Kamala Harris Blazed a Trail. These Women Are Walking It
San Francisco mayor London Breed (pictured above, left, next to Kamala Harris, right), Cook County top prosecutor Kim Foxx, and Public Rights Project founder Jill Habig pay tribute to their mentor.
In her inaugural speech as the first woman elected vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris invoked a line that she’d shared often on the campaign trail. She recalled the women who’d paved the path she was walking now and promised that, while she would be the first woman to hold this office, she wouldn’t be the last.
It’ll be a while before we see proof that Harris is right, but her track record suggests she will work as hard as she can to help women follow in her footsteps, whether that’s as candidates for political office or as influential voices in law and civil rights. Her career highlights are at this point well-known—in 2003 she was elected district attorney of San Francisco; in 2010 she won the race for attorney general of California; in 2016 she prevailed in the Senate, becoming the second Black woman and the first South Asian American to serve in the chamber in an otherwise crushing election.
All the while, according to the women who know her, she has been committed to tackling the uphill climb ahead of her so that the women who follow might find the terrain a little easier to navigate.
Here three women who’ve benefited from Harris’s advice and mentorship share their tributes to our historic vice president. —Mattie Kahn
“Kamala Harris taught me that future generations of girls are counting on us.” – Kim Foxx
Kamala Harris represents the living embodiment of the dreams of my foremother. Growing up, I heard my mother and grandmother tell me that I could do anything—that there were no boundaries. But I witnessed a different reality. My mother and my grandmother were not able to reach their fullest potential because of longstanding barriers to Black women. Their message to me, while aspirational, was not rooted in a tangible reality, and as a result, as a young Black girl, I became acutely aware of racism and the barriers that were in place for women, especially Black women like myself.
Today my daughters live in a United States in which Kamala Harris holds the position of vice president, the first woman to be elected to this position, and the first Black woman at that. Kamala Harris has been the first of many things: the first Black woman district attorney in San Francisco. The first Black California attorney general. I am proud that today when I tell my daughters that they can be anything, these words are real, not merely aspirational.
My story and admiration of Kamala is not just one built from watching her on TV screens and seeing her in newspapers. I am proud to call Kamala a friend and a mentor. Our paths first crossed back in 2016, when we were both running for public office—Kamala to be a United States senator and me to be the first Black woman elected as Cook County state’s attorney. Even in her ascent, Kamala reached out to me to offer support and to be a resource—one “first” to another. It was a fulfillment of her commitment of “being the first but not the last.”
Her advice to me carried incredible weight because I knew she had walked the very same walk as a Black female top prosecutor. In a world that is built on counting Black women out, Kamala has worked tirelessly to bring more of us in and build us up.
After winning my race for the first time, Kamala told me: “Listen, Kim, it’s going to be hard. There are going to be pressures that are put on you unlike pressures that are put on white males or Black men—the scrutiny will be higher.” Her next piece of advice to me? “You have to be perfect.”
I’ll never forget it. Big-eyed, I gave her a look like, “Impossible…nobody is perfect.” Kamala countered, “You must raise your expectations of yourself higher. You have to aim to be perfect. Yes, you’ll miss, but you must aim higher so you can reach your potential.” The very potential Kamala has shown is possible—no longer just aspirational.
Kamala has never focused on the racism or sexism that she’s had to deal with. Instead, she uses this as fuel to propel her through her life and career. As the first Black woman elected to my position in Chicago, I have looked to Kamala as a voice of reason. Once she put her hands on my shoulders and told me, “Acknowledge things for what they are. Sexism and racism are ugly and unfair, meant to rob you of your potential. Despite this you must keep going. There’s no time for pity, no time for doubt. We as Black women must keep going.” It’s these words that ring through my head in moments of self-doubt. It’s feeling her hands on my shoulders, knowing she has made space for the first Black woman prosecutor in Cook County, and that I must also make space for other Black women to follow. Kamala Harris taught me that future generations of girls are counting on us to boldly break barriers so that they too can embody the dreams of our mothers.
