Senator Raumesh Akbari is the first African American chair of the Senate Democratic Caucus in the Tennessee Legislature. She serves on the Senate Commerce and Labor Committee and the Senate Education Committee. Akbari has represented the 29th District since 2018 and previously represented the 91st District as a state representative from 2014 to 2018.
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 compelled you to run for office as a millennial?
I was one of those weirdos that knew early on that I wanted to run for elected office. As far back as middle school, I knew I wanted to run because I thought, “If you don’t like the way the law is, you have to change it.” I was inspired by the National Civil Rights Movement, Dr. King, and all of the folks protesting for the passage of the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. That really motivated me.
Over the years, I saw a lot of problems in my community and people shared their concerns with me. I knew that actually having a seat at the table where legislation is being made would give me an opportunity to make a direct impact. You can raise awareness of an issue, get people’s attention, and then really make change with legislation. When I first got elected, I was the youngest member in the legislature and I knew that was an important role to fill.
How did you become acclimated to the transition to working in the legislature as an elected official?
I ran for the Senate in 2018 and now serve as the Senate Democratic Caucus Chairwoman, and I’m the first Black woman to be in that role. I understand that I’m not just there for myself and the things that are important to me, but I am also there to represent other Black women and encourage other Black women. Now for the first time ever, we have three Black women in the State Senate.
I’m here, I have a seat at the table and I represent the people who elected me. I did not over promise and I knew there were some good things that I could pass. I also recognized that even while I’m in the super minority, it’s about building relationships. Building relationships is the key to actually passing legislation.
As far as my priorities go, I’ve tried to lean into three main areas: criminal justice reform, education reform, and economic development. I think those issues really translate across the aisle and will also make a big difference for people in my district.
Every day is a different day. This work is not for the faint of heart. It’s difficult, it’s heavy. Look, you can do this, but you have to know there’s a lot of work that comes along with it.
You have been an advocate for criminal justice reform. Where do you see the political landscape shifting around rights restoration and prison gerrymandering?
We’ve been talking about prison gerrymandering and restoration of rights for a long time. Our situation in Tennessee is particularly unfair. We are the only state in the entire union that if you exit the justice system and have child support payments still, you have to pay them before you can have your voting rights restored. You also have to pay your fines and fees before you can register to vote.
What happened in the Florida legislature after the victory for rights restoration on the ballot in 2018 was modeled off of Tennessee’s laws. Republicans in the Florida legislature rolled back that victory and the vote of the people with fines and fees and other language meant to dissuade eligible voters from voting. Other southern states also target Black and brown voters with requirements to pay all your fines and fees before you can vote.
Unfortunately, I feel that many legislators are taking steps backwards in Tennessee when it comes to criminal justice reform, but that doesn’t mean we will stop the fight. With the organizing that happened within the Black Lives Matter movement and the national recognition and investment to change these laws, I am hopeful. There are activists and advocates who will not give up this fight.