Carroll High School student Olivia Lowery dreams of becoming a pediatric emergency room physician – an opportunity that was unthinkable for her Black ancestors, including great-grandmothers who cleaned the homes of wealthy white families.
Her ancestors' lives were marked by sacrifice and suffering, the 18-year-old said, noting they endured mistreatment, racism and subjugation while hoping for a different life for their children.
Lowery's family history underscores the significance of Wednesday's inauguration of Kamala Harris as vice president. As the daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, the former California senator will be the country's first Black and first Indian American vice president, along with being the first woman to serve in that role.
Harris and President-elect Joe Biden will be sworn-in about noon in a ceremony expected to be held on the west lawn of the U.S. Capitol.
“I stand in this moment to witness history being made because of the generations of Black women in my family that came before me and hoped for this moment,” Lowery said by email. “Kamala Harris is for us the embodiment of all the hopes and sacrifice of those that came before.”
The significance of Harris' election – that a glass ceiling had been broken – was top of mind in the days after the election, as evident by powerful memes and video compilations circulating online, said Janet Badia, professor and director of women's studies at Purdue University Fort Wayne.
“Initially, there was a real sense this represented a profound change,” Badia said.
That milestone has since been overshadowed by the deadly insurrection Jan. 6, Badia said. She noted misogynistic behavior directed at House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the fact that Harris is not only a woman but also a woman of color has preoccupied her thoughts.
“I, personally, am kind of paralyzed by concerns about her safety,” Badia said.
Other issues contributed to a dampened excitement about Harris' milestone, Wayne High School senior Sajahane Lloyd said by email.
“I think the stress of this election, felt by even those who couldn't vote in it, is also to blame for the lack of celebration over this victory for women,” the 17-year-old said.
Harris' election to vice president is significant because representation matters, Badia and others said.
Purdue Fort Wayne student Sylvia Rust, 23, said a diverse government is vital to all people feeling heard, understood and represented, and it fosters the creation of policies addressing previously overlooked needs.
“It is my hope that (Harris) will help with women's and minorities' issues, but also be able to help lift problematic policies that harm marginalized communities,” Rust said by email.
Harris has empowered young women to be opinionated, strong and outspoken, Lowery said.
“For me,” Lowery said, “the election of Vice President Harris has shown me to never dim my light to accommodate someone else, but rather, to shine.”
Fellow Carroll senior MaKayla Mickelson said it will be inspiring to witness the first woman – and first woman of color – to serve as vice president.
“I think this provides a lot of hope for the future and that we will soon see even more women, people of color, and other forms of representation throughout our government,” Mickelson said by email.
The Girl Scouts of Northern Indiana-Michiana said women are recognizing their voices matter, based on the record number of women who voted and ran for public office last year.
“Girl Scouts has a long track record of saluting women who serve in public office, and promoting female leadership is among the core values of the organization. The impact of women on the 2020 election cycle was historic as they continued to blaze new trails,” said a statement from the local council, which provides leadership experiences for more than 6,000 girls ages 5 to 17.
At least some Allen County high school government teachers plan to show clips of the inauguration to their students, like they do with other events including presidential debates.
Every inauguration is historical, but milestones such as Wednesday's increase the significance, said Christine Binns, who teaches government at Carroll.
“It shows the continued advancement and encouragement for more people to participate in the democratic process,” Binns said.
Nick Byall, who teaches government at Homestead High School, said the inauguration address can provide class fodder about the proposals and policies previewed in the speech.
The ceremony also provides an opportunity to discuss issues such as the importance of a peaceful transition of power, added Robbie McKerr, another Carroll government teacher.
McKerr hasn't heard students talk much about Harris becoming the first female vice president. He speculated that milestone might not be as surprising to the teens because of Hillary Clinton's recent run for president, and they were young children when Sarah Palin was John McCain's 2008 running mate.
“They've seen women expand their role in running for executive offices,” McKerr said. “I think it's starting to become more normalized for them.”
Lloyd, the Wayne student, agrees that Clinton's campaign was influential.
“Since the 2016 election, it has felt less surprising every time I discover a new female politician – but it's never less impactful,” Lloyd said.
“Watching women help lead the country is something I'm glad my younger siblings can grow up seeing.”
Badia is curious about the leadership role Biden will give Harris and how the new vice president will change that position. She noted studies show women lead differently.
The professor hopes the country is at a turning point regarding inclusivity in national politics.
She said she is heartened Biden has selected a record number of women for his Cabinet, which also is ethnically diverse.
“It makes me feel like things are changing in a good way,” Badia said. “It's a good start.”
Members of Congress typically get inauguration tickets to distribute to constituents, but not this year.
Organizers announced last month invitations to members of Congress would be limited to themselves and one guest, citing coronavirus concerns.
The Washington, D.C., mayor further discouraged people from gathering in the nation's capital after the deadly Jan. 6 insurrection, encouraging them to participate virtually instead.
The FBI has warned of armed protests at all 50 state capitols and in Washington, D.C.