As the first African American woman to serve in the 106-year history of the Boston City Council, Ayanna Pressley has broken down previously insurmountable walls along the road to success. As a survivor of sexual abuse and assault who has publicly shared her story of resilience, she provides a beacon of hope to many who suffer. As a public servant steadfastly devoted to solving some of the intractable problems of the people of Boston, she is a fierce proponent of social justice.
Each of these realities, in addition to the multitude of traits she brings with her to her office, help to form the portrait of an individual worth celebrating. This past month, the Boston College School of Social Work provided the forum to do just this, inviting Pressley to provide the keynote address at this year’s Diversity Conference.
The theme of the conference, not surprisingly, was “Powerful Women” and early in her talk, Pressley acknowledged that she was “humbled that you would think I am a powerful woman.” She credited her mother with instilling in her the values and the strength to find success in her own life.
“My mother made sure that I knew early on that I knew my rights and my responsibilities, and that I was never denied or deprived of any opportunities,” she said. “We often felt like it was my mother and I against the world. There were many times when we felt invisible, or silenced… But on Election Day, I felt powerful. Even at three years old, four years old, five years old, as we entered the election booth and pulled that curtain, she made sure that I knew that our voices mattered… But also… that I had a role to play advocating for safer streets, better schools, and better jobs. So that powerful woman, Sandy Pressley, … she crystallized that pathway of public service.”
Today, Pressley carries on the vision provided to her by her mother at an early age, as she remains committed to ensuring that a diversity of voices are heard in the city of Boston, working on issues that matter to the underrepresented. She chairs the City Council’s Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities, which she created in 2010; she has supported efforts to diversify economic and wealth building opportunities for women and people of color; and she has fought tirelessly to strengthen support services for families of homicide victims and sexual assault survivors. In 2013, she formed the Elevate Boston coalition to ensure issues uniquely impacting women and girls and the LGBTQ community were part of the 2013 Boston mayoral race debate.
“Diversity is not about some contrived moment of kumbaya where we pat ourselves on the back about how progressive we are,” said Pressley. “ It’s not a bumper sticker. It’s not a motto. It’s an actualized value. It is the recognition that we are strengthened by a diversity of perspective, a diversity of opinion, a diversity of thought, and so when your government bodies have not achieved gender and racial parity that means that you’re only seeing one side of the story, so the issues that you work on are compromised, and the innovative solutions that you can come up with, are also compromised.”
Pressley underscored the importance of this kind of collective fellowship being important in the current political climate, now more than ever, as imminent threats to our nation’s democracy challenge a community of mindful individuals to fight, together, to preserve our nation’s institutions.
“The only path forward is to create spaces to heal, and then to be intentional… lifting as we climb.”
But she encouraged a next generation of leaders to worry less about “being someone” and more about “doing something” while staying true to what matters to you. “Crystallize your purpose first,” she explained.
“Power is about standing fully in your truth… Be authentically you. Real recognizes real.”
Alumni Nick Teich, MSW ’09, the founder and CEO of Harbor Camps, and Debra Sosin, MSW ’77, Project Director at Family Connections, were recognized in an alumni awards ceremony following the diversity portion of the conference. Stay tuned for video interviews with both distinguished awardees, as well as an upcoming Q&A with Teich about his important work.