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Kamala or “Lotus,” another name for the Hindu goddess Lakshmi, means the empowerment of women. Little did we know, that name would forecast the legacy of her life.
Kamala Harris is now the first woman, POC vice president of the U.S. In addition, Vice President Harris holds many other firsts, such as the first Black woman to be elected district attorney in California history, first woman to be California’s attorney general, and first Indian-American senator.
On October 20th, 1964, Harris was born in Berkley, California to parents Shyamala Gopalan, a biologist in cancer research, and Donald J. Harris, a professor at Stanford University. Her mother’s Indian and father’s Jamaican heritage created a strong influence on her life, as well as her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, an advocate for women’s rights and democracy in India. As a baby, she was strollered to protests, and at 13 she led her first demonstration in front of her apartment to allow children the ability to play in the front of the lawn. For schooling, Harris was bussed from the West Berkley “flatlands” to a white dominated, affluent elementary school, where she experienced discrimination from kids who did not wish to play with her.
Following the divorce of her parents, Harris, her mother, and her sister moved to Montreal so she could finish her high school career. During her schooling, Harris met her best friend, who confided in her about the sexual abuse she experienced from her stepfather. Not only did this lead to the friend moving in with Harris, but it motivated her career as a prosecutor to protect women and children.
After attending the University of California, Hastings College of Law, Harris jump started her career as a district attorney until she was promoted to District Attorney of San Francisco. She filled this role from 2004-2011 and developed her reputation in law, specifically on issues of LGBTQ+ rights. In one instance, Harris opposed both Proposition 22 and Proposition 8, which only allowed marriage between man and woman. Harris also created the Hate Crimes Unit, aimed at prosecuting hate crimes against LGBTQ+ teens in school. Harris’s progressive advocacy towards marriage equality was referenced in the court’s citation of California’s successful refusal of Proposition 8, as well as in 2012, when the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage. Harris had the honor of officiating the first wedding hours after the legalization.
Harris also approached challenge, as her views on the death penalty were controversial. During her time as San Francisco District Attorney, in a highly publicized and widely criticized decision, she did not pursue capital punishment for then-22-year-old David Hill, an alleged gang member who shot and killed city police officer Isaac Espinoza. This led to her election to the position as Attorney General of California, which she held from 2011-2017. Her conflict over the death penalty continued in later in 2014, as Harris went to the Ninth Circuit Court to appeal U.S. District Judge Cormac J. Carney’s decision declaring the death penalty unconstitutional.
According to reporting at the time by the LA Times, Harris offered a window into how she understands her responsibility to constituents, even those she disagrees with. She reportedly said that, though she personally opposes the death penalty, she was elected by voters who supported it, and she pledged to enforce the law. This leads us to an interesting cross roads as we evaluate her action as vice president on capital punishment.
A major priority for Harris during her tenure as attorney general was prosecuting transnational gangs known for trafficking drugs, firearms, and humans. Her office also led a groundbreaking study on the impacts of transnational criminal organizations and human trafficking in California. We will see this continue into her actions as vice president, as she has already channeled that experience in her criticisms of the Trump administration. At the 2017 Ideas Conference in May, hosted by the liberal think tank Center for American Progress — an event widely seen as a proving ground for potential Democratic presidential candidates — Harris gave a speech where she called out the Trump administration and Attorney General Jeff Sessions on their trafficking and drug policies.
“Let me tell you what California needs, Jeff Sessions,” she said, eliciting applause from the crowd. “We need support in dealing with transnational criminal organizations and dealing with human trafficking — not in going after grandma’s medicinal marijuana.”
Harris’s landmark accomplishment as California Attorney General came on the heels of the financial crisis. In 2012, during her first year in the position, she brokered a $25 billion settlement deal with the nation’s five largest mortgage companies, citing improper foreclosure practices. 84,000 California homeowners received $18.4 billion in mortgage relief. In 2017, Harris was elected into the Senate where she continued to criticize Jeff Sessions as well as target the Trump administration in her open retaliation against the “Muslim Ban,” Russian interference in the 2016 election, and sexual harrasment in the workplace. While Harris symbolizes many promising things for policy, she remarkably stands as a symbol of the progress of women and the POC community.
Let’s examine the facts. Historically, women have not felt welcome in political arenas due to the male-dominated nature and discrimination of government. This impact still holds true today, as “women serve as Heads of State or Government in only 21 countries, and 119 countries have never had a woman leader . At the current rate, parity in the highest decisions of power will not be reached for another 130 years ,” according to the United Nations 2020 report. While it feels necessary, women’s equality is sadly not the reality of today. This rings truthful, as the U.N. cites that “most countries in the world have not achieved gender balance, and few have set or met ambitious targets for gender parity (50–50).” This demonstrates how it is women like Harris who are the ones to be credited with their success as brave, bold women and responsible for constructing the plans for their parity.
But why do women need to be in politics? Why are women like Harris necessary role models for the movement of women’s equality? The U.N. answers these questions with the following: “For example, research on panchayats (local councils) in India discovered that the number of drinking water projects in areas with women-led councils was 62 percent higher than in those with men-led councils. In Norway, a direct causal relationship between the presence of women in municipal councils and childcare coverage was found .”
Women lead progress! However, Harris is also a symbol of change for POC communities, as she serves as a sign of representation for people often forgotten by the government.
An article by NBC quotes, “Though both chambers appear to be getting more diverse with each election cycle, the number of white lawmakers still remains disproportionate to the racial breakdown of Americans in the United States.” While Harris stands as a symbol of progress, she stands as a reminder that change is necessary and action is needed to be taken. NBC continues with the evidence that “the U.S. Census Bureau estimates that in 2019, 60.4% of Americans identified as white only, excluding those who identified as Hispanic or Latino. But about 79% of Congress is white, according to the Brookings data.”
Harris serves as a reminder of the discrepancies that exist in POC government representation and the exclusive environment that prohibits progress. However, change starts somewhere and I believe it starts with people like Harris. The reason Harris has accomplished what she has is because she pushed against the exclusion, and, when confronted, acted with confidence rather than fear.
Lotus. The empowerment of women. That is what I think of when I think of Kamala Harris.
Gabby Dover is a junior at Centennial High School and serves as the Empower Director for Oregon Student Voice, a student-led organization that empowers all students to be authentic partners in making decisions that affect their K-12 education.