By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

Dr. Shirley N. Weber served eight years in the California Assembly before being nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Alex Padilla, whom he had appointed to the U.S. Senate as secretary of state. She was sworn in for a second time in January, having been voted into a full term in November.
Dr. Shirley N. Weber served eight years in the California Assembly before being nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Alex Padilla, whom he had appointed to the U.S. Senate as secretary of state. She was sworn in for a second time in January, having been voted into a full term in November. Verbal Adam, OBSERVER

Back in 2019, The OBSERVER named Assemblymember Shirley N. Weber its Person of the Year, mainly for her work demanding police reform in the wake of the tragic death of a local unarmed Black man in 2018.

In addition to getting Assembly Bill 392, aka the Stephon Clark bill, passed, Dr. Weber earned a reputation for taking on issues from mental health to voting rights. She also successfully passed legislation related to ethnic studies in public schools, racial profiling, police body cameras and improvements to a flawed database that tracked alleged gang members.

Dr. Weber served eight years in the Assembly before being nominated by Gov. Gavin Newsom to replace Alex Padilla as secretary of state. Voters overwhelmingly kept her in the position in 2022 and she was sworn in for a second time in January.

Dr. Weber recently shared insights from her work and the path that led to it during a fireside chat at Golden 1 Center. The intimate conversation was part of the Sacramento Kings’ Team Up for Change summit, which seeks to inspire, unite, and activate around a call for social justice and racial equality. Held in March in honor of Women’s History Month, organizers used the event to highlight the contributions of women leaders working in the social justice movement.

Secretary Weber was interviewed by her daughter, Dr. Akilah Weber, who replaced her in the Assembly. Secretary Weber talked about making history as California’s first Black secretary of state and the responsibility she feels to nurture the next generation of leaders.

“Anytime when you move out there and you’re the first, people are watching,” she said.

More important than being first, she added, is ensuring there’s a second, third and so on.

“You have a unique opportunity to bring other people with you and that’s the thing that I find so exciting,” Secretary Weber said. “People talk about the glass ceiling for women. I talk about the steel ceiling for Black folks.” 

There’s a world of difference between the two. 

“With a glass ceiling, you can look up and see what’s at the next level,” Dr. Weber said. “You can see the people in the room, you can even see how they came in; you can figure out where the door is. If you’re good, you can read lips and figure out what they’re talking about. It gives you some opportunities.

“But when you talk about a steel ceiling, think about it: you walk into a room with a steel ceiling, you don’t know who’s above you, you don’t know how they got there because you can’t see the doors. You don’t know if you’re really on the second floor or the basement or whether you’re on the fifth floor.”

That makes it difficult, she said, not only to figure out where you are, but who you are. Dr. Weber recalls being a public servant in San Diego and being the only Black woman, or Black person at all, in many spaces. She learned to navigate, and negotiate, her way through those experiences. She then made it her business to share what she’d learned with others.

“I tell people I may be the first, but I won’t be the last.”

Five Black women now serve in the state legislature. “That’s the largest number of Black women in the Assembly and the Senate, I believe, that there has ever been at any one time,” Secretary Weber said. “They need folks to help get where they need to go, to raise money, to give them assistance. Those kinds of things are important.”

Lessons Imparted From Lived Experience

Secretary Weber’s legacy in the Assembly includes putting reparations for the descendents of Black slaves at the top of the California Legislative Black Caucus’ priority list. Her bill AB 3121, led to the creation of the nation’s first statewide reparations task force. The group’s final report is due in June and then lawmakers, including caucus and task force members Sen. Steve Bradford and Assemblymember Reggie Jones-Sawyer, will decide what to do with their recommendations on compensating Blacks for the harms of slavery and continued discrimination.

The daughter of former sharecroppers from rural Hope, Arkansas, Secretary Weber has long touted the power of voting. It’s what motivated her to accept Gov. Newsom’s invitation to be California’s elections chief.

“I thought this would be a unique opportunity because I’ve come out of an experience where I thoroughly understand how my parents, my grandparents never got a chance to vote,” she said.

In visits to her grandfather she saw the humiliation and degradation that occurred in his life as a Black man in the Jim Crow South. He lived in constant fear of being lynched or having harm come to his family. Her own father had fled the South with the Ku Klux Klan at his heels, relocating his young family to Southern California. Blacks finally won the guaranteed right to vote in 1965.

“I saw in my parents this extremely important desire to have political influence, to vote, to make their vote count,” Secretary Weber said. “They voted in every election, no matter how large or how small. My mom would get the ballot and she would read to my dad what it was because he could read a little bit, but not a lot. He listened more to radios and televisions.”

Her parents planned out their voting and opened their home as a polling place. “Voting was a very powerful event,” Secretary Weber said. “My dad taught me that and I saw in the Medgar Evers story and things like that when I was a kid, how people were dying for the right to vote. I realized that given my direct experience, not just something I read in the book, but a direct experience, would be an opportunity to educate a generation of young people who had forgotten about the civil rights era, didn’t know much about Medgar Evers [and] who really didn’t understand what voter suppression was really all about and how it changed the personality and the nature of people living in the South.”

Evers, the NAACP’s courageous first field secretary in Mississippi, was shot to death by a white supremacist on June 12, 1963, leading to the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Secretary Weber breaks it down for people, showing how “the math” all relates to their lives.

“I wanted to empower them, to help them understand the power of their vote. So I tell people, it’s like you sit at home with 10 people and you all have one vote. That’s a power; one-tenth is a power base but when you decide not to vote, you have zero power. Now everybody else has at least 11% of the vote. As their percentage keeps growing, their power keeps growing because you chose not to vote and that says you are helping other folks have power. And it may be people you don’t even like and all of a sudden they have your power because you didn’t use it.”

A number of young people were in the audience for the Team Up for Change event. Secretary Weber also makes regular visits to high schools throughout the state, educating future voters. “We have to help young people understand that if you want to change something, you have to be much more thoughtful and intentional,” she said. “Voting is extremely important to me. I’ve seen what happens when people do vote.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of “A Powerful Sisterhood,” a series highlighting the contributions of past and present Black women lawmakers in California.