TheGrio's 100: Ayanna Pressley, first black woman elected to Boston City Council overcomes life full of obstacles

A Pressley is currently shaping history, and it’s not Elvis.

It’s Ayanna Pressley who was recently elected to the Boston City Council in its 101-year history. She won the seat in 2009 and has made waves in the local community for her work on sexual education, women’s issues, job creation, and street violence. For Pressley, these kind of issues are personal as she has experienced many ups and downs in her life that would later culminate into a promising career in politics.

Pressley grew up in a poor section of Chicago. She was raised by her mother. Her father was a drug addict who spent most of her childhood in jail (he has since gotten clean and now teaches at the college level).

Although she and her mother lived a paycheck-to-paycheck lifestyle, her mother still managed to send her to private school, where she thrived. She was voted most likely to be mayor of Chicago in high school, and also held several leadership positions there.

Pressley is a survivor of child sexual abuse, and was later sexually assaulted as a student at Boston University. She later dropped out of college to work full-time to support her mother, who had been laid off from her job.

Although she was not enrolled in school, Pressley used her skills to work as a senior aide for Rep. Joseph Patrick Kennedy II, and for Sen. John Kerry as his political director. During that time, she said, she was “always the youngest person in the room, certainly the only woman and usually one of very few people of color.”

“I was very content to be the person behind the person, helping to advance an agenda. I felt that there were issues that I would raise to the elected officials that I worked for…I believe that if I didn’t raise them, they might not be raised. So I felt a deep responsibility and obligation to advocate from that vantage point,” she said.

While working for Kerry, Pressley was recruited to run for the Boston City Council. After some thinking, Pressley resigned from her position, cashed out her 401K and jumped into the race.

“I believed that there was a perspective that was lacking. The true strength and value of diversity is to have a diverse perspective, opinion and thought, and certainly that is informed by your life experiences. I wanted to develop an agenda whereby I could represent that diversity,” Pressley said.

While she was giving stump speeches, she was also taking care of her mother, who lived with her and had Leukemia. She passed away while Pressley was running for reelection to the city council.

While she’s had many obstacles, Pressley said they are experiences that help qualify her to work on behalf of her constituents.

Ayanna Pressley is making history as… the first African American woman elected to the Boston City Council. Growing up with a community organizer and advocate for a mother, Pressley gives full credit to her for influencing her career path to do the same.

What’s next for Ayanna?

Pressley was recently reelected to the Boston City Council and said she is looking forward to continuing to “represent a voice that was not previously represented.”

In her own words…

“We should stop thinking of local government as the bottom rung of power,” she said. “It’s the form of government closest to you.”

On black history…

“I think its American history. I find it frustrating it’s often acknowledged as a set-aside, instead of being wholly integrated into our academic curriculum and into our culture. I think it’s important that people see themselves reflected, because they feel a greater stake in it.”

A little-known fact about women serving in statewide elective offices

There are currently 71 women serving in statewide elective executive offices in the U.S. Of those women, four are African American.