Congresswoman Cori Bush Isn’t Going to Change Herself to Make You Comfortable

On Wednesday, November 4, 2020, Cori Bush made history as the first Black woman elected to represent Missouri in the United States Congress. Bush is a trailblazer, and this has been made even clearer by the change she’s already spearheading in the House.

Just weeks after her election, on January 11, Bush introduced House Resolution 25, a bill that calls for the possible expulsion of Republican members of Congress who may have violated their oaths of office by attempting to overturn the 2020 presidential election and by aiding white supremacists in their terrorist attack on the Capitol. Speaking about the attempted coup, Bush said, “Had we as Black people did the same things that happened today with the police … the reaction would have been different. And I know because I’ve been there. … This is why I ran for this seat. This is why folks fighting for Black lives have to be brought to the table. And I’m the one to do it.”

Rep. Bush talked to about uplifting Black women and girls in her work, refusing to make herself palatable, and cultivating radical joy.

In 2014, Michael Brown was murdered by white police officer Darren Wilson in your city. The day after Brown’s death, you joined the Ferguson uprising as a triage nurse and an organizer. How will your skills as an activist help you in Congress?

Bringing who you are to whatever movement or fight that you are working towards. People called us a leaderless movement, but we were actually leader-ful, because everybody brought themselves. There was someone who was a chef, and so she cooked for the movement because we didn’t have money—at two in the morning, that’s how we ate. I’m an organizer. And so I started to organize protests, because that’s who I am. So everybody kind of fell into what they do and what they love, and they just brought that to the movement.

And then, there’s a difference between an activist and an organizer. I view myself as both. So I’m going to bring the energy and the uncompromising passion for my work as an activist, but with the ability to build a coalition and engage my community as an organizer. Congress needs both. Congress needs that passion to fight for everyday people and the ability to bring communities together to ensure our collective voices are heard. And a lot of that is what we’re missing right now.

You were recently appointed to the Judiciary Committee. Some criticized you for this because you do not have a law degree. Can you talk a little bit more about your vision and understanding of justice and the policy goals that you have in mind?

We have to move with the urgency to dismantle injustice in our criminal legal system by addressing police violence and misconduct, investing in our communities, ending death penalty, and prioritizing decarceration so that we can bring more of our people home. In order to build community, you have to build family. And you build families by working on that family unit. Our team says it a lot, that we are going to Congress to do the absolute most for everyone in our district, starting with those who have the very least. And by looking at every piece of legislation, every amendment, every letter, going into every interview, every speech, every town hall that way, that’s how our community will feel heard and begin to feel represented.

In order to build community, you have to build family.

And so, with that, we operate from a place of this radical love. I want our district to know it so much so to where they begin to say it (and that has already happened), that, “My congresswoman loves me.” And so because I love each and every one of my neighbors in the First District, I care that they have what they need, that they have a decent life.

What does your historic win mean to you, and how do you plan to amplify the voices of Black women and girls?

I became a nurse because I saw a nurse in action. Even though both of my grandmothers were nurses and I saw them in their uniforms all the time, it never clicked what they did. It wasn’t until I was working as a candy striper when I was about 13 or 14 that I saw a Black nurse in action. I saw how she was treating the patients. I saw how the patients were responding to her. I saw how she was taking care of them and how she was this mover and shaker. She was making things happen, and she was fly doing it. And I was blown away, and I was like, “That’s what I want to do.” I can’t tell you how many young Black girls, especially, come up to me in my community saying that they want to be like me. And they run up and just hug my leg. It’s so sweet.

Representation shows that your identity, your being, is acknowledged, welcomed, and uplifted. But it doesn’t always maintain. And we understand that. People would say to me, “Why are you running against a Black man? You’re a Black woman.” We cannot just look at the color of someone’s skin to say that this person is going to be what we need for our community. That’s a start, and we do know that when you have representation that looks like you, that comes from where you come from, you have a better chance of the change that you need, but we can’t stop there. We also have to hold our elected officials accountable to those same communities that they’re supposed to serve.

The goal is change. I want the community to press me to engage them as partners and to make sure that their voices are heard. I will be working with grassroots organizations and groups. And I’m specifically saying groups, because there are groups that are not actual organizations that are doing amazing work on the ground in different communities. I would love to start a social justice caucus within the House, because we would have a space for our movements of groups and activists to feel like they have a real voice.

Can you talk more about what rejecting politics of respectability looks like to you and how you plan to continue doing this while serving in Congress?

It looks like being intentional about fighting it every moment of the day. I made a point to talk about my braids. And I will continue to do that because what we have is people who felt like they couldn’t talk about it before or were ignorant enough to think that you can’t look this particular way and be a professional challenging that head-on. People talk about my hips and say, “Oh, your hips are too big to be in Congress.” Well, now I’m putting my hips in their face. You’re going to see my hips. I’m not walking around in a bag. I’m not going to make sure that I look a particular way so that it is palatable to you.

People talk about my hips and say, “Oh, your hips are too big to be in Congress.” Well, now I’m putting my hips in their face.

What advice do you have for people who want to speak truth to power?

Understanding what your mission is and understanding what your battle is first. Is my fight this one particular thing? Is my fight bigger than that one person who says this all the time? If you don’t know why you’re doing what you’re doing, why you’re showing up to this particular place, then it will make it a lot more difficult. Because the work of somebody who’s trying to bring about transformational change is a very lonely road. But when you are clear about your message and what you’re supposed to do, there are people who will come and join you and help you. People might not like you right now, but they’ll like you later. Everybody loves Dr. King right now. They didn’t like him when he was doing the work, but they like him now. Don’t worry about it.

How do you plan to build and maintain trust with marginalized communities now that you’re working in government?

Trust is rooted in communication. I do that by talking to people, listening to their concerns, and seeing how I can serve. I’m setting up an office that is going to be proactive in helping communicate with people in the community all over the district. A lot of this I don’t have to start to build and try to figure out these relationships or how to break into these communities. I am a part of many of those communities already as a Black woman, as a Black woman who has lived a lot of struggle, and then as an activist who has been a “co-conspirator” (as my sister Ayanna Pressley always said).

The best way to practice radical love is to care for others.

The most revolutionary thing that we can do is cultivate radical joy. How do you cultivate radical joy?

Radical joy comes from radical love. And the best way to practice radical love is to care for others. I love St. Louis so much. It’s my home, it’s my community, it’s my family. But when I take off my “politivist” hat, I cultivate radical joy by turning on some music and dancing my heart out.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

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