Sharice Davids Discusses Sharice’s Big Voice
An interview with Congresswoman Sharice Davids
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode of the Growing Readers Podcast, I talk with Sharice Davids, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress and the first LGBTQ congressperson to represent Kansas. We discuss her incredible picture book autobiography Sharice’s Big Voice: How a Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman.
I am so grateful for the time spent chatting with Sharice Davids. We discussed how she never thought she’d be in Congress and the art of dealing with doubters—including when that doubter is yourself. We even talked about overcoming obstacles no matter what your path may look like or where it leads you, and, of course, we talked about finding your voice and using it.
Listen to the Interview
About the Book
Written by Sharice Davids with Nancy K. Mays
Illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckly
Ages 4-8 | 40 Pages
Publisher: HarperCollins | ISBN-13: 978-0062979667
Publisher’s Synopsis: This picture book autobiography tells the triumphant story of Sharice Davids, one of the first Native American women elected to Congress, and the first LGBTQ congressperson to represent Kansas.
When Sharice Davids was young, she never thought she’d be in Congress. And she never thought she’d be one of the first Native American women in Congress. During her campaign, she heard from a lot of doubters. They said she couldn’t win because of how she looked, who she loved, and where she came from. But here’s the thing: Everyone’s path looks different and everyone’s path has obstacles. And this is the remarkable story of Sharice Davids’ path to Congress.
Beautifully illustrated by Joshua Mangeshig Pawis-Steckley, an Ojibwe Woodland artist, this powerful autobiographical picture book teaches readers to use their big voice and that everyone deserves to be seen—and heard!
The back matter includes information about the Ho-Chunk written by former Ho-Chunk President Jon Greendeer, an artist note, and an inspiring letter to children from Sharice Davids.
Buy the Book
About the Author
Sharice Davids was inspired to public service by her single mom, an army drill sergeant. Raised on military bases, Sharice worked her way through Johnson County Community College in Kansas City, before eventually earning a law degree from Cornell Law School. As a first-generation college student who had to work for everything including martial arts lessons, Representative Davids is focused on increasing opportunity by supporting public education and affordable healthcare. Davids was a White House Fellow under President Barack Obama. When she was sworn into the 116th Congress, Representative Davids became one of the first two Native American women to serve in Congress. She is a resident of Roeland Park, Kansas.
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Well, welcome, Congresswoman Sharice Davids. I am beyond excited to talk to you about your new picture book, your autobiography. And before we dive in, I just have to tell you that I feel like you are a little bit of a superhero, literally. I mean, you’re actually trained in martial arts, and you have these amazing biceps, and you could fight off the bad guys, literally. But I think your true superpowers lie in what comes from inside of you. And it’s your incredible powers to—and your willingness to—listen to others, to learn about them, and to speak up using your voice to help raise the voice of so many others. And I just wanted to start by thanking you for doing that.
Sharice Davids: Well, I appreciate that. That’s probably the most amazing intro I’ve ever gotten.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I’ve just like I mean, honestly, I am in awe of you. So, before I fangirl too much, I want to introduce the title of your book, which is Sharice’s Big Voice: A Native Kid Becomes a Congresswoman. It tells your story of how you became one of the first Native American women elected to Congress and the first LGBTQ congressperson to represent Kansas. Did you ever imagine? Well, I already know the answer to this, but I want to hear you say it. Did you ever imagine you’d be one of the first Native American women to serve in Congress?
Sharice Davids: No, I didn’t at all. And in fact, it’s interesting because I didn’t even think of being in Congress as that was not something that I had ever really imagined, certainly as a kid. And then, even in my adult life, it wasn’t until—well, shoot, you know, I sometimes still will be talking to my mom, and I’ll say, can you believe I ran for Congress? So, it’s still something that I have to pinch myself every now and again.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, it’s amazing. Well, let’s talk about the very fitting title, Sharice’s Big Voice. Will you share why the title is meaningful to you?
