The Early Years
Congresswoman Barbara Lee was born in segregated El Paso, TX and attended St. Joseph’s Catholic School, where she was taught by the Sisters of Loretto, an order dedicated to promoting justice and peace. Her father was a veteran of World War II and the Korean War and her mother broke many glass ceilings and racial barriers. After grammar school, Congresswoman Lee moved to San Fernando, California and worked with the local NAACP to integrate her high school cheerleading squad.
As a single mother raising two sons, Congresswoman Lee attended Mills College and received public assistance while building a better life for her family. As president of Mills College’s Black Student Union, she invited Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress, to speak on campus. As a result of this meeting, Congresswoman Lee registered to vote for the first time and worked on Congresswoman Chisholm’s historic presidential campaign, including serving as her delegate at the 1972 Democratic National Convention in Miami, FL.
Community Advocate & Small Business Owner
Congresswoman Lee received her Masters of Social Work from the University of California, Berkeley, specializing in psychiatric social work. During her graduate work, Congresswoman Lee founded the Community Health Alliance for Neighborhood Growth and Education (CHANGE, Inc.) which provided mental health services to many of the East Bay’s most vulnerable individuals.
In the 1970s, Congresswoman Lee volunteered with the Black Panthers as a community worker. In 1973 – the Watergate summer – Congresswoman Lee served as an intern for Congressman Ron Dellums in Washington, DC. In 1975, Congresswoman Lee joined the staff of Congressman Ron Dellums, where she eventually rose from an intern to chief of staff. During the eleven years she worked for Congressman Dellums, Congresswoman Lee was one of only a few women and persons of color to hold a senior position on Capitol Hill.
After leaving Congressman Dellums’ office in 1987, Congresswoman Lee founded a facilities management company that grew to employ over 500 people. As a small business owner in the East Bay, Congresswoman Lee worked with people from all walks of life.
In 1990, Congresswoman Lee was elected to the California State Assembly, where she served until 1996 when she was elected to the State Senate. As a California legislator, Congresswoman Lee authored 67 bills and resolutions that were signed into law by Republican Governor Pete Wilson. This legislation addressed a wide spectrum of issues, including public safety, education, healthcare, and environmental protections. In the legislature, Congresswoman Lee was an early champion of LGBT issues and authored the 1995 California Schools Hate Crimes Reduction Act. As the first African American woman elected to the State Assembly and Senate from Northern California, Congresswoman Lee created and presided over the California Commission on the Status of African American Males and the California Legislative Black Caucus, while working to defeat the punitive “three strikes law.” Congresswoman Lee also served as a strong advocate for women in the legislature, where she authored and passed the first California Violence Against Women Act and served as a member of the California Commission on the Status of Women.
In 1998, Congresswoman Barbara Lee was elected to serve in the then California’s 9th congressional district (now the 13th) in a special election and was the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives from Northern California.
Her legislative accomplishments are many and varied, but they are all rooted in the universal goal of uplifting the marginalized and underrepresented. She has been relentless in her commitment to addressing and alleviating poverty, ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic, for racial and economic justice, and advancing a vision of US foreign policy that actively promotes global peace and security.
Since 2013, she has served as Chair of the Democratic Whip’s Task Force on Poverty, Income Inequality, and Opportunity, which finds solutions to end the scourge of poverty. Congresswoman Lee has also made addressing institutionalized racism and racial wealth disparities a cornerstone of her approach. On the Appropriations Committee, she works tirelessly to protect and expand programs like unemployment insurance, housing assistance, child care, the Earned Income Tax Credit (EITC) and Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP). She fights everyday to bring federal resources to her district as a Psychiatric Social Worker, she prioritizes the vital role of casework services.
