Simone Oliver is Refinery29's Global Editor-in-Chief. She is based in New York.
We all know President Joe Biden and Madame Vice President Kamala Harris aren’t going to fix everything wrong with this country overnight. They are not perfect, nor do we expect them to be. We also know that we can’t just swipe left on the previous administration. It happened and, now, here we are.
But where is “here,” exactly? Let’s be real, the problems we face in America didn’t all originate in the past four years. Discrimination and inequality are woven into our nation’s fabric by design, and the recent violence at the Capitol wasn’t hate’s debut — it was a continuation of a legacy not only of white supremacy, but of an institutional willingness to ignore it until it boils over.
Things might have calmed down a bit in the two weeks since that impossible-to-ignore moment, but that doesn’t mean we’ve healed. That’s why, for many, yesterday’s inauguration was a lot to process. On a group chat, a friend said, “I don’t know how I feel today… I’m just still sad about the last four years. It’s hard to shake that immediately.” I didn’t need a census survey to know he wasn’t alone. The historic firsts we were celebrating were only one part of the day.
And yet, I woke up feeling joyful. For me, this transfer of power is also the start of a psychological transformation. As a Black woman and Howard University alumna, Kamala stands as a symbol of realized potential, and makes the future look less dim for future generations of young girls, including my 17-year-old step-daughter and seven-year-old daughter.
I’m not naive enough to think the swearing in of Madam Vice President Kamala Harris was a singular antidote for a nation in need of a comprehensive cure. But, it was an invaluable testament to the power of representation and showing our girls what’s possible — and that possibility offers hope.
Despite my happiness, though, I realized I had become numb, fatigued, and — dare I admit it — jaded. And, that’s not what I want to inspire in my girls. With that in mind, I saw yesterday as an opportunity, a rededication to hope in my own heart. When Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor asked Kamala to repeat after her and take her oath of office, it signalled that this country had actually taken a step toward being ready to accept that women and women of colour can lead at the highest levels of office. I felt seen. It meant that when my girls walk into a job interview they might be seen, too.
Twenty-two-year-old poet Amanda Gorman’s regal and wise-beyond-her-years presence was the icing for me. Amanda stood as the embodiment of promise. My heart is still swollen. It was this line from her poem that impacted me the most: “That even as we hurt, we grew.”
After yesterday, my girls’ — all of our girls' — futures feel as bright as Amanda’s sunflower-coloured coat. I revelled in that. I went to sleep pregnant with hope and I allowed myself to sit in my complicated chaos of emotions.
Today, my mind toggles back and forth between visualizing the future and our current state. I think of the Black girls who are actively criminalized in their school, the kids who were illegally separated from their parents because of immigration, and the tall tower of chips stacked against girls and women everywhere.
So, now what?
With every milestone we need momentum. Leadership is about being accountable to the people you serve, and before this administration’s plot unfolds any further I’m choosing to recalibrate and hold myself accountable.
Here at Refinery29 we didn’t kick off 2021 with the typical “New Year, New You” grouping of stories that lifestyle publications often defer to. We talked about our “Good Baggage” and how to productively channel your 2020 anger or frustration about the status quo, how to be active. Many of us are still figuring out our own ways to be accountable, to take action, to be allies, to hold it all together.
Because the hardest work begins today, I’m committed to being more intentional in my own journey. I have a voice and a platform, so I’m pledging to help spread the word about people or organizations that are simply trying to make the world a better place. Allow me to introduce Girl Up, a gender equality youth initiative of the United Nations Foundation. They focus on teaching girls skills that they’ll need to become leaders, so even at a young age, girls can be empowered on a global scale to help fight against gender-focused issues — education disparities, gender violence, to name a few. They actively help shape potential with tangible skills.
We partnered with Girl Up (@girlupcampaign) and Ogilvy, to release “Today We Rise,” a short film that encapsulates what watching Kamala officially become Vice President made us — especially those of us watching with a young girl that is close to our hearts — feel. “Today We Rise” was filmed and produced by a volunteer network of photographers and cinematographers during the inauguration in over 30 households across the country who were driven by the hope of Kamala's nomination alone and wanted to record the mixed moments of relief, pride, and anticipation when imagining who your daughter, niece, or little sister can become.
“This moment is about hope and possibilities. It's about infinite potential – not just that of Madam Vice President Kamala Harris, but of every girl, everywhere. Girls seeing her today will grow up to remember the moment they first believed they could do anything – because of what they saw her do,” said Melissa Kilby, Girl Up Executive Director.
This film illustrates the immeasurable impact that the images of Vice President Harris taking her oath of office, administered by Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor — the first Latina to serve on the nation’s highest court — will have on generations to come.
As a Howard University household (my husband also went there), my seven-year-old has been very in tune with the excitement around the Vice President’s election. Recently, she asked what an inauguration was. I explained, “Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are making a promise to the country that they will be the best leaders they can be.” An oversimplification, but factual. Then she asked why it’s taken so long for America to have a woman as a vice president. I went into a long, overly complicated explanation about patriarchy, race and whatnot to which she simply replied, “Well, if Kamala is doing it that means I can too, right?”