Sharice Davids: Yeah, I’d love to. I mean, you know, I so I’m Ho-Chunk, which is a tribe in Wisconsin, and Ho-Chunk is often referred to as people of the big voice. And it means people of the sacred voice. And, you know, we have traditions that tell us that our name was given to us by the creator and blessed us with a voice in a language that could speak directly to the creator. And so, you know, we have traditions that say that other folks from other tribes would come to the Ho-Chunk people and ask for my ancestors to speak to the creator or say prayers or blessings in hopes that their messages would be heard. And so, I always want to do what I can to honor and respect the young people in my tribe. And then, of course, as you read the book, you will see that as a young person I talked a lot. I still talk a lot. And the title is also a reflection of that. And I think this was a great way for me to honor respect and, in a lot of ways, you know, authentically represent. But my big voice has certainly grown. And I’m really glad that I was able to find it. And hopefully, when reading this book, other kids will figure out ways to find their voice, too.
Bianca Schulze: I loved the little section in the book where you’re a young student and it talks about how you would get into trouble in the classroom for talking too much, but yet you still kept your voice. But at that moment in the book, when you’re talking about how you got into trouble, you ended up learning about your skills of listening to others. And there was a sweet little section where there’s a young boy who was feeling sad, and through talking with him and having a dialogue with him and then stopping to listen, it seems like that was a little bit of a pivotal moment for you, is that right?
Sharice Davids: I’m glad you touched on that specific story; I think that kids look at us as adults and think that maybe we have all the answers, or you might see that I’m in Congress now and think, well, she probably always knew she wanted to be in Congress, or she never made mistakes, or she never got in trouble in school or something to that effect. I think that story illustrates that sometimes we learn things and we don’t even realize how important those lessons are until we’re a little bit older. Recognizing that both talking and listening are things that I was learning along the way as a young person was important. And so, I thought it was important to include this story, although I have to admit it was my mom who brought the story up. She was the one who remembered to remember that in a way that was, you know, my mom had a pretty big influence on my life, of course. And then even just in which stories we shared in the book.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. That came across, too, in the book a lot. I feel like your mom is right there from page one and plays a role throughout the story, which tells me that she was an important part of who you are today, which I’m sure is true for many kids and their moms. Well, it’s also clear from reading the book that you want young readers to come away with the knowledge that no matter the obstacles they come up against in their lives, there are many paths to success. Can you speak to this element of the story?
Sharice Davids: Yeah, you know, it’s interesting because I think, without realizing it, as far as I was writing and working with even with the illustrator who I think did an amazing job, and I’m sure we’ll talk a bit about the work he does in a bit. But I think exactly what you said about each person having their own path was something that I felt was really important and that all of us because we have our own journey, we need to be true to that journey. Even when there are ups and downs or twists and turns that we don’t always expect, we’ll have people who doubt us or people who cheer us on. And all of those things are true. And I just hope that kids will realize the power in their voice, the power, and the choices that they’re making, and the lessons that they’re learning. And that’s regardless of what it is that they want to do. This isn’t necessarily a story about how a person can get elected to Congress, but more so how a person can embrace the path and journey that they’re on.
Bianca Schulze: I think readers of the book will also discover that during your campaign, you heard from a lot of doubters and people who said you couldn’t win because of how you looked, who you loved or where you came from. And so, I asked you ahead of this interview to share some guiding principles. I’d love to share with our listeners one of these points in particular, which was being true to your journey and how you deal with the ups and downs.
Sharice Davids: I think there are many things that we can do to deal with the ups and downs, and some of that is internal. You know, I think that recognizing that you’re like you’re the one who gets to decide what success means for you or what or what’s important to you because I think we spend a lot of time being told what we should want. We spend a lot of time being told what success is supposed to be. And I think those are the kinds of things that are the messages we hear when it feels like someone doubts whether we can do something, it might be because they don’t have the same view of success as we do. And that was a really important thing for me to learn and something that I hope, you know, kids or anybody who is reading the book can see that coming through.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. One of the things that stood out to me was the focus on the supporters and being grateful for their help. And I that really like you said, I mean, this is great for kids to hear. It was also great for me as an adult to listen to because we all have daughters or, you know, somebody who is a naysayer of what we’re trying to achieve and what feels like the right path for us. Just those simple words of focus on the supporters and be grateful for their help if we give too much power and focus to doubters in our life. If we can shift that focus to the supporters, I think that makes a great difference.
