I was beyond honored to be Congressman Cooper’s guest at this year’s State of the Union address. My only qualification is that I have stood with Tennesseans for 25 years as they work for a healthcare system that gives everyone a shot at opportunity and prosperity.  I walked through the Capitol Building imagining all who came here with hard fights and unshakable hope.  I imagined how these historic figures might have been even more tired than me, and yet by persisting they transformed our nation. I felt humbled to be a part of this constitutionally required custom that began in 1790.

The last few years we’ve faced on an onslaught of constant threats to vital programs that save millions of lives like Medicaid, CHIP, and the ACA. It’s easy to feel down sometimes when thinking about the Healthcare Repeal Lawsuit that our state leaders chose to be a part of that would end pre-existing condition protections for over one-third of Tennesseans.

The president chose to say in his speech that he would continue to protect pre-existing conditions, when his administration has repeatedly fought to get rid of them, among many other important consumer protections.

In my despair I spotted across the gallery my friends, Xiamora and Elena. They were with other mothers and children with special health care needs. Since 2017 their sweet and righteous voices have filled the halls of Congress. They lead an organization called the Little Lobbyists. Xiamora, who had tried to steal my Capitol-shaped cookie earlier in the evening, was up way past her bedtime.  She was there with her warrior mama Elena that night like so many days and nights over the last three years as Elena and other moms have defended healthcare for their beautiful children.

Seeing Elena and Xiomara gave me hope and strength. They came as a witness to the truth that Medicaid and the ACA  are still the law of the land–not because the President honored his campaign promises to preserve health coverage, but because hundreds of thousands stood up and spoke out when he didn’t. Republicans and Democrats, socialists and libertarians, the Little Lobbyists’ families have all continued to make sacrifices and keep fighting for an America that values the lives of all.

As I exited the gallery, I hugged my seatmate and new friend who ran a health clinic for women for 40 years. She had started as a patient at the clinic and had dedicated her life to her Asian-American community members’ health. We silently leaned on each other and held hands, as if to say, “I see you. You are America to me. You are real. We are stronger than this together.

 And I thanked her. She, like Elena and the other mothers, were a powerful antidote to the despair I had felt that night.  What a blessing! Throughout our history, in that building and from sea to shining sea, these candle bearers have always been what has pushed us to become a more perfect union.  They have been the reasons for my patriotism.  And so, disoriented and hopeless, I followed their light until I could relight my own candle and remember we are stronger than hate when we stand together. I am holding up my candle, and I challenge each of you to do the same. And when you feel like it is just about to burn out, hug a stranger. She will relight it for you.

Michele Johnson, Executive Director of the Tennessee Justice Center