Both domestically and abroad, young people have become disillusioned with the unjust state of the politics at play, questioning whether those in positions of power can in fact make a difference. Despite this, a small number of those in office are shining as beacons of light in a time of darkness. The youth of the U.K. have rallied around Jeremy Corbyn, the millennial vote helped Justin Trudeau become prime minister of Canada, and here in the States, in lieu of a president who stands up for fairness and equality for all, Maxine Waters is speaking out.
“I have always been a community activist, but I was also a defender of rap and hip-hop early on,” she says. “I always embraced freedom of speech in the Constitution and thought it was important for people to express what they wanted to say. So when Trump came into office, the first time I walked out of a classified briefing where we had been listening to what had happened with James Comey, the FBI director, and his actions during the campaign, I just walked out in front of the press and threw my hands up and said, ‘The FBI director has no credibility,’ and then it started to go viral.” She smiles, a glint in her eye.
At 79, Maxine possesses an outspoken honesty that has had her lovingly dubbed Auntie Maxine by a growing legion of social media stans. The absurdity of the news headlines has had us looking to the politician, who is nothing short of a pop-culture icon, for inspiration and asking, “What would Maxine do?” Take her now-infamous run-in with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin during a House Financial Services Committee meeting, where Maxine repeatedly stated “reclaiming my time” while he stalled on answering her question. Or the time in early 2017 when, after being heckled by pro-Trump supporters at a crowded town hall in the California district she represents, she hollered, “For those who thought they could come here and interrupt, they’re in Inglewood!”
“You need people like the congresswoman who are going to tell it like it is,” explains 26-year-old Shakinah Douglas, a law clerk in Maryland’s 7th Judicial Circuit. “She’s not playing any games. She is committed to making sure that the American people are not oppressed.” Shakinah grew up in the congresswoman’s district (Maxine was friends with Shakinah’s grandmother, activist Bernice Woods) and, after seeing how she always “deals with people one-on-one” and what an active role Maxine plays in her community, interned with her in Washington, D.C., last spring while completing law school at Howard University.
“One of the greatest lessons I have learned from Congresswoman Waters is to stay focused, not to get distracted, and to persevere,” Shakinah says. “Not only for you but [for] the good of the people you’re serving. When people criticized her for speaking out against the current president, or even when Bill O’Reilly was making cruel comments about her, she never lost sight of what her goal was: We need someone to look out for the American people. There is work to be done.”
As we sit in a quiet room in a Washington, D.C., hotel located on the doorstep of the Capitol, Maxine, a vision of perfection in a powder-pink suit, explains: “I am thrilled and honored that young people have adopted me. I had to stop and wonder why, but the more I thought about it, I realized many young people didn’t know about my past and the issues I have been involved in.”
Coming from what she calls “a huge family” (she had 12 brothers and sisters), Maxine says that from an early age she had to be responsible for others. “I was taught there is nothing the boys could do that we as girls couldn’t do,” she says. “We shoveled coal; we painted; we did everything. That’s become my kind of philosophy of life: Whatever needs to be done, you do it.”
Maxine joined the feminist movement in the 1970s and began speaking out about equal pay for equal work and on behalf of women seeking nontraditional careers. “A lot of folks won’t remember women like Bella Abzug, who was one of the leaders of the feminist movement,” she says. “She insisted on wearing a hat; she was very outspoken, very bold. And women like Dorothy Height, who led the National Council of Negro Women, and Bernice Woods, both of whom were involved in the civil rights movement. We didn’t even deem it feminist work; it was just the work of women in the community.”
As we patiently await the first female POTUS, thank God for Maxine Waters — a mentor in both life and work. When asked what campaign slogan she’d use should she ever run for president, she simply replies, “Do the right thing.” Whatever you say, Auntie Maxine!