Congresswoman Lee has also been a consistent force for ending HIV/AIDS domestically and globally. She has authored or co-sponsored every major piece of legislation dealing with the AIDS crisis since entering Congress, including bills to establish the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria and the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Due to this groundbreaking legislation, the United States is a world leader in responding to the HIV/AIDS pandemic and ending this public health emergency for good. On the domestic front, from protecting funding for the Ryan White HIV/AIDS Program in her role as an appropriator to expanding access to care through the Affordable care Act, Congresswoman Barbara Lee has worked tirelessly to protect and expand access to care and treatment for people living with HIV in the United States. She has also fought to expand and preserve funding for the Minority AIDS Initiative, with the goal of combating the impact of HIV/AIDS on communities of color through HIV prevention and treatment as well as community capacity building.
Congresswoman Barbara Lee is also a leading voice for global peace and security. She is best known for her brave lone opposition to the open-ended 2001 Authorization for the Use of Military Force that passed by Congress just three days after the September 11th attacks. Her foresight in predicting that this war authorization would be used as a blank check for perpetual war has proved prescient; today, this AUMF remains the legal basis for more than 40 military operations around the world. Sixteen years later, Congresswoman Lee remains persistent in her efforts to repeal the AUMF, and last year achieved a historic victory when her repeal bill was adopted by a bipartisan and nearly unanimous vote of the Appropriations Committee.
Congresswoman Lee has fought to strengthen ties with countries around the world – serving multiple times as the U.S. Congressional Representative to the United Nations. Her decades of persistent advocacy for normalizing relations with Cuba was integral to the re-opening of the U.S. embassy on the island. Through her position as Chair of the State and Foreign Operations Appropriations Subcommittee, Congresswoman Lee has been a vocal champion of soft power initiatives, securing lifesaving funding for foreign development, nutrition and health care programs.
As a member of the House Democratic Leadership, she is the highest ranking Black woman or woman of color in the U.S. Congress. Her leadership positions in Congress include: Co-Chair of the Democratic Steering and Policy Committee, Co-Chair of the Pro-Choice Caucus, Vice Chair and founding member of the LGBT Equality Caucus, Co-Founder and Co-Chair of the Congressional HIV/AIDS Caucus, Chair of the Social Work Caucus, and Co-Chair of the Sudan and South Sudan Caucus. In 2021, Congresswoman Lee became the first African-American to Chair the House Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs.
She is the former Chair (2008-2010) of the Congressional Black Caucus, a former Co-Chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and a member of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, where she serves as Co-Chair of the Health Care Task Force. Congresswoman Lee is a member of the Appropriations Committee and the Budget Committee, and previously served on the Banking, International Relations, Financial Services, and Foreign Affairs committees.
Her Political Leadership: Congresswoman Lee is the Honorary Chair of Representation Matters, an effort committed to changing the face of power by standing with and supporting Black women and women of color candidates running for elected office. She is a member of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee’s 2022 Leadership Team as Chair of the Winning With Women of Color program. This builds on her work with Representation Matters as a leader in the DCCC’s efforts to support and champion Black women and women of color candidates.
Congresswoman Lee is also an elected member of the Democratic National Committee, where she has taken an active role in making the Democratic party more progressive, diverse and grassroots-driven. In 2012, 2016, and 2020, Congresswoman Lee was a member of the Democratic Platform Drafting Committee where she worked to craft the most progressive Democratic Party platform ever. Congresswoman Lee also serves as a Chair Emeritus of the Congressional Progressive Caucus PAC, Honorary Chair of One Voice PAC, and as a board member of ASPIRE (Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders Rising & Empowering) PAC. She is active in mentoring, training and promoting progressive candidates at all levels with a focus on women and candidates of color.
Selected Highlights of Congressional Legislative Accomplishments:
Congresswoman Lee was the only member of Congress to vote against the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) on September 14th, 2001. In the ensuing years, she has led Congressional efforts to repeal this blank check for endless war.
In October 2002, Congresswoman Lee offered a substitute amendment to the Iraq AUMF that would have provided an alternative to the Iraq war. Her amendment required the president to work with the UN to ensure Iraq was not making weapons of mass destruction and to resume negotiations with Iraq.
In 2004, Congresswoman Lee and her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus stood united in introducing H.Con.Res. 467, declaring genocide was occurring in Darfur, Sudan. In May 2006, she was arrested for civil disobedience outside the Sudanese Embassy protesting the horrors in Darfur. She later traveled to the region and worked to pass the Darfur Peace and Accountability Act, which was signed into law in October 2006.
