Hike service

Acts of service: How MP Brenda Lawrence gives back to the community

Among Michigan’s (mostly) lily-white congressional delegation, U.S. House Representative Brenda Lawrence stands out as the only black federal lawmaker in the state. She made Southfield history when she became the first African American and the first woman to be elected mayor of the predominantly white city in 2001. And entering the Skyline Club in a scarlet skirt suit and matching lipstick, she stands in stark contrast to the cream and gray interior.

The upscale property, which overlooks the Southfield business district from the 28th floor, is one of his favorites. The restaurant is empty, closed between meal services, and I find it hard to imagine Lawrence – fluttering eyelashes, perfectly styled hair and more pearls than I’ve seen on a single person – among the corporate types who make up its usual clientele.

Besides, she’s used to making noise.

Since coming to the Capitol in 2015, she has become known for her particularly active role in black and women’s issues. She is co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus and second vice-chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, among other positions on the committee. She also co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, which she now co-chairs.

That’s why many were surprised when in January she announced that she would be ending her 30-year political career. After all, it’s just as hard to imagine the woman who represented Michigan’s 14th congressional district for four terms sitting somewhere on a porch, playing bridge.

In the new year, the redistricting will see its current constituency split between the new 11th, 12th and 13th districts, and a series of newly elected politicians will move in to represent them. Meanwhile, Lawrence, who turns 68 this month, will settle into retirement.

When she greets me, I am surprised by the softness of her voice, which seems to contradict her bold bearing. But that doesn’t mean she’s reserved.

Thirty minutes into our interview, the conversation turns to the many prejudices she faced as a woman — and specifically as a mother — in politics. Outraged by the sexist remarks she says, I add: “And nobody ever asks politicians…”

She intervenes and we recite the question in unison: “But who takes care of your children?!” She slams her palms on the table. “Exactly!”

By now, it’s clear the MP is passionate about a lot of topics – and she’s not one to stay quiet about it. Curious, I ask if she minds giving up her influence at such a precarious time in American politics.

“Being elected is not the only way to serve,” she says. “I’m not leaving – I’m still going to be involved. I want to continue to have a voice.

She plans to do this by working closely with local nonprofits and staying engaged in politics. She began this final bit ahead of the August primaries, endorsing fellow black politician and Focus: Hope CEO Portia Roberson as her effective replacement. (Roberson’s bid for the Democratic nomination to represent the new 13th District, which will include much of Lawrence territory, ultimately failed.)

Most people think of retirement as a time to relax, but Lawrence goes on to list a whole host of other intentions she has for her retirement — the bridge might not even fit on the itinerary.

“I want to teach,” she says. “It’s something very close to my heart.”

Although Lawrence has no interest in taking another full-time position, she plans to teach a college class or two a year. Specifically, she hopes to teach classes that combine politics and women’s studies. “I want to pass on my opportunities and my experience to another generation.”

This is a subject that is particularly close to his heart. In fact, she’s writing a book about it. She prefaces the description with a disclaimer: “I have a hell of a sense of humor.”

And she certainly does.

The book is titled Sometimes a girl has to get her balls out of her purse, and it offers answers to some of the tough questions women in leadership positions often face: “How can you stand up and lead while wearing your pearls? In your stilettos, how do you run face-to-face with a man in flats and immediately get a seat at a table, when you have to fight to pull up a chair – all while trying not to be labeled the B-word? ”

Her motivation to put pen to paper came, in part, from noticing how many women, despite all their strength and unique leadership ability, she says, fail to recognize their own power. She addresses the issue in a chapter titled “Some Women Don’t Even Know They Have Balls”.

She even reveals a message relayed in the conclusion of her book: “You know you’ve reached peak power when you never need to get the balls out – you just put your purse on the table, and that’s it.” is understood.”

I remember the huge bag she had placed on the chair next to her. You know what they say about girls with big purses…

One thing is certain: it is a genetic characteristic. Lawrence credits much of her tenacity to the woman who raised her.

After Lawrence’s mother died when she was just 3 years old, her grandmother, Etta, took on the role of primary caregiver, and Lawrence came to lovingly call her “Mom.”

Growing up in Detroit’s east end, she says, her grandmother always assured her, “There’s nothing you can’t do, no table you don’t deserve to sit at, and no door you you don’t deserve to cross.

Lawrence, who passes on similar words of wisdom throughout our interview, carried that influence throughout his life. “It’s hard to talk to me without injecting my grandmother’s voice,” she admits.

Laughing, she recalled another oft-made remark by her grandmother: “You’re the last child I’m going to raise – you’ll be perfect if I have to kill you in the process.” And in Mom’s estimation, that meant reaching higher education — a grade none of Lawrence’s siblings had achieved.

Determined to make her grandmother proud, she graduated from Pershing High School at age 16 and began attending the University of Detroit Mercy on a scholarship. Then, three months before her 18th birthday, she married her childhood sweetheart.

It was a bittersweet occasion for Lawrence’s grandmother. Noticing her long face at the reception, Lawrence pulled her grandmother aside to ask her what was wrong.

“I’m happy,” replied her grandmother, with tears in her eyes. “I’m just sad because I really wanted you to be the one to finish school. Now you’re going to go on and start a family and that won’t be a priority.

“Mom, I’m about to graduate,” Lawrence assured her. “I promise you.” But her grandmother just lowered her head, unconvinced.

Soon, Lawrence found herself juggling motherhood and a full-time job with
the US Postal Service. Still, she was managing one class at a time. Then, her urge to speak out and take matters into her own hands forced her to take on another responsibility.

An active parent in the Southfield Public School District, Lawrence became dissatisfied with the school board’s perpetual inaction. When a friend suggested she run for membership herself, she hesitated – she had never harbored any political ambitions. But her feelings of frustration soon got the better of her, and in 1992 she was elected to her first public office. That was all it took.

“I caught the virus,” she says.

Even as she built her new political career, however, she never forgot her promise.

Finally, in 2005, Lawrence became a first-generation college graduate when she graduated with a bachelor’s degree in public administration. His grandmother had long passed away, but the meaning this accomplishment had for Lawrence remained.

The certificate still hangs on her wall, alongside a photo plaque that shows her accepting her degree. An engraving below the image reads, “Mom, I kept my word.”


This story is from October Hour Detroit magazine 2022 issue. Find out more in our digital edition.