Parker Alumna to Win Historic Victory

Ayanna Pressley ‘92 To Become First Woman of Color To Represent Massachusetts in Congress

On September 4, Ayanna Pressley ‘92 upset incumbent Congressman Michael Capuano in the Massachusetts primary to become the Democratic candidate for Massachusetts’ 7th District. Pressley, who lacks a major opponent in the general election on November 6, is slated to become the first woman of color to represent the state in Congress.

Pressley ended the primary with 58.6% of the 7th’s votes––59,815 votes in total. Capuano won the other 41.4% of the district, with 42,252 votes.

“We were running a very unconventional campaign,” Pressley said. “I rejected corporate PAC money, we did not do television commercials with mainstream media buys, it was truly a people-powered campaign and movement.”

Pressley is no stranger to unconventionality. Throughout her fourteen-year career as a Parker student, Pressley often felt distant from her classmates due to the differences in their races and backgrounds. “There were many times that I did feel isolated,” Pressley said. “But that was really not based on how anyone treated me––it was my own self-consciousness about how different my own life was from most of my peers.”

Photo by Molly Taylor
Pressley’s senior yearbook tribute from 1992.

Pressley was raised by a single mother who worked multiple jobs. Her father grappled with opioid addiction and bounced in and out of the criminal justice system.

Pressley attributes much of where she is today to her mother, Sandra Pressley. “My mother never wanted me to be denied or deprived any opportunity in life,” Pressley said. “She didn’t want my zip code to determine my destiny. She believed fiercely in what I had to contribute to the world, and she believed in it early.”

At Parker, Pressley saw herself as responsible for representing all African-Americans to her fellow students. “I felt a tremendous pressure to not contribute to any negative stereotypes and to challenge their assumptions and narratives about what it meant to be black,” Pressley said.

School Nurse Anne Nelson, a 29-year Parker veteran, recognizes the substantial demographic shifts that have occurred since Pressley’s time at the school. “At that time we didn’t have very many African-American students,” Nelson said. “There were less faculty and staff of color, there were fewer kids, and there wasn’t any active momentum to try and recruit more.”

It was truly a people-powered campaign and movement.”

— Ayanna Pressley

Reflecting on his time as a student, Upper School Math Teacher Chris Riff ‘84 agrees with Nelson. “Regarding race and whatnot, there’s just much more awareness now,” Riff said. “It was never a thing we gave a lot of consideration to in those days.”

Pressley credits Parker with instilling in her values and leadership qualities which permitted her to reach her current position. “Parker has shaped me in every way,” Pressley said. “It is why I love art and culture and creativity and the creative economy, it’s why I believe so fiercely in community and being intentional about building it, it’s why I am the leader I am today.”

According to Pressley, Parker fostered qualities which extended beyond the classroom. “I was not someone that always performed well in a traditional sense in terms of test-taking and grades,” Pressley said, “but my peers and the administrators at Parker believed I had leadership abilities and they developed those.” Pressley served as Class President and Student Body President throughout her time at Parker in addition to speaking at her Commencement.

Parker has shaped me in every way… it’s why I believe so fiercely in community and being intentional about building it, it’s why I am the leader I am today.”

— Ayanna Pressley

“I considered Parker, as different as I felt, to be a place of refuge,” Pressley said. “I felt small and voiceless and unseen in a lot of other ways, and so the fact that there were educators who took an interest in me and wanted to develop what they saw was my leadership abilities meant everything.”

According to Principal Dan Frank, Pressley was a force of nature while at Parker. “She was friendly and outgoing,” Frank said, “and involved in a number of student government, debate, and cheerleading activities. She was voted ‘most likely to become Mayor of Chicago’ in her class’ yearbook.”

Pressley is a prime example of the upstanding citizen Parker hopes to send into the world, Frank said. “I see Pressley bringing to life the ideas of empathy, courage, and clarity that we teach here. Her commitment to the welfare of the world around her, of other people, and her broader sense of value to have social impact as an empathic, courageous citizen are all core Parker values.”

Pressley is as grateful to Parker as Parker is to her. “This embryonic democracy, this model home, this complete community that was Parker nurtured me, developed me, and then created space for me to stand authentically in my own self-agency and power. It emboldened me to give voice to that and make sure I knew that when I did that, I wasn’t only speaking for me. I would not be here were it not for the fierce advocacy of my mother and for Francis Parker taking a chance on me and for the financial scholarship that they gave me.”