U.S. Representative Ayanna S. Pressley (D-Mass) discussed racial disparities in the impact of Covid-19 and her overarching legislative priorities as part of Harvard School of Public Health’s “Voices in Leadership During Crises” series on Thursday.
Pressley, the first woman of color to be elected to Congress from Massachusetts, was joined in conversation by moderators Michelle A. Williams, dean of the School of Public Health, and Jeffrey Sánchez, an HSPH lecturer and former Massachusetts state representative.
Pressley, who represents the 7th congressional district of Massachusetts, including parts of Harvard’s campus, said her district is one of the most federally under-resourced in the country due to lack of census accuracy. She said the pandemic worsened inequities in healthcare access already present among her constituents.
“The Massachusetts seventh was the hardest hit by the pandemic, which we knew would be the case anecdotally. In a three-mile radius in my district from Cambridge to Roxbury, life expectancy drops by 30 years — and we know the coronavirus has contributed to that significantly,” she said.
During the event, Sánchez highlighted the disproportionate toll the coronavirus has taken on communities of color in Massachusetts.
Pressley added that the devastating toll has been fueled by disparities in access to care and to treatments. She said “vaccine redlining” has blocked many in communities of color from receiving the Covid-19 vaccines.
Pressley said she is working to combat these inequities with the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act, which she recently introduced in Congress alongside Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass) and Representative Barbara J. Lee (D-Ca.).
“Throughout this, we’ve been elevating my practice of ‘policy is my love language’ — well, policies that seek to mitigate the harm caused by anti-Black and racist policies is really my love language, and that’s what the Anti-Racism in Public Health Act would do,” Pressley said. “This is going to confront and dismantle racist systems and practices that have created the inequities that you enumerated and that we see in the Massachusetts seventh every day.”
Pressley futher discussed her approach to policy-making and combating disparities. Pressley said she believes those “closest to the pain must be closest to the power,” and cited her experience enduring the incarceration of both her father and her husband as shaping her perspective on criminal justice reform.
In order to prevent the over-policing of “survival behavior” like substance use in minority communities, Pressley said she plans to make mental health, poverty, and homelessness policy priorities.
Pressley said these initiatives will help address the social determinants of community-based violence, and praised President Joe Biden’s recent executive action on gun reform.
“We have to organize and legislate like lives depend on it, because they do,” Pressley said. “If we can legislate hurt and harm, then I do believe that we can legislate healing, that we can legislate equity, that we can legislate justice.”
Organization, mobilization, and democratic action will be driving forces in enacting these legislative priorities, according to Pressley. She added that she hopes her colleagues in Congress will “see the light” on some of these issues.
“If they don’t see the light, then we will bring the fire,” she said.