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Q&A With State Rep. Summer Lee

By Jordan Schmitt, Head of PR

As a completely student-run magazine on Ohio University’s campus, VRNT Magazine’s staff consists completely of student journalists who are not only sharing their talents with VRNT, but are balancing full course loads and part-time jobs as well. As part of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, many of our staff have had the opportunity to explore their talents in new ways inside the classroom. For her journalism 2311 class, Jordan Schmitt had the opportunity to interview State Rep. Summer Lee. Now, Jordan uses the interviewing and writing skills she’s learned in class to excel in her role at VRNT and as a student writer for the university’s communications and marketing department. Below is Jordan’s interview. Photo from uniteforpa.com

State Rep. Summer Lee took office on Jan. 1, 2019, to represent Pennsylvania’s 34th District in the House of Representatives. Lee, a Democrat, beat incumbent Paul Costa with over 67% of the vote in the primary election. Lee, 33, is a lawyer, activist, and community organizer. After graduating from Pennsylvania State University, she received her juris doctorate from the Howard University School of Law.  

She has introduced bills on police reform, union contracting, and is currently preparing COVID-19 relief bills. She believes in authenticity and listening to the constituents who granted her political power.  

How have you broken down barriers in Pennsylvania legislature, being the first Black woman to hold your regional position?         

That’s a really complicated question, right? It gets straight to the point. I would say that I don’t know that I have broken down any barriers, at least certainly not on my own. What a lot of people don’t see is the groundwork that has been laid out before me. … It’s easy to change who you are to try to fit in to the system — put on the mask or the veil of politics — what you think a politician has to look and sound like. It’s harder to say, “I’m going to run as me. I’m going to run with my accent, my dialect, my hair the way it is, the way that I look. I’m going to sound like the folks who I’m around, I’m going to look like those folks, and I’m going to bring them with me.” I’m not going to alter anything about me, because being a real representative means that everybody is represented. … I think that’s the biggest way that I have broken a barrier. Not being the first Black woman, but really, it’s being the first Black woman who is also from a poor background and marginalized community, but who also has dedicated myself to not pushing those to the background. [I am] actually bringing them to the forefront and leaving them there in an authentic way. 

Why was running on a grassroots platform important to you. How did it end up strengthening your election run? 

Running a grassroots campaign, for me, is not a campaign strategy. It’s authentically how I believe government should run. I think that if we’re truly going to have a representative mode of government, the key in doing that is expanding the electorate, helping the electorate and supporting the electorate in an endeavor to be more politically discerning. … I’m uplifted by the very people who put me into this office. They are the source of my power. When you recognize that the people who you represent and who uplifted you are the source of your power, it actually opens the door for you to be able to be so much more and do so much more. … When you keep the people close, and the people keep you close, you form a literal relationship that is the purpose of the government we have created. 

What current legislation are you working on? 

It’s a new two years, so that means that we have to reintroduce everything that we want to carry over from last time that didn’t get a vote on or didn’t pass. Carrying over the same things from last time are police violence bills, police use of force, qualified immunity for police officers, Act 111 for union contraction. I’m still working on my Dignity for Incarcerated Women Act, that I am working on with a number of colleagues, which would offer alternative sentences to pregnant women. We have so many types of incarceration type bills that aim to end over-incarceration.  

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