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An Interview with Supervisor Holly Mitchell
By Daviona Moore
To conclude our month-long Can’t Touch This! Series, I was honored to sit down with the revered Supervisor Holly Mitchell of the LA County Board of Supervisors. Supervisor Mitchell is serving her first term as LA County Supervisor, following a decade of working in the California state legislature.
Join us as we describe the role of government in ensuring equitable access to resources and how she plans to leverage her position to directly address her communities. Supervisor Mitchell highlights her work as a product of her passion for poverty alleviation and racial equity.
Daviona Moore: Your work has stretched far beyond your current position. How would you describe the work that you do, and is there a guiding principle that you followed over the years?
Supervisor Mitchell: I am in month two of serving on the LA County Board of Supervisors and I’ve served 10 years in the California legislature, both the Assembly and the Senate. My career-long work has really been around equity and poverty alleviation, which is what compelled and propelled me into elected office quite frankly. My parents actually met as eligibility workers working for the LA County Department of Public Social Services in the late 50s. So I grew up in a household with parents who were public servants, my mother worked for the government her entire career, and my dad for most of his career after being an educator. The people who work for the government had the job to help people, and so, given what was going on in LA and South LA during that time. Being a staff member to an elected official and the attitude and perspective I brought to my own policymaking is how I capitalize off of public resources to benefit the people who need it in a very diverse constituency.
The Board of Supervisors represents 2 million people and there are some people who probably prior to COVID didn't think that the government mattered in their lives. But there are other segments of the community that rely on the government, everything from public education to subsidized housing to Calfresh to education grants. I think that just showed me the power of government and why we must be engaged to make sure that we’re doing right by our people.
Daviona Moore: Was there a turning point that you felt drove you to become an elected official?
Supervisor Mitchell: I was always in leadership positions in school. I remember two distinct political conversations in the household around the death penalty and around proposition 13.
Proposition 13 came up in the community as a whole because I remember noticing the aftermath of it. I remember our libraries not being opened the same number of hours, the lights going off in our park at night when they used to stay on later, and asking for class supplies and the teachers would say, “Well, thanks, a prop 13 we don't have any more paper.” I can remember discussions at the dinner table about the death penalty and I remembered that my mother was against it and my father was a proponent.
I had a visionary first-grade teacher, Mrs. Weinstein, with who I have reconnected in the last couple of years. There was the 1972 presidential election, a pivotal one in our nation's history between McGovern and Nixon. My teacher told this little group of first graders to talk about the election, have our parents cut out pictures of the candidates, and watch the debates because we were going to have an election at school. I remember being so confused because my inner-city elementary school said McGovern won, but when I went home I saw Nixon won. I couldn't understand why the rest of the country didn't agree with most of us and were voting for him. So those were very early introductions to politics and voting.
After undergrad, I had the privilege of working for State Senator Diane Watson, the first Black woman elected to the California State Senate. She gave me a great opportunity to learn that her craft. I did that job and she was termed out, so I branched out into all-around social services, poverty alleviation that's been where my entire career has really been. A number of years later I found myself in a Budget subcommittee listening to a group of assemblymembers make a decision about cutting $1 billion and I felt they may not understand the ramifications of this decision they've just made. That’s how it happened; I decided to run.
Daviona Moore: You may have faced some challenges being a woman of color in this work. Do you have any that you could like to highlight? How did you overcome them?
Supervisor Mitchell: The first year I taught a class on leadership at Mount Saint Mary’s, I approached the College President, because I had this idea after reading Just Mercy by Brian Stevenson. In the book, he talks about proximity and it was when he was in close proximity to these men on death row that he then understood mercy. I realized proximity gives us access to information and power, proximity that I didn’t have as an undergrad to women leaders to women political leaders.
Being proximate to Diane Watson led me to try to give young women proximity to me to gain more knowledge than what you can read in a political science textbook or California history book. It's been a wonderful experience I think we're going into our fourth year now and it's changed over time and so now I help them put together kind of lectures and I facilitate kind of conversations, but again, the whole concept is proximity to women in leadership. Because I didn't want another generation to be weighted down by, what I and all those who come before me, had to carry, I flipped it. I said, “You should ask my male colleagues how they feel when I when they walk in the hearing room and I have the gavel as Chair of the Senate Budget Committee.” I'm just fine sitting in my power. We should ask them how they feel when they walk in and it's a six-foot-tall Black woman in the chair. We have to begin to think in the affirmative.
I would prefer to talk about the wonderful support I’ve gotten as an elected official and how I have worked to empower other women who are running for office. We will create the kind of network that others have had historically to expose to support and open up the pathways for more Black women younger women to run for office and servant leadership roles. There is a national network of amazing Black women who have come together to make sure that there's another Black woman serving in the U.S. Senate soon. There is incredible power in our collective experience and our vision to make sure Black women are represented in every elected by the across this country.
Daviona Moore: I think that was a beautiful way to flip that question.
Supervisor Mitchell: Well you know that's why carried the CROWN Act to create a respectful and open world for natural hair, affirming that we are complete and professional, just as we are. Not one of my colleagues ever thought once that they’ll change the way they vote because I wear my hair in locs. The way I have chosen to wear my hair has nothing to do with my capacity as a policymaker.
Daviona Moore: What do you feel are the biggest priorities with your work in District 2 and what's the best course of action to address it?
