It's one of the hottest days in May, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.) is rushing into her Capitol Hill office. It's been a busy day, well, some may say a busy year for the California democrat. Earlier in the day, she was on the Morning Joe show talking about a topic she's known for these days — impeaching President Donald Trump. Her blunt criticism of the president has made her a sort of hero to a new generation. Waters has been a fixture on political talk shows and was loudly applauded during the MTV awards while on stage with actresses Tracee Ellis Ross and Taraji P. Henson.
A native of St. Louis, Waters attended California State at Los Angeles where she earned a bachelor's degree in sociology. She served 14 years in the California State Assembly before being elected in 1990 to represent California's 43rd district in the U.S. House of Representatives. Waters was a leader in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa and opposed the 2004 coup in Haiti. Now in her 13th term in Congress, the 78-year-old is taking on America's most powerful man. She sat down with The Crisis magazine's Lottie Joiner to talk about the experiences that helped shape her life.
Crisis: What was it like growing up in St. Louis, the fifth of 13 children?
Maxine Waters: We had a family where there was a lot of competition because there were so many kids in our family — eight girls and five boys. It is very interesting. When your experiences are limited, and you're not comparing your life with other people, it's all right. We had a big family. We didn't have a lot.
We spent an awful lot of time at our community center where we learned to swim. We learned dance. In sports, I played volleyball, basketball, and I became a strong swimmer.
We enjoyed the community center and the opportunities that it provided for us. We didn't really know that we were poor. The only time we really realized we were poor was when we couldn't get money to go to a movie, or we couldn't get money to say, I want to buy a new sweater or something. That just was not available to you.
We all worked. I worked from the time I was 12 or 13 during the summer. I worked in segregated restaurants, where I was a busgirl cleaning tables. We worked in order to earn the money to buy our clothes and go back to school in September. I loved earning money and back in the day, we used to put the clothes in layaway.
I loved school. I had great teachers. Wonderful teachers in grade school and in high school. Mostly African American. They were all African American, except after the 1954 Supreme Court decision it was the first time we saw White teachers in some of our schools.
The teachers during that day were not just teachers in the classroom. They were in your community, and we saw our teachers on Saturday and Sunday, and we had picnics with them. It was a different kind of relationship where teachers were highly respected and were considered very important people in our community.
In high school I joined a lot of service clubs, human relations clubs and all of that. It was during the time of the 1954 Supreme Court school desegregation decision. So we started to travel to other schools, and other schools came to our schools. And we got involved in activities that were integrated for the first time.
What did you learn from your mother?
My mother was married several times, and we were often on welfare. We approached life as, basically, survivors. You do what you have to do.
My mother encouraged us to go to school. She was always interested in politics. Even though she was not involved in formal politics, she was a great observer of what was going on politically. She knew all of her local committee persons who she could talk to. And in the day, when families ran into problems, they called their committeeman, they would say, for help. I was accustomed to hearing about candidates and presidential candidates running for office and all that.
My mother was basically uneducated but a very strong woman who not only managed her meager resources to the best of her ability, but she kind of taught us how never to feel like a victim, that you can't get something done. They had a saying back in the day: Make do with what you have.
What did she do to support the family?
She did housework from time to time. She was on welfare from time to time. From time to time our stepfathers were responsible for the family, but it varied over the years, you know?
You worked at a very young age. What did that experience teach you about life?
I had great experiences. I worked in situations where you learned a lot about people. You learned a lot about attitudes, and you learned how to negotiate your environment and deal with people who didn't like you, people who were supportive, people who appeared to have no logic at all. All kinds of people.
I think the greatest experience I've had, coming from my youth up to adulthood, is the interaction with people and learning to live in whatever situation you're put in.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up? Social worker.
Because I experienced social workers coming to our home when we were on welfare, and they had so much power. They could tell you how much money you were going to get. They could tell you what you should be doing and what you can't do. And I thought, "Oh, my God. If they have the ability to determine not only how much money you were going to get and all of those things, that's a lot of power, and I'd like to be a social worker so I can help people. I can help make sure people have enough food to eat and a good house and all of that." So I thought they were very powerful.
The only other thing was a dancer. I wanted to be a dancer.
So when you went to college you were planning on becoming a social worker?
No, I had kind of dropped that dream by that time, but I was still interested in social work. But it was right in college where, instead of getting involved in social work, I got involved with sociology. And that helped you to understand real information. You could really determine more about how society worked and who benefited in what ways. Everything from how to do polling to how to be involved in various interest groups, etcetera, etcetera. That got me more interested in not so much social work but trying to figure out how to create change. And then Head Start came along, the War on Poverty. I went to Head Start, and that changed my life.
Tell me how.
The War on Poverty came about, and my friend and I saw this opportunity to get involved with Head Start. We thought the whole idea was just a wonderful idea. It was going to give basically poor people, working people, an opportunity to have early childhood education for communities that never had that before. It was more wealthy people who were able to have early childhood education for their children.
So I got involved in that. I started out as an assistant teacher and ended up being the supervisor of volunteer services and parent involvement. Parent involvement led me to politicians and then I started to work in political campaigns and volunteer in political campaigns, supporting those people who were supportive of Head Start and other poverty programs.
At one point in time, the women's movement started to grow and some people said, "Why don't you run? Why don't you run?" I was encouraged to run and the first office I ran for was the California State Assembly. That was 1976, maybe. When I ran, not that many women had run for office in the community that I came from.
But Black women encouraged me, and I'll never forget what they were saying, when I would walk and knock on doors and talk to people, they would say, "Why not? You know, why not a woman?" And I put that back in my literature. "You know, why not a woman?"
What was your goal when you ran? What were you hoping to do?