In 2005, Congresswoman Lee, joined Congresswoman Waters and Congresswoman Woolsey in establishing the Out of Iraq Caucus.
In 2006, Congresswoman Lee’s amendment banning permanent U.S. military bases from being established in Iraq, passed the House of Representatives and was included in the funding bill signed into law. She later expanded on this work to include a prohibition on funding for permanent U.S. military bases in Afghanistan, and has worked to ensure these provisions are signed into law annually.
During the Iraq war, Congresswoman Lee annually offered the “Lee Amendment” to limit war funding to the safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors in Iraq. Her amendments and corresponding legislation continued to gain support throughout the war. She also authored legislation and amendments to repeal the 2002 Iraq AUMF.
Congresswoman Lee has consistently authored legislation to end the war in Afghanistan and has consistently offered the “Lee Amendment” to limit war funding in Afghanistan to the safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and contractors.
In 2008, she led the legislative efforts to finally remove South Africa’s African National Congress, the party of Nelson Mandela, from the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
Congresswoman Lee built a bipartisan coalition to vocally oppose military intervention in Libya in 2011. Along with Representatives Ron Paul and Dennis Kucinich, Congresswoman Lee led congressional efforts to limit U.S. military involvement in the country.
Following the devastating 2010 Haitian earthquake, Congresswoman Lee spearheaded congressional recovery and relief efforts. In 2014, Congresswoman Lee’s legislation, the Assessing Progress in Haiti Act, was signed into law by President Obama. This law has provided greater transparency and accountability in USAID recovery efforts in Haiti.
Congresswoman Lee was instrumental in laying the groundwork for the 2014 normalization of U.S.-Cuba relations. In 2015, Congresswoman Lee accompanied President Obama on his historic trip to Havana. She remains a vocal advocate for ending the travel and trade restrictions with Cuba and is Co-Chair of the Bipartisan Cuba Working Group.
Congresswoman Lee has served as the U.S. Congressional Representative to the United Nations General Assembly multiple times. In this capacity, she has advocated for gender equality, greater investments in HIV/AIDS initiatives, and addressing racial inequalities and injustices.
Congresswoman Lee accompanied President Clinton on Air Force One to Africa during the Burundi Peace talks led by the late President Mandela and also accompanied President Obama to Kenya and Ethiopia.
In April 2017, Congresswoman Lee offered an Amendment to the Defense Appropriations FY18 Bill to sunset the 2001 AUMF. Her amendment passed the Committee with bipartisan support. This amendment was later removed by Republican congressional leadership.
As Chair of the Appropriations Subcommittee that allocates funding for our diplomatic and development efforts, Congresswoman Lee is a champion for robust diplomacy, foreign assistance and development especially in the Middle East, Africa, Caribbean and Latin America.
- In 2000, Congresswoman Lee co-authored the Global AIDS and Tuberculosis Relief Act of 2000. This legislation established the framework for what became the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria. The Global Fund has since saved millions of lives and accelerated an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic.
- In 2000, Congresswoman Lee built support within the Congressional Black Caucus to work with President Bush in addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic in Africa. Congresswoman Lee was instrumental in the drafting and passage of the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). This legislation has saved millions of lives and changed the course of the pandemic.
- In 2001, Congresswoman Lee and her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus stood united in calling on the Bush Administration to declare a State of Emergency for HIV/AIDS in minority communities. Three years prior, a public health officer had declared a Public Health Emergency on AIDS in Alameda County’s African American Community, resulting in increased prevention efforts and decreasing infection rates in Alameda.
- In 2005, Congress passed Congresswoman Lee’s Assistance for Orphans and Vulnerable Children in Developing Countries Act. This legislation provided new tools for the U.S. and international organizations to assist the 143 million children in Sub-Saharan Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean who have lost one or both of their parents.
