Born and raised in The Highlands, State Senator Sarah McBride graduated Cab Calloway School of the Arts before attending American University. She interned at the White House, led a successful effort to pass landmark non discrimination laws in Delaware, and authored the memoir, “Tomorrow Will Be Different,” among many, many luminous accomplishments.
What follows is a lightly edited transcript of Sarah’s discussion with Highlands Live co-hosts, Benjamin Wagner and Lindsey DiSabatino, on Tuesday, May 19th.
Benjamin Wagner: Most of us don’t know many actual firsts in our lives. You are the first openly transgender state senator in the history of the United States. How do you think about that?
Senator Sarah McBride: First and foremost, I am reminded of the opportunity and privilege that I have. I am lucky, by definition because I’ve had these types of opportunities where I am the first but of course, there are unique responsibilities that come from that.
Ultimately, though, on a on a day to day basis, I don’t really think of it. I am so focused on the day to day of my job the day to day of constituent services of community meetings of legislation that we’re working on that that from a day to day standpoint, I’m not really thinking about being the first I’m thinking about being a good senator for this district.
But I will say that every once in a while when it does hit me when I’m walking around the Highlands and I’m marveling at the fact that I have this incredible opportunity and privilege to represent this community to represent it as my authentic self and to have been elected as my authentic self. Honestly, it brings me to tears, because I think about the journey that that my family has been on a journey that has been defined by the the friendships and relationships that we have with people in this community that’s been inspired in part by those relationships.
And I think about how growing up here, I feared that I wouldn’t be able to come back to this community. And as good and decent as people were here, I worried because there weren’t really examples of people like me who are out healthy embraced here or elsewhere in Delaware.
And so the fact that I now have this opportunity is is is comforting, it’s empowering. But more than anything else, it’s deeply moving. And I will if you just if you see me walking through the neighborhood, crying and wiping tears from my eyes, don’t be surprised. It’s it really it happens. And I I’m just so incredibly honored and privileged to have this, this this this position, this role, and the opportunity to serve a community that I just deeply care about.
Lindsey DiSabatino: Let’s go back to your Highlands roots. Can you describe your Highlands? Your day to day experience, streets, parks…?
SM: Well, I’m a 17th Street Baby. My childhood was defined by the summer nights with kids from all around the area coming out to play Tag, Capture the Flag, Ghost in the Graveyard and all of those wonderful games that I hope kids still play.
And what’s really lovely right now is I think we’re sort of in the life cycle of the Highlands, where you’re seeing more young families with young kids moving in, which is what it was like, when when I was growing up, there was just so many of us that that every single night we came out and we played those games.
When I came out in this community, the goodness that I saw in people. It was 2012, I think a lot of times people struggled with something that they don’t quite understand. And it was before there was any reasonable amount of public understanding around trans identities and to have seen people of every different background of every different political affiliation just so quickly step up and welcome my family with love and with support.
To me, that experience not only motivated me to run for office, but I think in many ways informs my passion to say … let’s make that a reality for everyone in the Highlands and beyond. So that whether you’re someone who was born and raised in this community, or who’s recently moved into the community, whether you’re someone who looks like me, or whether you look different than me, let’s make this a community that really lives up to our values as a State of Neighbors.
BW: I want to zero in on the neighbors thing a little bit, Sarah. You’ll recall I made a PBS documentary about Mister Rogers. So I’ve been really excited to hear you call Delaware a “State of Neighbors.” Clearly, it’s a small state, so there’s a real intimacy. Why else?
SM: I think part of it is absolutely that we are small. We have the capacity for proximity to one another, and through that proximity, the capacity to really unleash a level of empathy and compassion that I think should be at the root of our politics of our communities.
You know, I think the reality is we know that that is not necessarily evenly felt across communities in our city, but I think it’s us at our best. And what I want to see is us live up to our best and more circumstances.
If someone says, what do you what do you like about Delaware? And we’re like, well, I, I like that we’re we’ve got good beaches, or that we’re close to big cities. And those are true.
But I know for me, one of the one of the things I was struggled with was that intangible more ethereal element of us is Delawareans. It’s a State of Neighbors. We are small, but that there’s one degree of separation. And if we can tap into that, there’s this really incredible capacity for us to implement policies that are not just just and compassionate, but smart.
BW: I want to ask you a “Tour Guide McBride” question. What sort of facts do you like to share about the state?
SM: One of the things I always really love about the district that I now represent, is how often the First Senate District which includes The Highlands all the way up through Claymont is just how often this district has been at the forefront of change, not just here in Delaware, but nationally.
The Underground Railroad went up Route 52. Brown v Board of Education, we just celebrated the 60th anniversary. The path goes right through Claymont High School, the first public high school in the nation in a legally segregated state to integrate that that was right in the First Senate District.
Philly Pike was the path that Cesar Rodney took up on that thunderstorm night to cast the tie breaking vote for the Declaration of Independence from Delaware. There are just so many elements of our history that goes through our community that goes through this district.
And so I always say it’s good being first.
BW: I want to talk a little bit about resilience and transformation, the idea that we’re all becoming our best selves. And often the greatest leaps forward occur during challenges and adversity. When you were in the depths of some of your most challenging moments — the loss of of your husband, Andy, for example — where do you go? What is the shape of that energy?
