Harris at Spelman College: “Go forward unburdened, unwavering, and undaunted by the fight”
ATLANTA – Today, U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris delivered remarks at Spelman College, America’s oldest private, historically Black liberal arts college for women, as part of the school’s annual Homecoming weekend. Speaking to students from Spelman College and the Atlanta University Center, Harris emphasized the urgency of the current political moment, highlighted the importance of young women of color taking on leadership roles, and drew from her own experiences to suggest how young women can remain undaunted by the challenges ahead.
Key excerpts from Harris’ remarks:
- “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.”
- “Let’s also speak the truth that elections matter. Voting matters… 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.”
- “In this inflection moment, many are – you know I’ve been traveling the country campaigning with my colleagues speaking with a lot of folks and there are a lot of folks feeling a sense of despair. And others are even cynical. But let’s remember our history. And let’s remember Spelman’s history. Your history. Remember that in only 130 years, this school went from being in a church basement to the top-ranked HBCU in the country. Remember that you are Spelman. And Spelman women change the world. And whatever the future holds, toil and pain, know that you can walk into any situation, you can lead in any field, you can take on any challenge, and you will go forward unburdened, unwavering, and undaunted by the fight.”
Full transcript of Harris’ remarks, as delivered:
I’m honored to be here this evening and to have been invited to give this lecture during Homecoming.
I was just asking Roz if it was ok that I share with you a little bit about what we talked about during her visit, because she is the reason I am here. She insisted [that I] come in and speak and I’m so glad that you did because truly, given the recent events, to be here and among these incredible leaders it warms my heart.
So yes, a lot was going on and my team told me well, there’s a very important person from this very important company, Starbucks, and she’s a member of the – she’s a CEO – I’m just going to give you that title – and she would like to meet with you. And then I knew who it was and I said well, absolutely.
And as soon as she walked through the door we of course had an immediate connection, and we did. And let me just tell you, we talked about everything.
We talked about those lids. So here’s what I said to her. Here’s what I said to her. So you know how those lids – well I’m just going to speak ok so this is it. So you know how those lids on the Starbucks cups, they’re white, right? And so if you wear lipstick, they get all over the lid.
And so then I find myself in meetings, if I’m the only woman – so I keep taking the lid off and having my cup out so I don’t have that big lipstick mark on the lid. So I said, can we do something about the color of the lid?
So that was that conversation. But it ranged from that to of course our mutual experience being proud graduates of an HBCU, to a conversation about one of things I am sure these bright Spelman leaders are thinking about, which is AI. And we talked about the significance of racial bias in computer learning and in particular AI.
So that was the range of our conversation, which really is I think just an example of the range of conversations that we each have with each other. It might be about the color of our lipstick, and it also might be about what we need to do in terms of Artificial Intelligence and how we plan the future of the world.
So I am so excited to be with you this afternoon and Roz, thank you again. And I just think that there is so much of course to talk about but when I see in the Spelmanites in this chapel and I see the future of our country, I know our future is bright. I know our future is bright.
And indeed there are days that are dark, but when I look at the light that you, in particular you students are shining, I know that we are on the path to greatness and that you are going to lead the way. So I am honored to be with you today.
And this indeed is very special place. Spelman is a very special place. That Spelman hymn that you have sung so many times says, and I don’t need to tell you but I’ll repeat it for those who don’t know, “Through years of toil and pain / may thy dear walls remain / beacons of heavenly light, undaunted by the fight.”
So for my lecture, I decided I wanted to talk about those last four words, “undaunted by the fight.”
So undaunted by the fight. So today I want to speak some truth about that fight, and the urgency of this moment, and how we are looking to women like you to lead the way, and how we can remain undaunted by the challenges we face.
I believe we are at an inflection moment in the history of our country. A moment similar to the moment in time when my parents met when they were graduate students at the University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, and active in the Civil Rights movement, marching and shouting for justice.
It’s a moment where there are powerful forces, right now, that are trying to sow hate and division among us.
And there are a lot of people in our country right now who are extremely distrustful, understandably, of our government,? its institutions and its? leaders. And what we know is there is something about the nature about the relationship of trust that must be acknowledged.
The nature of a relationship of trust is that it is a reciprocal relationship. You give and you receive trust. And one of the most important ingredients in trust is truth, is truth. But what we also know is speaking truth can often make people quite uncomfortable.
