SISTA TO WATCH: Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell (D-AL)

terri_sewell.jpgOccupation: Member of Congress
Hometown: Selma, AL
Follow her on Twitter: @RepTerriSewell

About Terri A. Sewell

Congresswoman Terri A. Sewell is serving her third term as the U.S. Representative of Alabama’s 7th Congressional District.  She is one of the first women elected to Congress from Alabama and is the first Black woman to ever serve in the Alabama congressional delegation.

Congresswoman Sewell sits on the House Committee on Financial Services and the distinguished House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence charged with national security oversight. She is the Ranking Member on the Department of Defense Intelligence and Overhead Architecture Subcommittee, a key group of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence.

In her short time in Congress, Sewell has held several leadership positions, including Freshman Class President in the 112th Congress.  This term, she was selected by Democratic leadership to serve as Chief Deputy Whip, and sits on the prestigious Steering and Policy Committee which sets the policy direction of the Democratic Caucus.  Congresswoman Sewell is also a member of the Congressional Black Caucus.

A proud product of Alabama’s rural Black Belt, Congresswoman Sewell was the first Black valedictorian of Selma High School. She is an honors graduate of Princeton University and Oxford University in England and received her law degree from Harvard Law School.  She is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. and Brown Chapel A.M.E. Church.

Higher Heights:  What inspired you to want to work in the political arena?

REP. SEWELL: I grew up in Selma with a keen awareness of my hometown’s pivotal role in the voting rights movement, and I knew that I had a responsibility not only to protect that legacy but to build upon it. I interned for then-Congressman Richard Shelby, who represented my district as a Democrat, for three summers when I was at Princeton. I also watched as my mom, Nancy Sewell, became the first African-American woman to be a member of the Selma City Council.   

Higher Heights: What advice do you have for Black women that want to spark change?

Rep. SEWELL: Own your power. Women often downplay their skills, yet we are natural leaders in our homes, churches and communities. We run the church bake sale and volunteer for the PTA fundraiser without thinking that those are valuable skills. We need to own our power in order to empower our communities and to work towards change.

Higher Heights: What do you feel is the single most pressing issue facing Black women today and why? 

REP. SEWELL: Black women have made tremendous strides over the past several years; however, we still have much work to do to overcome the opportunity gap. We are challenged by sexism, racism, and persistent stereotypes that limit our ability to grow professionally. For example, Black women on average earn only 64 cents for every dollar a white man earns. That’s more than a year’s worth of gas, groceries or rent when you calculate the lost income.  

Higher Heights:  Tell us about a woman mentor that has helped you on your journey?

REP. SEWELL: I am fortunate to have three strong Black trailblazing women who helped me believe that it was possible for a little Black girl like me to one day walk the halls of Congress as a U.S. Representative. My mother is my first mentor, and she set a powerful example in running for the Selma City Council. She was able to juggle both work and her family to become a trailblazer. 

My second mentor was Rep. Shirley Chisolm. I had the opportunity to interview her for my Princeton senior thesis. I spent four hours with her, discussing the obstacles that Black women face when running for office. Whenever I feel as though the weight of the world rests on my shoulders, I think of the challenges she faced as the first Black woman in Congress.

My third mentor is Diane Abbott, the first Black woman to be elected to Parliament. She was one of three Black people elected to Parliament in 1986, and I volunteered for her campaign when I was studying at Oxford University. I interned for her office after she won, and we still keep in touch today.