SM: I consider myself a sort of unceasingly optimistic person. And it’s in part because of my experiences with tragedy.
One, I am just, I am always very mindful, through the experiences that I have, that as difficult as they may be, they are still relatively easy compared to the experiences of a lot of other people. And I think that perspective for me has always been grounding and humbling.
I think back to the experience of of Andy’s battle with cancer and and being his caregiver watching him battle through that, and seeing very clearly how lucky I was, because I wasn’t the one battling cancer. But then thinking also about how lucky we both were to have health insurance, an employer that allowed us to take time off paid time off to focus on his health. I think about how lucky we were to have that time together, how lucky we were to have friends and family who were there for us.
And, you know, now as an elected official, I’m very mindful that as as, as a government as elected officials, we can’t eliminate all pain, we can’t stop all loss. But what we can do is make life a little bit easier when hard times hit.
And I know that without any one of those layers of support of privilege that I brought to those experiences without any one of those layers, I wouldn’t have been able to make it through.
During Andy’s last month, my brother — who’s a radiation oncologist and has worked with and treated so many people in so many families who were who are walking to their to their death — he said to me, right after Andy found out that his cancer was terminal, “This is going to be incredibly difficult. But you should take stock in the acts of amazing grace that would fill your life. And that grace was truly everywhere.”
And it’s it’s almost a trade cliche. But when my brother said that, I just completely shifted my perspective in that month. And because of that month, the rest of my worldview shifted. And so now I can’t help but see that amazing grace.
A friend after Andy passed away, I was marveling at that grace of the miracles that filled our life. And he said, you know, at the end of the day, hope as a concept only makes sense in the face of hardship. And so I bring that appreciation. I think for you can only know joy, true joy, and true hope, in contrast to the hardship and the pain that you experience.
And, you know, going back to Mister Rogers, throughout this pandemic, I’ve been thinking about those lessons that I learned, that amazing grace that I saw in my own experience, that I’m seeing right now. And I think it’s summed up best in that quote from Mister Rogers, where he talks about when he would see something scary on the news, his mom would tell him to look for the helpers.
And that’s what we’ve seen, and I think it goes directly back to that concept of all of us feeling this neighborly duty to care for one another. And — if we can take these individual acts of grace, these individual acts of sacrifice and service to one another, those moments of being helpers — if we can take that from an individual to a more collective approach, I really think we’ll be better for it.
LD: How old were you when you asked for a podium for Christmas so that you could practice campaign speeches?
SM: So many people who are on here knew me growing up and know how much of an insufferable nerd I was. I asked for a podium when I was probably 11-years-old. I got this book of presidential rhetoric and speeches, and stood at this podium in my pajamas recounting FDR, his first inaugural address about the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. And JFK, his first inaugural address, which everyone knows. And I would memorize them and then deliver them in my pajamas, or in some cases, my underwear for my parents.
BW: You recently passed your first 100 days. What has been most surprising?
SM: There’s a lot to learn and starting a new job that’s entirely based on relationships remotely is that much more difficult. I’m lucky that I knew a lot of my colleagues ahead of the election because of my advocacy work.
On a day to day basis, I am surprised at how much it’s like drinking from a firehose. The amount of incoming really is startling. But I think it’s a reflection of something broader, which is the scope of change that we can bring that this role allows for. You know, most of the issues that matter to us on a daily basis, they are handled at the state level. And so the opportunity to work on so many different issues that that I’m passionate about — from healthcare to education to economic opportunity to equal rights — every single day getting to work on those issues, digest and discuss those issues. And you know, when I have the opportunity to prime sponsor lead on those issues, it’s really an incredible an incredible thing to marvel at.
Audience: Tell us about SB1?
SM: Senate Bill One is legislation that I recently introduced. It’s neither my first bill nor the actual first bill that was introduced. Every senator, at least every new senator, they reserve the bill number that corresponds with your district number. And since we are the fight, and first I got Senate bill one, which is which is really neat, and I saved it for legislation that’s near and dear to my heart.
So much of my work is is is informed by both what I have heard from constituents, and also the life experiences that I bring to the table knowing how lucky Andy and I were, as I mentioned, to have jobs that ensured that we could really take on the full time roles of Andy getting treatment and be caring for him, instilled in me a deep passion for paid family and medical leave. Nine states plus DC now have paid family and medical leave insurance programs.
What SB1 would do is essentially create a state administered insurance program that would provide wage replacement for Delawareans, who are out on leave for up to 12 weeks for several different qualifying events, including bonding with a new child, taking care of their own health through a serious health condition, caring for a loved one with a serious health condition survivors of domestic violence, Seeking Safety and Security. And finally, military families that are adjusting to the deployment or return from deployment of a loved one in the service.
Nine states plus DC have this type of program. So if we are going to win the competition for talent as a state, I believe this is one of the critical next steps we have to take to develop the kind of workforce and to keep the workforce that Delaware needs to grow and attract business.
LD: I don’t know, Benjamin. I’m thinking Sarah For President.
BW: You’re not alone!
SM: No! Never, never, never. Never! I mean, I wouldn’t want to give up the ability to walk around The Highlands!