Sharice Davids: I’m glad you mentioned that piece of it. And it’s interesting because I do remember really wanting to include that other people doubt us, but sometimes we doubt ourselves. And listening to the supporters and listening to the people who are really trying to help you see. That you’re on the right path for that, that they can see that you’re following your journey in a really, like, authentic way that’s kind to yourself. Sometimes, that can be the hardest thing—listening to the supporters because if we’re doubting ourselves, then it ends up being easier to listen to the doubters. But if you can really take in, you know, the support and the positive energy that people are often trying to give you, it can make such a huge difference in just like putting one foot in front of the next and continuing on that path.
Bianca Schulze: One of the other guiding principles you mentioned to me was not being afraid to try new things. So, when you say don’t be afraid to try new things, I think of one element from your book when, you know, you were a first-generation college graduate, and you went on to law school and became a lawyer. Then you also pivoted, and you became a congresswoman. So, all of those things would have been new things for you. But when you say don’t be afraid to try new things, what sort of went through your mind when you wrote that down?
Sharice Davids: Yeah, there’s a couple of things, some of what you just mentioned, even just the idea of applying to law school or of trying to, you know, go out to apply for things where I ended up going out to D.C. for a fellowship and got to learn a lot about the federal government that way. And I think that those kinds of experiences were certainly new to me. And they were a little bit scary, not because I had a vision for what the experience would be like, but because sometimes you get scared about succeeding, and sometimes you get scared about not succeeding. And I think those are the kinds of things when I think of trying new things if you feel that sense of oh, no, what if I’m not good at this or I don’t know how to do this thing. And that can be everything from applying to school to trying martial arts—which I, of course, loved—picking up a musical instrument or trying to paint. There are so many different things that we sometimes limit ourselves because we don’t know what’s on the other side of taking that first step. So, it’s that kind of stuff. When I think of trying new things
Bianca Schulze: Throughout the autobiography, there was plenty of references to Bruce Lee, who obviously was an inspiration to you, maybe sort of one of the reasons you went down the path of martial arts. And so, tell me a little bit about your martial arts background and how you feel like that has helped you become who you are now.
Sharice Davids: Oh, yeah, I have felt like my life has been so enriched by practicing martial arts. I imagine that people who do other things that they love also feel that—whether it’s sports or something that they are working toward, where there’s a practice involved. Martial arts, for me, was a way to, one, learn how to kind of stay connected with my physical body and learn how to, in a lot of ways, focus. And those things have really helped me. I feel like at first when I was young, and this is in the book, I would watch Bruce Lee in movies and just loved the idea of being able to run around and maybe be physically strong. I’m not even sure as a kid. But, you know, I really wanted to learn how to do martial arts. But it wasn’t until I was an adult because my mom was raising me—I have two younger brothers, so she raised the three of us by herself—and taking martial arts classes was just not something she could afford. And I know that in some ways, figuring out that weight, I can pay for martial arts classes myself now because I’m an adult and I have a job, even that was part of the growth, if that makes sense. And so, I just felt like I got a lot out of it.
Learning how to persevere, learning how to work hard, learning how to learn—even if I’m not seeing immediate results. You know, you sometimes practice something for a really long time and then one day you realize that you’re doing it without thinking about it anymore. It’s kind of like learning how to tie your shoes, you know, and when you’re a little tiny kid, and you’re learning how to tie your shoes, it takes a lot of concentration. Each loop, each twist, and then learning how to do martial arts is a similar thing. And then one day, you realize you’re just moving around, and you’re just doing it, and you’re not even thinking about it anymore.
Bianca Schulze: There is something I know after reading this book that you will not try, or you tried it at one point, and that is pizza with onions. I thought you might be wondering about that as soon as you actually
Sharice Davids: Earlier, when you said don’t be afraid to try new things. I literally thought unless it has onions on it.
