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Democratic Rep. Cori Bush on her memoir and her 'politivist' approach to Congress

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

Overcoming adversity has always been part of Congresswoman Cori Bush's political origin story.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORI BUSH: Tonight we, the people, are victorious - we the people.

SUMMERS: It was in her victory speech the night she got elected in November 2020.

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BUSH: I've been evicted from - by landlords. I've worried about how I was going to put food on the table and - for my two kids. I've been underinsured or uninsured.

SUMMERS: Now, as she nears the end of her first term as a Democrat representing St. Louis, Bush is out with a new memoir, "The Forerunner." It starts with her family. Her father, Bush says, was a guy everyone knew - president of her elementary school PTA and, at one time, mayor of the St. Louis suburb where she grew up. He taught his kids to be proud, filled their house with books on Black history. And at Christmas, Bush's father scoured stores to make sure his daughters had dolls that looked like them.

BUSH: I'm dark-skinned. My sister is light-skinned. Like, there is a big difference in our color. But my dad never made a - he made sure that we understood, your Black is beautiful. You're beautiful the way you are.

SUMMERS: Bush writes that she thrived in elementary school, but that confidence was shattered when she started high school at an elite, overwhelmingly white Catholic school.

BUSH: It just ripped apart everything that I had believed about myself, and I had nothing left. Like, I was - I remember when I took that entrance exam, and that administrator said to me, well, we don't believe you scored this high. We believe you cheated. And then, after that, just being tripped in the hallway, being called the N-word repeatedly. There were all of these moments where it was just like, I want you to know that we don't want you here.

SUMMERS: Bush eventually transferred to a school she says was more supportive, co-ed and Black. But by then, she says something in her had died. She writes of working low-wage jobs, spending time living out of her car, surviving sexual violence and a series of abusive relationships. Bush also shares the story of two abortions - one which she'd never disclosed publicly.

BUSH: I just remember trying to figure out, like, how can I raise a child? I'm trying to do school, and I'm working. You know, my parents are finally proud of me.

SUMMERS: You were trying to turn your life around.

BUSH: I was trying to turn my life around, even though I was, like, pulling at straws trying to figure out how to do it. And I just knew that I wasn't in a position to be able to have a child. But then when I went to the clinic to have the abortion, I just remember I decided on the table - you know what? I don't want to do this. I need more time. But I wasn't given more time. But now, looking back, even though it was a traumatic situation, how everything unfolded, I made the right decision for me because I still went through so many things after that that taking a child through that would not have been the best for a child.

SUMMERS: And just to be clear, when you say you decided on that table, you wrote that you told the nurse that you weren't ready...

BUSH: Yes.

SUMMERS: ...That you didn't want to do this in that moment.

BUSH: Yes. The nurse wouldn't allow me off the table. They just continued on with the procedure as I was saying no, I don't want - no, no. And they just continued on. And because the instrument was already inside of me, it was too late to change that.

SUMMERS: You wrote that you were - or that you are, in fact, concerned that sharing this story about what happened to you could be taken in a way that could be seen as undermining a woman's right to abortion care. What concerns you about going public and talking about this?

BUSH: Yeah, I - you know, because two things were happening - you know? - I needed that help at that time. But then also, being this Black, pregnant person - medical discrimination - it was prevalent then, and it's still prevalent now. But I don't want people to feel like, well, you were mistreated, and so that makes these clinics bad. Like, you don't need to have these services because of medical discrimination. No, there is medical discrimination in everything. So are you not going to get your diabetes medication? Are you not going to have, you know, your tooth checked out because of possible medical discrimination? No.

SUMMERS: Bush's road to Congress went through the streets of Ferguson, Mo. She was one of the community activists who protested in the days and months after the police killing of Michael Brown.

BUSH: It was this photo of this 18-year-old boy laying in the street, uncovered. And just throughout the day, you know, I just kept seeing this photo. And we didn't know - like, there was no playbook before that. There was no instruction manual saying, do this if this happens. We just reacted to this happening. And it absolutely woke people up because what happened was, there were protests that started all across the country, you know, in solidarity with what was happening in Ferguson. And I'll never forget, in our community, there were people from all over the world who showed up to be out there with us.

SUMMERS: I want to ask you because you're an activist, but you made a decision to run for Congress. What made you think that there was a way to achieve change from inside the system?

BUSH: I remember being outside, standing in front of the Ferguson Police Department. We were chanting, and it just felt like throwing pebbles at the ocean, thinking, you know what? We need to put people in place that believe what we believe. And so that's what - I remember thinking about that, just standing there during a protest. And then it was several months later when someone asked me to run.

SUMMERS: You know, Congresswoman, your book closes as you were preparing to enter your first term in Congress, and now you are preparing for a second term in the House. How do you think about your future on Capitol Hill and your role in your party?

BUSH: You know, I think about when I first entered Congress. I wanted to represent the people of St. Louis to the best of my ability and then push further than that ability, but still unsure about what I could really affect - what I could really do being a freshman. And now that we've been able to do so much - you know, the eviction moratorium that happened back, you know, when we were out there protesting on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, which we've heard many times, was an unprecedented action. And then, just money that we have been able to get for the St. Louis area. So I'm going into this second term. I'm a lot more sure of the work. I have my shoulders back, my head up - you know? - and I am ready to walk into Congress in this next session completely confident that I'm doing what the people are asking.

SUMMERS: You mentioned the eviction moratorium, and I want to come back to that because it was an example, as you point out, of a way you led differently. You were on the steps of the Capitol. You made noise...

BUSH: Yes.

SUMMERS: ...Essentially, to get the goal, which was to have that extended. A few weeks later, the Supreme Court struck it down. So I'm curious. Are there limits to bringing that activist lens - that activist approach to Congress?

BUSH: I don't deal in limits, so no, I don't believe so. I think that because it's who I am - because I am an activist. I call myself a politivist. I coined that term. But I'm the politician and the activist, and so I won't take off my activist hat to be in this seat. And so if there is a point where I feel like, you know, I need to do something to help bring awareness, then that is what I'm going to do. And the thing about an activist is it's not that we expect something necessarily to happen, like, right now, today. And we understand that sometimes those things do happen, but also this may be a long game.

SUMMERS: That's Democratic Congresswoman Cori Bush of Missouri talking about her new book, "The Forerunner." Congresswoman, thank you so much for speaking with us today.

BUSH: Yes, thank you for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAS SONG, "I CAN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
Courtney Dorning has been a Senior Editor for NPR's All Things Considered since November 2018. In that role, she's the lead editor for the daily show. Dorning is responsible for newsmaker interviews, lead news segments and the small, quirky features that are a hallmark of the network's flagship afternoon magazine program.