Historically, women have needed to be convinced to enter politics. But since the 2016 presidential election, thousands of women announced their plans to run for public office. And we want them to win. So we’re giving them examples of women who have run. The point: You can too.
London Breed never thought she’d be in elected politics, let alone become the first black woman to be mayor of San Francisco, California. It all started in 2012, when she was elected to the city’s Board of Supervisors. After becoming Board President and briefly serving as Acting Mayor, Breed ran for the position in a special election and won. She was re-elected in 2019.
But this year, Breed has entered a new kind of spotlight. In recent months, she’s received national coverage for how she’s handled San Francisco’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. The city didn’t have a single confirmed case of COVID-19 when Breed declared a state of emergency in late February. Officials in northern California then announced a shelter-in-place order in mid-March; at the time, there were 40 confirmed cases in San Francisco. As The Atlantic reports, her aggressive actions weren’t “initially popular,” but they seem to have been effective for now: “The city’s curve is low and flattening, and patients are not flooding into its emergency rooms.”
Here, Breed talks to ELLE.com about how she first entered the world of politics and how her childhood prepared her for this very crisis.
I grew up in public housing. My grandmother raised me, and we were poor. There was lots of crime, lots of violence, domestic violence, drug use, drug overdose. I didn’t know anything other than this environment.
I started working hard in school, making sure that I got a good education so I wouldn’t be poor. I started getting involved in politics when I was in high school; I ran for Student Body Girls Vice President, and I won. I always wanted to be involved in some capacity.
Even after I started getting more active in my community, I never thought I would run for public office on that level. I always saw myself as being someone to help in the community and support other people. In particular, gun violence had gotten so bad that it was no longer drive-by shootings that happened from neighborhood to neighborhood; it was people that I grew up with who were shooting at each other. I kept thinking, “What if another opportunity existed? Would the people that I love even end up in these situations in the first place?”
My advocacy had everything to do with prevention and trying to provide better opportunities for people. I worked in the neighborhood; I was the executive director of this organization called the African American Art & Culture Complex. From that, people thought that I should run for office, I should run for school board, I should run for supervisor. I just kept throwing them off.
Eventually, there was a shooting that occurred in a gym right around the corner from the center where I was the director. It happened in front of 50 people, including a lot of kids. I was devastated. Not only was someone killed—and when I got over there, still laying on the floor with blood everywhere in plain sight—the fact that there were a lot of kids that witnessed it really broke my heart. It made me realize that something else had to be done.
At that time, Kamala Harris was the district attorney, and we got together and started doing a lot of great work in the community to try and turn things around. We created this whole team called the Street Violence Intervention Program. The goal was to have people who are from the community reach out to people who committed these crimes and the ones who were wanting to retaliate against them to try and prevent something from happening.
Kamala said I should run for office, having control of the city budget to be able to fund programs like these, to be able to provide paid internships so kids don’t get involved in crimes in the first place. I ended up doing this program called Emerge, which trains Democratic women to run for office. I hesitated every step of the way. At first, I was like, “I don’t know if this is for me.” Then it became: “Why not me?”
When I became a mayor, even when I was supervisor, we did simulations for terrorist attacks or earthquakes or heat waves or fires. This pandemic isn’t anything we ever thought, or at least I ever thought, we’d be dealing with.
For me, preparing for something like this goes back to my upbringing. I grew up with nothing. I’ve sadly seen more than my fair share of people lying on the sidewalk dead. I’ve been to countless funerals. I’ve been in an environment that, I think, makes you a stronger person and more prepared to deal with the unexpected. Nothing surprises you. It was instantly: “Okay, this is what we need to do.”
When you’re an elected official, you have to be comfortable with the fact that there are going to be people who love you and people who don’t like you. You have a responsibility to make what you think is the best decision regardless. I’m not here to get credit. I would have preferred for someone to say, after this was over, “We think the mayor overreacted.”
This has made me realize how important the mayors, the governors, and the president are in a time like this. The legislators are important too, but people rely on their leaders in a different way during a crisis like this. Everyone wants the mayor to let them know what’s going on. People are counting on us to help protect them. If it’s a bad decision, it’s on me. If it’s a good decision, it’s on me.
I spoke with a mental health professional and talked about even my own feelings of isolation. I’m not able to connect with anyone because I live alone, and that’s hard. I’m running the city, but I have to deal with my mental health, and what does that mean? How do you deal with it? How do we make sure that people are going to be okay? All I can think about is, “What would I want my mayor to do? How would I want my mayor to make me feel as a citizen of the city so that I can know with confidence that we’re going to be okay?” That’s what I try to do every day, reassure the people of this city.
Because I’m a spiritual person, not only do I pray, but I also meditate. I feel like this is a moment to pause and to reflect, but to not allow it to consume you in a negative way. Try to stay focused, try to stay prayerful, look to the good people in your life and maintain and enhance those relationships. Be good to other people, even when they’re not necessarily good to you. Do what you can to get yourself and your family and the people you care about through this in a positive way because this too shall pass.
The kindness of folks is really coming out. I got a note from a neighbor that said if I needed anything, someone to talk to, somebody to run errands, “Here’s my number, here’s my email, call me.” Let’s keep that going. Let’s look for the good in this experience.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.