Bianca Schulze: That’s hilarious. Do you like onions on anything, or is it just onions on pizza?
Sharice Davids: Its onions in general. It goes much deeper than that, but I feel like it’s the subject of a whole other book. I’m a picky eater.
Bianca Schulze: So, does this mean that does this mean there may be another book coming, or is this just an idea?
Sharice Davids: It’s an idea I’m having in this moment. And I’ve just always been kind of a picky eater. And, you know, because my mom is really great about so many things. And one of those things is I feel like she gave me room to be my own little human if that makes sense. Sometimes it meant not stopping me from talking when I was telling all my stories as a kid and sometimes, it meant letting me pick the onions off of pizza or something as simple as not wanting to eat onions. This is why my mom plays such a prominent role in the book because I feel like so much of who I am and even the quirky stuff. All the good stuff is because my mom is so great.
Bianca Schulze: I think I think I think your mom sounds amazing. She really is. She should be the star of a mom book for sure. Well, I just want to say if just so in case it helps, I mean, I’m sure you own the fact that you pick your onions off pizza, but just in case, this enables you to feel better: My nine-year-old picks the cheese off her pizza.
Sharice Davids: Well, we’ve all got our thing.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Well, you nailed it before when you said you thought we would discuss the illustrations because we definitely need to discuss the incredible artwork. It’s gorgeous. And I would love to know how you felt when you first saw the artwork.
Sharice Davids: You know, I remember. When I saw because, you know, the way these are, which I didn’t, I didn’t know this before he did a couple of specific pictures, and they didn’t have color at first. It was just kind of like a rough sketch. And even when I saw the rough sketch, I remember. Just literally saying, wow, this is so cool. And then when he filled in the colors—I don’t know how to describe the emotional part of it. I remember thinking that I hope people can see the beauty in his work and the beauty in having what I feel is a good modern representation of an indigenous style, if that makes sense. And I just felt like these illustrations are so vibrant and full of life and so full of meaning. And I, I mean, I was just blown away. We talked about everything from, you know, from political life to kids to history, to my mom’s, you know, promotion, and every single one of these stories comes through in such a vibrant and deep way. Maybe the second thing I said was absolutely I think he should win some kind of award for this. Like, I hope everybody gets a chance to see his work.
Bianca Schulze: I wholeheartedly agree. I think what happens is we’ve got great artists that do many, many picture books, but there’s sometimes there are just some picture books that become magical. And, you know, it’s because the artist that creates the work has connected with the words of the story.
I want to share just a little snippet of what Joshua wrote in the artist’s note at the back of the book. He said:
When I read Sharice’s story, it resonated deeply with me because she speaks so openly about how she grew up disconnected from her nation. And it also exemplifies Sharice’s journey home by connecting with her culture and community. We share a similar history of displacement, and I think her story is an empowering example of resilience. It is such an honor to heal through artistic exploration of another indigenous person’s success.”
When I read that, it made sense to me why I connected with the artwork so deeply, because he did. When you read the artist’s note in the back of the book, I’m wondering how you felt when you read his words.
Sharice Davids: Um. I felt well, just so you know, like I get goosebumps still, like when you were reading his words, I got goosebumps because it just feels. Like. You know, so many of us spend time in our lives. Where and I think this is true for so many of us and then how the art comes through shows me that certainly when it comes to some of the native kids or indigenous folks who will be looking at this book that so many of us feel. Either small or invisible. As certainly when we’re children, but even as adults and there can be times in our lives where just, you know, something resonates with us where it might not be the exact same story, you know, we don’t have the exact same story. Still, there are elements of that, whether it’s a feeling of disconnection or invisibility. You know, he speaks of generations of being displaced or silenced. And I think that those are the kinds of things where when you get the chance to see somebody else acknowledging, acknowledging that it can just feel really like this. A powerful connection, even if you’ve never met the other person in real life or had specific conversations about that stuff.
