The first encounter I had with Summer Lee was when she reached out to me in 2017, asking to meet with me to discuss LGBTQ issues that were on her radar. I learned she is an attorney and children’s advocate, she’s been deeply involved in the efforts to push back against police and staff brutality against students in the Woodland Hills School District. She is currently running for State Representative in the 34th district against the conservative pro-life Democrat (Paul Costa). Because I believe in the power of state elections to change this world, I asked Summer to answer a few questions that I’ve also posed to other Democratic challengers in local House races. I think Summer’s campaign is one of the most important of 2018. Read on to see what you think.
Your Name: Summer Lee
Your Pronouns: She/her/hers
How do you describe your identity? I identify as a black woman, who is an organizer and advocate for marginalized communities. My race and gender, specifically, have shaped my life experiences.
Tell us about the first LGBTQ person you met and what impact they had on your life? I can’t honestly say that I remember the very first LGBTQ person I’ve met. They’ve been my closest family members, Many of my closest friends, community members, people I know as merely acquaintances – I’ve known LGBTQ folk my entire life. However, I remember when my older cousin came out to our family (his was the first coming out that I can recall). When we were younger, he never cared much for gender roles and traditional masculinity. I was shocked both by the older folk in our family being surprised and by them being upset. Even though I was a child, I remember confronting some of our elders about their views on religion, sexuality, and their reaction to my older cousin. In our community, it’s absolutely not appropriate for children to question adults, but the conversation we had was meaningful and, I believe, they were receptive. Speaking out against bigotry in my family in that instance set the framework for my passion for advocacy and defending the inherent value, diversity, and worth of all people.
Please tell me about your familiarity with the LGBTQ community in your district and the region. I am a lifelong resident of district 34 and I have friends, family, and other acquaintances who identify on the LGBTQ spectrum. From conversations with these people, I do question the idea of a single collective and inclusive LGBTQ community in the area. From the point of view of those I’m close to, specifically black LGBTQ folk, racism and lack of intersectionality is still pervasive in the LGBTQ community. As with many other communities and movements, diversity, inclusivity, and intersectionality must be intentional and at the forefront of shifting culture and creating true community.
Based on this, what do you understand to be our top LGBTQ concerns and priorities for the General Assembly? How will you respond to those priorities? As many of us know, Pennsylvania is one of the few states that lacks a robust LGBTQ anti-discrimination law. I am a strong supporter of the PA Fairness Act.
However, I do not believe that the top LGBTQ concerns and priorities are items that exclusively impact the LGBTQ community. Legislation dealing with poverty and racism – through taxing the wealthy to fund our schools, through ending the school-to-prison pipeline – is uniquely important for (for example) LBGTQ youth of color. Issues of homelessness, discriminatory or abusive policing, and lack of good job opportunities plague our communities everyday, and I believe are central to any pro-LGBTQ agenda.
Ultimately, we will not win on any of these priorities without a coalition that cuts across geographic and cultural lines. I will make it a priority to support people across the state seeking to implement the agenda we need.
How does intersectionality inform your work? Intersectionality is the keystone of my work and advocacy. As a black woman, the intersection of my gender and race creates unique manifestations of discrimination that cannot be addressed through the lens of only gender or race alone. I understand that other groups of folk have multiple aspects of their identities that, combined or separate, provide or negate privileges in a predominately white, cis-hetero, patriarchal society. I am committed to supporting and creating policy, advocacy, and activism that is inclusive and respectful of all marginalized groups, especially through the lens of intersectionality.
The threats of ‘religious liberty’ laws and exemptions target both LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. How does the General Assembly navigate this equivalency of personal religious freedom with systemic oppression and control of underserved people? I am a religious person. I attend church weekly. The concerns of those who genuinely seek “religious liberty” are not unfamiliar to me; I consider the church an important part of my life, and something that deeply informs my values.
This is one reason I can say with some confidence that those who view basic LGBTQ rights as threats to “religious liberty” are a tiny minority. Sensationalist media coverage has allowed them to play an outsized role in the discourse, pitting LGBTQ rights as antithetical to the right to freely practice one’s faith; however, I do not believe that engaging in discrimination is truly a vital part of anyone’s faith. In this context, “religious liberty” is a smokescreen for those seeking societal permission to discriminate. The General Assembly should push forward with efforts to undermine systemic oppression and stamp out discrimination, and can do so without infringing on religious liberty.
How do the lessons learned from Woodland Hills School District offer a path forward to ensure public education is a priority for state legislators? The slow and steady shift of power and culture in Woodland Hills School District is a true testament to the power of the community. We already value and prioritize education in our daily lives, we must have state legislators who take our concerns, wants, and needs and make them a reality and a standard.
Continued communication and feedback from the community, including students, faculty/staff, and parents regarding education must be commonplace. Guidance from people on the ground working, learning, navigating, and experiencing the school system must be honored and utilized. State legislators must listen to the people, their experiences are their expertise and we must be preventative and constantly respond to our community’s suggestions and continually improve our education system and its outcomes. Adding student representatives to school boards and other advisory boards is one strategy and small step in this direction. Creating a more open and communicative culture so families are engaged beyond negatives but share in the daily growth and positives of their students is an example of changing our approach.
Political dynasties are rampant in Southwestern Pennsylvania politics – including the Costas, Wagners, etc. Two other Democratic members of the State House, Markosek and Hanna, are retiring because their sons are going to run, unopposed, for their seats. Some of these are ‘good guys’ but their ascent to power is not truly democratic. Why is it important to disrupt this legacy of political dynasties? I do not belong to a political dynasty. I do not have any friends that do.
Ultimately, dynastic politics restricts power to a very small number of very privileged people. In this sense, our political families are only one egregious example of the general sickness plaguing our society: wealth and power are concentrated in progressively fewer and fewer hands, at the expense of the rest of us.
We must create, maintain, and protect true ongoing civic engagement. Our policies must match our priorities and not those of the powerful few. We must ensure everyday people have a voice and have politicians who are truly representative of them. We must also make the political system in our country truly democratic and support everyday candidates, it boils down to access. Constituents should always be able to vote and they should also be able to run.
Tell me about your other endorsements and supporters. I am proud to have been endorsed by Food and Water Action, Equality PA, the Pittsburgh Democratic Socialists of America, Steel City Stonewall Democrats, Gertrude Stein Political Club of Greater Pittsburgh, Women for the Future of Pittsburgh, and Our Revolution.
My supporters themselves are diverse – from the high school students making up the core of our younger volunteer base, to the retirees putting in dozens of hours a week on our campaign, ours is a multigenerational and multiracial movement. Beyond age and race our supporters identify across gender, religion, socioeconomic status, education level, occupation status and type, and more. Many different people find space in my campaign; this excites and inspires me. Although we may differ, we all value humanity and believe in basic human rights like healthcare, education, housing, and beyond.
Where can readers find your campaign on social media?
Thank you, Summer.
In addition to Summer, I’ve reached out to multiple Democratic challengers including Aerion Andrew Abney (D19), Sara Innamorato (D21), Dr. Honora Rockar (D12), and Daniel Smith, Jr (D12) – I’ll publish responses if/as they come in. Let me know if I should reach out to someone else.