Kamala: Next in Line
The Education of Kamala Harris
Joy Reid: On a tree-lined street in West Berkeley, Carole Porter waited for the bus to school.
Carole Porter: You know, I got some new school clothes, and I got, you know, special ribbons for my hair. I was just excited to go to school, and I really enjoyed being on the bus, because I was able to talk with my friends on the way to school.
Reid: Carole was in first grade, and her school was all the way across town.
Porter: It was a yellow school bus with a little green duck on it, so we could remember which bus to get on.
Reid: On this particular day, she'll catch her bus and make a friend.
Porter: I met Kamala in the bus line.
Reid: Kamala Harris lived with her mom around the corner from Carole. Her mom's name was Shyamala.
Porter: Shyamala was a working single mother who was very involved and engaged in her kid's life and also with her kid's friends. I mean, she was a very warm, nice person, but she was also very strict and structured when she needed to be. And she didn't take any business from anybody, and she was a force to be reckoned with.
Reid: From then on, Kamala and Carole took the bus together.
Porter: And we took the bus to school from 1970 to 1973 to Thousand Oaks school, which was about 40 minutes from our house. It was part of the Berkeley school desegregation program.
Reid: The Berkeley desegregation program was designed to integrate schools in the area. A two-way bussing program that took Black students to predominantly white schools, and white students to predominantly Black schools.
Porter: And as you took the bus, you could definitely see the change in the neighborhood. You see a lot larger homes, a lot more lush and green yards, and just a very upscale environment, which I thought was really, I was, like, "Oh, this is really cool."
Their library was on a quiet street. The library that we went to in West Berkeley was on a busy street. It was on University Avenue. So there were definitely differences that I saw. When we got there, the school was very clean and nice. The biggest thing I would say I noticed is when I went for playdates at my friends' homes, 'cause they were mostly in the Berkeley Hills. And they were very large homes, very different than the homes that Kamala and I grew up in.
Reid: For Carole and Kamala, it wasn't just a bus ride, it was a trip to another world, and a ride she didn't forget.
Kamala Harris: You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bussed to school every day. And that little girl was me. (ADVERTISEMENT)
Reid: This is Episode 2 of six, The Education of Kamala Harris. I first interviewed Kamala Harris in Iowa, back when she was campaigning for president. Senator Kamala Harris?
Harris: Joy Reid.
Reid: Thank you for being here in this beautiful capital. It's gorgeous.
Harris: Yeah, it is, it's pretty amazing.
Reid: Behind the scenes, she was self-deprecating, kind, and very, very normal. That's my big, fancy takeaway. Kamala Harris is a normal person, someone you might know in the neighborhood or in college or in the Links organization. But before she was vice presidential candidate or senator or attorney general, or even district attorney, she was simply Kamala.
Jonathan Capehart: Pronounce your name. (LAUGHTER)
Harris: Kamala. So just think of, like, the punctuation mark, a comma, and add a "la," and there you go. (LAUGH)
Reid: This is Kamala herself speaking with Jonathan Capehart at an event hosted by the Politics and Prose Bookstore in 2019.
Capehart: So then, what does Kamala mean then?
Harris: So it's a very traditional, classic, Indian name. And it derives from Sanskrit, and it means the lotus flower. And it's very prevalent in a lot of Asian cultures, and the idea of the symbolism is that the lotus flower sits on water, but it never really gets wet.
The water beads off of it, and so the idea being that one can be in the midst of chaos or be in the midst of something happening and be there and should be there, and it doesn't need to necessarily penetrate you, but one should be there. And equally important, it's roots are in the mud, meaning it is grounded. And one must always know where they come from and can still be this thing. (APPLAUSE)
Capehart: Now I need you to pronounce another name for me, that for the life of me I just, I couldn't do it. And that is the name of your mother.
Reid: Shyamala. In speech after speech on the campaign trail, Kamala Harris talks about the lessons she learned from her mom.
Harris: She was all of five-feet tall, but you ever met our mother, you would have thought she was ten-feet tall. She'd say, "Don't you ever let anyone tell you who you are. You tell them who you are." She said, "Your life should be judged based on service to others, not self interest." And my mother, she was tough. If you ever came home in our house complaining about something, our mother would look at you with a straight face, one hand probably on a hip, and she'd say, "Well, what are you gonna do about it?"
Deepa Shivaram: There're so many quotes that she, you know, brings back and quotes from her mom.
Reid: That's NBC reporter, Deepa Shivaram.
