On Wednesday afternoon, Ayanna Pressley sat at her usual place in the Boston City Council chambers. To her left, a black-and-white photo of her late mother faced her on the desk. Her family sat in the chamber, to her right.
And as she sat there, one by one, her fellow — and soon-to-be-former — city council colleagues, through tears, wished her good luck and farewell as she heads to Washington, D.C., to assume her newly elected position as the representative from the state’s 7th district.
Pressley had once made history as the city council’s first elected woman of color, in 2009, and she made history again in September when she defeated longtime Democratic incumbent Michael Capuano for the congressional seat. She will now be the first woman of color that Massachusetts has ever sent to Congress.
A member of her “squad,” Congressman-elect Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of the Bronx, was also in the audience. Ocasio-Cortez had, a few months before Pressley, also ousted a longtime Democratic white man from his congressional seat.
City Councilor Lydia Edwards called Pressley a “great destroyer of glass ceilings” and said she’s “living and breathing and setting legacy,” crediting Pressley for leading the way for more women of color to join the city council like herself.
“Because of you, we are better, we are stronger, we are imagining people in positions that we had never thought they would be in before,” Edwards said to Pressley. “We watch you with admiration. We learn from you.”
Edwards recalled bumping into Pressley years ago when they were both neighborhood advocates.
“Never ever in my mind would I have thought I would have been one of your colleagues,” Edwards said.
“I did,” Pressley said with a smile and tears. “I knew.”
When it came time to address the chamber, she went to the lectern. She first thanked the interns, the custodians and the security guards.
“I can say with pride that every person I’ve served with, each resident I have come into contact with, has changed me and our city for the better,” she said.
Pressley recalled Avi Green, formerly with MassVOTE, encouraging her to run for the at-large city council seat. In fact, she said, Green predicted Pressley would be the first woman of color on the council.
“I laughed and summarily dismissed his prediction — or rather instruction, but eventually floated this crazy idea around to some close folks,” she said. “I percolated on the idea, I prayed, I attempted to meditate and still I arrived at an emphatic no.”
Instead, Pressley said she just continued to work for then-Sen. John Kerry and help women and young girls.
She gave out her cellphone number to girls in need and would get calls about girls kicked out of their homes. Girls in need of feminine hygiene. Girls just in need of advice. It was then, she said, she realized that black and brown girls were being ignored.
“What I was doing was simply not sustainable and not meeting the immediate needs or addressing the root causes of these girls’ problems and challenges,” she said. “I wanted to do something. I had to. I wanted to fight for girls, not be their voice, but to lift up their voices.”
City Councilor Michelle Wu praised Pressley for bringing the voices of those not heard to the foreground — immigrants, people of color, members of the LGBTQ community and women.
“They’ve seen you in their community, in their homes, in their barbershops, when no one else has been there,” Wu said. “Because of you, they see themselves as part of government. They believe just that little bit more that they can make a difference … and that, more than anything else, is what this country needs right now.”
Pressley intends to go to Washington to champion Medicare for all and more gun control. She said she’s hoping for a position on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce or the House Judiciary Committee.
Pressley, calling herself a spiritual woman, said that every day, she revisits a particular affirmation from “The President’s Devotionals,” a collection of works that inspired President Obama, that speaks of “a gentle battle.”
“Every day, we awaken to a gentle battle and we must decide if we will go in the direction of worry; of weariness; and indifference or if we will go in the direction of joy; of peace; of equality,” she said, paraphrasing. “As soldiers, in which direction will we march?”