Kamala Harris

Remarks at 2017 Madeleine K. Albright Lunch - May 2, 2017

Kamala Harris
May 02, 2017— Washington, D.C.
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People have been asking me, as a newly elected senator, "Are you having fun?" And I wouldn't exactly describe it that way, but I will tell you one of the things that I'm very sad about is that I did not have the honor and pleasure of serving with Senator Barbara Mikulski at the time that she was such a fierce fighter and leader in the United States Senate. [applause] And she's so extraordinary, as we all know from her years of service and just her presence. There is an inverse relationship between her height and her power. And in fact, and Secretary Albright mentioned it, she is known as being a dean of the women in the Senate. And we only this year now have 21 women in the United States Senate, a body of a hundred people. But Barbara Mikulski was a trailblazer from the very beginning, and one of the really extraordinary things about her leadership, not only for the nation but among so many of us who seek elected office, is that she has always been one of the most nurturing and encouraging and supportive for so many of us in our career. So I speak for all the women of the United States Senate in thanking you for your leadership and your friendship and your sisterhood. Thank you, Barbara. [applause]

And Madeleine Albright, yes, we have known each other for many, many years through Katherine, her daughter, in San Francisco and I've spent so many years talking with her about her perspective and she has been an advisor, a friend and mentor and again someone who has been so incredibly supportive of me personally throughout my career, from the time I ran for district attorney of San Francisco through my tenure as attorney general of California, and I cannot thank you enough for that and for your incredible national and international leadership for so many of us. Secretary Albright. [applause]

I am very happy to be here and I want to thank… But you know I actually also want to mention that Kenneth Wollack also mentioned to me as I was coming up, he said, "You know, Secretary Albright in 16 years has never missed one meeting of the NDI – not one meeting. And that must be said as well, in all in spite of all of her travels and obligations.

I want to thank the National Democratic Institute for the outstanding work you do and for the folks who are here supporting that work. It is obviously the work of strengthening democracy around the globe and in particular it has been about, at this moment in time, as Secretary Albright has so forcefully made the point, the leadership offered here is as critical or more critical than ever before. And we all know that we're facing a lot of challenges in this world and there are a lot of folks out there that are asking a question of themselves, of our country and of our world, which is who are we? What are our values? What do we stand for? And through the leadership and the direction offered by NDI, I think there is an answer to that question and so I thank you all.

I will share with you, with my new friends, a little bit about my background. You've heard a little bit about it but I will tell you I come from a long line of tough, trailblazing and phenomenal women. My grandmother would go into villages in India – because she was Indian and lived in India – and she would go to the villages in India. It was a famous story in our family. My grandfather would say she was going to be the end of his career, but my grandmother would go into the villages with a bullhorn talking with the women about the need to have access to reproductive health care. She was an extraordinary woman. My mother came to the United States from India at the age of 19 after having graduated college, because she wanted to study in what was then and still considered to be one of the best universities in the world to study endocrinology. So she arrived at UC Berkeley at the age of 19 in the late 1950s, which also tells you something about my grandfather who said, you want to go study and you want to be the best, you can go anywhere you want. I'll send you and I'll encourage that. And so my mother started her career and ended her career as a scientist, as an endocrinologist, with a specialization in breast cancer and breast cancer research. And she met my father when they were both graduate students then there at Berkeley.

My sister and I, Maya, we joke because they met when they were active in the Civil Rights Movement, so we joked that we grew up surrounded by a bunch of adults who spent full time marching and shouting about this thing called justice, and frankly that was what inspired me to want to become a lawyer, because of the many heroes of that movement. Of course there was Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston and Constance Baker Motley and these individuals who understood the skill of the profession of law to translate the passion from the streets to the courtrooms of our country. They understood the importance of doing that work of reminding folks of that great promise we articulated in 1776, that we are all and should be treated as equals.

And that is what inspired me to want to be a lawyer. I went to Howard University, and I know we have actually the president of the Howard University Student Association. Where are you? Right there. [applause] Stand and acknowledge. And she's graduating in just a couple of weeks and is going to be a Truman Fellow. So we're very proud of her, all of us.

