By Jared D. Childress | OBSERVER Staff Writer
As she delivered the keynote address at Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc.’s “AKA Day at the Capitol,” California Secretary of State Dr. Shirley N. Weber stood behind a lectern that read “Advocate for Social Justice.”
“I’ve been doing that my whole life – most African American legislators are doing that,” Weber told The OBSERVER at the annual event held May 22 at the Citizen Hotel in downtown Sacramento. “There’s no one else who really addresses the conscience of the nation like a Black elected official.”
Weber is the first Black to hold the office of secretary of state in California. She was appointed in 2021, making her the fifth Black statewide constitutional officer in California’s 170-year history. She sees this as a historic moment.
“There are eight statewide constitutional officers in California – and three of them are Black,” Weber, 74, said. “Advocacy is so important now because we have folks in positions like mine.”
Weber earned her doctorate from UCLA and had a 40-year career at San Diego State University. She served eight years on the San Diego Unified School District board before being elected to the Assembly in 2012.
As the self-proclaimed “conscience of the legislature,” she served four terms representing the 79th district. In 2019 she authored Assembly Bill 392 which enacts strict guidelines on when it is permissible that law enforcement use lethal force. In 2020, she authored Assembly Bill 3121 which created the California Reparations Task Force that proposes recommendations for two million Black residents in California.
Shortly before speaking, Weber spoke with The OBSERVER about two of her top priorities: the importance of voting and education.
This Q&A has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Q: One of your priorities is voting equity. Why is this important to you?
A: Voting was the primary issue for the civil rights movement. People always think about the sit-ins where we were at counters rubbing elbows, but the issue that was the greatest challenge and garnered the greatest level of support was voting rights. Voting is extremely important and that’s why people try to manipulate it. Voting gives you the equity necessary to survive in this nation.
In Georgia they [tried to pass a law in 2021] to keep people from voting after noon on Sunday. But why did they do that? Because the churches did something called “souls to the polls.” Right after church on Sunday, they would serve lunch and then put them in buses and drive them to the polls. So they decided to create a law because churches don’t usually end until [noon]. People pay attention to folks who vote.
Q: Another priority is education. Why is that important to you?
A: Our folks fought for the right to be educated and it breaks my heart when I see that we’re not getting what we need. That determines our independence, ability to think for ourselves, write for ourselves, and articulate our positions. Education is fundamental. And so is the right to vote.
Q: Some young people don’t vote because they feel like it won’t change anything and that the system is too far gone. Why is it important for young people to vote?
A: Oftentimes, people in my community will talk about things I’ve done, like reparations, lethal force and all those bills that were hard to pass. But they’ll still say that voting doesn’t make a difference. And I ask them, “Do I make a difference?” They’ll say “Oh, yeah, you make a lot of difference.” So we can see that voting makes a difference but we just get frustrated because we want things to move faster. And I understand that because I’m frustrated often.
Q: So you’re saying that voting matters?
A: Voting matters and people who vote regularly are respected, and I’ve seen that. When running in an election, you always focus on “the five out of five.” That’s the person who voted in the last five elections; that’s your citizen who will always go to the polls and influence who’s going to win the election. Elected officials count on them.
You can’t count on a “one out of five” because in the last five elections you voted once but in the next election the reality is if the wind changes, if it rains, your girlfriend breaks up with you – you’re not going to the polls. But a five out of five? They’re going to the polls if it’s storming.
Q: It sounds like those are the people elected officials are listening to.
A: They are. When I was on the school board, despite all the challenges we faced in the Black community, the people they heard the most were the people from La Jolla [a mostly white, affluent neighborhood in San Diego]. The La Jolla voting population is 90%. They also listened to the Jewish population which votes at 85% or 95% and when they get to the polls, they’re going to vote their interests. Elected officials know that and you can see it in the policies. They’re always going to listen to those folks who vote a lot.
Q: How can people take part in social justice?
A: First of all, they should vote. They can host activities in their community to get information on how to vote and the issues on the ballot, but they should take it first at the personal level. Make sure everybody in their family votes. Make sure all your children are registered.
I tell people if your kids don’t vote you shouldn’t feed them because they’re already dead; so why waste good food on folks that don’t want to live? For people who don’t want to be activists, at least be active in the circle that you live in: your family, your neighbors, your friends.
If you are truly politically inclined, get engaged. Join the NAACP, the Urban League — go register everyone at your church. If it’s no more than registering 10 people and taking them to the polls, that’s 10 people that weren’t going in the first place. Now you’re engaging at that level and it’s critical that we do that.