Well, it was similar to my thoughts about a social worker. I began to understand the role that politics played in everybody's life. It was about influence, and it was about getting power to be able to make things better; to create change and to deal with a lot of what I had learned while I was coming up in the way that I did with poverty and welfare.
I met all these wonderful women after I moved to Los Angeles. One woman ran a welfare rights organization. Another one, Miss Margaret, was the woman who organized the community around education. She would go to the Board of Education, raise hell and sit in, trying to get better educational opportunities.
There were a lot of wonderful women, many of them came out of the War on Poverty, some came before. But I was really inspired and encouraged by some great women.
What surprised you the most when you got to the nation's capital?
I think what surprised me the most about the [political] institution was how cumbersome it is. How difficult it is to get things done. And how it worked so differently from the California State Assembly where I had served. It was much easier to get laws passed [there]. I chaired the caucus. I was a whip there. I worked with Willie Brown. I served [on the] budget committee. We had real power and we could get things done.
Here it's very different. Not only can you not depend on the introduction and passage of legislation, you've got to learn the amendment game here. You know, legislation circulating. Attach an amendment to it. I mean, it's considered a bill but it is in conjunction with a lot of other things that are going on. I learned about that a lot.
I also learned that it is extremely competitive and people here take credit for small things. I like big, big successes. I like big changes. I like to really see that I'm having an impact, you know? So I was always surprised that people would take such big credit for little things that were going on.
You've been in public service nearly 40 years. What do you enjoy most about what you do?
I enjoy most the success on projects, on issues and on legislation. I've been involved over the years in big projects. The legislation that I've loved most since I've been here in Congress is working on Dodd-Frank reform and getting the [Office of Minority and Women Inclusion] included in that, and helping to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which was started by Elizabeth Warren. It's the centerpiece for the Dodd-Frank reform, because consumers had no real protection in this government prior to the Dodd-Frank reform legislation.
Also, with the recession, I created legislation to put money back in the communities to basically buy up all of those properties that had been abandoned, and to rehab them, put them back on the market for working people. You know what I mean, low-income people. I consider that a very successful thing.
Aside from financial services where I'm working with the banks and with Wall Street and all of that, I work on health issues a lot. It's not just the Affordable Care Act or Obamacare. We work on Alzheimer's and diabetes, HIV/AIDS. I put a lot of time on HIV/AIDS. I created the legislation that funded AIDS research among minority populations in this country, which was a big, big success in terms of addressing a problem where we had a lot of young people dying during that time who didn't have access to healthcare. As a matter of fact, their parents used to put them out when they found out they were gay. You know what I'm saying? And it was impacting the gay community a lot, you know? So that was a big success.
What advice would you give young minority women who want to enter politics?
The first thing that those who are interested in politics must do is get in the environment. If you're interested, walk into a campaign. You can volunteer, or if you've got some talent that you want to offer, particularly if you're a graphic artist, or something like that, walk in and ask for a job. But if you're interested in government and politics, you've got to be where it's happening, and you got to understand how campaigns work and how they run. Where does the money come from, how do you get endorsements, all of that. Then, learn who the people are who run campaigns, and manage campaigns. But you also need to connect with the communities that you want to represent. I think you do that around getting involved in issues in that community. For example, if it is a food desert, what do you want to do about helping to try and bring stores in there? How do you go and start to talk with some people and organize some people to get on board with that issue?
If you're going to be in politics, then you go to political events. You get to know political people. You get in the network, and you network with folks. It is focusing on the way that politics and government work. Getting involved. Becoming a part of it. Showing up. Getting connected. Then run.
What would you like to accomplish before you leave this earth? Right now, in the moment, I'm focused on Trump. I want him impeached. I am so offended by him and how destructive I think he is, how disrespectful he is and how he's dangerous and how he does not deserve to really undermine much of what African Americans have done to make this democracy work. He doesn't have any appreciation for any of this kind of stuff.
He is about money, and he does not respect the government process at all. And it's not that you have to doubt it, because I often try to change the process. But he is so disrespectful that he would do something like fire the FBI director — no communication with even his caucus. But long before he became president, I really learned to dislike him in the campaign and the way that he treated people, and the way that he talked about women. The way he mocked and mimicked a disabled journalist.
I mean, all that helped me to understand his character. And I know he wasn't pivoting from his character into some other kind of person when he became president. So I started my own campaign against him long before I even dreamed he could get elected to office.
The other thing is this: There is a big wealth gap between Blacks, [other] minorities and Whites. I think that we have to focus on how to get this wealth gap closed. Part of that has to do with how we work in this Democratic Party and what kind of commitments we extract from the Democratic Party in terms of putting together young professionals with corporate leaders and creating joint ventures, and investment opportunities for great ideas, and making sure that government is participating in this in some substantial ways.
The other part of closing the wealth gap really has to do with helping people to understand how to use college, and how to use the university. If you want to go on Wall Street, what do you do when you're in college to get on that path? What I'm finding is that it is difficult for a lot of young people in college to really know what they want to do. They know they've got to graduate, and sometimes they haven't focused on how to develop the career that they want, and I think we have to do a better job of doing that.
Then, of course, I think we have to expand our reach into business. We have to create businesses that create jobs and create wealth. I think that we have to do more to create opportunities where we pool our money, and work with athletes and entertainers, and all them. We've got to have great ideas. What I like about the millennials that I'm coming in contact with is they want to be producers and directors, and owners, and they're into new technology. They want to create apps, and I like that.
I find that there's a lot of creativity and entrepreneurial ideas in the millennial community. So one of the things I'd like to do is to be an enabler and to provide support for those kinds of efforts.
— Lottie L. Joiner is interim editor of The Crisis.
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