Remarks by Vice President Harris and Caroline Wanga at the 30th Annual ESSENCE Festival of Culture

During the 30th annual ESSENCE festival on July 6th, 2024, Vice President Kamala was invited to speak and had a conversation with ESSENCE Magazine CEO Caroline Wanga. Harris opened up about her familial upbringing and expressed her opinions on this year’s controversial election, women’s reproductive health crisis, and debt forgiveness. The conversation goes as follows:

MS. WANGA: That’s y’all vice president. (Applause.)

Now listen here, we time constrained. I don’t need to say nothing else. But ladies and — ladies, gentlemen, community, family, one of the beautiful things about history is: Once it happens, it can’t unhappen.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right.

MS. WANGA: And so what that means is there will never be another day where we didn’t have a black female vice president of the United States of America. (Applause.) They can’t take that away.

But today, I’m going to have a conversation with our vice president, Kamala Harris, about the mantle she holds, the seat she has to fill.

Every time we have a “Chief to Chief” conversation, we start with a really simple question. And we ask: Who is Kamala Harris?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: The vice president of the United States of America.

MS. WANGA: Ah! The flex. (Applause.)

(Laughs.) She said, “In case you didn’t know.” I don’t — I can’t (inaudible).

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And — and — and I am a wife.

MS. WANGA: There you go.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I have — we have children. I am a godmommy. I am an auntie. I am a best friend. I am a good cook.

MS. WANGA: Oh, hold on. Wait, wait, wait, wait. What do you cook?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I cook just about everything. You know, today I picked up some tasso and some andouille sausage to take back to D.C. with me. (Applause.)

MS. WANGA: Gumbo with Kamala — oh, sorry, not — you weren’t inviting them to nothing. Keep going.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And — and I — I am a fighter for the people.

MS. WANGA: Yeah.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I care about the people.

MS. WANGA: Yeah. (Applause.)

Will you do me a favor and just share a little bit more about why are you — why you said that twice. What does that mean to you?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, I am a child of parents who met when they were active in the Civil Rights Movement, marching and fighting for justice.

I grew up in a community where it was an extended family of people who told all of us as children we are young, gifted and Black; that we could do anything; that there was no boundary or border to what we could pursue or believe; and that we have a duty — it’s not about that you have the charity — it’s about duty to give back to your community, to know that you’ve been pulled up, and each one must then pull one.

And so, living a life of service is something that —

MS. WANGA: Yeah.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: — I was raised to feel a sense of responsibility to do, as do all of us in various ways. And for me, it’s in elected office.

MS. WANGA: And some of that happened in the Bay Area. I mean, maybe just a little bit of your life happened there.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes. I was — I was born in Oakland, California. (Applause.)

MS. WANGA: Tell them the story of public service coming out of the Bay Area. Tell them the story.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: I am also a proud HBCU graduate. (Applause.) It must be noted: the first HBCU vice president of the United States. (Applause.)

MS. WANGA: Oh, Lord, here we go. Listen, there’s — HU or something like that?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: You know. (Applause.)

MS. WANGA: I was just checking. (Laughter.) Don’t come for me, y’all.

But your journey in — started in the Bay Area in this life of public service.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.

MS. WANGA: Where does — where does that start for you? You talked about it being important for your parents. But, like, what led you to stay in that path? Because you did quite a few things in California.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Well, there are a number of things. I was — so, in extended family, my — our second mother, Ms. Regina Shelton — and Ms. Shelton — my Louisiana family is here. She was from (inaudible) —

MS. WANGA: Where they at?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: They were here earlier. (Laughter.)

MS. WANGA: They’re not.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: There they are.

And we — I grew up — we grew up — I lived — we lived in the apartment above Ms. Shelton’s nursery school. So, she ran the nursery school.

MS. WANGA: Okay.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And she was part of that flow of folks from the South that moved to California. So, she ran this nursery school, we lived in the apartment on top, and she was a matriarch for the community. And we would work at the nursery school as young — young people.

And I would watch Ms. Shelton as she would nurture and advise a young mother. I would watch her as she would counsel young parents on how to get through when times were rough. And I would see — and I saw in my mother the same type of person — my uncles — the same type of people.

You know, my Uncle Sherman was one of the first Black graduates of Berkeley Law School, who, every time anybody in the community had a problem, they’d say, “Call Sherman. Sherman will help you figure that out.”

And so, I rai- — I was raised by and among a bunch of people who really felt a responsibility to give and to serve. And it was expected of all of us that we would do the same.

MS. WANGA: Yeah.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And that is the life I have chosen to live.

MS. WANGA: So — (applause) — go ahead. Because I think many people under- — I — especially for Black, right? We live in community and the lawyer in the community is everybody’s lawyer.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right. For every reason.

