By Genoa Barrow | OBSERVER Senior Staff Writer

That she’s the only Black woman currently in the state Senate is not lost on Lola Smallwood-Cuevas. She’s advocating for more representation and progressive policymaking. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER
That she’s the only Black woman currently in the state Senate is not lost on Lola Smallwood-Cuevas. She’s advocating for more representation and progressive policymaking. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

When Sydney Kamlager-Dove vacated the California Senate to move up to the U.S. Congress, she sought out another Black woman to replace her. That woman, Lola Smallwood-Cuevas, is featured in the fifth installment of our “A Powerful Sisterhood” series that highlights the contributions of past and present Black women lawmakers in California. Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles) represents the 28th Senate District, which includes the communities of Ladera Heights, Baldwin Hills, Crenshaw, Culver City, Leimert Park, South Los Angeles, West Adams, and View Park, where Sen. Smallwood-Cuevas lives.

“I’m so blessed that I’m coming in a long legacy of firsts,” Sen. Smallwood-Cuevas said of the Southern California Black female political juggernaut. “First Black female mayor of the city of Los Angeles, first Black female speaker of the Assembly, Karen Bass, who has all of these titles and then (L.A. County Supervisor) Holly Mitchell, one of the first Black women to chair the California State Budget Committee.”

Only a handful of Black women have served in the state Senate. Diane Watson (1978-1998) was the first, followed by Theresa Hughes (1992-2000), Barbara Lee (1996-1998), Holly Mitchell (2013-2020); and Kamlager-Dove (2021-2022). 

“This legacy of strong Black women, they know how to scout and recruit other strong Black women,” Sen. Smallwood-Cuevas said.

“Sydney Kamlager, I have so much respect for her because in the middle of making her own decisions, she was very clear: she wanted to find a progressive, strong Black woman to take her seat.”

Before her election victory last year, Smallwood-Cuevas spent more than two decades serving as a labor organizer, civil rights activist and community advocate. She dedicated her time to increasing access to quality jobs, reducing employment discrimination, and improving industries that employ Black workers through action and unionization.

She founded the Center for the Advancement for Racial Equity at Work and led the L.A. Black Worker Center at the UCLA Labor Center that became a national model and expanded to 15 others across the nation.

“I was the daughter of a single mom and [a] job made all the difference to us. When she went from a home care worker to [being a registered nurse], my life totally changed. So for me, the worker center holds that promise. If we can get folks into good quality careers, housing, food access, health care access, fighting against incarceration – all of that becomes so much more easier when we remove poverty from the conversation.”

Stating A Case For Service

Continuing that work at the state level is becoming a labor of love.

“That was really driving why I said yes to Sydney,” Smallwood-Cuevas continued. “I felt this was an opportunity to have more impact on the communities that I believe are hardest hit. When you address the needs of Black workers who are too often at the bottom of every index, we are at the bottom of America’s hierarchy, along with Native American communities, and if we can address the conditions of Black folks in California, I think the whole state will elevate.”

She points to homelessness, institutionalized racism, redlining, and the welfare system and its negative impact on Black families.

“A lot of the conditions that we face in our communities, particularly when we talk about Blacks and immigrants and low-wage, working-class communities, all of these conditions are due to failed public policies,” Smallwood-Cuevas said.

“I don’t have rose-tinted glasses to believe that you can just snap your fingers and these things will all change,” she continued. “I do think we have to be intentional. Three thousand bills will come before me in one shape or another. I have to be intentional about the values that I want to make sure influence how the decision in my policymaking gets made.”

The senator is intentional about the bills she’s carrying, those that she supports – and those she doesn’t.

“I have the heart and soul of L.A. County. I represent the most dynamic, diverse – racially, ethnically, socioeconomically – districts in the state of California, where my district goes, so goes to state. I believe that there are a lot of great lessons learned there. There are a lot of smart, organized communities of color, who have been experimenting and testing out models that work. My job is to bring those models now to the state and to repeat them over and over and over until people get sick and tired of being sick and tired and will hear me and move them forward with me.”

It’s a great time to be at the state Capitol, Sen. Smallwood-Cuevas said.

“We have tremendous leadership. From my congresswoman, my mayor, my county supervisor, to the new cohort of senators that came in with me – women like Caroline Menjivar, Aisha Wahab from the Bay Area and Catherine Blakespear. I have the real belief that as women of color, who were voted in in a post-Trump era where communities are sick of the status quo and they want to see fundamental change, and they want to see bold steps taken, that everyone received that mandate that came in with my cohort. So how do we work together toward that? It’s gonna take time as we get stronger and more powerful and we organize with each other here, to stand together on things that we believe in. That’s going to take time, but I’m committed to building that kind of a coalition.”

