These locals are adding to the wave of black women-led political power.
Crenshaw native Mariah Watson got her first taste of policymaking early on. She was a senior in high school when she attended a youth in government program at the Culver-Palms Family YMCA. It was a model of the California Legislature where students would propose bills for a vote.
“We were tasked to develop a policy that changed something that was relevant for California in the nation,” Watson says. “It was the first time that I had articulated what I wanted my brother’s experience to be, being a formerly incarcerated man. So, it was about how we could begin to address recidivism, make it easier for men coming home to stay home and help them feel like they were part of a community again.”
Out of 400 proposals, hers was one of 30 to make it to the final round.
“My final speech before they voted on the bill was completely about my brother, about being in Los Angeles, being a black family dealing with all the effects of post-incarceration,” Watson says. “It passed unanimously. Even though it didn’t actually change the law … it definitely solidified what I want to do and who I want to be as I continue to grow.”
Mariah Watson poses in front of the Crenshaw Wall mural, featuring a tribute to African-American history and its future called “Our Mighty Contribution” by the artist collective Rocking The Nation. Photo by thirtythreefifteen photography.
Now, sevenyears later, Watson is preparing to attend Harvard Law School in the fall. Her previous position as a policy associate at Re:store Justice, a non-profit that works with law and government officials to reform the criminal justice system, allowed her to work directly on sentencing reform. In fact, last spring she completed a tour of California prisons with the nonprofit where she trained incarcerated men on how to petition for resentencing under Senate Bill 1437. The bill, which went into effect on Jan. 1, amended California’s felony murder rule so that only people who commit or intended to commit a killing can be prosecuted for felony murder. Previously, defendants could be charged with first-degree murder if a death occurred while committing another crime, regardless of intent.
Watson is one of the many young black women in L.A. who have dedicated their careers to serving the people of this sprawling city. These young women have been inspired by trailblazers on the local and national stage, including Kamala Harris, the second black woman to ever run for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, and Maxine Waters, 15-term congresswoman and chair of the House Financial Services Committee. Then, there is Aja Brown who’s been serving as the mayor of Compton since she was elected in 2013. At 31 years old, she became the city’s youngest mayor.
“My final speech before they voted on the bill was completely about my brother, about being in Los Angeles, being a black family dealing with all the effects of post-incarceration. It passed unanimously. Even though it didn’t actually change the law … it definitely solidified what I want to do and who I want to be as I continue to grow.”
Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove is another rising political star. She represents California’s 54th District, which includes Culver City, the Crenshaw District and Westwood. Since she was elected in 2018, Kamlager-Dove has passed and supported legislation aimed at alleviating poverty and advancing criminal justice reform. Her dedication to Los Angeles began shortly after the L.A. Riots in 1992, when she worked with the nonprofit Rebuild LA to help the most affected communities.
“[Working for] Rebuild LA was almost like being a census worker for me because I was going throughout South L.A., meeting with community groups and residents and learning their stories,” Kamlager-Dove says. “It was great to see that there are folks doing the activist work of healing and building and making sure that resources are coming to the community.”
She has maintained that community engagement since then, recently serving as district director for California state Sen. Holly Mitchell and as president of the L.A. Community College District Board of Trustees. Now that she has a more public platform, Kamlager-Dove uses her visibility to empower black women.
“Representation might be overused, but it’s still very powerful,” Kamlager-Dove says. “When you see folks that look like you, then the road that they take feels less scary. No one ever wants to be the first, no one ever wants to be the last, and so the only way to not have those things happen is by getting out there and showing folks that it can be done, and holding out your arms to embrace them onto the journey with you.”
When speaking to the next class of black women who want to work in politics, Kamlager-Dove points out the importance of being involved in all levels of government.
“Black women need to see this and say, ‘Huh, well, how did she get there? She didn’t get there on her own. Does she have a campaign manager? Could I do that? Also, what about education? What about being a judge?’” Kamlager-Dove says. “So, I hope that black women see me and see all of the opportunities and not just the one path that I’m on, because we need black women running for all kinds of office, and we need black women helping other black women run for office.”
“When you see folks that look like you, then the road that they take feels less scary. No one ever wants to be the first, no one ever wants to be the last, and so the only way to not have those things happen is by getting out there and showing folks that it can be done, and holding out your arms to embrace them onto the journey with you.”
Assemblywoman Sydney Kamlager-Dove
She also calls out the importance of making sure that the many different communities in Los Angeles keep communicating their needs — something she says was lost during the L.A. Riots.
“We were seeing what happens when a city kind of stops talking to itself … It seemed like folks on the Westside weren’t that concerned with what was going on in South L.A. or East L.A. or Central L.A,” Kamlager-Dove says, adding that Los Angeles is still very segregated.
How can Los Angeles bridge that racial divide? “You do that by running for office,” she says.
The Los Angeles African American Women’s Public Policy Institute is one of the organizations currently working to educate black women on how to affect change on the local and state levels. The Executive Director Joy Atkinson leads the 10-week intensive program intended to provide black women with the tools they need to influence public policy and run political campaigns.
The Los Angeles African American Women’s Public Policy Institute class of 2019. Photo courtesy of the LAAAWPPI.
“We teach them everything — how to communicate, how to work with media, how a public policy issue is addressed if it’s a local, state or federal issue and the leadership development,” Atkinson says. “I would say in the last 16 years that we’ve been a class [that] every major African-American politician has come through to teach our class and to talk about their experience in politics.”
Their alumnae include Inglewood Unified School District Board Member Dionne Faulk and Sherilyn Correa, director of planning and economic development for L.A. City Councilmember Curren Price. Kamlager-Dove is an alumna herself and keeps in touch with women who have completed the program after her to provide guidance as someone who understands what they are going through.
After all, Kamlager-Dove has her own mentor to thank for showing her how to navigate the world of politics without stumbling along the way or compromising herself.
“[Senator Mitchell] helped show me the importance of being able to stand firmly in who you are,” she says. “It’s about learning who you are, and building strength in who you are so that you can accomplish the goals that you have, and tackle all of the obstacles that are in your way.”
Watson might just be getting started in her career, but she also recognizes her place in continuing the wave of black woman political power of which she is now part of.
“I think that right now there is this acknowledgment that [black women] have been speaking for years, they have been trying to educate people for years,” Watson says. “We’ve been relevant, we’ve been talking and now people are starting to notice the advent of hashtags like #TrustBlackWomen. People are starting to look at the way that black women are voting at a national level, who they are supporting, where they are drawing the line and saying we are not going to support the same candidates doing the same old thing. We’re having this re-awakening. To quote Auntie Maxine, we are reclaiming our time, and I think that that’s important.”