MS. WANGA: The store owner is everybody’s store owner, whether you got money or not — you get an IOU, all those sorts of things. And so, I think it is very familial and — and selfless to exist in Black community.

When you think about that — and one of the things we are hearing a lot in this season is about how “consequential” this election season is. That is a word that’s being used a lot but means something different as we look at what this particular season will leave us with if it doesn’t happen in a way that this community needs to participate to make it happen.

Tell us a little bit about what “consequential” means in this time and why this “consequential” is very different than any other one we’ve had in recent history.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Caroline —

MS. WANGA: Ma’am.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: — and everybody here, this is probably the most significant election of our lifetime. You know, we have said it every four years, but this here one is it.

We are looking at an election that will take place in 122 days —

MS. WANGA: A hundred and twenty-two.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: — where, on one side, you have the former president, who is running to become president again, who has openly talked about his admiration of dictators and his intention to be a dictator on day one, who has openly talked about his intention to weaponize the Department of Justice against his political enemies, who has talked about being proud of taking from the women of America a most fundamental right to make decisions about your own body.

And then, last week, understand — sadly, the press has not been covering it as much as they should in proportion to the seriousness of what just happened — when the United States Supreme Court essentially told this individual who has been convicted of 34 felonies that he will be immune from essentially the activity he has told us he is prepared to engage in if he gets back into the White House.

Understand what we all know. In 122 days, we each have the power to decide what kind of country we want to live in.

Understand what we know. When there has been a full-on intentional attack against hard-fought, hard-won freedoms and rights.

When I talk about the family that raised me, yes, they took me in a stroller as they were marching and shouting for justice, knowing that justice will not be achieved unless we are prepared to march and shout and fight for it. And one of the ways we do that is through our vote.

This here election, let’s think about the significance of the United States Supreme Court. Two years ago and some days now, we commemorated a decision by the United States Supreme Court, the Dobbs decision, that undid the protections of Roe v. Wade.

Understand how that happened. The former president who wants to be president again hand selected three members of the United States Supreme Court with the intention that they would undo the protections of Roe v. Wade. And they did as he intended. The court of Thurgood and RBG took a most fundamental right: the right to make decisions about your own body.

And on this subject, I think we all believe and know: One does not have to abandon their faith and deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling her what to do with her body. (Applause.)

If she chooses, she will talk with her priest or her pastor, her rabbi, her imam, but the government should not be telling her what to do.

Understand that the former president who is up for reelection has said he is proud of what has happened — proud of the fact that our daughters will have fewer rights than their grandmothers; that we have seen in state after state, they’re passing laws, punishing health care providers — in Texas, providing for prison for life for a doctor or nurse who provides reproductive care.

Understand laws being passed and proposed that make no exception for rape or incest.

Caroline, you asked me about the things that have influenced my career —

MS. WANGA: That’s exactly right.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, many of you know I was a prosecutor. You may not know one of the reasons why.

When I was in high school, I learned that my best friend was being molested by her stepfather. And I — when I learned, I said to her, “You have to come live with us.” I called up my mother. My mother said, “Of course, she does.” And she came, and she lived with us.

So, I decided at a young age I wanted to take on what I could do to protect women and children against violence.

The idea that these so-called leaders would be passing laws that make no exception for rape and incest, that are essentially telling a survivor of a crime of violence to their body, a violation of their body that they have no right to make a decision about what happens to their body next? That’s immoral.

And that’s what’s happening in our country right now. You look at the taking of fundamental freedoms and right. In Georgia, passed a law to deny people and make it more difficult to have freedom to access to the ballot, passed a law that makes it illegal to essentially give people food and water for standing in line to vote.

The hypocrisy abounds. What happened to “love thy neighbor”?

MS. WANGA: So —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Look at what they’re doing. (Applause.)

MS. WANGA: I want to pick that up because —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And all of this is at stake.

MS. WANGA: Yes. So, you’ve been on an economic tour. You’ve been on a reproductive freedom tour. Somewhere in this audience or on the internet is my niece, Ayo, known as “Yo-yo” to me. And she is somewhere between 8 and 32 years old. (Laughter.)

And —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right.

MS. WANGA: — one of the things that happened when you became vice president is Ayo told me that when she becomes president, her — her platform is going to be ice cream.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: All right.

MS. WANGA: Why do I share that? Because I was excited about Ayo thinking that she could be president and that ice cream would be the most important issue in the country because the other stuff ain’t a problem no more.

As I look at this — the upcoming election, I’m looking at Ayo, and I’m trying to prepare myself to have a conversation with her that her doctor may not think her health care is important, that she may not be able to make a minimum wage to aspire to meet a — a worker occupation that matches her intelligence.

