February 26, 2021

Rep. Ayanna Pressley: “The Squad is big, y’all”

The U.S. passed the grim toll of over 500,000 deaths from COVID-19 this week—as you’ve likely read, that’s equivalent to the population of Atlanta. And even as relief comes into view with vaccine distribution, data is showing that white people are getting vaccinated at much higher rates than Black and Latinx people.

How can we prevent the vaccine rollout from becoming yet another way systemic racism literally kills Black and brown people? Representative Ayanna Pressley (D-MA) has a plan.

This week on UNDISTRACTED, Brittany Packnett Cunningham talks with the Congresswoman about “vaccine redlining” (and her plan to fix it), the Capitol attack, her policy priorities and why we’re all welcome on “The Squad.” (There’s no membership fee; you just have to use your voice.)

Rep. Pressley represents Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District and is the first woman of color elected to Congress from the state. Now in her second term, she’s sworn to keep making sure that “those closest to the pain are closest to the power.”

Packnett Cunningham and Rep. Pressley covered so much ground in their conversation—from the need to erase student debt to how the Congresswoman feels about going wig-less these days. Highlights from their packed conversation:

  • Rep. Pressley on the Capitol attack: “I think the image that has haunted me the most is that of the all Black custodial staff cleaning up the mess left behind by this violent white supremacist mob. Of course they—and all of the Capitol staff from custodians to food service workers to our aides to United States Capitol Police—all experienced their own fair share of trauma that day. But this was both a literal representation and a metaphor for what Black folks and the most marginalized have been doing for generations—and that is cleaning up the mess left by a violent white supremacist mob.”
  • Rep. Pressley on “The Squad” 2.0: “How do I define ‘The Squad?’ I define it as anyone doing the work of building a more equitable and just society. So that is certainly not limited to any members of Congress. The Squad is big, y’all. It is a multi-racial, multi-generational movement of the most marginalized who have come together fueled by issues-based activism. And I think that movement has proven the old adage that ‘the power of the people has always been greater than the people in power.’ And it is because that squad is big and growing that democracy is in fact breathing another day.”
  • Rep. Pressley on vaccine inequity: “We knew anecdotally how the virus would play out, given the comorbidities of structural racism and unequal access to healthcare. And so early on, I was banging the drum and advocating and legislating for the equitable collection of data. Myself and Senator Warren introduced a bill that would require the collection of racial demographic data so far as coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and death rates. And again, we knew anecdotally what communities would be hardest hit, but I believe that that which gets measured, gets done. So we needed the data to inform and drive the marshaling of resources…Now we’re continuing the same drum beat when it comes to vaccine recipients to guard against what I call ‘vaccine redlining.’”
  • Rep. Pressley on her alopecia reveal one year later: “It’s still a struggle. Every day I think I make progress in my own healing and my own self-acceptance, but the reason why it hasn’t been easy is because it defies, disrupts and challenges people’s conventional narratives and beauty standards for what is professional, what is appropriate, what is feminine, what is pretty. And so just how I enter a room is disruptive for many, but increasingly so, when I see myself, my reflection back, I just accept that this is me. And in fact, sometimes people have said…‘Why don’t you just wear a wig?’”“You never say never, but now when I put a wig on, it just doesn’t feel in alignment with where I’m at and who I am. It feels like a costume. And I feel resentful that I should have to put on one more piece of armor in order to safely negotiate the world and to navigate spaces.”

Listen on Apple Podcasts,  SpotifyStitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.


Remember the energy and collective joy of live performance? This weekend we’re revisiting The Meteor’s celebration of the experiences of Black women: IN LOVE AND STRUGGLE. Performed live in New York City in February 2020 at the bridge between Black History Month and Women’s History Month, it has special resonance one year later—after a global pandemic, an uprising against oppression and waves of attempted voter suppression.

Curated by Rebecca Carroll, directed and produced by Monica L. Williams and with creative advisor Kamilah Forbes, it featured performances by Mahogany L. Browne, Alicia Garza, Professor Anita Hill, Brittany Packnett Cunningham, Mumu Fresh, Sasheer Zamata, Sarah Jones, Jodie Patterson and more. Head over to Instagram to see our kickoff video, join our celebration on Instagram all weekend and listen to the complete show on Audible.