Students discuss the diversity of the 116th Congress

January 16, 2019

The 116th Congress is a body of firsts: The first Native American Congresswoman, the first two Muslim Congresswomen and the first time members of the House have been this female and racially diverse. And leading the historic group of lawmakers is Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to hold the speaker’s gavel — and hold it twice.


Two current political science students, and one former, along with an expert in American politics at UT reflected on the historic shift and what it means for them, the country and Congress.


“It’s such a barrier-breaking thing, and it really just sets a pathway for other Muslim or middle-eastern women,” said Saraa El Assir, a fourth-year political science major, referencing Representatives Ilhan Omar, the first person to don a headscarf on the House floor, and Rashida Talib of Michigan who wore a Palestinian thobe to her swearing in.


El Assir, who, like Omar, wears a hijab, sat next to her friend Michelle Eid, a student raised in Lebanon pursuing a career in political science. Both young women described what it was like watching a diverse group gain seats in one of the highest law-making bodies in the land.


Eid felt “way more hopeful” after seeing Omar, a Somalian refugee, win her election.


“When I first heard about Ilhan Omar, what I did was I went and I researched her and I was like, wait, she’s like me,” Eid said. “She doesn’t come from a very wealthy background. Her parents don’t own like 20 companies. She didn’t go to Harvard.”


Eid, attending a college in the Midwest and coming from a “not so wealthy family,” could relate; “I’m like wait a second, I’m pretty sure I can [be just as successful].”


Eid and El Assir mentioned  photos of the new members on their Twitter feeds; as of late, social media has been flooded with diverse imagery.


Democrat Barbara Lee of California, a long-time African-American member of the House, tweeted a photo with Ayanna Pressley (the first black representative Minnesota sent to the House) and Lauren Underwood (the youngest black woman ever sworn in) and captioned it “First day of a new era” punctuated with a flexed arm emoji and and cartoonish heart eyes.


“To see a [nonwhite] person make it to the top like that…it kind of applies the American Dream to us when it never really did in the past,” El Assir said.


All of the non-white women are Democrats. One look at a side by side picture of newly-elected House members separated by party, underscores the fact that diversity did not cross partisan lines; in the blue there are people of color and scores of women, while in the red, the congressional headshots are largely white and male.


Not withstanding the Republican side, former UT student Sydney Jones, a minority herself — she is black and Korean — expressed a sense of joy surrounding the moment of diversity and femininity in American political history.


Jones, the former president of the College Democrats lives in D.C. and has a full-time job working on Capitol Hill for Ohio Representative Marcy Kaptur.  


“Well, first and foremost, it’s just exciting; it’s very exciting to be part of it,” Jones said of working alongside members of the 116th Congress.


“It’s a very emotional thing for me too.” Jones said. “There are a lot of moments, daily, that I find myself kind of stopping and just being like ‘Wow I’m really here, I’m part of this.’ It’s hard for me to articulate how it feels. I walk in there every day, and it just feels like the air is electric.”


She mentioned the new members like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (or AOC as Jones called her in reference to her Twitter handle), the Instagram-savvy former bartender from the Bronx, and Representative Pressley.


“It means the world to me,” Jones said. “To see so many women elected, and especially women of color, it’s inspiring. Clearly we don’t have enough, but this Congress just gives me hope because this was a win not just for women and for communities of color, but I feel like it’s just progress for the whole country.”


It is both progress and change.


“Every time there’s an election, people are seeking change,” said Renee Heberle, a professor of political science.


In 2016, people were seeking a change, and for some, Donald Trump was that change, she said.


In 2018, the change brought diversity. “The increase in the numbers of women winning not just at the federal level, but also the state level…indicates that,” Heberle said.


To determine whether this moment of diversity is a blip or a trend, Heberle suggests paying attention not only to the candidates elected to office, but also to the “dynamics of recruitment:”  the resources available for women and people of color running for office, the major parties’ role in the process and the overall structure of the electoral pipeline.


For Jones, in this moment, the new members are a guide and political role models of sorts. She hopes to run for office one day.


“[The new lawmakers] show that women can do more than just run; they can run, and they can win.”


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