Young leaders and young activists prove we can fulfill the promise of 'justice for all'
© getty: A protester demands justice following the death of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police.

The tweet brought tears to my eyes.

It showed a photo of my friend Ras Smith, sitting alone in contemplation on the steps outside the visitors’ gallery overlooking the Iowa House chamber.

Smith, a 32-year-old state representative from Waterloo, had just cast his vote on the Plan for a More Perfect Union, the legislation he’d introduced barely a week before to ban police chokeholds, prohibit the rehiring of police fired for misconduct and allow the state attorney general to investigate instances of misconduct.

ADVERTISEMENT

The bill — pushed into the state’s social and political consciousness by Smith and the four other members of the House Black Caucus — had passed the House unanimously. A short while later, the Senate also passed it without a dissenting vote, sending it to Gov. Kim Reynolds, who signed it into law the next day.

This, I thought to myself, is why we serve.

My state and our nation have been utterly gridlocked for so long — or, worse, trapped under the thumb of special interests — that it’s hard to remember what a government that serves the people can look like. It’s hard to remember how good it can feel to fight righteous fights and win them.

But when I look at Ras, sitting alone, reflecting on his victory for his community, his state and the long arc of justice in America, I remember.

It takes me back a dozen years, to when, as a high school senior, I served as the Speaker’s page in that very same House chamber. That was the year Iowa lawmakers voted to outlaw discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity — a giant leap for equal rights that both embraced Iowa’s history of social progress and foreshadowed its early legalization of same-sex marriage.

With that vote, thousands of Iowans gained legal protection and legal recognition. They saw their full humanity and value finally written into the letter of the law. I watched the vote with a literal front-row seat to history — and for me it changed everything.

ADVERTISEMENT

As an 18-year-old, I learned that government is not just politics. Policy is not just words on a page or numbers in a budget. Representative government is our vehicle for making change — real, lasting change to extend justice and correct injustice, to solve real problems and improve people’s lives.

It’s one of the moments that inspired me to run for office and remains a North Star for the role I’m lucky enough to play in our representative government.

I grew up saying the Pledge of Allegiance, and what struck me then, as I grew to understand the words, and what strikes me now, as I reflect on them from this public trust I hold on behalf of the people of Iowa, is that final phrase: “liberty and justice for all.

What Rep. Smith, the Iowa House Black Caucus and advocates across Iowa accomplished last week echoes what I saw lawmakers do in that formative moment more than a decade ago: they made more real the promise of justice for all.

And just as importantly, they showed a new generation of rising American leaders that we still can.

As broken as our institutions seem, we’ve seen this month that our political process and public policy still can be a force for justice. States across the nation are now acting on reform, and Congress, too, is advancing meaningful change with the Justice in Policing Act.

(Even the U.S. Supreme Court seems caught up in the spirit; four days after Smith’s bill passed, the court finally extended the protections long afforded in Iowa law to all LGBTQ Americans.)

The Plan for a More Perfect Union grew out of the protests, marches and demonstrations that followed the killing of George Floyd — many of them organized by young people getting engaged for the first time. The bill’s passage is proof that their voices and activism matters, and I hope it inspires them to a lifetime of political engagement.

We’re living through a terribly difficult moment for our country, one that will define us for decades to come. But we cannot discount our country’s capacity to do better and be better. We cannot be afraid to live up to our most cherished and longest-held values.

Rep. Ras Smith and the Iowa House Black Caucus showed us it can be done. Now it’s up to all of us to keep up the fight.

Abby FinkenauerAbby Lea FinkenauerHouse Democrats target Midwestern GOP seats Obama announces first wave of 2020 endorsements Iowa GOP House candidate pulls multiple sections from website amid plagiarism accusations MORE, 31, is the congresswoman for Iowa’s 1st District.