Shivaram: The one that I think comes up the most often is, you know, "Kamala, you may be the first to do many things--"
Harris: "You may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last."
Shivaram: And from the way Kamala Harris talks about her mom, which is often and with so much love and respect, so the way she describes it is that her mom had two goals in her life: To raise her two daughters and to cure breast cancer.
Gopalan Balachandran: Look, I can speak for all of us and for Shyamala now.
Reid: That's Gopalan Balachandran, Shyamala's brother.
Balachandran: She was a pioneer. When she was a single girl of 19 years old, she went on her own to the States on her own merit. She applied for, got admission and fellowship, everything all on her own. She only told my father after she got admitted. Okay, two, at that time, there were not many Indians living in that way, and certainly no single girl of Indian unmarried girls, okay. So she did a lot of things which nobody else had done at that time. Now, I won't say nobody else, very few had done at that time.
Shivaram: It is still a lot of barrier breaking to do.
Reid: Shyamala Harris arrived in the U.S. to study science. And it was on the University of California Berkeley campus that Shyamala met Donald Harris.
Shivaram: Oh yeah. "My parents met marchin' and shoutin' in the Civil Rights Movement," that is, like, straight from her stump speech. Kamala Harris's dad was speaking at kind of, like, a student-organized event about civil rights, about a lot of the social movements that were going on in the U.S. at the time. And Kamala Harris's mom, Shyamala attended. And she went up to Donald Harris, and they started talking, and they met.
Reid: Kamala was born two years later, and her sister Maya, two years after that.
Harris: And even as children, and Maya can attest to this, you could sit at the dinner table among all of these people having this conversation. And as the child, you could dare to state an opinion, but you were expected to defend that opinion, no matter how old you were.
Reid: Here she is in conversation with Jeffrey Brand.
Harris: And so it certainly was a perfect training ground for the profession that I've chosen, but also the environment was very passionate.
Shivaram: And she'll tell stories of, you know, being pushed around in a stroller while her parents were attending protests. She tells a funny story that, you know, at one point she was kind of fussing in her stroller, and her mom looked down and was just, like, "Kamala, what do you want?" And she was, like, "Freedom."
Reid: Kamala's parents were divorced by the time she was eight. She, her mom, and her sister moved around for her mom's work. In 1982, Kamala went away to college. It was an experience that would profoundly shape her life and career.
Shivaram: I think it is impossible to separate Kamala Harris from her experience at Howard. I think, I mean, she talks about it so much, you know the impact that it had on her life. And even just now, I mean, she's running for vice president, right? Her campaign offices are literally, like, next to Howard's campus.
Reid: Howard University, the Historically Black College campus with sprawling lawns and brick buildings was on the other side of the country from her hometown of Oakland. In her memoir, Kamala remembers her first days on campus.
Harris: I'll always remember walking into Cramton Auditorium for my freshman orientation. The room was packed. I stood in the back looking around, and thought, "This is heaven." There were hundreds of people, and everyone looked like me.
Reid: It was at Howard that Kamala joined Alpha Kappa Alpha, the oldest Black sorority in the country, one of the Divine Nine. It was at Howard that Kamala took part in protests against U.S. investment in Apartheid South Africa. She interned in the same Senate office she would one day hold. And it was also at Howard that Kamala would meet Jill Louis and Shelley Young-Thompkins.
Shelley Young-Thompkins: I kind of called it this incubator, a place where you could build your confidence. So I know some African Americans, I've heard them say they, you know, came from schools maybe where they were in the minority. And then they come to Howard, and it helps them to have a sense of identity.
Jill Louis: The thought that these were all people who were about doing something with their lives and being the fullest person that they could be. And we were out having an amazing time at a party, and no one had to argue over what the music was going to be, because we all agreed what was a jam at that time. It was phenomenal.
Reid: It was a lot of fun, and a good place for anyone interested in politics. Shelley Thompkins hadn't been on campus very long at all before she got involved in her first electoral campaign.
Young-Thompkins: It wasn't just a matter of putting up posters, you know, vote for me, but it was about connecting with people one-on-one, you know, asking them what their concerns are, telling them we were interested in running for office.
Reid: Shelley saw an opportunity to run for freshman class representative and went for it.
Young-Thompkins: I had been a part of student government in high school, and so it just made sense. It was just I felt a part of the duty and responsibility. I've always had a calling for using my voice to help other people.
Reid: Kamala had the same calling.
Young-Thompkins: Here's this California girl, absolutely beautiful, stunning, tenacious. And we were just, like, two ladies who thought we could change the world, starting with the freshman class.
