Essence: Lauren Underwood Speaks On Effective Leadership
By Breanna Edwards
REP. LAUREN UNDERWOOD (D-IL) SPOKE TO ESSENCE ABOUT HOW SHE’S HANDLING HER BUSINESS IN CONGRESS, AND WHY SHE IS ENCOURAGING OTHERS TO RUN FOR STATE AND LOCAL OFFICES.
When Rep. Lauren Underwood (D-IL) won the seat for Illinois’ 14th congressional district in the 2018 elections, she became the youngest Black woman to ever be elected to Congress. Now, almost a year and a half after assuming office, and—like most of the freshman class of the 116th Congress after having gone through the longest shutdown ever in United States history—an impeachment and a pandemic, Underwood has navigated quite a few curveballs during her first year.
“It’s been quite a remarkable journey,” Underwood mused to ESSENCE during a phone conversation last month.
But make no mistake, Underwood is just getting started, and these trials have only made her more determined to become the most effective leader possible for her constituents.
From day one in office, the congresswoman has been focused on improving the health and well-being of those in her district, as well as the American people in general.
This may come as no surprise to those familiar with the congresswoman, who is a registered nurse, and has worked as a Senior Health Advisor for the Department of Health and Human Services under the Obama Administration.
But as the congresswoman points out to ESSENCE, she has put those words into actions, working with her colleagues—Democrats and Republicans alike.
For example, her Lower Insulin Costs now Act, which would make cheaper generic insulin available more quickly to those in need was signed into law by President Donald Trump last December.
“We’re looking at healthcare being the number one issue on the mind of voters across our country, on the mind of my constituents, and to be able to deliver that type of relief is something that I think is so important,” Underwood told ESSENCE. “It’s really important to be able to take these kinds of solutions-based approaches to solving these problems that have been a concern for so long, and I’m really excited about that.”
At the same time, a second piece of legislation aimed at saving lives by establishing an electronic health record system (for which Underwood successfully secured some $30 million in funding) across the Department of Homeland Security was also signed into law.
Being able to pass these bills and have them signed into law is a point of pride for the congresswoman, particularly as they were bipartisan bills.
“In my community, which is one that had been represented by Republicans for a long, long time, being able to work collaboratively with my Republican colleagues is something that my constituents were expecting,” Underwood said. “And so being able to be effective as a legislator is something that we’re really pleased about.”
Underwood noted that one of her other vows when first being sworn in was to be as accessible to the people she serves as possible.
“I represent them, and so I should be available to the community, especially in times of need and challenge,” she emphasized, adding that she has repeatedly gone into each and every one of her communities to have town halls and open conversations. “I think a lot of people hadn’t taken the time to serve the community that way before.”
Of course, the pandemic has since demanded adaptation on her part, but the congresswoman has readily adapted, pushing forward a plan to host a series of digital events that she kickstarted with a Facebook Live townhall back in March.
“I’ve been a Girl Scout my whole life…since kindergarten, and I’m a lifetime member now. And part of our pledge is to help people at all times,” Underwood said. “And that’s really how I approach this work.”
“Yes, my leadership style comes from my experiences, but it also comes from this deeply-rooted respect that I have for the people of 14th, and I mean everybody, not just those who vote for me, not just those who share values, I mean everybody because the decisions that we make in the United States Congress touches all of their lives, and I want to make sure that they know that I have their back,” she added.
Other issues that the congresswoman has championed in the space of healthcare include maternal health, particularly on the issue of the current Black maternal health crisis that causes Black women to be up to four times more likely to die from pregnancy-related complications than their white counterparts.
Underwood, along with Rep. Alma Adams (D-NC) founded the Black Maternal Health Caucus within Congress to highlight the issue, and have put forth serious legislation, including the expansive Momnibus to address the problems people who give birth face.
Even as states begin to loosen their restrictions, the nation is still grappling with the pandemic. The congresswoman is still working on easing the burdens of the American people. These efforts include: demanding improved coronavirus data collection, reporting and research for pregnant women, and pushing for better access to and funding for mental health resources during the pandemic. She is even urging for the prioritization of rural broadband access across northern Illinois communities.
Underwood is doing all of this while running for reelection this November. The congresswoman tells ESSENCE she truly enjoys campaigning, especially since, as she notes, her record “speaks for itself.”
“I’m excited to be able to show our work, so to speak. You know how in math class, they wouldn’t give you full credit even if you got the whole answer? You had to show your work. show my work to my community so that they understand not just what we did, but how we did it, and my intention was to do it in a way that honored them,” she said.
“We can’t do the door knocking that we did so well in 2018, and so we have to function a little bit differently, but at the end of the day, these are going to be really important conversations that we have with voters, and I’m excited to continue the conversation with them,” she added.
And Underwood isn’t just gassing herself up to vote. She is also encouraging others to share their thoughts and platforms to help make the country better for others through her Farm Team PAC, which seeks to help elect “exceptional individuals” to state and local office across her district.
“In my community, for so long, Democrats didn’t even run for office. We surrendered so many seats on the ballot, meaning you would come to the general election and there’d be nobody even challenging a sitting Republican incumbent for state rep or for county board. And I think that that is a problem” Underwood explained. “In this election, I wanted to be more involved throughout my congressional district in making sure that my constituents had choices on their ballot and had the opportunity to vote for exceptional leaders for all levels of public service.”
The PAC focuses on the seven counties which Underwood represents and looks to recruit and train and support candidates who want to run for office, and then coach them as necessary to make them a viable decision for the upcoming elections and effectively assume whatever office they are running for.
“We’re not trying to have little Lauren Underwoods here in every office at all, that is not the point,” she emphasized. “The point is that we have so many people who understand the 14th, who have been working very hard to reach our voters, and we want to make sure that those voters are having great representation at all levels of government. And I think it’s my responsibility as a leader in this community to step up and do this important work.”
And at the root, that is what this role is about for the congresswoman, who clearly takes pride in her work: effective leadership, especially during a time in our nation when there is so much turmoil.
“I think now more than ever, our country needs the best leaders who can weather the challenges and deliver results,” she said. “At the end of the day, our government needs to work for the people. And when I think about what’s at stake on November 3rd, it is that core premise, is our government working for the people? And are we all going to take the opportunity to elect leaders that have our best interests in mind?”
“The ESSENCE reader is the most reliable voter in the country. And with that comes, I think, a heavy responsibility. And I want to make sure that they know that there are leaders who have their back in the United States Congress,” Underwood added. “We’re doing the work every day, and we hope to make you proud.”