Kamala Harris Blazed a Trail. These Women Are Walking It

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.” 

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.

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