Bianca Schulze: Well, I’m really grateful that, you know, he was the artist that was paired with your words because it’s it just it works so beautifully. I’m also really grateful for the back matter, especially the information about the whole nation. I just love that more and more picture books are starting to include the back matter that just sort of brings more understanding. And was that something that you requested or, you know, these editors at the publishing houses are so smart was the editor that said, let’s put this back-matter.
Sharice Davids: And so, it was it’s interesting because I haven’t. Well, this is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this remotely like this. It was through a lot of questions that we were asking each other if that makes sense. You know, I had to ask so many questions about the process; you know it was important to me that we had an indigenous artist. I remember wondering about how we authentically talk about the experience that I had. It’s very important to me that people have more of an understanding of native experiences. So when I found out that this was a thing that we could do, I immediately thought of John Greendeer, the former president of Ho-Chunk. He is somebody with who I’ve had years and years of relationship and conversation with. I called him before I even talked to the folks at Harper’s about whether or not this would be an appropriate thing for us to be doing. You know, putting some of this history in this way in a book about my specific journey, because I want to make sure that I’m respectful of our traditions and history and that sort of thing. I asked if he would be willing to talk to the folks that were part of the team about doing it. And he was willing to do that. And I’m very, very grateful.
And I called him a number of times just to check in and let him know how things are going with the book. And that this to me is like I’m so glad that you brought it up because I was thinking about how this to me is going to be one of the pieces that’s like so cool about this book is that I hope a ton of people read and learn a bit about the Ho-Chunk. Then maybe it will encourage folks to learn more about other tribal histories and just get to know a little bit more about them. The long, complex history in our country and on this land, you know, I’ve had to reflect a lot because this is a children’s book. And, you know, one of the things that folks often this is like friends and like colleagues, people I meet who are now finding out that I have a children’s book out is that question of like, oh, there must be a children’s book that inspired you as a child and now you’re hoping to do the same. And I think that one of the reasons that I was so excited about writing a children’s book or why I think it’s so important to have done something like this is because there wasn’t a book when I was a kid that you kind of spoke to me or stuck with me or that certainly there have been as an adult.
But I think it really makes me recognize just how important things—like when I found out that only one percent of characters in kids’ books are native or indigenous. When I realized that, I didn’t have that kind of I don’t even want to say inspiration; it’s more just that feeling of being seen as a child in books. I think that it’s really impactful to have more children’s books reflecting more on what our country is and looks like and the experiences that we have. And that’s everything from being native to being a first-generation college student to being raised by a single mom. You know, those things are they’re all real things. They’re all stuff that, you know, we have got to make sure we’re giving credit to the children in our lives. They see everything. They hear everything. And they are learning from every single thing that we’re saying and doing and just, you know, making sure that they get to see that stuff is really important.
Bianca Schulze: Yes, and now we’re going to come full circle from the beginning of the podcast episode when I said that I think you are literally a superhero because I have just discovered that you may have a different superhero power that I did not know about. And it is mind reading because I always like to ask the question to be a writer. They say you need to be a reader first. And was there a pivotal moment in which you considered yourself a reader? And I think that you kind of just answered that by saying that there weren’t really any books that changed your life as a young kid and that you just expressed the importance for native kids to be able to see themselves in books and that it’s equally important for all kids to see diverse characters in the books that they read and so that we have it. You are not only the representative of the Third District of Kansas, but you are also officially a superhero.
Sharice Davids: Well, I think I’ll take it. I, I really enjoyed talking to you and I really appreciated the questions that you ask.
Bianca Schulze: Thank you so much, Sharice. It was a pleasure!
The transcription of this interview with Congresswoman Sharice Davids has been condensed and edited for readability.
Thank you for listening to the Growing Readers Podcast episode: Sharice Davids Discusses Sharice’s Big Voice. For the latest episodes from The Growing Readers Podcast, Follow Now on Spotify. For similar books and articles, you can check out all of our content tagged with Biographies, Indigenous People, LGBTQ Books, Native American, and Picture Book.
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June 2, 2021 at 08:28AM Bianca Schulze