record as taking the lead on and that it should be bipartisan and it shouldn't just be about Democrats or Republicans. And I think our agenda on HIV and AIDS and chairing the Global AIDS Taskforce of the Black Caucus has been an agenda that has convinced others to come along with us.
BOND: Now, you spoke a moment ago or throughout this interview, you talked about your faith and your Catholic school upbringing and your dependence on religion — is that fair to say that religion has been a base part of your philosophy, that your faith has been a base part of your philosophy?
LEE: Yeah, I could say that, absolutely. But let me tell you, Julian, I am death on the separation of church and state. You know, all this stuff that's going on now with the fundamentalists and what have you — it's crazy, I don't subscribe to that at all. "Render to God that which is God's, render to Caesar that which is Caesar's." And so while I'm a person of deep faith and continue to be, I don't believe in mixing government and religion, and much of what's taking place now I totally think is very anti-faith and if you ask me, until these people can stand up for the poor and fight against these budget cuts and develop budgets that are moral documents, you know, I think that those that profess to be religious in this institution and then vote, you know, in a contrary manner are hypocrites.
BOND: How does this faith or this philosophy, faith-based philosophy, how does this guide through moments of difficulty, like being the only person to vote against the war? How does that philosophy bolster you?
LEE: Well, you know, you go to the Scriptures and read those Scriptures that undergird what you have done and give you the strength to stand. There's a scripture in Ephesians that I always go to. I don't remember the chapter. I think it's Ephesians 24, but it talks about when all around you is falling to pieces and going to hell and when there's confusion and wars and boom boom boom, what do you do? You just stand. You just stand and you have faith, and you just stand there until all this stuff kind of fades away. That's what I had to do. You stand.
BOND: Talking about war, in an interview in Essence in 2000, you described yourself as being in a war, waking up every day feeling you're going into combat for the causes you're fighting for. Is this a philosophy that you embrace that you're sort of girding up as if for war? To meet the enemy every day?
LEE: Oh, yeah, every day. Every day, especially with the nature of this place.
BOND: But how do you sustain that over a long, long time?
LEE: Well, I think it's faith again, you know, I say my prayers. You have to just have faith that you can and you have to know that what you're doing hopefully is right and you have family and friends around you to kind of support you. It's hard but it's not — it's not insurmountable, you know, and I hear people tell me, "I'm depressed, I'm tired, uhh." Well, if you take care of yourself, and if you stay on track and if you really believe in what you're doing, I in ain't no way tired, you know, you just keep going.
BOND: Shifting gears a little bit, how does race consciousness affect your work? Are you a leader who advances issues of race or society or both? Is there a distinction between these?
LEE: In America, there shouldn't be a distinction, but there is. And I think Katrina showed us the deal, you know. When you have a government that abandons people, that allows people to hang on their roofs fending for their lives and slow to respond like this government did, then one has to remember that race continues to be a factor in everything that we do in our lives, And so I believe it's very important, and I think African Americans have that unique niche, you know, because of our history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation. Who else has the moral standing to deal with this stuff and to take on all of those issues that we have to take on to make not only America better for African Americans but for everyone. If we don't do it, then who will?
But race has got to be part of everything we do. No ethnic group will back off of who they are, you know. You need to understand and people need to — black folks never should forget that they're of African descent. We're African people, and so why in the world would race not be a factor for us and yet it's a factor for every other group.
BOND: Now, do you have a different leadership style when you're dealing with an all-black group, a mixed group, or a white group? Are you different on these occasions?
LEE: I don't think so. I think the cultural aspects may come out a little bit more when I'm with an African American group. I mean, you know, there's certain kinds of dynamics that operate there that African Americans — because of who we are as African people — get and understand, but I think in terms of what I say and what I do and my agenda, part of this is about building coalitions so you've got to be kind of —
BOND: You mentioned working with Jim Leach, the Republican from Iowa.
LEE: Oh, yeah, and Chris Smith, who's a Republican from New Jersey. I have very good relationships with a lot of Republicans. When I was in the California legislature, Governor Wilson, Pete Wilson, Republican, signed at least seventy-some of my bills into law. I think I was probably one of the few Democrats that got so many really substantive bills signed into California state law. And that, I think, is because —
BOND: It's a good feeling, isn't it, when the governor signs your bill?
LEE: Oh, God, I love it. I even have the pens.
BOND: When I was in the Georgia legislature, oh —
LEE: It is a good feeling.
BOND: Let's not digress, let's not digress.
LEE: No, especially when you have to work so hard. I mean, with Pete Wilson it was really hard to get him to sign my bills, but, you know what the key was, I was an African American and so I came with some legitimacy and a woman so I had a certain perspective that he didn't have and I convinced the legislature of it, on whatever issue it was, and I was progressive, which meant that I started way out there to the left. Pete Wilson was way to the right, and so he had to negotiate with me. I didn't start here in the center. There was no place to go if I had started I the center and so that again, being black, being progressive, being a woman, can have its advantages when you're trying to get something done.
BOND: Does today's society demand different kinds of leadership? Do we need different kinds of people now than we did, say, five, ten years ago?
LEE: I think we need — yeah, we need more people. We need younger people. We need, I think, people who can get back to some of what we did way back when. I mean, that street heat is still important because that's fundamental in terms of democracy, is petitioning our government to address, to redress its wrongs, you know? And so I think that it's very important that leadership now understand that once you become a leader in whatever arena you're in, that you can't abandon the people and the movement that is out there that probably brought you there, and so new leadership I think needs to understand — and I always say this inside/outside strategy has to connect with people a little bit better than what we have in the past.
BOND: Now, realizing that we need more leaders now, what can we do to create, to foster new leadership? How can we make sure new leadership does come?
LEE: Well, I tell you, I am working very closely with young people. I think the hip-hop community is phenomenal. I think that many young kids in grammar school are unbelievable. After my vote against this war, I heard from thousands of young people whose teachers encouraged them to write me, and so I stay in touch with those young kids in grammar school. They come in my office — so I think it's important whatever we're doing is to engage with young people and mentor them and work with them. I take them with me on the Civil Rights Pilgrimage that John Lewis puts on every couple of years to Montgomery, Selma and Birmingham. I want young people in California to connect with what happened in the civil rights movement, and so I take them with me on trips and, you know — so, I just think it's important for those of us who are over thirty, that we bring young people into our offices and go with them where they want us to go and take them where we're going.
BOND: Congresswoman Lee, thank you for being with us.
LEE: Good to be with you, Julian. Good to see you again.
BOND: Good to see you.
Transcript from http://blackleadership.virginia.edu/transcript/lee-barbara.