Interview conducted by Erin Willis
Senior AmeriCorps member, Nava College Prep. Academy
When I was asked to conduct an interview with Congresswoman Karen Bass I was ecstatic. As one of 84 women and only 18 African American women that currently serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, she is a pillar in the movement to involve more women of color in politics and an unwavering champion for marginalized communities. Congresswoman Bass was born and raised in Los Angeles, and though I was not, we both have had the immense privilege of serving the community of South L.A. In my two years serving South L.A. with City Year and her lifetime of serving the same community through her foundation, Community Coalition, we have both found a home here.
Throughout our conversation, it became increasingly clear that though Congresswoman Bass and I come from different backgrounds, we have a lot in common when it comes to social justice.
Most importantly, she is leaving a legacy that young women of color, like myself, can look up to.
Here is what Representative Bass shared with me.
1. At City Year, one of our core beliefs is “service to a cause greater than self.” What motivates you to serve the communities of Los Angeles?
I grew up in a time period where I was watching the civil rights movement on TV and I just felt it was my responsibility to continue the work that they had been doing. So at a very young age, I made a commitment to spend my life fighting for social and economic justice.
2. What issues drive your passion for community change?
I just feel an overwhelming sense of responsibility, and I have felt that all of my life. For the first part of my life, as a young adult, I worked in the medical field. I liked the medical field, but it wasn’t my passion. My passion was what I was doing after work which was volunteer work in the community on different issues: police abuse issues, police accountability issues, the same things people are fighting for now. On the international side, during those years in the seventies, the whole world was exploding with independence movements, liberation fights happening around the world and I identified with that both in Africa and in Latin America. So during those years, it felt like we were on the verge of change all around the world and I felt an overwhelming responsibility to be a part of that. I still feel that now.
3. Every day our AmeriCorps members serve in schools as mentors to students, do you have any mentors in your life that have inspired you to do the work you do now?
I’m a very big believer in mentors! I’ve always had mentors everywhere I go. As soon as I got to Congress, I looked at which members of Congress authored major pieces of child welfare legislation and I went in their office and asked them to be a mentor.
A lot of times people associate mentors with youth and you need mentors throughout your life. I’ve been critically fortunate to have had mentors from the time I was in middle school that saw my interest in politics and, essentially, took care of me and guided me. Otherwise, I would have made serious life mistakes if they hadn’t have been in my life.
4. How has your service, or the issues you are committed to, evolved over time?
Actually, the issues haven’t changed over time. I am still working on the same issues—looking for root causes for the socioeconomic problems we face in South L.A. and inner-city communities around the country. I’m trying to address those problems in a constructive way rather than a destructive way.
What has changed is the arena in which I’m involved. But the issues, the values, and the commitment are exactly the same.
5. Tell us a little bit about Community Coalition, the organization you began in South L.A.?
I spent 14 years working and building at Community Coalition [where] I really wanted to create, build, and train a new generation so that I could leave. I left Community Coalition and wound up running for the State House and when I was there I was working on child welfare and criminal justice reform—the same issues I’m working on now. The only difference is, in Congress, I get back into the international arena. So I’m back working on Africa-related issues as well as the domestic issues.
6. How important would you say education is to address issues with foster youth or at-risk youth?
Education is the central point. Period. It doesn’t matter who you’re talking about. There is the education you get in school but then there is also, to me, political education which comes typically outside of school. I just think it’s critical.
The political education we’re involved in now is through a group I started called Sea Change that is organizing people from Los Angeles to go into Republican districts to flip those districts and help support all of the new activists that have recently become engaged.
7. What legacy do you hope to leave behind?
I hope to leave behind a legacy of commitment, a legacy that is driven by values, and a legacy that has done good work on behalf of people who are locked out of our system.
We celebrated National Mentoring Month by recognizing the real-life impact mentors have on young people.
City Year AmeriCorps member Yesenia Varela captures the spirit of MLK Day