Tackling racial justice with the voice of experience

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Patrice Willoughby was always destined for service. 

Born in Ohio, her parents were heavily involved in politics and social justice. They were members of the NAACP, active members of their church and would often work on behalf of political candidates. 

“We always did things for people who were less fortunate than we were,” Willoughby told The Hill in a recent interview. “They always taught me that it’s your responsibility in society to extend a hand and to help people in your community.”

Today, Willoughby is the vice president of policy and legislative affairs for the NAACP. Across her 20-year career, she’s worked everywhere from the Obama administration to executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus.

Her work has focused on uplifting underserved and marginalized communities, guided, she says, by the principles her parents instilled in her.  

A father’s influence

Willoughby’s parents moved her and her two siblings to the suburbs of Cleveland in 1969, a move that would have a lasting impact on a young Patrice. There weren’t many Black children at her elementary school, and up until about third grade, she had only one Black friend and one Jewish friend.

“Over the years, I observed having white friends, having some friends who had more financial resources, and it made me think, why is that? Why does that community look one way and the community where I live look another way? That’s always framed my understanding of the derivation of power.”

Some of Willoughby’s innate curiosity shouldn’t have been surprising. Her father, Rupert, was very concerned about the economics of the Black community.

“We would talk about housing, we’d talk about credit, we’d talk about compound interest, we’d talk about the benefits of homeownership. Those were the dinnertime conversations,” she said. 

Willoughby kept those lessons in her mind as she entered Case Western Reserve University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in Music before getting her masters in arts administration and nonprofit management from the University of Cincinnati.

After graduation, Willoughby was raising money for CEOs, and the lessons of her father began to ring in her ears. 

“Being in the room with them, supporting those fundraising efforts, was like going to school and understanding the intersection of money institutions and institutional racism and the link between power, money and economic access and political access,” said Willoughby. 

This epiphany drove her to law school at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she began to understand generational wealth, the racial wealth gap, how school districts are funded through property taxes and how that plays out in the education of young people.

Becoming comfortable with discomfort

When Willoughby began working as chief of staff and counsel to then- Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-Ohio) in 2003, she says it was like learning from an older sister.

“We were very close. She taught me so much. She wanted to be surrounded by people who would add to her understanding of the world, and she wasn’t afraid of vigorous dialogue. She wasn’t afraid of disagreeing. She always led with compassion. She led with love.”

Willoughby was particularly proud of her work with Tubbs Jones to address uterine fibroids. 

Though the bill they crafted to increase federal funding never passed, the team’s work has left a lasting, bipartisan legacy in Congress.

A coalition on Capitol Hill, led in part by Tubbs Jones’s son, now exists to push forward on uterine fibroids research.

Last summer, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) and Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), reintroduced the bipartisan Stephanie Tubbs Jones Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act.

When Tubbs Jones died suddenly in 2008, Willoughby moved to work as executive director of the Congressional Black Caucus under Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.).

It was a tough time: The economy was tanking, and lawmakers were working to pass legislation to end the financial crisis, including the Affordable Care Act. 

“Balancing and learning the art of negotiation and that decision-making process was really interesting, but I knew that I couldn’t do it for another two years. It’s thrilling, it’s exhilarating, but it’s also exhausting,” said Willoughby. 

So she made the jump from the legislative branch to the executive.

“I had wanted to serve President Obama,” she said. “There were many times when the Congressional Black Caucus had differences with the Obama administration — we had those discussions, sometimes forcefully, but there was never vitriol. There was never recriminations. It never got to be ugly.” 

Today, Willoughby is overjoyed by the representation she sees on Capitol Hill – and she offers words of encouragement to those staffers. 

“At the end of the day, you might be representing or working on behalf of your community, but you don’t represent all Black people, and no one should carry that burden,” she said. “It’s important to understand that you have to become comfortable with a permanent sense of discomfort and put yourself in situations where you don’t know all the answers.”

NAACP and the future

After the Obama White House, Willoughby went back to the private sector. She was lobbying. She had clients. Life was good. 

And then – George Floyd was murdered. 

“I’m a very spiritual person, and I was sitting in my house, working from home, and I just said, ‘This is the message that I need to go do something to make this better because this shouldn’t be happening.’”

Like many Black Americans, Willoughby had had a memorable experience with law enforcement herself, saying she was pulled over in Wisconsin while driving home from the library late one night.

The officer told her she hadn’t stopped at a stop sign, which she denied. But she handed over her license and registration. 

And then she waited.

“He held me up by the side of the road for a half hour,” Willoughby said. “He was running every single database he could find to see if he could find something. He said ‘Well, your license is cleaner than mine is.’ I said, ‘What did you expect?’ But I was terrified.”

That was May 2021. In December that year, a friend reached out to Willoughby and told her the NAACP was reshaping their legislative and policy function and was she interested? 

“And I said, ‘Here’s my resume.’”

She started just two months later, in February 2022. 

In addition to working to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act with the NAACP, Willoughby remains committed to securing economic equality. 

“Money and politics are absolutely integrated,” she said. Together, economic self-sufficiency and the lack of sufficiency is a real driver in how a lot of folks view the world because they see the changes in society and although they don’t understand the economics of a global economy, they feel that they are losing something.”

“We have a job to do now,” Willoughby added. “You cannot and we cannot in this country have or allow the noise of polarization to define how we view society. We have to work toward envisioning the society that we want to have.”

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