Barbara Lee was born in El Paso, Texas in 1946. Growing up in the segregated Southwest, Barbara learned at an early age the importance of standing up for one’s beliefs and of fighting for equality for all.
Barbara’s family moved to California in 1960, where she honed her leadership for social change. As a high school student attending San Fernando High School, Barbara successfully challenged a school district policy that prevented her from trying out for the cheerleading team because of her race. With the help of the NAACP, Barbara Lee’s activism changed this discriminatory rule and she became the first black cheerleader in the history of her school district.
Barbara later moved to the San Francisco bay area so that she could attend Mills College in Oakland. During college, she quickly became a leader in the region’s vibrant civil rights movement—being elected president of the Black Student Union. Her commitment as a community activist led her to get involved in Representative Shirley Chisholm’s campaign for president. Representative Chisholm was the first African American woman to run for president and she would become a strong role model, friend and mentor to Barbara in the years ahead.
Upon receiving her Bachelor of Arts degree from Mills College, Barbara enrolled in U.C. Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare, where she trained in clinical psychology. During her clinical internship at Highland Hospital’s inpatient psychiatric ward, Barbara found that the hospital lacked approaches tailored to the health needs of its African American patients. Based on this experience, she founded and managed the Community Health Alliance for Neighborhood Growth and Education (CHANGE), a community-based mental health clinic in Berkeley, California.
Acting on the advice she received from Representative Chisholm to “get involved”, Barbara applied to become a congressional intern through the program called Cal in the Capitol. She was assigned to the office of then-Congressman Ron Dellums—a place she would spend the next decade of her life in service to her community. During her tenure working for the Congressman, Barbara Lee worked on Capitol Hill and in the Oakland district office. Eventually, she became the Congressman’s Administrative Assistant, before leaving the staff to start her own small business.
Barbara’s own political career began in 1990, when she won election to the California State Assembly. Six years later, she would be elected to the State Senate. Barbara proved very skillful in her ability to forge coalitions and get her legislation signed into law, even by a Republican governor. In total, Barbara authored 67 bills that were signed into law. Her legislative efforts focused on issues such as education, public safety, environmental protection, health, labor, and women’s rights. In addition, Barbara worked to promote links between California and African countries.
Upon the retirement of Congressman Dellums in February 1998, Barbara Lee ran to succeed her former boss in the House of Representatives. In a special election held in April 1998, she won convincingly, receiving over 67% of the vote.
The courage of her conviction was highlighted early in Barbara’s congressional career, when, on September 15, 2001, she stood alone in casting the only vote against authorizing the use of military force in the wake of the 9/11 tragedy. Amidst enormous pressure, Congresswoman Lee stood firm in casting her dissenting vote to granting President George W. Bush authority to start military actions – anywhere. For her action, Congresswoman Lee received worldwide attention as a peace leader.
Barbara Lee has proven to be an effective leader within the United States Congress, championing legislation to fight poverty, clean up our environment, eradicate HIV/AIDS, and bring universal healthcare to uninsured Americans. In 2008, she was elected Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus and also co-founded the Congressional Out of Poverty Caucus. Barbara is also a member and former Co-Chair of the Progressive Caucus.
In recognition of her leadership, she has received hundreds of accolades throughout her career including the 2009 International Woman of Courage Award given by the U.S. State Department. In 2005, she was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize along with women from 150 countries as part of the international project, 1000 Women for Peace.
Barbara is also an accomplished author, having written dozens of newspaper columns and magazine articles. Her first book, Renegade for Peace and Justice: Congresswoman Barbara Lee Speaks for Me, was published in 2008.