Representation Matters: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

Representation Matters: You Can’t Be What You Can’t See

November 20, 2020
Category: News
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A group of multiethnic adults in professional attire smiling in different frames making a united photo.

In many ways, social justice is a matter of fairness. It’s a matter of each and every member of a community being seen, heard, and represented in equal measure.

To quote Aisha Thomas, “until society represents everyone, the questions will always be: ‘where do I belong?’, ‘do I belong?’”

Representation matters in conversations about social justice. Representation matters, period.


Celebrating Historic “Firsts”

When it comes to representation and historic “firsts,” the United States has a lot to celebrate right now.

When people call something “historic” or say it “made history” we often mean it’s the first of its kind. For example, in 1917, Jeannette Rankin of Montana made history by becoming the first woman to serve in Congress. In 2008, Barack Obama made history by becoming the first Black president in U.S. history.

These historic “firsts” are rarely “lasts.” They often indicate that a powerful shift or change will follow. For instance, in the century since Jeannette Rankin’s “first,” a total of 366 women have served as a U.S. Representative, Delegate, or Senator.

The 2020 election saw many more of these “firsts” that will shape not only the political climate of our country but also the way that we as a people see ourselves.

Creating Inclusive Communities from the Top Down

Making a community more inclusive isn’t just about hosting international festivals on your college campus, or adding some Spanish songs to the playlist at your prom, or celebrating Juneteenth. Those things matter, but they can feel like empty gestures if they don’t come with deeper, more systemic action.

Building more inclusive communities also means inviting students from all backgrounds to join (and lead!) school clubs.  It means hiring BIPOC (Black, Indigenous People of Color) in leadership roles at your organization, whether you’re a tiny non-profit or mid-sized university or a multi-national corporation.

It also means making sure that the people in power are representative of the people who they serve. This includes electing leaders who look like their constituents.


NCCJ Values

We may all inhabit the same space, but building truly just and compassionate communities becomes much more difficult if we don’t all feel like we belong.

NCCJ promotes understanding and respect between different groups. We advocate for fair, inclusive and equitable treatment for all people. We value the differences that make each person unique. We believe that celebrating those differences makes our community and our society stronger and more resilient.


The “Firsts”

With that in mind, we celebrate the many “firsts” that this election brought our country, including in our home state of North Carolina:

  • In North Carolina, Ricky Hurtado became the first-ever Latino elected to the state’s house of representatives.
  • In Delaware, Sarah McBride became the first openly transgender state senator in U.S. history.
  • In Kansas, Stephanie Byers became the state’s first openly transgender lawmaker. In addition, Byers – a member of the Chickasaw Nation – is the first Indigenous trans person elected to any state legislature in the U.S.
  • In Vermont, Taylor Small became the first openly transgender member of the state’s legislature.
  • In Florida,
    • Michele Rayner-Goolsby became the first Black, openly queer woman elected to the Florida House of Representatives
    • Shevrin Jones became the first openly gay person ever elected to the state’s senate.
  • In New York,
    • Mondaire Jones and Ritchie Torres became the first openly gay Black men elected to serve in Congress – and Torres is also the first openly gay afro-Latino ever elected.
    • Jabari Brisport became New York’s first queer state senator of color.
    • Khaleel Anderson, elected to represent Assembly District 31, became New York’s youngest-ever Black lawmaker at the state level.
    • Zohran Mamdani and Jenifer Rajkumar, two Indian-American Democrats became the first South Asians to represent the lower house of New York’s state legislature.
  • In Georgia, Kim Jackson became Georgia’s first openly LGBTQ+ state senator
  • In Oklahoma, Mauree Turner became the first non-binary person elected to the state legislature. They also became the state’s first Muslim legislator.
  • In Missouri, Cori Bush became the state’s first Black woman elected to represent the state in Congress
  • In New Mexico, the state made history by becoming the first state to elect all women of color to the House:
    • Dec Haaland, one of the fist Native American women in Congress, was reelected for her second term;
    • Yvette Herell, a member of the Cherokee Nation, won her race for the state’s 2nd Congressional District;
    • Teresa Leger Fernandez became the next representative of NM’s 3rd Congressional District, making her the first Latina to ever do so.
  • In Colorado, Iman Jodeh became the state’s first Muslim lawmaker, representing District 41 in the Colorado House of Representatives.
  • In Washington State, Marilyn Strickland is both the first Black woman to represent the state in Congress and the first Korean-American Congresswoman in U.S. history.
  • At the national level, Kamala Harris made history as the United States’ first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian Vice President-elect.

Each of these “firsts” is a landmark moment in history. Together, they are game-changing.


Why It Matters

Much like representation in popular media, representation in leadership is vital because it send a message to the people being represented that their existence is both acknowledged and valued. Unlike representation in media, representation in leadership also sends the powerful signal that “people like me” belong in the decision-making bodies that set our policies and make our laws. It sends the message that “leaders also look like me – and that means I can be a leader.”

That’s not to say people need to be recognized by others in order to feel validated. But minorities seeing themselves in positions of power plays an immense role in fostering a feeling of belonging and acceptance. Nurturing these feelings in all people is vital for a community united by justice and fairness. The more diversity and inclusion we see in positions of power, the more voices are being heard.

These voices have been speaking, singing, humming for a long time. This election was historic because, as Senator McBride says, minorities who are often underrepresented can now look up to their leaders and think, “this democracy is big enough for me, too.”



Marguerite Ward and Inyoung Choi, “All the history-making moments for diversity and representation in the 2020 election,” Business Insider, November 6, 2020.

Brian Good, “2020 Election Brings a Number of Historic Wins for Diversity,” DiversityInc, November 5, 2020.

Jeevika Verma, “Local, State Elections Hit Unique Diversity Milestones,” Morning Edition, NPR, November 5, 2020.

Aisha Thomas, “Why Representation Matters,” TEDxBristol.