I am worried that I have to have a conversation with Ayo about why her brother Xavier may not be safe, and it’s a conversation I didn’t have to have with my little brother.

I am going to be handing off a world that has gone backwards, not a world that just didn’t go forward.

So, while we’ve talked about what we know are some of the topics that come from those that aren’t looking out for us, how do we make sure that things that are important to our community — and, again, you’ve been on reproductive freedom, you’ve been on economic freedom — how do we make sure? Because we don’t all sit in an administration, and we don’t all know the technicality for the woman that’s going home and is taking care of home, family, and community.

How do I make sure that Caroline doesn’t have to have that conversation with Ayo in 122 days?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: There are many ways. But in 122 days, it’s your vote.

I mean, here’s the thing about elections. And this is maybe the inside deal that my — my former colleagues at the Congressional Black Caucus can tell you. The people who make decisions at that level often will pay attention to either who’s writing the checks or who votes. That’s a cold, hard reality.

And so, when we vote, that is, in a democracy, as long as we can hold on to it, the power that we have as individuals to weigh in on who is making decisions based on what we value and care about.

You know, I’ll give you an example of why elections matter, and there are many.

MS. WANGA: Yeah.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: The issue of Black maternal mortality.

MS. WANGA: Let’s talk about that.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, I have been working on that issue for years with my colleagues from the CBC when I was in the Senate and now as vice president.

Why? Because Black women in the United States of America are three to four times more likely to die in connection with childbirth than other women.

And we know that there are a variety of reasons for that, but we also know that this is a health care crisis of the highest order that has received very little attention proportionate to the seriousness of the matter. (Applause.)

So, I worked with my colleagues when I was in the Senate. We passed a number of bills. And when I came into the United States — when I came in as vice president, I continued to work on it.

And one of the things I found is this: that I was looking at — well, from — for women on Medicaid, which states are providing for postpartum care not just for 2 months, but for up to 12 months.

And I realized when I came in as vice president, only three states would extend Medicaid coverage for postpartum care from 2 months to 12 months.

I — I don’t have a problem shaming people sometimes. So, I challenged the states to extend it, and now 46 states have extended Medicaid coverage for postpartum care. There is a direct connection between this and Black maternal mortality.

But here’s the other thing — back to the other point about freedom of choice. The majority of Black women in America live in the South. You know that in the South, we have some of the highest rates of Black maternal mortality.

In the South, except for the state of Virginia, every state has an abortion ban. And what I find hypocrisy upon hypocrisy by some of these extremists is the same ones saying they’re passing these abortion bans because they care about women and children have been completely silent on the issue of Black maternal mortality. (Applause.)

So, don’t come to us gaslighting us about where you’ve been and where you haven’t been on important issues that relate to — to what we know every day affects our sisters, our mothers, our aunties, our grandmothers, and could affect our daughters.

MS. WANGA: So, if you were — if we were to take that — right? — because I think that part of what we do with this conversation on “Chief to Chief” is make sure that folks really walk away with the call to action for what’s different for them.

You talked about this engagement in voting and civically, and there are folks in this room that probably have voted in there’s folks in this room that maybe haven’t voted. But what are they to see from the votes?

Go, in 122 days, and vote, but what will be different for them if they do so that those that maybe are considering not doing have a reason to get up that day and do it as well?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, I’m going to — what we know is that you can have an idea of what will happen when you look at what has happened.

So, I’d ask people in the room to raise your hand if you (inaudible) student loan debt relief because you voted in 2020 and Joe Biden and I came in office and were able to forgive billions of dollars of student loan debt — (applause) — understanding how it impacts all communities and especially ours.

I would ask anyone to — to think — and you don’t have to tell anybody about this: Have you or a family member suffered from medical debt?

We are in the process of saying that no longer can medical debt be counted against your credit score. (Applause.) Right. Because, you see, we came in office, and we knew — because we — we are of and care about the people as opposed to the richest billionaires, which is who the former president gave a tax cut to and then created one of the largest deficits our country has ever seen.

We know medical debt comes about because often — most often — a medical emergency, which nobody invites upon themselves or plans for. And it can result in tens to hundreds of thousands of dollars in expenses that you did not plan for and create debt and then would be used against your credit score.

What is your credit? Most people know the number of their credit score like you know your weight, especially with all those apps now, right?

MS. WANGA: That was shade. That — I just want — that was shade. We’re going to talk about that later. (Laughter.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: But the credit score makes a decision then about who’s eligible for a car loan or a small-business loan or getting an apartment lease.

And what’s wrong about medical debt u- — being used in the credit score is the credit score is supposed to be a measure of whether you’re responsible with money. A medical emergency is not about that issue.

