In a faded photo from 1975, is a smiling woman, a formerly enslaved person, sporting a metallic gray birthday hat. In front of her is a 3-year-old Sen. Sydney Kamlager.
“Gram was born a slave and freed by Lincoln. She carried her papers to prove her freedom every day of her life,” the California Senator tweeted, sharing her great-great grandmother’s photo with her followers.
Kamlager, the only Black woman serving in the California Senate, spoke with California Black Media about her career, what inspires her and the priorities she has fought for since her term began.
“It is a heavy and awesome responsibility, feeling like I am speaking for millions of women like me,” Kamlager said, talking about being the only Black woman in the state Senate.
“I don’t take it lightly and I’m trying to get more of us in there,” she said.
Kamlager says her great-great-grandmother is one of her greatest inspirations.
“When she was born, she was not free, and her DNA is inside of me. That’s the thing that motivates me, that this woman in my family was strong enough to live through that circumstance. It’s something that I wake up and think about every day,” said Kamlager.
Kamlager attributes her success to her parents and counts them as another source of inspiration.
“My parents were social justice activists in Chicago, fighting to make sure that community members had access to healthcare and housing,” she said. “I come from a family that was denied housing because they were interracial.”
Her life in public service started in Chicago, she says.
“I got my first taste of politics helping my grandmother work to get Harold Washington elected as the first Black mayor of Chicago,” Kamlager recalled.
Kamlager left Chicago to attend the University of Southern California. She was there when the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out. That experience helped strengthen her resolve to enter public life, she says.
“It was the first time I saw what happens when a city stops listening to its communities,” she said. “The next summer, I spent time working to figure out how we could both rebuild LA and build bridges between communities.”
Kamlager’s journey to becoming a California elected official began in 2017 when she threw her hat in the 54th Assembly District race to complete the term of former Assemblymember Sebastian Ridley-Thomas. The next year, she won the special election and was sworn into office in April.
Then, in November 2020, she announced her run for the State Senate when former Sen. Holly Mitchell resigned. Kamlager won that special election in March.
Now, as the state Senator representing the 30th District, criminal justice, health care, housing and racial equity are among Kamlager’s priorities.
“I spend a lot of time in the criminal justice space. I have a number of bills this year that focus on criminal and legal issues,” Kamlager said.
“One is AB 333 which is a due process bill as it relates to gang enhancement charges. Another bill AB 127 got signed into law by the governor this Monday which says that prosecutors can also attest to an arrest warrant of a police officer involved in a police shooting. And ACA 3 which is about taking involuntary servitude out of the state constitution,” she continued.
The Senator also spoke about economics and how it impacts the lives of Black Californians.
“It is incredibly important to talk about the economics of Black America and Black California and to connect that to issues of housing, transportation, jobs and education,” Kamlager said.
For her, an important part of the Black economic power conversation is reparations.
“I’ve been incredibly supportive of the reparations task force that is moving along and making sure that some of these things get agendized,” she said.
Kamlager mentioned the ongoing inequity in the medical sector, an issue that the COVID-19 pandemic laid bare.
“I introduced a number of implicit bias bills to have training in our medical community because we saw who was getting treated and who wasn’t,” she said.
Kamlager says her office used the Budget Act of 2021 to help fund local programs, including art, healthcare and housing initiatives. About $400 million of the state’s $267.1 billion budget this year supports projects to which Kamlager and her team helped steer funding.
“I was very active in this year’s budget negotiations,” Kamlager continued. “I was instrumental in the work to get $30 million to our public hospitals, which we know were ground zero for so many of the COVID cases.”
Childcare providers were heroes who stepped up during the pandemic, she says. They took care of children as their essential worker parents soldiered on to make sure the economy and health care systems kept running.
Another one of her priorities is housing equity through efforts like Project Room Key, a state program created in response to the pandemic. It provides motel and hotel rooms for people experiencing homelessness.
Programs like that expose some of the same inequities they were designed to diminish, Kamlager points out.
“With Project Room Key, the majority of the homeless individuals that got placed during the pandemic were White homeless individuals even though we know 62% of the folks who are homeless are Black,” she said.
The senator also addressed the rise of hate crimes.
“We can elevate the issues of African Americans when we are on the floor giving speeches,” she continued. “We have done that. We will do that. But there is an element of fear that is predicated on the history of this country, and it’s based on the fact that Black people, one, are feared, and two, are not valued.”
“Legislation doesn’t fix that, she added. “It is the collective energy and voices of Black Californians, Black Americans and their allies elevating those discrepancies and disparities so that folks are able to reflect on them.”