Unity is crucial, she said.

“We still have a lot of work to do to challenge and contest and resist these conditions that are holding our state back. We haven’t dealt with the most vulnerable populations in the way that we need to. Those are the kinds of movements that we have to do. And I think as Black people, these are statewide movements. This is not about L.A., and [District] 28. What is happening in L.A. is happening in Oakland, it’s happening in the central Fresno area, it’s happening in San Diego in terms of housing and homelessness and displacement and gentrification and lack of good jobs and lack of access to clean water and air. These are things that all of our communities are dealing with up and down the state.”

Smallwood-Cuevas is optimistic, particularly about the work of the California Legislative Black Caucus.

“It’s really exciting to be in this space where we have Black leaders from across the state who have similar conditions we are trying to fight against. [We think about] how we can [coalesce] our power to have deep influence. I’m really excited about the possibilities of that.”

In her short time in the state Senate, Smallwood-Cuevas has been busy.

“All of my bills sort of are at the intersection of race and the economy,” the lawmaker said. “They are also at the intersection of equity and access. Protecting workers is really important to me because that’s where I come from. We have a capitalist society. We have to work and [decide] how we have opportunities to work well and with dignity.

In late April, the Senate Judiciary Committee approved two of Sen. Smallwood-Cuevas’ new bills that would provide better protections for Californian workers. Senate Bill 497, the Equal Pay and Anti-Retaliation Act, protects workers who report labor violations from being fired, bullied or harassed. The committee also approved SB 627, the Displaced Worker Transfer Rights Act, which requires large-chain businesses to notify workers 60 days in advance of a store closure and grants workers transfer rights within the company.

Her bills, she said, are about protecting and trying to give the most vulnerable residents better support and a foundation to build their lives on.

The More The Merrier

Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles) was handpicked by former Sen. Sidney Kamlager-Dove, her predecessor, to replace her when she left to serve in Congress. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER
Sen. Lola Smallwood-Cuevas (D-Los Angeles) was handpicked by former Sen. Sidney Kamlager-Dove, her predecessor, to replace her when she left to serve in Congress. Louis Bryant III, OBSERVER

Smallwood-Cuevas is one of only two African Americans in the state Senate. The other, Steven Bradford, also represents Los Angeles. Smallwood-Cuevas wants more company. Assemblymember Akilah Weber recently announced her intention to run for Toni Atkins’ seat when she leaves it. She also has her eye on other Black women like Rhodesia Ransom, who is running in Senate District 5 and Compton City Councilmember Michelle Chambers, who could replace Bradford when his term ends in 2024.

“I need folks who are going to come to the state Capitol who want to do the work that helps our state progress, helps our state move forward, and will stand firm on some of the bigger questions that we’re going to have to move forward in terms of whether this green economy is going to be accessible to all and how do we make sure equity is a priority; who are going to stand up to stop [Proposition] 209 and the negative impacts of this anti-diversity policy that leaves so many of our communities in crisis.

“Why can’t we give money directly to Black homelessness when Black homelessness is impacting the state? It makes sense. If we deal with Black people and homelessness, that’s 40%, almost 50%, of the crisis done in one community. Why not make that investment? Those are the kinds of arguments we need to make. Those are the kinds of voices that we need to bring in that I want to support in the state Senate.”

It doesn’t matter what color they are or what ethnic or religious background they come from, Smallwood-Cuevas said.

“It’s not just about ‘skin folk’ at this point,” she continued. “We’ve got to get progressive, strong candidates that want to move our state forward and let go of some of these old 20th century arguments. We’ve got to let go of the anti-affirmative action. We’ve got to end the attack on abortion rights. We’ve got to let go of a tax base that does not believe in dealing with disparity and have evidence-driven policymaking so that we can make a difference in the lives of our community.”

Smallwood-Cuevas is “inviting as many folks to the party” as she possibly can.

“I’m encouraging a woman wherever she is, in whatever work, whatever leadership role, if she thinks policymaking can make a difference in that particular sector, that she needs to throw her hat in the ring. She needs to begin to build relationships, she needs to think about running for office.”

The Capitol building and its historic scarcity of representation can be intimidating and discouraging.

“It is true, this place is not designed for us,” Smallwood-Cuevas said. “I walk into that hallway, I see these beautiful oil paintings in the hallway of white elite men and I know this institution was not designed for me. But the more of us who get here, we can begin to change the institution to look more like the state of California and to be about the things that the majority of Californians need. That is the kind of cohort that I want to see come into the state legislature, and I know we’re getting there.”