And so that was my background. And right out of law school I decided I wanted to be a prosecutor. It was interesting because many people in my family and my extended family said, "Well, you know, you want to fight for justice like all of us but that's a curious decision that you've decided to be a prosecutor." My sister, for example, went on to run the ACLU. But what I said then and what I've maintained today, after a career in law enforcement, is law enforcement has such a direct impact on the most vulnerable among us, and has been as its job and responsibility to be a voice for the most voiceless and vulnerable. And that's the work that I wanted to do. And so I was a career prosecutor. I tried everything from low-level offenses to homicides. And then for those women in the room who are thinking about running for elected office, I will share with you these stories.

I decided back in 2003 that the district attorney of San Francisco, who was the incumbent, he comes from an old political family, his name is K.O. because he was known as being a boxer who knocked people out. I decided and a bunch of us really felt that that the job was not being run very well, the office was not being run very well, and in particular as it related to crimes against women and children – domestic violence, child abuse, things of that nature. So I decided to run against this incumbent, two-term incumbent from an old political family and his nickname is K.O. And I was then told what many of us in this room have been told many times and will be told – it's not your turn, it's not the right time, there's nobody like you who has done that before, it's going to be really hard work – as though that's the reason that any of us would not do what we do.

And for all of the young women and anyone here who's thinking about running for office and when you are told that, I will tell you, do not listen. Do not listen. [applause] And so I did not listen and even though I started out at six points in the polls – which just for everyone's information that means six out of 100 – we pull together a coalition of people, right? Understanding – the thing that the NDI stands for is part of it, understanding – we all have so much more in common than what separates us. Let's bring people together around those common values and priorities. And so that's what we did with our politics – built a coalition. And I won and I was elected as the first woman district attorney of San Francisco and the first woman of color to ever be elected district attorney in the state of California.

And so, thank you [applause] and so I was there for two terms and then I thought that a lot of the work that we were doing around criminal justice reform and some of the work we were doing focusing on women and girls and children, that we could take statewide. So I decided in 2010 to run for attorney general of California. So I'm now share with you that story.

I heard the same doubts. I heard the same points that were made that last time – not your turn, nobody like you has done this before, it's going to be really hard work. I also heard: you're from San Francisco, you're a woman of color, personally opposed to the death penalty, who wants to be the top cop of the biggest state in the country. Ain't gonna happen, they said. And I didn't listen. And you know sometimes I say, you know, I like to eat "no" for breakfast. It's just, I just did not listen. And they said it'll never happen and of course they were wrong. But I will also tell you that on Election Night my opponent actually declared his victory, and so it was a process of counting votes for many, many days. But as elected as the attorney general of California I was elected again as the first woman attorney general, California's first personal color.

And all of that leads me then to where I stand today before you as a member of the United States Senate and only the second African-American woman to have been elected to the United States Senate and the first Indian-American ever elected to the United States Senate.

I will now share with you my comments from the vantage point of where I stand but influenced and informed by all the experiences before now.

I think we all know that we have and our being faced with a lot of challenges and I also believe, however, that there is a lot to be encouraged about here and around the world. Thanks to the amazing work of organizations like NDI, more and more women have been elected and have taken on leadership roles from Jordan to Liberia to Guatemala. I couldn't be more excited about the work of Women Act for Living Together and the award it is receiving today to support gender equality and a more inclusive governance in the Central African Republic. And here in the United States, as tough as the 2016 election may have been, let's not forget that Hillary Clinton became the first woman major-party nominee for president of the United States.

In fact there was a great article I recently read in the Washington Post – it was a few weekends back – about these new candidates for office in our country, and one statistic was particularly impressive. Last year Emily's List talked to about 900 women who were interested in running for office, be that school board, state legislature and Congress, and already in the first few months of this year they've heard from 11,000 women interested in running for office. [applause]

So we have to always remind ourselves in these fights for what is right – for civil rights, for human rights, for equity, for equality, for fairness – we always have to remind ourselves, fellow warriors and soldiers, that we also have had successes. And it is important to remember that just to fuel the fight that we have ahead.

