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A conversation with Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Tamika Mallory

Civil rights leaders Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Tamika Mallory responded to questions from the community.

In the msnbc original series ”Generation to Generation,” we take a side-by-side look at the work of civil rights leaders from the 1960s and their modern-day counterparts. This week we're featuring Rep. Eleanor Holmes Norton and Tamika Mallory, who we're excited to have respond to questions directly from the community.

Congresswoman Norton is serving her 12th term representing Washington, D.C. Prior to that, Norton was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to serve as the first woman to chair the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her role in the civil rights movement began as a college student at Antioch, where she was a Student Nonviolent Coordination Committee organizer and a signer of the Black Woman's Manifesto. 

Tamika Mallory has been a champion of gun violence intervention and prevention. She has personally lost a loved one to gun violence and has since become the co-chair for the Gun Violence Awareness Month Initiative in New York City. She was also involved in Vice President Joe Biden's gun control task force. 

Rep. Norton and Tamika answered your questions from the msnbc community thread—see her response below!

Janiece Watts: How do we harness the energy of this time to spark changes like the Civil Rights movement?

Rep. Norton: History doesn’t really repeat itself, but it can and usually does get better. A confluence of special circumstances stimulated my generation to take on issues of equality.  I’m impressed by how this generation quickly uses social media to take on emerging issues. Young people, using the strongest weapon of any movement, the vote, made all the difference in the last presidential election.  Without them, Barack Obama would not be president. My generation took on political equality. I believe young people, who have graduated into a poor economy, have an incentive to take on much tougher issues of income equality. If they show the leadership they have demonstrated in the last few elections, they can bring changes even greater than my generation achieved. 

Tamika: The key to harnessing similar energy of today lies in our ability to use resources like technology. Social media has allowed us to expand and strengthen our networks, and that is how we have to pass messages to each other. Civil rights activism has always been a matter of sharing information and coordinating action. Today, communicating has become easier; we have these ready-made, virtual networks, which we must use to spread messages—but we must be prepared to take our message to the street as well.  

Hugh B Delaney: Civil rights begins these days with income disparity. How do we help the working poor?

Tamika: We help the working poor by improving the quality of education and expanding educational opportunities, not just for children but also for adults who've been out of the workforce and need to broaden their base of skills. President Obama and many other leaders are talking about the importance of investing in education in the STEM fields (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics). There is no denying the significance, but we need to increase technical education on all levels, so that our youth can develop the basic skills necessary to study STEM fields. We need to create an equal playing field, so we can increase opportunities for both youth and unemployed adults the build the foundational skills necessary to excel in STEM fields.  

Rep. Norton: I agree that income disparity is the great issue of our time. It is even broader and more difficult than the civil rights issues of the 1960s.  The “99 percent” is not just a slogan. The disparity in income has left the middle class with lowered, not rising income, and the poor unable to reach the middle class.  Fortunately, the President has made income disparity his signature issue. The Democrats’ fight for an increase in the minimum wage shows that the middle class and the poor are in this fight together. That issue has overwhelming public support because as the minimum wage is increased, wages above that floor almost always increase as well. I am optimistic because the poor do not have to take on the issue of income disparity by themselves. The poor and the middle class are in this fight together.

"Income disparity is the great issue of our time. It is even broader and more difficult than the civil rights issues of the 1960s."'

Haleh Kanani: Schools in many parts of the country have a lot of problems, but D.C.'s seems to be the epitome of a lot of what's wrong with our education system. Why do you think that's the case, and how should we tackle that issue?  Rep. Norton: Actually, D.C.’s school system has improved considerably. The 2013 National Assessment on Educational Progress, known as the National Report Card, showed that the District of Columbia, along with Tennessee, showed the greatest improvement in test scores in the nation. My experience in D.C. Public Schools was different because the city was different. The suburbs were closed to African Americans, and the schools in the District had the disadvantage of being segregated, but children from the large middle class along with poor children were from mostly two-parent families, while many of the children today are poorer and from single-parent families, which is the most important determinant of progress in schools. I went to Dunbar High School, recognized as the best high school of the segregated era. The education enabled students from Dunbar to attend the best colleges and universities in the country. 

Alicia Maule: What do you make of the gun violence in Chicago? Have you spent time in the communities affected?

Tamika: The violence in Chicago is heartbreaking and scary; it is absolutely a public health crisis. Chicago is proof that what elected officials have been able or willing to do to address the problem thus far simply isn't enough. Chicago's Police Superintendent, Garry McCarthy, has openly criticized the loose gun laws in Illinois and surrounding states which allow weapons to flow freely into Chicago. The city can't solve this problem alone; solutions must be coordinated on the state and regional levels.

For over a decade, I have worked closely with communities in New York City affected by gun violence. I have built networks with activists in other cities, like Cleopatra Cowley-Pendleton, the mother of Hadiya Pendleton, the 15-year-old honor student who was slain in Chicago in January of 2013.

@digiphile: Where does D.C. stand now, with respect to autonomy and self-governance -- and what's the strategy, legislative or otherwise, to move towards statehood or other conditions that would enfranchise the 600,000 or so American citizens who live in D.C.?Rep. Norton: We have been doing reasonably well, with most of the anti-home-rule bills no longer offered. That has everything to do with the fight we wage, letting no slight go unaddressed, and especially the support for the D.C. equal rights movement we receive from District residents who take the time to show up.  Now, a relatively new House member is trying to block D.C.’s marijuana decriminalization law, but we think we can beat that in the Senate. We are making good progress on statehood with co-sponsorship by the top three Democratic leaders and nearly half the Democratic senators. Statehood is the most difficult to achieve, but it is the only remedy that could give the city full citizenship, including votes in the House and Senate and the elimination of interference with D.C.’s local laws. It is the fight of a lifetime. 

"Chicago is proof that what elected officials have been able or willing to do to address the problem thus far simply isn’t enough."'

Garnet News: It seems to me that the level of discourse in politics has dramatically deteriorated since President Obama took office. Do you agree and if so what do you attribute it to?

Tamika: I think we must continue to focus on the importance of the freedom of speech, even during a time when we are feeling frustrated by the discourse. The ability to freely express ourselves is one of the things that makes this the greatest country in the world. Currently, we're seeing a rise in extremists speaking out and sharing radical messages, and at times those drown out the credible and sensible messages. To deal with this, we have to actively exercise our own freedom of speech, and we have to do it persistently to counteract these fringe messages.

@AllAboveAll: While all 50 states may use their state funds to cover abortion care, Congress routinely overrules D.C.’s own elected officials through the appropriations process and withholds abortion coverage from Washingtonians. What's it going to take to roll back this harmful policy?Rep. Norton: The ban on D.C. using its local funds for abortion coverage for low-income women is the only anti-home-rule rider to return after I got them all removed when the Democrats controlled the House. However, we have kept the anti-choice people from making the rider permanent. We put up a good fight each and every year with great help from national and local pro-choice organizations. We got the abortion rider eliminated when Democrats controlled the House in Fiscal Year 2010, and we do not intend to give up until we do it again! 

Keep up with Tamika and Rep. Norton on Twitter: @TamikaDMallory@EleanorNorton