The Brown Girls Guide to Politics is proud to partner with the State Innovation Exchange's (SiX) Democracy Project and Reproductive Freedom Leadership Council to bring you a spotlight on six women of color legislators who are shaping progressive change in the states.
Today, we are spotlighting Florida State Representative Fentrice Driskell.
What was the moment that made you fall in love with politics?
When I was in high school, a teacher nurtured my interest in public service by encouraging me to apply to Florida Girls State. While in Tallahassee for that summer program, my peers elected me Governor. I got to meet then Florida Governor Lawton Chiles, sit in his chair, help make decisions and learn about Florida government at every level. I decided right then that I would study government in college, go to law school to learn more about the policymaking process and return to my home state to run for office someday to be a voice for underserved communities. While in college at Harvard, I became the first Black woman to be elected President of Harvard’s student government. That experience also helped strengthen my belief in the importance of engaging women of color in leadership positions.
What made you decide to run for office?
Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, a friend of mine resolved to elevate her community service to the next level by becoming more involved in politics. She passed away before she could realize her dream. Out of her inspiration, I was moved to dust off my childhood dream of running for public office. I decided to run for the Florida House of Representatives specifically because I want to help my state make smart investments in public education and infrastructure, and expand access to affordable health care. I also believed we needed more Black women in Florida government and decided to run so that I could do my part to help bring about that positive change. Once elected, I became the first Black state legislator in Tampa Bay to represent in a non-majority minority district.
Why do democracy and reproductive freedom matter to you as a state legislator?
Democracy and reproductive freedom go hand in hand. At their most fundamental levels, both concepts involve the autonomy and freedom to determine one’s destiny through exercising choice. As someone who believes in equality, fairness, and the right to enjoy life with minimal invasiveness by the government, I will always stand up for a woman’s right to choose.
Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, we are seeing access to democracy and reproductive freedom limited. What piece of reproductive freedom or democracy legislation are you most proud of advancing in your state?
I am proud of passing legislation in my first term that reduces the number of juveniles who get automatically transferred to adult court for certain crimes, which will lead to better outcomes for the child, the child’s family, and the community.
I am also proud to stand with my caucus as a warrior against bad legislation that attempts to erode reproductive freedom.
There are a lot of misconceptions about how democracy and reproductive freedom work. What is one of the biggest challenges you have faced as a champion of democracy and reproductive freedom and how did you overcome it?
One of the biggest challenges I have faced is making sure that the needs of Black and Brown women are included in my state’s debate over reproductive justice. The organizations in Florida that advocate for reproductive freedom actually do a good job of lifting up intersectionality through their work, yet I find that as a Black female legislator it is important for me to lift up the lack of access to quality health care, including reproductive care, that women of color experience.
The other challenge I face is serving in the minority party. It is very difficult to pass legislation that protects or advances reproductive freedom because of this. But my colleagues and I fight hard to get our state legislature to do what is right, even though the votes are stacked against us.
Why is it so critical, now more than ever, for women of color to get involved in politics and stand up for reproductive freedom and democracy?
Reproductive freedom is critical to a woman’s health care. We know that women of color tend to face disparities in health care quality. For example, in Florida, Black women accounted for 48.6% of pregnancy-related deaths in 2017. That disproportionality alone demonstrates that it is important to make sure that we include the voices and perspectives of all women when we push for reproductive freedom and democracy. Everyone deserves a seat at the table, and that includes Black women.
Women of color are the most consistent voters. What should the government be doing better when it comes to centering the needs of women of color in policies?
Thank you for asking this question! One of the ways that America can continue striving to fully materialize its ideal of equality for all is by making room at the table for women of color. It is up to all of us to encourage more qualified women of color to run for office and then support them when they do. We cannot expect to have better outcomes if we are not willing to do the hard work of supporting great candidates. In the meantime, government officials should ensure that the unique experiences of Black and Brown women are being considered in the policymaking process like equitable access to quality healthcare and reproductive care, economic opportunities, and educational attainment. Government officials should also do a better job of leading with diversity, inclusion, compassion, and equity in mind.
What advice do you have for those trying to enter into politics?
If public service is something that is in your heart, you must find a way to express that desire. Recognize that there probably will never be a “perfect” moment to run for office. You just have to roll up your sleeves, take a leap, and trust that the Universe will be there to support you when you do. And for all the Black and Brown girls out there, my advice to you specifically is this: do not let anyone tell you where you can run. But by doing the hard work of building relationships throughout my community and focusing on issues that voters in my district care about most, I was able to unseat a long-serving incumbent from a member of the majority party. Don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. The world needs your perspective and your voices.
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