- In 2007, Congresswoman Lee introduced legislation to lift the discriminatory HIV travel ban to the United States. Her legislation was passed by Congress in 2008 and President Obama helped end the ban in its entirety in 2010. This work cleared the way for the International AIDS Conference to return to the United States in 2012. She has attended all but one International AIDS Conference since being elected to Congress.
- In 2010, Congresswoman Lee served as the United States Representative on the United Nations Global Commission on HIV and the Law. She co-authored the Commission’s landmark report, which provided a blueprint for ending the epidemic and repealing outdated, unscientific and stigmatizing HIV-discrimination laws.
- Congresswoman Lee played a vital role in the creation of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. In 2010, she worked with President Obama and the White House to draft this landmark document to address the domestic HIV/AIDS epidemic.
Justice for All
- In 2001, Congresswoman Lee National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act, which she authored with then-Congressman Bernie Sanders, was enacted into law. This legislation has helped families across the country find affordable housing.
- In 2001, Congresswoman Lee secured critical funding for the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Freedom Center in Oakland, CA. In the years since, she has become deeply involved with youth programs at the center, including bringing leaders of the civil rights movement to the center to participate in the Barbara Lee and Elihu Harris Lecture Series, and bringing young people from the center to participate in and learn from the Civil Rights Pilgrimage and March in Selma each year with the Faith and Politics Institute.
- In June 2008, Congresswoman Lee helped found the LGBT Equality Caucus. She currently serves as a Co-Chair and uses her position in leadership to advocate civil rights, equality, and justice for all LGBTQ+ individuals.
- From 2009 to 2011, Congresswoman Barbara Lee served as Chair of the Congressional Black Caucus. In this leadership role, she worked closely with the Obama Administration to ensure the voices of African Americans were heard in economic recovery efforts.
- Congresswoman Barbara Lee worked with President Barack Obama on the Affordable Care Act (ACA). After advocating for single payer legislation, Congresswoman Lee built support for the landmark ACA in the House of Representatives. The bill was passed and signed into law in 2010, and has since provided affordable, lifesaving care for over 22 million Americans.
- Congresswoman Lee has been a vocal advocate for reining in Wall Street and ending taxpayer funded bailouts of big banks. In 2010, she supported the landmark Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, which helped end some of the most abusive financial practices on Wall Street.
- In 2013, Congresswoman Lee founded the Whip’s Task Force on Poverty, Income Inequality and Opportunity to jumpstart a national effort to eradicate poverty. Alongside Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer, Congresswoman Lee is working to raise the minimum wage, increase affordable housing, protect critical nutrition assistance programs, increase access to health care and education, and create good-paying jobs for all American families.
- In 2015, Congresswoman Lee authored and introduced the Equal Access to Abortion Coverage in Health Insurance (EACH Woman) Act. This legislation – the boldest pro-choice bill introduced in Congress to date – would end the discriminatory Hyde Amendment and ensure women have access to the full range of reproductive choices – including abortion – regardless of their race, wealth, or zip code.
- In 2015, Congresswoman Lee joined President Obama and Congressman John Lewis on the 50th Anniversary of Bloody Sunday. She marched across Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to commemorate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and recommit to the fight for racial and social justice. Congresswoman Lee has visited Selma to remember Dr. King’s work each year since becoming a Member of Congress.
- Congresswoman Lee has fought tirelessly to end the failed War on Drugs and expand access to medical cannabis for those who need it, including veterans. In 2017 and 2018, Congresswoman Lee introduced the REFER Act and the Marijuana Justice Act, which would stop federal interference in state laws and provide restorative justice to communities of color.
- Congresswoman Lee has been a staunch advocate for gun control, and has introduced legislation to get weapons of war off our streets and end the ban on gun violence research at the Center for Disease Control (CDC). In March 2018, Congresswoman Lee met with students from her congressional district in Oakland, CA and in Washington, DC to elevate their voices on the national level. She and a group of students from Oakland’s Youth Development Center participated in the March for our Lives.
- In April 2018, Congresswoman Lee marked the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Assassination in Memphis, TN. She spoke at the commemoration at the Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, met with local chapters of AFSCME, and spoke with sanitation workers who marched with Dr. King to reflect on his life and legacy.