What we have done to cap the cost of insulin at $35 a month. (Applause.) Raise your hand if you have a family member who has diabetes. Right.

MS. WANGA: So —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And what we know is that Black folks are 60 percent more likely to be diagnosed with diabetes. We capped the cost of insulin at $35 month. We have finally allowed Medicare to negotiate drug prices with the big pharmaceutical companies to bring the costs down. (Applause.)

So, I say look at what we’ve done to know that when you voted in record numbers — people voted in record numbers in 2020 — this is what was able to happen. And when everyone votes in those numbers again in 122 days, we can see it through.

And seeing it through includes what we intend to do to raise federal minimum wage, what we intend to do to bring down the costs and make affordable childcare a reality for all families. We have said 7 percent of your income should be — not more than 7 percent of your income should have to go for childcare.

What we are in the process of doing for affordable housing both for renters and those who want to be first-time homeowners. We have a plan. We need Congress to agree that if you are first — the first generation your family to seek homeownership, you’ll get a $25,000 tax credit to help you with the down payment. (Applause.)

MS. WANGA: So — so, one of the things that the ESSENCE brand specifically represents is over five decades of a legacy of showing, demonstrating, and equipping the Black woman with the power and influence she has on all.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right.

MS. WANGA: When she turns her head left, the world turns left.

When she decides to do something, other people decide to do it at a different price than they’re paying her to do it. I’m sorry, different speech. (Laughter and applause.)

The value of what she delivers is not always returned at the value of what somebody who mimics what she did is delivered.

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Right.

MS. WANGA: So, for 50 years, ESSENCE has been teaching this member of human community called “the Black woman” that she has a power that just needs to be unleashed versus she doesn’t have a power. And because she has a power, everybody around her follows her power, which I would then say that those that are here with us live and those that are here with us virtually have the power to make this country be whatever it needs to be for Black community. (Applause.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right.

MS. WANGA: So, with that being known, whether it’s the vice president of the United States or anybody else, Madam Vice President, you are speaking to the most powerful ballot community —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: That’s right.

MS. WANGA: — we have. They are the CEOs of home, culture, and community for all.

So, if you were to be talking to them about what their power can do for Black, through the lens of the chiefs that they are of their community, and you knew that it was what you say that’s going to make them do the thing that’s right for them, what do you tell these chiefs about what they need to do with that power in 122 days?

THE VICE PRESIDENT: First, you’ve already said it, but I will say it to repeat because it bears repeating all the time. We — you — we have extraordinary power. And we can never let anybody take our power from us. Never let anybody take our power from us. (Applause.)

And never be shy about our power. We must encourage in each other ambition. Ambition is a good thing. It is good to know one’s power and then to go for what you want, knowing you can achieve it. That is very important.

We do not need to step quietly.

MS. WANGA: We don’t know how. (Laughter.) Our —

THE VICE PRESIDENT: And — but — and never we — and never — and never allow the circumstances or the situation that we know we experience, whether it be pay gaps or anything else, to make us feel small or alone.

I’ll say, in particular, to the younger women who are here: You are, on many occasions in your life, going to be in a room where you will be the only one that looks like you or has had your life experience. (Applause.)

And what I demand of you is that you always walk in those rooms with your chin up and your shoulders back — (applause) — knowing everybody here is in that room with you expecting that you will carry the voice that is the strength and power of your voice.

I will beseech you: Don’t you ever hear something can’t be done. People in your life will tell you, “Oh, it’s not your time. It’s not your turn. Nobody like you was done it before.”

One of the things I love is they’ll say, “Oh, it’s going to be a lot of hard work.” (Laughter.)

MS. WANGA: That ain’t (inaudible.)

THE VICE PRESIDENT: Don’t you ever listen to that. I like to say I eat no for breakfast. I don’t hear no. (Applause.) I don’t hear no, and don’t do either.

MS. WANGA: I’m stupid. I’m trying to think what my breakfast word is. I need some time. (Laughter.) I don’t have one, but I’m sure there’s one there.

So — so, as we — as we close this conversation but not this topic, as a person who has responsibility to be guide and guardian of this cultural artifact we call ESSENCE that belongs to our community, there has never been a more urgent time for the CEOs to make the decisions they have the powers to make.

There has never been a bigger time for you to believe that you can shift the circumstance of the community that you have not just past survival but to exactly what it should be, based on how you contribute and exist.

So, I’m asking you as being a part of that community to not do anything unearned and do everything to understand what will happen if in 122 days you go vote. Because what happens after that will be a conversation you have to be ready to have. Do you know which one you want to have?

Ladies and gentlemen, first Black female vice president of the United States, Kamala Harris. (Applause.)

END