Harris: I ran for my first elected office, Freshman Class Representative of the Liberal Arts Student Council. It was my very first campaign, and no opponent I've faced since was as tough as Jersey girl, Shelley Young.
Young-Thompkins: Hey, we were freshmen, but we felt like this was the most important job (LAUGH) that we had outside of, you know, our school work.
Reid: Shelley campaigned hard, knocking on dorm room doors, talking to students.
Young-Thompkins: There were two on-campus dorms, one for all male and one all female. And so we were able to, you know, go and have conversation and really get a sense for what concerns people had and what things they wanted to see.
Reid: And Kamala did the same. Even though they were competing with each other for two freshmen representative spots, Shelley liked Kamala.
Young-Thompkins: Kamala has an infectious smile and laughter, and just a great disposition, and so it was certainly very easy to become her friend. She was absolutely a pleasant person, a fun person, but at the same time, someone who had goals in mind and who felt that they had a purpose, even if it was just to be the best student representative.
Reid: Finally, it came down to the votes.
Young-Thompkins: I can't say that I had a sense of a guarantee that I would win or she would win. What I knew though is that we were both giving it our all.
Reid: There were two elected positions up for grabs. In the end, Kamala and Shelley both won.
Young-Thompkins: Her statement, as I said, was I was her toughest competitor, "Jersey girl Shelley." You know, iron sharpens iron. We helped each other to bring out the best in one another. She was very determined to be Freshman Class Representative, and so was I.
Shivaram: Whenever she sees kids on the rope line or, you know, on the Hill, or on the campaign trail, like, she'll find them, or, you know, they'll come up to her. And the advice she always gives is, "You never have to ask anyone's permission to lead. You just lead." I have heard her say that so many times, always to young people. She'll say, "Chin up, shoulders back. You never have to ask permission to lead." (ADVERTISEMENT)
Reid: Since Kamala Harris has been a senator, some of her most memorable moments have been her taking apart government officials with incisive questions and laser focus. Skills she must have learned during those conversations with adults back home and refined during her time at Howard.
Lita Rosario: I remember being in the Punchout.
Reid: Lita Rosario met Kamala Harris in 1983.
Rosario: Which is where we would go to eat lunch and even, you know, dinner sometimes in the evenings and hang out there sometimes, do homework sometimes. Different fraternities and sororities would meet there. I remember talking to her there, and kind of trying to convince her that she should come out for the debate team.
Reid: Lita encouraged Kamala to join the debate team for a few reasons, not least.
Rosario: I noticed that she had an ability to spar with the guys in particular, and she would stick to her points. And she had very cogent arguments, and she also had a keen sense of wit. I just noticed that she had an ability to argue and to get her points out succinctly and quickly, and to synthesize information. And she had a good sense of logic and just a very good ability to ask the right question.
Reid: Even then, Kamala Harris knew how to ask a good question, and woe betide, someone on the other side, friend or foe.
Shivaram: It's something her husband has talked about too in recent weeks. He was doing an event and saying that, you know, when he married her, like, you know, the family dinners with Maya and Kamala and everyone, they would just be, you know, bringing all the legal jargon to the table.
Meena's a lawyer, Maya's husband Tony's a lawyer. Like, everyone's a lawyer, Doug's a lawyer. And, you know, he was kinda joking. He's, like, "Yeah, there'd be some family arguments where I'd walk away, and I'd be, like, man, I gotta do better next time." (LAUGH)
Reid: Whenever she talks about her time at Howard, Kamala Harris talks about how supportive a place it was, a place to grow in all kinds of ways, and to really understand what it meant to be Kamala Harris. One night, Jill Louis remembers sitting and talking with Kamala.
Louis: She wanted to talk a little bit about her experiences as a person of mixed heritage. And I remember her using a term to describe kind of a derogatory term that she had been called with respect to the Asian side of her heritage. And it was in the context of being with the West Indian side of her family.
And that's when I first became acquainted with the fact that, even as a Black woman but a Black woman of mixed heritage that she faced not only discrimination with respect to being Black, but also being South Asian within the context of either culture. That she could face rejection, in addition to from the dominant Anglo culture.
So this is someone who has grown up catching three times the impact of her heritage, of her immutable characteristics. And she told the story really with more sort of resignation and resolve than she did with any notion that, you know, she had any lessening of her self-esteem or that she had, you know, any lessening of her resolve.
Reid: Kamala graduated from Howard in 1986. Just over 30 years later, she came back to give a commencement speech and to reflect on what she learned.
