Editorial & Opinion

Brianna Henries: Moderate This

Change for people and the planet has never happened by unanimous votes or coddling the powerful. It’s always happened by a few brave people being willing to be vocal and hold the feet of powerful people to the fire. I’m honored to stand in a long line of Rhode Islanders who have done just that.
Photo for Brianna Henries: Moderate This

Published on January 4, 2021
By Brianna Henries

As a freshman entering the Rhode Island State House representing House District 64 for East Providence, I am gearing up to begin the 2021 session on the 5th of January. On our first day of session, the House will cast what is possibly the most important vote of the next two years – the vote for Speaker of the House. Since there is no longer anyone challenging Joe Shekarchi for the Speakership, I cannot in good conscience do anything other than abstain from the vote for Speaker of the House.

Photo Credit: Langston Bowen

After former Speaker of the House Nick Mattiello lost his seat in disgrace, I have watched the power of the Speakership handed off swiftly to his right-hand man Joe Shekarchi. It’s more of the transactional politics that we’ve seen in our state over and over again.

As inauguration day approaches, I remind myself of the burning commitment to the very things I promised my constituents on the campaign trail. I promised that I would not go along to get along and that I would represent the sick and tired. That I would not continue to prop up the same powerful people who have harmed our communities over and over again.

The State House is a place where we write the law, but it is governed by a lot of unspoken rules. Recently in a news interview, I was dismissed by Representative Shekarchi for being young, inexperienced, and passionate. When Representative Shekarchi says the State House “has a way of moderating everybody,” what he means is that representatives face enormous pressure from the good old boys’ club to get in line, along with threats of political consequences if they refuse.

I know that legislating is hard work and I look forward to learning from my experienced colleagues, but I also refuse to answer to leadership. I was elected by my constituents to challenge insider politics, not to join it. My life experiences allow me to create solutions from a perspective that’s altogether different from the status quo and the echo chamber they live in. There are not enough political science courses that can teach someone how to be a servant leader. There is a way to lead by making space for multiple voices and not moderate the voices of working families and the diversity they represent.

I have two years to prove to my constituents that I can do right by them and I take issue with the fact that their voice is considered shelved until leadership finds favor with me. In the face of multiple crises, we have to stop operating in a transactional culture where we use our constituents’ very lives as currency. No amount of gift baskets, dinners or committee positions will change the fact that I was raised to be courageous and do the right thing even when it can feel futile. The work can be exhausting, but the yield is fruitful.

Not too long ago we were all celebrating dissent nationally – on banners on profile pictures and mugs and mantras. We agreed dissent in the face of the most powerful – those who pressure other officials to buckle and fall in line under them – was good. I look forward to working with my colleagues because I know many of them value this characteristic. I’m confident my vote will open doors for collaboration, not close them.

What seems like an obvious choice somehow lands me in a very familiar place – in the minority. When we find ourselves in the minority, we often look around to see who will use their privilege to stand alongside us, we seek out allies.

Just like many progressive political women of color who decided to step out in faith and withhold their support for the handpicked “chosen ones,” I find myself at risk of falling into the tropes of the “cocky freshman,” “radical progressive,” or – my personal favorite – “angry Black woman.” Maybe we are angry because when the going gets tough those with the most privilege, the ones that so often promise to fight alongside us, refuse to help bear the weight of dissent. They seem too comfortable with abandoning us in the fight for justice for a seat at the table of the very people who toss nothing more than crumbs to working families.

It is obvious to me that this is more than one abstention vote. This is more than a protest vote – this is a vote for the people. This is a vote saying that I can not be owned or bought. This is a vote for consistency from the campaign trail to the chamber. It is a vote for a sustainable planet and a vote for equity. Working class people don’t have time for me to play politics as usual. Two years ago nineteen House members voted to abstain from the leadership vote which created the Reform Caucus and pushed us towards much needed rules change. This year I abstain to continue the project of building a government that truly represents the interests of the people of our state. I get the honor of participating in this larger trajectory of change.

Change for people and the planet has never happened by unanimous votes or coddling the powerful. It’s always happened by a few brave people being willing to be vocal and hold the feet of powerful people to the fire. I’m honored to stand in a long line of Rhode Islanders who have done just that.

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