Why Every Diverse First Still Matters During Midterms

By Maria del Toro, Class of 2019

The November 7th midterm elections bought with them all of the magic our great democracy has to offer: several very close races, a Beyoncé endorsement, and a slew of unrelenting Slack channel postings encouraging students to vote in a city they are largely removed from in their downtown high-rise apartments, where many of them won’t even reside in 6 months.

The elections also resulted in a variety of exciting and groundbreaking “firsts” across the country. In the spirit of Michelle Obama’s Becoming release, below is a list of those newly elected civic servants who are becoming the first in their roles. These firsts include:

  • Sharice Davids and Debra Haaland becoming the first Native American congresswomen;

  • Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib becoming the first Muslim congresswomen;

  • Sylvia Garcia and Veronica Escobar becoming the first Latina congresswomen in Texas;

  • Ayanna Pressley becoming the first black woman elected to congress for Massachusetts;

  • Jahana Hayes becoming the first black woman elected to congress for Connecticut;

  • Kristi Noem becoming the first female governor of South Dakota;

  • Janet Mills becoming the first female governor of Maine;

  • Kyrsten Sinema becoming the first woman in the senate for Arizona;

  • Marsha Blackburn becoming the first woman in the senate for Tennessee;

  • Angie Craig of Minnesota becoming the first lesbian mom in congress;

  • Jared Polis of Colorado becoming the first openly gay Governor; and

  • Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez becoming the youngest woman ever elected to congress – the first 29-year-old woman elected, to convert that into a proper “first”

There are many other firsts that have gone undetected, as well as intersectional identity firsts – Sharice Davids is also the first openly gay congresswoman from Kansas, and Ilhan Omar is also the first refugee ever elected to congress. These titles also fail to capture the magnitude of why some of these wins are grossly overdue – Garcia and Escobar are the first Latinas in congress for a state where 4 in 10 people are Latino. Among many factors, systemic disenfranchisement has kept these leaders out of leadership, until now.

Ocasio-Cortez’s “first” is a personal win for me. I’m a supporter not only because she is a Puerto Rican woman breaking barriers, but also because she represents the district where my parents reside in Parkchester, where I saw her campaign in front of my 6 train station in the mornings this summer. Earlier this week I was asked to do research on the Bronx for NowPow, the healthcare startup where I work. I knew the numbers but they were tough to see documented – the Bronx was named the least healthy county in New York for the ninth consecutive year based on quality of life and health factors including high school graduation rates, unemployment, access to healthy foods, the quality of air and water, income inequality and teen births. The poorest of the nation’s 435 congressional districts is in the Bronx. The household poverty rate (28.4 percent) and the child poverty rate (40.1 percent) are significantly higher than citywide rates (18.4 percent and 26.6 percent, respectively). According to the 2016 US census, the median household income was $35,302, and the per capita income was $18,896. Public housing represents 13% of all rental units, the highest share of the five boroughs.

Ocasio-Cortez has her work cut out for her. So does every other “first” in history.

Why do firsts still matter? Anyone who is the first in their family to do something – go to college, study Art History, leave their hometown, date someone other than another person from said hometown, become a vegan or worst, become a banker, and so on— knows that it is taxing and challenging and terrifying and rewarding. It is all of those things. It is uncharted territory and the first person is under the microscope while the next in line will inevitably get away with all sorts of shenanigans without the same struggle.  I’m a little sister, and I know this to be gloriously, gloriously true.

Why do firsts still matter? They matter because progress is a continual process. As the country evolves and so do our demographics, there will always be a new first to celebrate. Several years ago, I worked at a women’s leadership nonprofit called The White House Project, the organization that partnered with Mattel to create President Barbie. The organization advocated that if girls couldn’t see it, then they would never be it. If girls only ever saw Barbie as a rock star or a fairy, then they would believe that they were relegated to those roles, and neither are exactly viable career choices. Progress could be made in small steps. Very small steps. President Barbie was a special first - the first Barbie anatomically designed to be able to stand on her own two feet. In 2016, I thought that doll might be discontinued. Alas, President Barbie remains in production as an aspirational figure.

Why do firsts still matter? It is an honor and privilege to attend Booth, for myself and for my family. I know when I read the Bronx statistics that this degree is changing all of our lives. Many Boothies are navigating this environment as a first. I became an editor for Chicago Business specifically to highlight stories of the diversity within this community, stories about Hurricane Maria, AAMBAA’s annual Dusable Conference, and OUTreach’s Ally Week. We have a platform to tell these stories as the number one business school in the country, and we must do so.

Firsts matter on a campus where the administration has a firm stance that safe spaces do not exist, that intellectual freedom and open argument take precedent above all else and I should be comfortable inviting the friendly neighborhood white supremacist to debate the merits of my humanity and be glad to pay $200,000 for that experience. (And if that sentence sounds like it belongs in the humor section, its because it does.)

Please acknowledge all of the firsts this year, and within your fellow Boothies personal journeys.

Even with this year’s progress, there are more firsts to come. President Barbie will be waiting.