Harris: I promise you, you will often find that you are the only one in the room who looks like you. You will often find you are the only one in that room who has had the same experiences you've had. And you are going to feel very alone at that moment. But wherever you are, whether you're in a courtroom, a boardroom, a tech incubator, whether you are in Washington or Wichita, you must remember this. You are never alone. We are all in that room with you every single time, every single day. (APPLAUSE)
Reid: After graduating, Kamala applied for law school.
Harris: I want to be a lawyer. I decided that at a very young age.
Reid: That part wasn't surprising.
Shivaram: She's had lawyers in her family. And she saw that growing up, you know, how much they helped people in the community. And so I think the field of law was something she always deeply respected throughout her life.
Reid: But what she did next was.
Harris: After going to Howard and graduating from Hastings Law School, I was very excited. My family gathered around. "Okay, Kamala, what are you gonna do in your fight for justice?"
Reid: She described their reaction on stage at the Chicago Ideas Week in 2013.
Harris: I very proudly told them, "I have decided I'm gonna become a prosecutor." (LAUGHTER) You're laughing, because you have a sense of who my family is. For example, my sister went on to head the ACLU. So my family at least at best found my decision a bit curious, and with some of them I had to defend the decision like one would a thesis.
Shivaram: The decision to become a prosecutor though is the different part. No one else in her family was a prosecutor. And I think this decision also speaks to the kind of political philosophy that someone like Kamala Harris has embodied her entire career.
Reid: She interned at the Alameda County D.A.'s office and wound up being a prosecutor there before eventually becoming a prosecutor at the San Francisco City Attorney's office.
Shivaram: And she has talked about this too, right, where for movements to succeed, for society to move forward, there are kind of two parts of it, right? There are people on the outside who are applying pressure. There are people who are part of these movements, who are part of these protests, who push, who push, who push, who push our elected leaders, who push people who have power-- to make change and to created legislation that makes change.
And then at the same time, there are people at the table who make those decisions-- who are involved in that change process-- but come at it from a different perspective and a different job and a different role. And her decision to become a prosecutor was to be at the table.
Reid: It was not unlike one of the many quotes Kamala would share from her mom. "Systems aren't going to change themselves, so what are you going to do about it?" Shyamala had been there, stuffing envelopes and offering advice throughout her run for district attorney, and was there to see her daughter sworn in. But a few years later, she met Kamala and Maya in a restaurant to share some bad news.
Harris: A waiter brought us a basket of bread. We reviewed our menus and ordered our food, making lightheaded conversation. And then my mother took a deep breath and reached out to us both across the table. "I've been diagnosed with colon cancer," she said. Cancer, my mother, please no.
Reid: Shyamala died in February 2009, shortly before Kamala ran for attorney general. She was 70.
Shivaram: It was a huge, huge loss in her life when she lost her mom. And to have done that when she just became attorney general, she hadn't even met Doug yet. You know, her mom never saw her get married. It's something that I think, you know, she brings out a lot because of how much she talks about her mom. It's a huge part of her motivation in her life and a huge part of, I mean, obviously just who she is as a person.
I think that, because again, it's that idea of, you know, service to others, but it's also broader than that. I mean, the advice that she most often I would argue repeats from her mom, there are so many quotes that she, you know, brings back in quotes from her mom. But the one that I think comes up the most often is, you know, "Kamala, you may be the first to do many things, but make sure you're not the last."
And this is a woman who has broken many barriers in her life and in her career. And as she breaks those doors down, she has made it a mission to hold it open for others. And made it a mission to know that other people would come behind her. And that is something that was drilled into her from her mom at a very young age.
Reid: The race for attorney general, the next stage of Kamala Harris's rise, would be shaped by another tragic event, one that happened in the first four months of her time as district attorney in San Francisco. That's on the next episode of Kamala, Next in Line.
From MSNBC and Wondery, this is Episode 2 of six of Kamala, Next in Line. This is a six-part series about the making of Kamala Harris. If you want to help us spread the word, please give us a five-star rating and a review on Apple Podcasts, and be sure to tell your friends.
Subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, the Wondery app, or wherever you're listening right now. I'm your host, Joy Reid. Associate producers are Chris Seigal and Allison Bailey. Production and research help from Carrie Dann and Julie Tsirkin. Production assistance from Hank Butler. Music supervisor Scott Velasquez. Managing producer Lata Pandya. Sound design by Lindsay Graham. Executive produced for MSNBC by Steve Lickteig, executive produced by George Lavender, Marshall Lewy, and Hernan Lopez for Wondery.