Alumna Karen Bass: Leading From the Hill

This article first appeared in the Fall 2012 issue of Dominguez Today, the university’s magazine that is available in print and online, and is being posted in Dateline following her swearing in on January 3 to the 113th Congress as the 37th District of California representative in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Congresswoman Karen Bass didn’t set out to become the first African American woman to serve as California’s Speaker of the Assembly when her peers in the legislature tapped her for the job in 2008. In fact, if someone had asked about her aspirations four years prior, elected office likely wouldn’t have been on the list.

“I was pushed to run for office by the former Congressmember Diane Watson, because in 2004 there were no African American women in the state legislature,” Bass. “And I did, and it was fine because I found that all the experiences I had before really prepared me to do that. But it hadn’t occurred to me to go up there and be in charge of the whole thing.”

Now Bass can add another first to her bio —the first graduate of CSU Dominguez Hills to serve in the United States Congress. She made the jump to the national political stage in 2010 becoming a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for the 33rd District representing Culver City and portions of Los Angeles, On Jan. 3, 2013 she was sworn in for a new term representing the redrawn 37th Congressional District of California.

In some respects, Bass sees her position as a legislator not unlike what she has done all her life—advocating for people.

Instilled with strong moral values by her parents and having grown up during the 1960s, Bass said that from a young age she was drawn to addressing injustice in all its forms and standing up for what she believes. As early as high school she was volunteering on political campaigns, following the Civil Rights Movement, and protesting the Vietnam War.

During the early 1970s the new San Diego State college student continued to volunteer her time and efforts to causes important to her. Bass returned to southern California before completing her degree in philosophy, and instead sought a career that afforded her time to devote to her political activism and, equally as important, one that also aligned with her values system. It turned out that an interest in health care, which came from caring for her diabetic mother, was a good fit.

“It’s that set of values that led me to a profession that would help people. That’s the same set of values that led me to be an activist,” she said. “So the passion that underlines whether I’m working in a hospital or whether I’m attending meetings, it’s the same drive.”

She became a nurse and ultimately a physician’s assistant (PA). It was while a practicing PA and teaching clinical courses in the PA program at the University of Southern California in the late 1980s that she decided to return to school to complete her bachelor’s degree. She chose CSU Dominguez Hills because it had just developed a bachelor’s in health science with a physician’s assistant option in collaboration with USC.

Bass recalls one professor who really had an impact on her, Erma Wells, former chair of the Division of Health Science.

“I worked with her, not only as a professor, but also as an administrator,” she said, explaining that after she finished her degree she taught briefly in the program and Wells had been a mentor to her in both aspects. “She recently passed away, and I wanted to acknowledge that she played an incredible role in my education.”

When Bass graduated from CSU Dominguez Hills in 1990, it was also the year her career and her activism took a new direction. Crack use among the low-income
African American communities in Los Angeles was reaching epidemic proportions, and Bass saw too many people affected by it coming through the emergency room.

“A good percentage of what comes in [to the ER], it’s either fights or accidents, domestic violence, but all those, if you look at the root of them, there’s drugs or alcohol,” she said. “So when the crack cocaine epidemic hit that led me to want to figure out how to address it, and so I started Community Coalition. It wound up being a new profession for me.”

Rep. Bass continues to be an advocate for issues she’s passionate about, including foster care. She serves on the Congressional Caucus for Foster Youth. (Photo courtesy the Office of Karen Bass)

The Community Coalition worked to affect change at the policy level—fighting for stricter regulations in such areas as land use and alcohol sales. That led Bass to Sacramento, where she began meeting with legislators on statewide issues and after more than decade of advocating through Community Coalition she was encouraged to enter politics.

“What I’ve learned from being in office is that my background as an activist and as an organizer has been extremely helpful to me because I spent most of my time trying to build coalitions with people, trying to bring people together to address a problem, and those are experiences that are very, very helpful as an elected official,” Bass said.

Having led the California Assembly during the height of California’s budget crisis may have prepared her for her second transition, Washington D.C. Although a new kid on the block, Bass said the past two years on Capitol Hill have been better than she expected. She has been privileged to sit on two key committees, the House Budget Committee, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs. She also serves on the Sub-committee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights.
And she’s making a name for herself as a spokesperson for the Democratic members of Congress, often speaking on national news programs.

Reflecting on being the first Toro in a national political spotlight, Bass said it’s an honor to be that person who has nudged open the door for the next person.

“You feel good about that because it’s an opportunity to send a signal to other people that there are no barriers for you. Today you never think as a woman you couldn’t ever do something; children of color will never think that maybe they couldn’t be president,” Bass said. “So for that, it’s very exciting to be able to play that role and inspire someone else.”

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