Acts of Service: How Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence is Giving Back to the Community

Congresswoman Brenda Lawrence may be leaving the House floor, but she’s far from stepping down as a voice for her community.
U.S. House Rep. Brenda Lawrence, Michigan’s only Black federal legislator, is retiring after eight years. Photograph by Nick Hagen.

Among Michigan’s (mostly) lily-white congressional delegation, U.S. House Rep. Brenda Lawrence stands out as the state’s only Black federal legislator. She made Southfield history when she became the first African American and the first woman to be elected mayor of the predominantly white city in 2001. And walking into the Skyline Club in a scarlet skirt suit and coordinating lipstick, she contrasts starkly with the cream and gray interior.

The upscale establishment, which looks out over Southfield’s corporate district from the 28th floor, is one of her favorites. The restaurant is empty, closed between meal services, and I struggle to envision Lawrence — fluttery lashes, perfectly coiffed hair, and more pearls than I’ve seen on one person — amid the business types who comprise its usual clientele.

Then again, she’s used to making noise.

Since heading to the Capitol in 2015, she has become known for her particularly active role in Black and women’s issues. She serves as co-chair of the Democratic Women’s Caucus and second vice chair of the Congressional Black Caucus, among other committee positions. She also co-founded the Congressional Caucus on Black-Jewish Relations, which she now co-chairs.

It’s why many were surprised when, in January, she announced that she would be putting an end to her 30-year political career. After all, it’s equally difficult to imagine the woman who has represented Michigan’s 14th Congressional District for four terms sitting on a porch somewhere, playing bridge.

Come the new year, redistricting will see her current constituency parceled among the new 11th, 12th, and 13th districts, and a crop of recently elected politicians will move in to represent them. Meanwhile, Lawrence, who turns 68 this month, will be settling into retirement.

When she greets me, I’m surprised by the softness of her voice, which seems to conflict with her bold appearance. But that’s not to say she’s reserved.

Thirty minutes into our interview, the conversation turns to the ample prejudice she has faced as a woman — and specifically a mother — in the field of politics. Indignant at the sexist comments she recounts, I add, “And no one ever asks male politicians —”

She jumps in, and we recite the question in unison: “But who’s taking care of your kids?!” She slams her palms on the table. “Exactly!”

By now, it’s clear that the congresswoman gets passionate about a great many topics — and she isn’t one to stay silent on them. Curious, I ask if it bothers her to be giving up her influence at such a precarious moment in U.S. politics.

“Being an elected official is not the only way to serve,” she says. “I’m not walking away — I’m still going to be involved. I want to continue to have a voice.”

She plans to do that by working closely with local nonprofits and remaining engaged in politics. She got started on that last bit ahead of the August primaries, endorsing fellow Black female politician and Focus: Hope CEO Portia Roberson as her effective replacement. (Roberson’s bid for the Democratic nomination to represent the new 13th District, which will include much of Lawrence’s territory, was ultimately unsuccessful.)

Most people think of retirement as a time to relax, but Lawrence goes on to list a whole slew of other intentions she has for her retirement — bridge may not even have a place on the itinerary.

“I want to teach,” she says. “It’s something that’s very dear to my heart.”

While Lawrence has no interest in taking on another full-time gig, she’s looking at teaching a university class or two per year. Specifically, she hopes to teach courses that combine politics and women’s studies. “I want to pass my opportunities and experience along to another generation.”

It’s a topic that strikes a particular chord with her. In fact, she’s writing a book on it. She prefaces further description with a disclaimer: “I have a heck of a sense of humor.”

And she certainly does.

The book is titled Sometimes a Girl Has to Take Her Balls Out of Her Purse, and it offers answers to some of the hard questions often faced by women in leadership: “How do you stand up and lead while you’re wearing your pearls? With your stilettos on, how do you run toe to toe with a man who wears flat shoes and immediately gets a seat at a table, while you gotta fight to pull up a chair — all while trying not to be labeled the B-word?”

Her motivation for putting pen to paper came, in part, from noticing how many women, despite all their strength and unique leadership ability, she says, fail to recognize their own power. She addresses the issue in a chapter called “Some Women Don’t Even Know They Have Balls.”

She even reveals a message relayed in the conclusion of her book: “You know you’ve reached peak power when you don’t ever have to take the balls out — you just set your purse on the table, and it’s understood.”

I recall the massive tote she had placed on the chair beside her. You know what they say about girls with big purses …

One thing is for sure: It’s a genetic characteristic. Lawrence credits much of her tenacity to the woman who raised her.

After Lawrence’s mother passed away when she was just 3 years old, her grandmother, Etta, took on the role of primary caregiver, and Lawrence came to lovingly refer to her as “Mama.”

While growing up on Detroit’s east side, she says, her grandmother always assured her, “There’s nothing you can’t do, no table you don’t deserve to sit at, and no door you don’t deserve to walk through.”

Lawrence, who relays similar words of wisdom throughout our interview, has carried that influence throughout her life. “It’s hard to talk to me without me injecting the voice of my grandmother,” she admits.

Chuckling, she recalls another oft-made remark of her grandmother’s: “You’re the last child I’m gonna raise — you’re gonna be perfect if I have to kill you in the process.” And in Mama’s estimation, that meant attaining higher education — a mark none of Lawrence’s siblings had met.

Intent on doing her grandma proud, she graduated from Pershing High School at 16 and began attending the University of Detroit Mercy on scholarship. Then, three months shy of her 18th birthday, she wedded her childhood sweetheart.

It was a bittersweet occasion for Lawrence’s grandma. Noticing her long face at the reception, Lawrence pulled her grandmother aside to ask what was wrong.

“I’m happy,” her grandma responded, with tears in her eyes. “I’m just sad because I really wanted you to be the one to finish school. Now you’re gonna go on and have a family and it’s not gonna be a priority.”

“Mama, I’m gonna get my degree,” Lawrence assured her. “I promise you.” But her grandma just dropped her head, unconvinced.

Soon, Lawrence did find herself juggling motherhood and full-time employment with
the U.S. Postal Service. Still, she managed one course at a time. Then, her inclination to speak up and take charge compelled her to take on yet another responsibility.

An active parent in the Southfield Public School District, Lawrence became discontented with perpetual inaction by the board of education. When a friend suggested she run for membership herself, she was hesitant — she had never harbored political ambitions. But her feelings of frustration soon won out, and in 1992, she was elected to her first public office. That was all it took.

“I got the bug,” she says.

Even while building her new political career, however, she never forgot her promise.

Finally, in 2005, Lawrence became a first-generation college graduate when she received a bachelor’s degree in public administration. Her grandmother had long since passed, but the meaning that accomplishment held for Lawrence remained.

The certificate still hangs on her wall, next to a photo plaque that shows her accepting her diploma. An engraving below the image reads, “Mama, I kept my word.”

This story is from the October 2022 issue of Hour Detroit magazine. Read more in our digital edition.