Congresswoman Cori Bush Talks Overcoming Adversity, Creating Change And Her New Memoir

Congresswoman Cori Bush Talks Overcoming Adversity, Creating Change And Her New Memoir

At a time where a hunger for authentic, courageous leadership has been rising in this country, Congresswoman Cori Bush is a role model and inspiration for overcoming almost unimaginable obstacles. As she documents in her powerful new book, The Forerunner, Bush’s harrowing personal journey was filled with a constant onslaught of challenges and traumas, which included domestic and sexual assault, hunger and poverty, being an unhoused parent, multiple forms of discrimination and seeing friends experience drug abuse, gun violence and police brutality.

Rather than being held back by her personal challenges, Bush—a nurse, pastor, and community organizer who passionately protested violence against Black lives in Ferguson—drew on these experiences to fuel and embolden her to run for office and ultimately unseat a 20-year incumbent to become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress.

Now, as one of America’s most transformative politicians and activists, and a prominent member of “The Squad,” Bush works to dismantle systems of violence and prioritize the needs of marginalized communities.

In the following interview, Bush talks about why she decided to candidly share her story in her memoir, how her difficult life experiences help inform her policy making, why it’s so important to have more women, Black women and other underrepresented voices at change-making tables, and much more.

Marianne Schnall: Why did you decide to write your book in this moment, and what are you most hoping that readers will take away from it?

Cori Bush: As I talk about in the book, I was given a journal and a pen back when I was 16. My boyfriend at the time, his mother gave me this journal and said, “The Lord told me to give you this journal because you need to write your story.” She told me that I would write a book, and immediately, even though I had never heard that before or had the desire to write a book, I knew when she said that, that I would one day write a book. But it just never seemed like the time. I couldn’t figure out what the heart of the book was. Even though I had these stories and situations and traumas that I had gone through, I couldn’t figure out what was the core of the message.

It wasn’t until 20 years later, I’m running for the seat and we’re getting close to the end of the race in 2020, and someone approached me and said, “You need to write a book. Your story should be told.” When I won, that’s when I knew that it was time because I realized what the core of the message was. I just knew I needed people to get out of this book that regardless of what you’ve gone through, regardless of whatever trauma, whatever hardships or burdens or adversity you have had to face, whatever stigmas people may have placed upon you, that you are still valuable, that you are still valued, that you’re still worthy and that you deserve to have the same dignity in this society as anyone else, but also you carry a voice that other people need to hear.

As far as running for office, people like me need to know that you can run for office. It used to be that you had to cover those things. You had to put your best foot forward and look like you’re better than everyone else, like you have all the answers. We need people to know that you do have answers because you’ve gone through some stuff that other people cannot. They can’t advocate the same because they don’t understand. That’s why we have some of the policy violence we have right now, because we have people making decisions and making bills about stuff and they don’t really know what they’re creating because they haven’t had to walk through those things.

Schnall: It’s so inspiring that you not only overcame the adversity you went through but also that, despite it all, you went on to passionately campaign and become the first Black woman to represent Missouri in Congress. What inspired you to run for political office?

Bush: Initially it was because I was asked. I had never wanted to run for office. I told my dad [who was a mayor] when I was around 18 that I would never run for office. But after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson on August 9th, 2014, we were out there protesting for 400 days in the rain, sleet, hail and snow, and we still didn’t have accountability or what we thought would be justice at the time. Someone asked me, another activist who has since been murdered, he asked me to run. And initially, it just didn’t make sense to me, like, “Why would I run? Why are you asking me?”

But eventually when I was asked again, I finally said yes because of the thought that my son could be the next hashtag. I was thinking about my son walking down the street, he’ll have his hoodie over his head, he’ll have his earbuds in, and he’s just walking, listening to music. And I was just thinking, “If a police officer saw him walking down the street and tried to stop him, and he didn’t know that the police officer was talking to him because he has these earbuds on, and then the police officer thinks he’s being disrespectful, what could happen to my son?” My son is just a cuddly, loving, anime- and food-lover kid who loves his mommy. But the police officer wouldn’t know that. Would I then say, “I could’ve done more”? I didn’t want that for my son or my daughter. So that’s what pushed me to go ahead and say yes because I learned out there on the streets of Ferguson during the protest that you’ve got to use whatever you have. They called us the “leaderless movement,” but we were leaderfull. Each one of us used that thing that is special to us.