You know for people like me who stand at podiums like this and people who run for office, there’s actually an incentive that when we get in front of a microphone we’ll give a speech and it’ll be a lovely speech and everybody will feel lovely about it and we’ll spread the lovely dust all over the room and then we’ll just walk out and everybody will applaud feeling just wonderful.
But speaking the truth doesn’t always accomplish that goal, and so sometimes there’s a disincentive to speak truth. But speak truth we must, understanding also that when we speak truth yes, people may walk away from that conversation thinking I didn’t particularly like what I had to hear, but they will also walk away from that conversation knowing it was an honest conversation.
So 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.
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.
So looking back at my career so far, it may feel like it was all meant to be. But when I was standing at that grocery store behind my ironing board this was not clear. And you will have those moments. You will have a lot of those moments. Where you believe in yourself and hopefully you will surround yourself with people who believe in you. But many others may not. Many others may try to discourage you when you decide you want to start up a small business or a software company. Or you want to pursue science and discover the thing that has yet to be discovered.
You will have those experiences I promise you. Where deep in your heart you know you can do something, and you may not receive a lot encouragement, but you must be undaunted. You must be undaunted.
And the second point I’ll make then is this- that being undaunted by the fight means being unburdened by what has been, and instead knowing what can be. Right? Being unburdened by what has been and knowing what can be. So like you here at Spelman, Howard University taught me to reject false choices. Howard taught me to reject false choices, and by that what do I mean? Well it means you don’t let anybody put you in a box. You don’t let anybody put you in a box. My mother would say, don’t you let anyone tell you who you are, you tell them who you are.
My mother would say, “Don’t you let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.” Right? And so, it’s interesting, because as the first black woman elected to the many positions I’ve been elected to, I am often in room, and have been in rooms, where a reporter or someone else will come up to me and they’ll say, “so talk to us about black women’s issues.”
And I’ll look at them and think, “you know what, I am so glad you want to talk about the economy.” Or sometimes say, “I am so glad you want to talk about national security.” Because what we know is this: yes, there are issues that explicitly impact the Black community.
And we care, of course about the fact that black women are 3 to 4 times more likely to die because of pregnancy than white women. And I’m glad to be working, by the way, with Morehouse Medical School to author legislation to address that. But when more than half of Americans are $500 away from financial catastrophe, the economy is a Black woman’s issue. Which is one reason why I’ve proposed a middle-class tax cut that would basically give families earning less than $100,000 a year, a $6,000 tax credit that they can collect at $500 a month, so they can meet those needs. Because, that is a Black woman’s issue, that is everyone’s issue.
Let’s talk about Black women’s issues. Let’s talk about when a major UN report this month says we could be experiencing a climate crisis as early as the year 2040, which means that coastal cities will be underwater, there will be more droughts, there will be more extreme hurricanes and wildfires. Well climate change is a Black woman’s issue. Let’s think about that.
Let’s think about when the Russians used racism and hate, which have always been America’s Achilles heel, to attack us, demographically, and geographically. You had better believe national security and election security is a Black woman’s issue.
Simply put, every issue is a Black woman’s issue. And Black women’s issues are everyone’s issues. In fact, there was a time that Ruth Simmons, the former provost here at Spelman, and the first Black woman to lead an Ivy League university, was asked why she got a PhD in French literature and I love what she said. Because of course, the implication was that it would not be an appropriate topic for a Black woman to study. And what she said, is, when they asked her why, she said, “Well, because, everything in the world belongs to me.”
So I want you to know that when you walk, you walk into every room, when you walk into any room, when you walk into every room you ever walk into; do not be burdened by someone else’s assumptions of who you are. Do not be burdened by their perspectives or judgement, and do not let anyone ever tell you who you are.
You tell them who you are. And go be the next Roz Brewer, who is shattering glass ceilings at the highest levels of corporate America. Go to law school like Marian Wright Edelman, who became the first Black woman admitted to the Mississippi Bar and founded the Children’s Defense Fund. Go run for office yourselves, like the record number of Black women who are running in 2018.
