Karen Camper has represented Tennessee’s District 87 for over twelve years and is the first African American House Democratic leader in the state’s history. She sits on the House Finance Ways and Means Committee, House Business and Utilities Committee, Ethics Committee, House Rules Committee, and Joint Pensions and Insurance Committee.
This interview is part of a series for No Democracy Without Black Women, a report about the underrepresentation of Black women in state legislatures.
What drove you to become a leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives?
I started my life on the southside of Chicago, where I was very involved in school and in my community. My mother and grandmother set that tone and expected success. I have lived these values of being active in my community since I was young. I was an activist in college, demanding that the college divest from interests in South Africa over apartheid, and after college I volunteered to serve my country in the United States Army.
In my role as a State Representative, I make sure that the people in my community have their voices heard and that we have a seat at any table where decisions are made. This drive propelled me into leadership.
What role do you see Black women playing in state legislatures? And what makes Black women so well suited at this moment to lead?
When we look at the future of our country and how to make things better, one of the most important challenges we must tackle is to make sure that every stakeholder has a seat at the table. It doesn’t matter if you are a Republican or a Democrat. We all need to be able to talk to each other about what is really important—community, family, opportunity, fairness, justice.
I think Black women are well-positioned to lead because we have our roots in community, we know how to build bridges, and we know how to lead in the face of adversity. I know how important it is to spend time meeting with people in my community to make sure they all have a voice in crafting our policy priorities.
There are techniques and strategies that you can use as a leader, and part of it is recognizing your strengths and using them to advocate for your constituents. You also have to remember people come from various walks of life, they all come here out of their love and commitment to the mission. Everyone can contribute. I’ve walked in that mindset here in the Tennessee General Assembly.
I have had strong mentors and I think that is incredibly important as you navigate this world. Keep following your path, reach out for help and guidance when you need it and the rest will come along.
It is always important to show up and fight every day for your values. I advocate for justice and equality for all human beings. Just three years ago, I collaborated with my colleagues in the Tennessee General Assembly to officially recognize Rosa Parks Day in Tennessee. This acknowledgment was as much a reminder to future generations of Tennesseans as it was a tribute to the past. Three of the four Minority Leadership members in the House and Senate are African American, and two of us are women.. As the two highest-ranked women of color in Tennessee’s legislative history, we recognize that our work would not have been possible without the sacrifices of people who were persecuted for exercising their civil rights and the millions who continue to march in the spirit of equality. The ideals Rosa Parks embodied are those that I continue to fight for today.