State’s Attorney Kim Foxx is the first Black woman to lead the nation’s second-largest prosecutor’s office, in Cook County (Chicago). She has been recognized as one of the most progressive prosecutors through her forward-thinking, innovative strategies to intercept the cycles of violence and crime and for bringing change to a criminal justice system rooted in systemic racism. Follow @SAKimFoxx on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.
“I’ve watched her overcome challenge after challenge.” – London Breed
Kamala Harris has broken barriers we all know well. First woman. First African American. First Asian American. Although many are proud to see her as vice president, I also see someone I’m proud to call a friend and a mentor. Over the years I’ve watched her overcome challenge after challenge, and break through barrier after barrier that women experience, that Black women experience. She has not only continued to succeed at every obstacle she’s faced; she has thrived.
How does she do it? Frankly, I don’t entirely know. But what I do know is that she works twice as hard, and behind that work she is driven by a passion for helping those who are too often ignored or left behind. She works for those who haven’t had the best opportunities, and for whom hope is distant, and fading fast.
Let me give you an example.
When I served as the executive director of the African-American Art & Culture Complex—a community-based organization that serves the young people of the Fillmore neighborhood in San Francisco, where I grew up—drugs, poverty, and violence were all too common.
One day, around the corner from the Complex, in a gym crowded with mostly kids and some adults, someone walked in and shot someone in the head in front of everyone. The act was unspeakable and traumatic, and I was so scared for what it would do to the community. At that time Kamala Harris was the district attorney of San Francisco, and when we spoke, her response was immediate: “How can I help?” She didn’t just help by pursuing a criminal case; she showed up and met with the community. She sat with us. She listened. She shared. She tried to help us heal those kids.
That is who Kamala is. Will she do the work? Of course. But the work means nothing if you aren’t thinking about who the work is about. So I know that while her title has changed, she’s still that same Kamala who walked into that gym in the Fillmore and put her heart into helping a community heal. And that gives me hope, and makes me proud.
San Francisco mayor London Breed won a special election after San Francisco mayor Ed Lee died in office in December 2017. She was elected to serve a full term—becoming the city’s first Black, female mayor—in 2019.
“She knew she had power to do something.” – Jill Habig
My first time meeting Kamala Harris was unforgettable. I was interviewing for a legal-adviser role on her executive team in the California attorney general’s office, and I was nervous. She started with standard questions about my work in law and politics; I asked about the most challenging part of the job. (Getting out of the day-to-day mini emergencies to focus on the big-picture agenda, she said.) Then she threw a curveball: “What’s the extent of the right to education under the California constitution?”
I hesitated, so she continued: “For example, if you have four walls, a roof, and a sign that says ‘school,’ have you provided a child with an education as required by the constitution?”
“Surely not,” I said. “It must mean more than that.”
She agreed, and after we dug a bit deeper, she ended the interview apparently satisfied (thankfully).
Little did I realize this was the beginning of a multiyear conversation I’d have with Kamala about children’s legal rights, what our government owes children, and why so many—especially poor, Black, and brown children—weren’t getting what they deserved. She was determined to use the power of the California Department of Justice to change that. No one asked her about it at press conferences, the office had never done this work, and she wasn’t getting pressure on it. But she saw a gap in the state’s child welfare, education, and juvenile justice systems—and she knew she had power to do something—so we created a specialized unit to enforce children’s civil rights that would outlast her tenure as A.G.
I learned countless lessons during my years working for Kamala. But this experience taught me what makes a good public servant. She has what I call “sustained impatience”—the refusal to become complacent in the face of bureaucracy, inertia, or inattention. We often think progress in government requires heroic efforts to overcome resistance. What she understood was that far more often progress stalls not because anyone is against it, but because no one is its champion. She knew there weren’t easy headlines to be had in that work, but the work itself was motivation enough. And perhaps most important, she refused to be led off track and wouldn’t give up until we were done. America is fortunate to have that kind of woman as vice president, and I’m honored to have learned about service from her.
Jill Habig is the founder and president of Public Rights Project, a legal nonprofit that works with state and local governments to enforce civil rights and economic justice laws. She served as special counsel to then attorney general Harris, deputy campaign manager on her U.S. Senate campaign, and policy lead on her Senate transition team. She teaches state and local impact litigation at Berkeley Law School.
Image: Getty Images