And let's talk about them – the challenges that do remain. As you know, women are 51% of the United States population but make up just under 20% of members of the United States Congress as a whole and only about a quarter of state legislators. So it's time we change that.

Globally, women are 50% of the population but hold only 23% of seats in national legislatures, so it's obviously time to change that.

There are countries where women, as Secretary Albright described, there are countries where women who engage in the political process face not only slurs or whisper campaigns or comments about their appearance, they face rape, they face violence and they face death. So imagine being killed for trying to serve in Parliament, for trying to vote in the 21st century. So we know we've got to change that.

And there is a broader trend at play here. Look at the countries that lag behind in the education of girls. Look at the countries with the highest rates of child marriage. They're called child brides, as we know, but let's be clear – it is most often rape, it is most often child molestation. Let's look at the countries that practice female genital mutilation. Let's look at the countries that limit access to women's reproductive health. It's not a coincidence that the vast majority of these countries that oppress women and deny them opportunities are not democracies and many are in fact ruled by authoritarian regimes. When citizens are shut out of their government, women are out of their government; when people's voices are silenced, women's voices are silenced. That's what's at stake here. And by the way, as we know, the United States still has a long way to go on many of these related issues.

So we need to keep speaking up on behalf of every woman's right to be heard and to realize her power. My mother used to tell my sister and me, "You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last." We have a lot of work to do.

And so let's dig into then why that matters to all of us, why the work that we do and must do is so important. Because here's the thing we all know and that more people, I think, need to understand – bringing women into government is not just the right thing to do, it's the smart thing to do. It yields better policy, it yields healthier democracies and it makes stronger communities.

Let's think about it. Do we want to defeat terrorism? Do we really want to defeat terrorism? Of course we do. Well let me tell you, one of the good ways to think about that is that the fight to defeat terrorism is going to require us to empower women and girls. That's how we build stronger, more resilient communities that can resist violence extremism.

Do we want to grow a developing economy? Well, let's make sure women can contribute the same as men. One study estimated that if women around the world could participate equally, it would add $28 trillion to the global GDP by 2025. That's the GDP of the United States and China combined. That's real money. And as we all know…. You know, it's interesting having been the first woman in many of these offices, from time to time reporters will come up to me and they'll say, "Ok, so you know now, Senator, did you please talk to us about women's issues?" And I just look at them and I say, "You know, I am so glad you want to talk about the economy." Because what we all know is when you lift up the economic status of women, you lift up the economic status of families, of neighborhoods, communities and societies.

And so this is something that we have all seen over and over and I've certainly seen in my own career, which is women in power bring a different perspective and an essential perspective. I've been at meetings this year – and Senator Mikulski knows this and has had this experience, I'm sure – I've been in meetings this year in this city where 10 men will get up and speak before a single woman is called onstage. If you try to tackle the world's problems, you should hear from someone who represents half of the world's population and they should be in the lineup and the startup of that lineup.

For example, I'm one of three women on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence and I remain deeply concerned about Boko Haram in Nigeria kidnapping girls using rape as a tool of war. So I suggested that the Intelligence Committee hold a hearing on Boko Haram to talk about this issue and what more can be done, and we are going to be doing that work, I'm proud to say, the entire committee.

And I'm not saying that a male senator couldn't or wouldn't propose that topic, but I do think it helps that women have a unique understanding on many issues, including the incredible intensity and trauma of rape and why we should all take that very seriously in terms of the impact it has not only on its victims but all of society. And I think the bottom line is pretty clear. When we think about this issue, we know that helping women lead and helping women become empowered is not only the right thing to do, it is just morally the right thing to do.

So that's where the NDI comes in. I want to thank you for leading in this fight. We need the work you do. We need you to keep training and organizing aspiring women leaders. We need you to keep monitoring the electoral process. We need you to keep connecting women around the globe so that they can share their insights and their experiences.

