Ayanna Pressley addresses challenges to democracy, Russian violence, SCOTUS at Speaker Series event

Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley (top) spoke as part of Tisch College's Solomont Speaker Series on Feb. 24. Kiana Vallo / The Tufts Daily

Rep. Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts’ Seventh Congressional District spoke to the Tufts community about the path to building a multiracial democracy on Feb. 24 as part of Tisch College’s Solomont Speaker Series. It was the second time in recent years that Pressley has been featured in a Tisch College event, with the first coming just months after she first assumed office in 2019. 

The Africana Center, Tufts CIVIC, the Tufts Democrats and the Department of Political Science co-sponsored the event, which took place over Zoom

University President Anthony Monaco opened the event by discussing Rep. Pressley’s journey through local and federal government. Pressley was the first Black woman elected to the Boston City Council and the first Black woman elected to Congress in Massachusetts.

Monaco emphasized Rep. Pressley’s background, referencing her work in strengthening the sexual health curriculum in Boston public schools, addressing gun violence and supporting the economic development of underserved communities. 

He also introduced the event’s moderator, Wilnelia Rivera (A’04, AG’14), founder of the political and nonprofit consulting firm Rivera Consulting. Monaco credited Rivera as being “instrumental” in electing Massachusetts’ first Black governor, Deval Patrick, as well as Pressley.

“Our vision here and work at Tisch College is the idea and commitment that we have an opportunity and an obligation to support all young people as we build and sustain a multiracial democracy in our country,” Rivera said in her introductory remarks. 

Rivera began the conversation by asking Pressley to explain what a multiracial democracy looks like and what roadblocks stand in the way of achieving it. 

“In theory … a multiracial democracy is one in which every voter has equal access to the ballot box, opportunity to run for office and to make their voice heard for themselves and for their broader community,” Pressley said

The congresswoman mentioned the aftershocks of the Jan. 6 insurrection and numerous “voter suppression laws” that have subsequently arisen in state legislatures as major blows to a multiracial democracy.

“We have seen precise and coordinated efforts to undermine civic participation by putting up roadblocks to voter registration, decreasing opportunities to vote, passing laws to overturn the will of voters,” Pressley said. “Robust levels of participation across demographics and geography are necessary to ensure that the issues that are so often forgotten or swept under the rug are brought to the front burner and addressed in meaningful and substantive ways.”

The discussion then moved to the anticipated Supreme Court vacancy and President Joe Biden’s commitment to nominating a Black woman to fill it. 

“I’m excited that we’ll shortly have the nomination of the first Black woman to the Supreme Court, after 115 Supreme Court justices,” Pressley said. “I’m also a believer that we should be expanding the courts, but that’s a conversation for another day.” 

One day after Pressley spoke to the community on Thursday, news broke that President Biden had tapped Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to fill Justice Stephen Breyer’s seat on the high court. If Jackson is confirmed by the Senate, she will become the first Black woman to serve on the country’s most powerful judicial body. 

Pressley, in her discussion on Thursday, articulated what she believed is necessary to preserve our democracy.

“We should … grow the Democratic majority in the Senate, at least by two, so that we can abolish the filibuster, restore voting rights and advance so many other critical pieces of legislation which had been obstructed by this archaic process,” Pressley said. 

On the subject of Russia’s recent military invasion of Ukraine, Pressley, who serves on the House Committee on Financial Services, said she and her fellow committee members were discussing potential sanctions against Russia.

“I vehemently condemn Putin’s illegal invasion of Ukraine and these aggressive actions over the past 24 hours,” Pressley said. “I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that this is an attack on democracy and also a flagrant violation of international law, and I never want us to lose sight of the fact that we could be on the brink of an extraordinary humanitarian crisis.”

Pressley stressed the importance of a diplomatic response to Russia’s attack.

“It’s critical that we stay at the table and do everything in our power to de-escalate this crisis, and to pursue a negotiated solution,” she said. “Because what we’re witnessing right now is the rise of authoritarianism around the world before our very eyes.”

Pressley also discussed the racist rhetoric espoused by some of her colleagues in Congress.

“I introduced a resolution, a call for Rep. [Lauren] Boebert to be stripped of her committees,” Pressley said of the Republican congresswoman from Colorado, who has implied that Representative Ilhan Omar, a Muslim, is a terrorist. “Hate has no place in our society and certainly not in the halls of Congress. I do think it is about accountability. If there’s no accountability, then you only see more of this [behavior] emboldened and you see it normalized.”

The discussion ended with a question from an audience member on the strength of the U.S.democracy in 2022. 

“Two-hundred and forty-six years in, how would you assess the state of our American experiment?” the attendant asked.

“I think that we are in many ways in the midst of an undoing,” Pressley replied, referencing white supremacy, the pandemic and the climate crisis. “But maybe there’s a value in that and that we will stitch ourselves back in in the most ideal iteration of that experiment.” 


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