It’s kiiiiiind of an understatement to say there’s a stark difference between this year and last. For Congresswoman Lauren Underwood, 33, the start of 2019 meant becoming the youngest Black woman to ever serve in Congress and the first woman, and first person of color, to represent Illinois’ 14th district. She joined the largest class of women to ever serve in the House—a moment that many saw as a reaction to President Trump’s election in 2016. For Underwood, a registered nurse, it was a return to form: she had previously served as a senior advisor at the Department of Health and Human Services under President Obama’s administration.
Now, in 2020, a year marked in part by a deadly pandemic and an economic crisis, being part of the 116th Congress has meant remote legislating and outdoor office hours with constituents, as Underwood tries to keep her community and herself—she has a heart condition called supraventricular tachycardia—safe.
On Thursday, the same day Joe Biden wrapped up the Democratic National Convention, Underwood went live on ELLE’s Instagram to answer 20 questions about this chaotic year, her guilty pleasure TV show, and being a young person in an old institution. Find an abridged version of the Q&A below, or watch the full video here:
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As a nurse, what’s one thing you’d change about the administration’s response to COVID-19?
The lack of a national, coordinated testing plan, the lack of a coordinated response plan, has set our whole nation back. We’ve had over 170,000 Americans die from the virus. We’ve had over five million people get infected and case rates are increasing across my community. In the absence of the administration’s willingness to take this kind of national, evidence-based, scientific, and data-driven approach, we have to do this work ourselves, each of us. Which is why it’s so important that we take basic steps like wearing our masks, like having good hand hygiene. Then staying six feet apart, right? Social distancing works, but we have to do it.
What’s the most outrageous thing someone has said to you in Congress?
You all, I have seen the dark side of the internet. It’s as gross as you probably imagine it to be. I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. I’m not going to repeat the things that people say, but our political discourse and what you subject yourself to as an elected official, it shouldn’t be that violent. We shouldn’t receive threats. But it’s the reality right now in our country, so we have to be smart and stay safe.
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What’s the most challenging part of being the youngest Black woman to serve in Congress?
There’s a couple of us young women. I’m 33, I was sworn in at 32. The youngest is obviously Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. My old roommate, Katie Hill, she resigned from Congress, but she was next, and then me. Alex and I are the two youngest women of color in Congress, and I would imagine that she would agree that it is tough. Just speaking for myself, I find that this institution is very much not oriented for young people.
For example, our work and the way that we communicate with one another as members does not happen over email or text. It happens, traditionally, in person, or now we’re doing endless conference calls. We’re in the 21st century, but Congress hasn’t quite reflected the new technologic tools that are available to us. That’s been something that’s certainly a challenge to get used to. Not having a peer cohort, people who shared these experiences before and understand what it’s like as members, that’s also something different. But there’s amazing staff that work on the Hill…just because they don’t have the experience of being a young Black woman doesn’t mean that we can’t collaborate well and serve together. Obviously it’s not a hardship, but it’s certainly different.
What’s your guilty pleasure TV show to binge watch?
The best show I watched this summer was the mini-series on ESPN The Last Dance about the last season of the Chicago Bulls championship team. It was just a blast from the past. It made me so excited. It took me right back to fifth grade and my "repeat 3-peat" T-shirts. The pride that I felt being from Illinois and a Chicago Bulls fan and to hear the backstories on what was going on, now as an adult, it was incredible. I highly recommend that. I would not really call that a guilty pleasure.
The other thing that I’ve been watching…one of the shows that just came on Netflix this summer: Moesha. I’ve been watching this classic from the ‘90s. Brandy’s obviously iconic. It’s almost kind of quaint. That would be 100 percent my guilty pleasure for the summer.
What’s the most unexpected thing you learned when you first came to Congress?
There’s so much paper. I had never learned really how to file papers, because hello, we’re millennials, and who gets these packets of paper that you’re supposed to keep up with? Well, that’s the United States Congress.
The other unexpected thing that I learned came from a conversation I had with Vice President Biden right after I was sworn in. The Vice President joined the Senate when he was 30 years old, and I was sworn into the House at 32. He just had some thoughts and advice about what it was like to be a young legislator and ways to connect with colleagues who could be more than double my age. I appreciated his advice, I appreciate just the generosity of time and that he even cared enough to reach out to try to have that kind of conversation.
If you had to quarantine with anybody from the 116th Congress, who would it be?
Listen, I’m with Dr. [Kim] Schrier [who’s a pediatrician]. She represents the eighth district in Washington state. She is fabulous. I think she would be fun and very safe to quarantine with.
Madison is a staff writer at ELLE.com, covering news, politics, and culture.
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August 21, 2020 at 10:34PM