The United States government must remain a leader in the effort to support and empower women. So when we see proposals that cut the budgets for State Department and USAID by nearly a third – 31% – we must speak up and keep fighting for full funding. When we see CNN report just yesterday that the administration is shutting down the Let Girls Learn program launched by First Lady Michelle Obama, we need to make our case that's when we help girls learn, we can build stronger economies. We know that when we help girls learn, we build stronger economies and safer communities. Let's remind folks of programs like Let Girls Learn and fight for their resources.

Let's understand that this is about fighting for life-saving food and vaccinations and HIV/AIDS medication and refugee assistance and education and women health programs. Let's remind people that while less than 1% of the overall funding of the federal budget, these investments make us safer and more secure because they strengthen vulnerable societies and help us avoid military interventions. Foreign aid is not charity. It's in our interest.

And today I want to challenge all of us to go even beyond that. I want us to take all of this energy, all of this commitment and ask what can we each do to bring more women into the arena. You've probably seen that slogan "The future is female." I saw a lot of people walking around with it here in DC at the Women's March. And I think that it's clear that what a lot of folks want and are saying is, let's figure out how to make that future happen as soon as possible, where women have an equal presence, an equal say, equal authority, and not just responsibility to help guide us toward our future.

So I'm going to leave you with one final story. A couple of weeks ago I took a trip to Iraq and Jordan, and during that trip I wanted to visit the Syrian refugees. So I went to Zaatari, which is a refugee camp in Jordan on the border with Syria. It's the largest refugee camp, we're told. It's about 80,000 people. And in fact, it's being referred to as the Jordan's now fourth largest city because of the size of the population in this one area. And while I was there, I met with a number of folks, including a group of women, and I heard their stories and as you can imagine their stories were devastating. They talked about losing family members. They talked about the violence they fled. They talked about the Assad regime and over the years what it had meant in terms of them being deprived of some essential rights and access to services.

But in meeting with these women, as devastating as their stories were, meeting with them also reminded me of certain universal truths, among people and among women. For instance, if you spend time with women in a group, you know that they'll start telling stories and laughing about themselves and each other and the world, and this is what this group of women did. Even though they had fled a warzone, they found humor in the experience that they had and they found humor with each other.

There was one woman I met, for example, that was as entrepreneurial as any person I've met in Silicon Valley. She had figured out a way with the cucumbers that she bought at the commissary to make soap and she was then selling the scented soap at the camp, and she wanted to basically start having a whole production line of women who would participate in selling these wares as a way to improve their economic standing. There was another woman who was very entrepreneurial around sewing clothes and she was creating her own designs as a way to then sell these clothes to other women and men in the camp. And then there was another woman who was talking very forcefully about how she was organizing other women at the camp.

And then at one point – through the translator I was having these conversations – there was another woman who was seated right next to me and she scoffed and she harrumphed and she was making these just very…she was very upset about one woman who was talking. I said, "Well, what's going on?" and the interpreter said, "Well, the woman who has been talking is her sister." [laughing] I looked at the woman next to me and I said, "Is she younger or older? Are you the younger or older sister?" She said, "I'm the older sister." I said, "I am, too. I know exactly what you're talking about." [laughing] And she got up and gave me the biggest kiss. And it was just about understanding who people are and understanding, again, that we all have so much more in common than what separates us.

There are so many stories that are individual stories that are behind everything that we read every day. And these stories again highlight certain universal truths and highlight, I think, the importance of us just doing the work the NDI does of seeing these folks and caring. It's the work of understanding the reason why in certain cultures and communities when you meet someone for the first time, the greeting is not "Pleased to meet you," it is "I see you." It is an expression of understanding that you are a complete person and I see you in your full form as you are fully actualized and I acknowledge that and I respect that. This is the work that must be done in our world and the NDI is capturing and doing this every day, and I cannot thank you enough for all of this, and Secretary Albright, for your leadership. Thank you.