Biography of Ayanna Pressley
Ayanna Pressley is the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Massachusetts. She belongs to “The Squad.”
Who Is Ayanna Pressley?
Ayanna Pressley, a Chicago native, traveled to Boston for college and began her political career working for Congressman Joseph P. Kennedy II, before spending 13 years working for then-Senator John Kerry in various capacities. Pressley was the first elected woman of color on the Boston City Council before being elected to Congress, where she became part of a group known as “The Squad.”
Early Life and Education
Ayanna Soyini Pressley is the only child of tenants’ rights organizer Sandra Pressley and Martin Terrell, who struggled with heroin addiction and spent 16 years in and out of prison. She was born on February 3, 1974, in Cincinnati, Ohio, and raised in what she described as a “tough” Chicago neighborhood. Pressley’s father eventually recovered from his addiction and went on to become a published author.
She was a student at the Francis W. Parker School in Chicago, where she was class president from 7th to senior year. She was a cheerleader and debater who was chosen as the commencement speaker for her graduating class and was named “most likely to be mayor of Chicago.”
Pressley modeled and did voiceover work while growing up, even starring in Planned Parenthood advertising that was carried on Chicago municipal buses.
Ayanna Pressley relocated to Boston, Massachusetts in 1992 to attend Boston University, but dropped out in 1994 to support her family after her mother’s job as an executive assistant at Time Warner was lost.
After graduating from the University, Bush worked at the Boston Marriott Copley Place as a receptionist and barback, as well as serving banquets.
For two years, Pressley worked for Congressman Kennedy, first as an unpaid intern in his Roxbury office while still in college, and then as a paid worker assisting seniors in obtaining Social Security payments.
Ayanna Pressley worked for the eventual Secretary of State for 13 years, including as a constituency director and political director, after working for Senator Kerry’s 1996 reelection campaign. In 2018, Kerry told The Boston Globe, “Ayanna was a powerhouse.” “She had a tremendous amount of focus and drive, as well as a great, outgoing personality and a strong belief in public service.”
She left Kerry’s staff in 2009 to run for Boston City Council as an at-large candidate. Pressley became the first woman of color to be elected to the council when she was elected on November 3, 2009.
She made history as the first person of color and the first woman to top the ticket in 30 years with winning reelection bids in 2011 and 2013.
She founded the Committee on Healthy Women, Families, and Communities while in the position to promote stable families, minimize violence and poverty, and promote women’s problems.
In November 2018, Pressley was elected to the United States House of Representatives to represent Massachusetts’ 7th Congressional District, defeating 10-term congressman Michael Capuano.
Ayanna Pressley became regarded as one of The Squad, alongside fellow legislators Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan.
“The Squad, as we define it, is anyone who is building a more equitable and just world,” she told The Washington Post in 2020. “So that is more than four people. The Squad is big. Think of us as representatives of a larger community. The very first one-minute [speech] that I gave on the floor, I said, ‘I come as one, and I stand as thousands.’ That’s Maya Angelou. That’s what the Squad is to me. But it’s something that some people have tried to negatively co-opt. And, again, to weaponize.”
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, Pressley has alopecia, the formal medical word for baldness, which she revealed in a video for The Root in January 2020.”I’ve only been bald in the privacy of my home and in the company of close friends,” She went on to say that she felt it was necessary to be open in order to assist others who were coping with the same condition.
Pressley revealed that she lost her last strand of hair in December of this year. “I am making peace with having alopecia,” she said. “I am very early in my alopecia journey. But I’m making progress every day… It’s about self-agency, it’s about power, it’s about acceptance.”
Pressley stated in 2011 that she had been raped as a child and as a 19-year-old student at Boston University. According to The Boston Globe, she was working as a resident assistant the summer after her freshman year when she was sexually assaulted by someone she knew, but she never reported the incident due to her social isolation and shame.
In Jessica Valenti and Jaclyn Friedman’s anthology, Believe Me: How Trusting Women Can Change the World, she detailed how the incident influenced her later life. “I want a world where survivors are believed and validated and supported. I also want a world where within a generation the number of those impacted by sexual violence plummets.”
In 2011, Pressley met her husband Conan Harris, who was then the manager of StreetSafe Boston, an anti-violence campaign, and the two married three years later in 2014. Harris’ daughter was her stepdaughter, and she became a stepmother to her.
Cora, calling her role as a “bonus mom” a gift. “It was inferred that by calling Cora my step-daughter, I am creating a distinction or a step-down,” she tweeted of her “healthy blended family” in 2019. “There is no distinction in my heart and she is without question my child.”
Harris, who spent ten years in prison for cocaine trafficking before becoming executive director of My Brother’s Keeper Boston, worked as a public safety advisor to Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh before meeting Pressley.
In 2020, he spoke before the House Subcommittee on Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security about the challenges of successfully reentering society after serving time in jail.