Whether standing alone as the sole congressional vote against a blank check for endless war, authoring legislation on ending the global HIV/AIDS pandemic, or representing the US House of Representatives in the United Nations General Assembly, Barbara Lee carries her Mills education with her.
She has built a reputation for bold words and actions throughout her political career, which includes three terms in the California State Assembly, one year as a state senator, and 16 years as the congressional representative of California’s 13th district. She has advocated for affordable and accessible healthcare, fairer immigration policies, normalizing relations with Cuba, the reproductive rights of women, and an end to poverty.
Lee entered Mills as a transfer student and single mother, and says the campus provided “a safe environment that encouraged me to become an independent, free-thinking woman for the first time in my life.” As a member and president of Mills’ Black Student Union (BSU), she says, “I was empowered to fight not just for myself, but for all women and especially black people. Mills and the BSU were a fertile training ground that allowed me to develop important organizational and political strategizing skills.”
Her political future was decisively shaped when she took a government course that required her to participate in a presidential campaign. “I invited Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, to speak at Mills, and learned that she was running for president,” Lee recalls. “I helped organize her Northern California campaign, and I registered to vote for the first time . . . and the rest is history.”
After graduating, Lee earned a master’s degree in social work from UC Berkeley and moved to Washington, DC, to work for Congressman Ron Dellums, who at that time represented the district she now represents. She became his senior advisor and chief of staff before launching her own political career. “Mills instilled me with the confidence I needed to achieve my goals,” she says.