Rep. Barbara Lee Pays Tribute to Her 'Mentor and Friend' Shirley Chisholm

a couple of women posing for the camera
Rep. Barbara Lee on Shirley ChisholmCourtesy Rep. Barbara Lee

In an exclusive essay for ELLE, Rep. Barbara Lee writes about her “mentor and friend” Shirley Chisholm. On March 22, Netflix and Participant are releasing Shirley, the Regina King biopic about Chisholm, whose historic presidential bid changed American politics forever.

Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm saw things about this country that others couldn’t. At least that’s what she told me when I was first elected to Congress more than 25 years ago—a destiny that Congresswoman Chisholm, my mentor and friend, had foreseen.

As the first Black woman ever elected to Congress in 1968—and the first Black woman ever to run for President four years later—it made sense that Congresswoman Chisholm could see a future for this nation that others did not. The path she paved for herself had never been tread before; she flipped the script and left an indelible legacy on American politics, all while holding the door open for the rest of us to step through.

I met Congresswoman Chisholm in 1972, when I was an ambitious student activist at Mills College. Mrs. C, as she was affectionately known, had delivered a speech to the student body, upon my invitation as president of the Black Student Union. At the time, I was also volunteering as a community worker with the Black Panther Party. It may come as a surprise to some that at the time I wasn’t registered to vote, nor did I want to get involved in the two-party political system. Back then I didn’t think the government worked for people like me.

But hearing Congresswoman Chisholm speak that afternoon changed everything. Finally, a member of United States Congress was talking about issues I actually cared about, like ending the Vietnam war, immigration, education, reproductive rights, and coalition-building for civil rights. Seeing this tiny woman with this towering vision was an inspiration, a revelation.

a person smiling in front of a white building
Courtesy Rep. Barbara Lee

As soon as she finished speaking, I approached Congresswoman Chisholm to ask about volunteer opportunities on her fledgling campaign. She humbled me immediately. “Little girl,” she said to me (even though I was a divorced, single mother of two small boys), “the first thing you have to do is register to vote. Then you have to get on the inside and help us.”

Message received. That day, I began my career in politics. That day, my role model became my mentor. Fifty two years after Congresswoman Chisholm’s daring, historic run for President, so many more of us are finally able to see what she saw back then: a country divided by “fat cats and special interests,” as she put it, but that still yearned for care, justice, and equity; an America that started and ended with the working class.

I am proud of the strides we have made as a nation since Congresswoman Chisholm’s presidential run back in 1972. But with record levels of inequality in 2024, increasing attacks on our civil rights (especially for women, people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community), a diminishing social safety net, wars burning across the globe, and an alarming immigration crisis, Congresswoman Chisholm’s vision is just as salient now as it was then.

“Fighting Shirley” introduced more than 50 pieces of legislation while in Congress. She fought tirelessly for domestic workers, broadened the national food stamp program, and passed the national minimum wage law. She was an early champion of reproductive rights (including a post as honorary president of NARAL), and served as the second woman ever on the powerful House Rules Committee. She broke barriers wherever she went. Her involvement as co-founder of both the National Organization for Women and the National Women’s Political Caucus is further proof of her visionary organizing and advocacy.

It is because of this legacy that I am also proud to sponsor the bipartisan Shirley Chisholm Congressional Gold Medal Act, a posthumous recognition of Congresswoman Chisholm’s activism, independence, and groundbreaking achievements inside and outside of politics. This bill enshrines her legacy for future generations, so they too can learn from her leadership.

Soon, audiences around the world will get to see the congresswoman I knew and loved. Shirley, a new film from Netflix and Participant, tells the story of Congresswoman Chisholm’s audacious run for president and details her immense impact on our culture and politics. The film lifts up her legacy as a trailblazer, and highlights her unapologetic determination to change the fabric of our nation.

Out March 22 on Netflix, Shirley is a timely, inspiring story that so many of us need to see right now—especially those who are disillusioned from participating in our political system, as I once was. Alongside the film’s release, Participant is launching a social impact campaign and partnering with the Shirley Chisholm Project and Brooklyn College to support an archival digitization project that memorializes Congresswoman Chisholm and her lasting impact so that more future leaders can walk through the doors she opened.

The film is a testament to the power of an individual to become a catalyst for systemic, generational change. It tells the story of someone who dared to take up space and make their voice heard. It is a lesson in how to take a seat at the table, even if that means pulling up a folding chair. But thanks to Congresswoman Chisholm, these chairs are here to stay.

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