In fact, one of your Spelman sister from my hometown of Oakland told me that in these last few years she said, “we are understanding what our political power looks like.” And indeed, we should all be filled with joy to see candidates like Ayanna Pressley in Massachusetts, Jahana Hayes in Connecticut, Lauren Underwood in Illinois and Lucy McBath here in Georgia. I ask you to look to Iowa, look to Iowa where Deidre DeJear, who I was just campaigning with last week, may well be the first African American ever elected state-wide in the state of Iowa.
And of course, time to raise that sign. Look at Stacey Abrams! Who I love what she says, this is Stacey Abrams’ quote. She sees a world and she sees a Georgia, and this is what she says: “Where no one is unseen, no one is unheard, and no one is uninspired.” Undaunted.
The third point that I’ll make is that being undaunted by the fight – now get ready for this – being undaunted by the fight can sometimes mean getting hurt.
So here’s the truth about breaking barriers.
When we talk about breaking barriers, some would suggest that you’re just on this side of the barrier and then you turn out on this side of the barrier.
No, it’s breaking barriers. And when you break things, it hurts. And sometimes you get cut and it can be painful. So I say this to you not to scare you, I say this to prepare you. To prepare you. Because you can do it and you will do it and you will have all of us there to support you in doing it.
But it will not be without great effort and often with great opposition, and it can be done. But you know, we’re not going to play a violin about it, I’m not going to play a violin about what it involves, but you are going to encounter people who may ignore you or dismiss your ideas or take your ideas as their own. That will happen.
But what’s our theme? Undaunted. Undaunted. Undaunted.
And all that can take a toll, to be sure. And you may second guess yourself at times in your career. But I’m here to just tell you that may happen and you may have that urge to do it but do not, do not second guess yourselves. Do not be deterred.
And know instead that breaking a barrier may sometimes be painful but it is so worth it. It is so worth it. And I’ll tell you the reason is because you will be fighting a fight worth having. You will be fighting a fight worth having.
And you will be exercising that - and the Spelmanites know what I’m talking about - you will be exercising that “Choice to Change the World.”
And by doing that you will also ensure that the next generation will have a path.
You know my mother used to tell me, she would tell my sister, my mother would look at me and she’d say “Kamala you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you are not the last.” And that’s part of what breaking those barriers, that’s why breaking those barriers is worth it. As much as anything else, it is also to create that path for those who will come after us.
And being undaunted by the fight also means remembering, and this is really important, that you are never alone. Now here’s why I say that.
When I’m questioning a witness when I serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee, I also serve on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I also serve on the Senate Homeland Security Committee, and I know when I am there I am standing on the shoulders of so many people who mentored me, who were the role models for me, who were leaders who nurtured me either directly or indirectly and lifted me up.
And so when I’m there, I certainly feel a duty to speak on behalf of so many people who are not in that room and people who, historically, have never been in that room.
And when you leave here, you are going to often find yourselves in a situation where you are in a room, be that a boardroom, a courtroom, or a Senate hearing room, and you are the only one in that room that looks like you. You are going to have that experience many times.
And what I want you to remember, and you’re going to look around this chapel, you’re going to look around the oval, wherever you need to look you hold onto these memories and you remember that when you’re in that room and you are the only one like you in that room, you are not along, we are all in that room with you.
And at other times, you’re going to have this experience where people will look at you and they will say, “You’re special.” “Oh, you’re unique.” Now if your family is telling you that, that’s fine. If we’re telling you that, it’s true. But be careful because sometimes what that might mean, unintentionally or intentionally, is to suggest you’re the only one like you.
Or to say, you are alone. And you must remember, you come with people, and you will never be in those situations alone.
It’s critically important that you remember that. You remember that you are part of a Spelman family. You remember you are part of a broader family and you are never alone or the only one like you. There are many of us. There are a lot of us, and we are everywhere.
So I’m going to wrap up with this.
In this inflection moment, many are – you know I’ve been traveling the country campaigning with my colleagues speaking with a lot of folks and there are a lot of folks feeling a sense of despair. And others are even cynical.
But let’s remember our history. And let’s remember Spelman’s history. Your history.
Remember that in only 130 years, this school went from being in a church basement to the top-ranked HBCU in the country.
Remember that you are Spelman. And Spelman women change the world.
And whatever the future holds, toil and pain, know that you can walk into any situation, you can lead in any field, you can take on any challenge, and you will go forward unburdened, unwavering, and undaunted by the fight.
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