Supervisor Mitchell: Our number one priority right now is helping the residents of LA County survive and navigate through and out of this dual pandemic, a public health and economic pandemic. I know students need help because it's Black, Brown, low-income and kids who learn differently are struggling with online education, especially those in communities that are experiencing the digital divide. I represent a district that has had a disproportionately high rate of positive COVID cases, hospitalizations, and deaths, predominantly folks of color. We’re figuring out how we navigate and support our communities. The economic engine in this county is small businesses, and we know that you know black and brown people own small businesses. My priorities got to be how we help people survive during this time. How do we close the gap and make sure that they don't fall into homelessness?
Those are all issues that are front of mind for me as I enter my first term as a member of the LA County Board of Supervisors.
Daviona Moore: Could you describe any efforts that you've put into place, especially as a Black leader, to address the disproportionate impact of COVID-19 on the Black community of your districts?
Supervisor Mitchell: Now, it's access to vaccines. First, it was access to testing and making sure that employees were providing protective equipment. We focused on tending to vulnerable populations by holding employers in nursing homes and people in general accountable for providing PPE. LA County released some dismal numbers late last week and it's far below our goal percentage in the county. We’re pushing to make sure that the community vaccine sites that we have now set up in LA county are in the Black community are able to serve that community. The online reservation process to get signed up has become very complex is exacerbated by the digital divide in many of our communities.
Since I’ve joined the county, I’ve partnered with LA County Parks and Recreation to do food giveaways in every park throughout my district. They're averaging two to three food giveaways a week and I am struck by the stories and the number of people that continue to show up. That shows me that this economic recovery is going to be long and painful, so whatever we can do at the county level to continue to provide support to people, we must do. We're working hard to try to support people who need the help of their local government in a time such as this.
Daviona Moore: How do you feel that leaders and community members can help look after each other to encourage their neighbors, especially those of color, to get vaccinated considering widespread skepticism?
Supervisor Mitchell: I think we have to have open, frank conversations with people to understand the point of the vaccine. Fundamentally it's much like the flu vaccine: it's not going to protect you 100% from getting the flu, but it will lessen the severity and increase your likelihood of survival. We want to reduce deaths and reduce hospitalizations. The vaccine didn't spring up overnight; there are researchers that have been doing this work for months and months and months. For me, African American parents, at least in my district have a very high likelihood of having their children vaccinated, around 90%. This shows that we get it with regard to measles, smallpox, mumps, MMR, and chickenpox and we will vaccinate our children. My argument is what's different in this. We are the beneficiaries of modern science. I didn't ask what was in the rubella or smallpox vaccines when I vaccinated my infant son. I knew that these vaccines could prevent the spread of those life-altering diseases, and so I did it. Why would we not vaccinate ourselves when we are living through this pandemic? It has gotten to the point now where everybody knows somebody that's been impacted by this virus, so this isn't as distant as measles or smallpox. I have seen the hospital system in my county be stretched to the limits and so I am going to do all that I can to protect myself, my family, and my community.
I recognize that we as Black people have a history of mistreatment in medicine, from the Tuskegee Study to the Henrietta Lacks experiments on us. This is different. This is a virus that has disproportionately impacted us because of our housing, how we live in multi-generational households, and the nature of the work we do on average, so this is a vaccine to protect us.
Daviona Moore: Some allies are looking for ways to help out or uplift their Black peers. Do you have any suggestions for ways that they can do this?
Supervisor Mitchell: Implicit bias is real and it is what's often more challenging for those of us who are oppressed to check. This ranges from not getting the job to a higher interest rate on a home loan, something is different. Even considering why is the Black maternal morbidity rate significantly higher than our white female counterparts. Is it because, when a Black woman goes in to deliver the baby, regardless of education and socioeconomic status, I am questioned in terms of my pain threshold or I’m doubted when I say something's wrong? If our allies, want to be helpful, check your own bias, implicit and explicit. It's not enough to simply say “I'm not racist.” Everybody needs to be aware of it and figure out ways in which they can behave and function differently and be willing to be a proactive bystander.
Daviona Moore: You've looked up to many strong female leaders. Do you have any contemporary activists that you want to highlight?
Supervisor Mitchell: I was so proud to see Black Lives Matter and Stacey Abrams be nominated for Nobel recognition. Stacey has been organizing voter registration and voter protection efforts for well over a decade, she didn't wake up one day and say, “I think I’ll run for governor.” She was organizing what we saw happen in the US Senate race in Georgia. US Senate races in Georgia were the culmination of over a decade of multi-generational multi-racial grassroots organizing. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi of BLM, Stacey Abrams, as well as Professor Brittney Cooper and scholar Moya Bailey. Watching the sheer grit and determination of these women; keeping their head down and moving forward, amaze me.
Daviona Moore: Do you have anything you'd like to comment on or a call to action that you’d like to share with readers?
Supervisor Mitchell: I agree that Black History Month feels different this year. The question for all of us Black people and our allies, is how do we build upon this? I don't want to lose this sense of cultural pride that, I’ve always had but in this broader collective sense of pride, clarity, and power. That's how we will affect long-term systemic change to structural racism. I just want to continue to affirm our life experience our right to be Black and proud in a country that we built.
Daviona Moore: I’ve had a great, fruitful conversation with you and I thank you for taking the time to speak with me.