Democratic state Sen. Sarah Anthony, the first Black woman to chair the Michigan Senate Appropriations Committee, unveiled her official portrait on Feb. 1.
Anthony’s portrait, with her natural curls on display, has joined the photos of her all-white, all-male Appropriations predecessors that hang on the wall in her office. According to Anthony, it’s also the only portrait of a Black woman displayed in the Michigan Capitol.
Although she’s proud of the historic significance of the moment, she said it gives her an awkward feeling knowing that it’s taken so long for the Michigan Legislature to have a woman of color in such a significant role.
“That is something that I’m obviously proud of, and other people are proud of,” Anthony, 40, said. “But it’s still somewhat jarring that it has taken so long for someone like me to be in a position to honestly lead in this way.”
Despite growing up in the capital city of Lansing, Anthony said she never would’ve thought she’d be interested in public service. Now, over 70 years after Charline White was the first Black woman elected to the Legislature, Anthony sits at the helm of one of its most powerful committees. She recognizes the importance of creating a diverse leadership because “you can’t be what you can’t see.”
Anthony was first elected to represent her hometown in the Michigan House of Representatives in 2018. While serving in the minority, she said, she often left the Capitol in tears because of what she called the destructive policy work the chamber was doing under the Republican majority at the time.
When she ran to become Lansing’s state senator in 2022, she had no idea come Election Day that the Legislature would flip to Democratic control for the first time in 40 years. In the year since she joined the majority, she’s been able to make long-sought progress on legislation she believes will make a real difference in marginalized communities.
In 2023, she reintroduced bills that were later passed into law to outlaw child marriage and ban natural hair discrimination, otherwise known as the CROWN (Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act. As Appropriations chair, she said, she instructed her subcommittee chairs to look at the budget through a racial equity lens so they could identify areas where underserved communities needed additional support. This resulted in the budget allocating funding for programs that assist minority-owned agriculture businesses, make improvements to Black maternal health, and aid disadvantaged students in schools.
“What I discovered this first year was these systems were not designed to lift people up, these systems were not designed to help people who don’t have lobbyists that they can pay or advocates that can spend time coming to the Capitol,” Anthony said. “Regular people just need individuals to stand in the gap for them.”
Anthony’s portrait unveiling this month brought together people from every corner of her life who have played a part in her success today. She was joined by her loved ones and community members from Lansing. She also invited a few former Republican Appropriations chairs who she said have provided her with the necessary information to navigate their now shared experience, and her Democratic colleagues who supported her through the budget process.
Senate Majority Leader Winnie Brinks commended Anthony for pushing to bridge the gap for Michigan residents during a speech at the event.
“All of us as leaders can genuinely express our desire to address issues pertaining to race, to gender, and more. But it requires the voices of the people who have lived those experiences to create transformational change,” said Brinks, who appointed Anthony to the chair position last January. “Senator Anthony brings those lived experiences, whether personal or from her constituents, with her into this building.”
Harold Pope, the president of the Lansing NAACP, and his wife Jennifer have each known Anthony for years through their social activism. They said they were happy to see a Black woman acknowledged in this way, especially on the first day of Black History Month.
“It signifies that this young woman who grew up in the city of Lansing and is still here doing things, that anything is possible,” Jennifer Pope said.
In certain aspects, being the first Black person to accomplish something in the 21st century is very different from the experience of well-known civil rights icons typically recognized during Black History Month, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. There’s been a laundry list of notable Black Americans who have joined the ranks in becoming the “first” since the federal Civil Rights Act passed in 1964. Even so, those who are breaking barriers in modern times still face some of the same adversities.
“When you’re the first anything, you get the brunt of the criticism, the microscope is on you more than most, people are measuring your success with a different measuring stick,” Anthony said. “And there’s always that temptation for people who are the first to overanalyze our work, to have more weight on the decisions, because we feel like we’re representing anyone who comes after us. And if we mess up, the door might shut permanently for women and people of color in these spaces.”
Anthony said she will continue to work for systemic change within the Legislature that allows more room for women and people of color at the decision-making tables in the future. She says that she wants those that follow her to “do the job by just being a technician, by just being someone who’s competent and qualified and leads with compassion, and not always be seen as an African American or a woman, and just do the job.”
“When people talk about being the first Black woman, I think that it’s a space to celebrate, but the real celebration comes after things look and feel different for the entire state, but particularly people of color and women,” Anthony said.