BY FERN GILLESPIE
The morning of January 6, 2021, New Jersey Congresswoman Bonnie Watson-Coleman sensed there was something wrong. “I was in the Capital that day,” she began. “Before the proceedings had started, I had been evacuated from my apartment because of [undetonated] bombs [found] near the Republican National Committee headquarters, and out of my office because my office building was so close to the Republican National Committee. So, I said to my staff, ‘Let’s go to the Capitol because we will be safe there.’”
Pro-Trump rioters descended on the Capitol. While hiding from the violent rioters with fellow Congress members and their staffers, she contracted COVID. “I felt a sense of betrayal on the part of my Republican colleagues in Congress,” she said. “Their staff refused to wear masks and did not have enough respect for the safety and security of others.”
Rep. Watson-Coleman, who serves on the House Committee of Appropriation and the House Committee of Homeland Security, is on the forefront of developing a 9/11 style investigations committee on January 6 riot. “A sense of security was breached. We have to get to the bottom of this,” she said passionately. “We have to ensure something of this nature never ever happens again in this country.”
Political life runs in her family. She’s the only daughter of famed politician John S. Watson, a Democrat who served six terms in the New Jersey General Assembly. When he died, she won his seat in the assembly. Then, in 2002, elected chair of the New Jersey Democratic State Committee, she became the first Black woman to lead the state party. “It gave me the opportunity to expand the reach of the party,” she explained.
In 2015, Rep. Coleman-Watson became the first Black woman elected to Congress from New Jersey. Although her district is the Trenton area, women statewide have embraced her. “Even to this day, Black women all over the state of New Jersey will reach out to me and refer to me as their congresswoman,” she said.
Recently, we spoke with Rep. Watson-Coleman on healthcare issues concerning people of color from mental health to healthy moms to African American hair.
You co-authored the Pursuing Equity in Mental Health Act focusing on people of color. This May it passed in a bipartisan vote of 349-74 in the House of Representatives. Why did you partner with the Congressional Black Caucus for the study?
BWC: I kept seeing these postings on Facebook about young, Black children attempting, threatening, and committing suicide. Then I would read the articles behind them [the posts] about the disparities and numbers and that the trend for Black youth was increasing while the trend for all other youth in terms of suicide attempts or thoughts and successes had been diminishing. I told my staff the one thing we can do is shine light on this. I went to Karen Bass, the chair of the Congressional Black Caucus; we agreed there was an urgent need to do something. We needed to signal the urgency of the situation. I worked with Congressional Black Caucus colleagues and a group of professional psychologists, sociologists, providers, and advocates and conducted a series of hearings. We put out a report on what we found, and we authored legislation identifying a need for resources and attention to areas that we found had significant gaps. We found there was still a stigma in the African-American comcontinuedmunity as it related to addressing, needing, and acknowledging mental health problems. We understood there was a gap in the number and range of culturally competent providers. We recognized that there was insufficient research being done by the National Institute of Mental Health and other entities in the federal government with regard to the impact of mental health and the services that are provided to people of color, particularly the African-American community. The legislation basically addresses those gaps and needs that we identified. It puts resources into those areas and encourages and supports those that are being educated in these fields. It supports schools, their administrations, and teachers in understanding what to look for in the area of mental health or even study our communities. It passed in the house. Now it’s in the Senate. It’s sponsored by Senators Menendez and Booker. Hopefully, this time the Senate will take it up. The President, who has spoken about the issues of the disparities in healthcare as it relates to African-Americans in our communities of color, will sign it.
You re-introduced the Healthy Maternal and Obstetric Medicine Act, known as the Healthy MOM Act. What makes it unique?
BWC: The Healthy Mom Act recognizes that being pregnant is a life-changing experience. It affords women the opportunity to change their health coverage at that time to meet their needs. There are things that are already considered life-changing and you’re allowed to change your coverage. One of them is having a baby. Another is changing a job. One of them is getting married. But it is not when you become pregnant. Obviously, you want healthy moms and healthy babies. They need access to prenatal care and postnatal care. This legislation, if it passes, will give them the coverage that they need.
You joined Congresswomen Barbara Lee, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley, and Gwen Moore in reintroducing the Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair, known as the CROWN Act. Why is the Crown Act important for Black women? What is the impact of hair discrimination on Black women and girls?
BWC: We’ve seen some illustrations of what happens to young people, like the girls who were sent home because of their braids. Like the young wrestler whose locks were actually cut on television while he was in an event —that he actually won. So, they humiliated him, cut his hair. We know there is consistent and persistent institutional racism against people who are Black. The way we wear our hair, the textures of our hair, the styles we wear are just an extension of our being who we are. Some people have a determination in their minds on what is and is not professional and acceptable. So, people have been made to feel uncomfortable about their hair and its style. Perhaps they have been overlooked for a promotion or not even hired. How we wear our hair is an extension of being African-American or being Black and these actions are a manifestation of discrimination against a race.