Schnall: Despite the strides we’re making toward greater diversity, we’re still so far from real parity, with women only making up 27.5% of Congress with only 17.6% of that being Black women. Why is diversity so important?

Bush: That’s one of the things I wanted to accomplish with this book: as Black women, we are enough. We get the applause and the accolades that we helped sway an election, that we helped to move the needle as far as an outcome in an election, but we don’t get treated that same way when we want to run for office. We have to jump through all of these hurdles that other folks don’t. That’s one thing that I wanted to show in this book because I remember when I first ran for US Senate, people said, “You’re a Black woman. You can’t run for US senate. You can’t run for a statewide seat in Missouri. Don’t you know that?” But I didn’t know that, and I still don’t know that—you can.

When I started running for the House seat, it was, “Oh, your braids are too unprofessional. You need to get rid of them. If you want to actually win, you need to look like a Congressperson.” I remember somebody told me, “You need to get Becky hair.” I was told during one race my skin was too dark. Or that I didn’t have the background. “Oh, you’re a nurse? You have to be an attorney to be in Congress.” All of those things.

So through this book, I hope that people see that I don’t have the “normal” things, or what is considered normal, that some folks have going into Congress. And I’m still here. Not only am I still here, I’m doing the work. We’re standing toe to toe with every other member of Congress turning out legislation, speaking about our issues. We didn’t come in like, “Oh, I’ve got to be quiet and wait my turn.” We pushed from day one to be equal with everybody else. So I need Black women to know that we can’t win if we don’t run. But in running, you’ve got to know that you’re worth it, and you’ve got to see how that representation is important.

I have little Black girls and boys who run up to me when they see me; they come up and grab me by the knees, that’s how short they are. They’ll say, “I saw you on TV” or “We talk about you at school, and I want to be just like you.” And I tell them, “I don’t want you to be just like me. I want you to be better than me, and I want you to get there faster than me.” So that representation is important.

Schnall: The traumatic experiences that you so candidly share in your book would normally have discouraged most people or held them back. What advice do you have on overcoming adversity? I heard you say in an interview, “Your trauma does not dictate how far you can go; use it to help someone else.”

Bush: That’s right. Our trauma is part of our history. It’s something that can’t be unwritten, but we can also use it to not just help somebody else but also to bring true change to whatever it is that harmed us. If those who understand the harm the deepest are not the ones at the table to make the change, then the change won’t happen.

Trauma can’t define you, but it can help lead you. And that’s one thing I talk about all the time: I always feel this constant weeping on the inside of me. It just never stops. It’s almost like a drum beat, it’s just weeping on the inside of me. And that’s the weeping of people who are still hurting, who’ve gone through the things or are going through the things that I’ve gone through and so much more. It’s just that reminder to push harder, go longer, fight, don’t stop, push for change. I remember what it was like to be hungry. I can still feel that pain. I remember what it was like to have the boots of those law enforcement officers kicking me from one side to the next. I remember what that pain feels like. I just remember so much that it has me laser focused on the mission to help others.

Schnall: With all the problems we face in the world, what words of encouragement or advice would you offer on sustaining hope and making change?

Bush: Change happens in so many ways on so many levels. We can’t look at change as, “Oh, I did this thing and nothing happened.” No, you’ve got to keep going and keep going and keep going. How many days was the Montgomery bus boycott? Folks walked miles back and forth to work every single day for over 300 days. Did they give up because it was hard? No, they kept going and kept going because they knew change was on the horizon. They knew that change could come if they kept pushing. We protested for more than 400 days in Ferguson. We knew change could happen if we just stayed and pushed and pushed, even though they called us terrorists, even though they heavily surveilled us and they jailed us, and some folks ended up dead. We still pushed. You can make change.

But first, did you change you? That’s what I had to do. I had to change me. I had to be enough for me so that I could go out and understand that I had a voice to be able to help other folks. That’s the other thing that you have to remember: shine your light so that somebody else can grab it and shine light on others. Don’t hold that to yourself. If I speak to ten people now, it’s ten people that now have that message, so that those ten people can now each go talk to ten more people, and then look how we just multiplied that message.

This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.

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