Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator for Massachusetts, visited the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on April 8, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

Try Harder: A Conversation with Senator Elizabeth Warren

By Kajal Mehta

Fight. Persevere. Try harder.

These are some of the key takeaways from an inspirational dialogue with Massachusetts senior Senator Elizabeth Warren. Joining the Voices of Leadership Series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on April 8th for a dynamic conversation, Warren shared personal lessons from her unlikely path to become one of the nation’s beloved progressive political leaders.

Watch Senator Warren’s full talk with the Voices in Leadership series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health from April 8, 2016.

Warren’s early life experiences strongly inform the values she champions and the policy she chooses to fight for in DC. Warren was born in 1949 to a working-class family in Oklahoma. Her family faced major setbacks when her father suffered a heart attack and lost his job. Warren was just 12 years old when her family lost their station wagon and “were on the edge of losing [their] home.” Ultimately, her mother, who had been a homemaker, kept the family from bankruptcy by taking a minimum wage job at the local Sears. Warren responded to this adversity with grit and a determined spirit explaining, “I [was] afraid of being poor, really poor…My response was to study contracts, finance, and, most of all, economic failure, to learn everything I could.”[1]

Despite the impressive achievements and radiant confidence, Warren recounts experiences in a relatable manner and infuses her discussion with humor. As if conversing with friends, she shared three lessons with the Voices in Leadership audience.

Senator Elizabeth Warren sat down with Dean Designate Dr. Michelle Williams at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on April 8, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

Interdisciplinary teamwork. As an attorney and law professor at Harvard, Warren researched bankruptcy. Prompted by early life experience with financial hardship, she sought to understand why other families did not make it through economic hardship as her own did. Warren collaborated with public health researchers combining expertise in law, finance, health, and health care to uncover a harsh reality: the majority of families filing for bankruptcy were middle class and a large portion were filing as the result of a insurmountable medical bills. Ultimately, this became major political rhetoric, taking seed in the 2008 presidential campaigns, Warren’s 2012 US Senate campaign, and ultimately into policy change; to put a ban on capping repayment for serious medical conditions on health insurance. For Warren, the crux of this story was its illustration that “nobody makes change by themselves,” citing that she would not have delved so deeply into the subject of medical bankruptcy, eventually becoming an expert in the field.

Elizabeth Warren, United States Senator for Massachusetts, shared words of wisdom at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health on April 8, 2016 as part of the Voices in Leadership series. (Photo by Sarah Sholes / Harvard Chan School.)

Persistence. As a Harvard Law Professor, Warren embarked on a grassroots effort to revolutionize the face of consumer protection law. She started making trips to Washington DC to lobby for her idea to create a federal consumer agency. As a one-woman show she began the arduous task of building a coalition by lobbying door-to-door. While her audience was receptive, she was faced with significant opposition advising that while her idea was great, it was unattainable.

Her response? “So I hear this, and I think what they’re saying to me is, try harder…How am I going to try harder here?” With this zeal carrying her forward, she grew the coalition gaining support from large agencies including the AFLCIO and the AARP and ultimately generating sufficient voice and momentum to create the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. In addition to the power of collaboration, this story illustrates the power of unapologetic commitment and persistence.

Commitment to your cause. Early in her service as a Senator, Warren secured positions on two A-list Senate committees — a feat which broke the norm that senators must gain tenure to serve on two A-list committees. Well-known for her work in bankruptcy, she was assigned to the Banking committee. However, passionate about supporting medical and scientific research, Warren was determined to serve on the Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) committee as well. Despite repeated rejections from the Senate Majority Lead to sit on two committees, Warren remained committed. Through unyielding determination to keep trying harder, she was ultimately successful.

Warren embodies a myriad of qualities of outstanding leadership: she does not shy away from a fight for causes she believes in, but also embraces unlikely collaboration; a master debater, she often values listening over speaking; and though new to the political arena, she does not hesitate to challenge the status quo. She fights. She perseveres, and she tries harder. Or in her own words, “At the end of the day, you are not going to stop me. So come with me, or stay behind. But we are going.”

1 | Lepore, Jill. “The Warren Brief.” The New Yorker. The New Yorker, 14 Apr. 2014. Web. 09 May 2016.


For more from the Voices in Leadership (@VoicesHSPH) series at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health (@HarvardHSPH), visitwww.hsph.harvard.edu/voices.

Story edited by Esther Velasquez