In commemoration of Women’s History Month, the Indiana Senate Democratic Caucus is highlighting the women senators in our caucus each week. This week, we’re highlighting Senator Jean Breaux‘s (D-Indianapolis) unique story as the only woman of color in the Senate chamber. Serving in her fifth term, Sen. Breaux is an earnest advocate for equity in the Hoosier healthcare system; and, her lived experience of Black womanhood, the multi-generational legacy of civically-engaged women in her own family and her vision for the state of Indiana cultivated her desire to leave an impact on her community through public service.
Sen. Breaux has represented Indiana’s 34th Senate District—encompassing most of Indianapolis’ East Side—for the past 17 years. The 34th Senate District has been hit particularly hard by the health and economic impact of COVID-19.
Before taking office, Sen. Breaux worked for the Indiana Department of Economic Development where she developed a deep appreciation of how, in her own words, an individual’s “quality of life is central to the progression of Indiana’s economy.” Breaux, now a self-assured leader and veteran Democrat in the Statehouse, shared her experience of battling imposter syndrome during her 2005 candidacy—something that was closely tied to her lived experience as a Black woman in Indianapolis.
Despite her impressive career in economic development and a clear vision for her district, Sen. Breaux had “self-sabotaging” thoughts which almost discouraged her from running for office.
Sen. Breaux explained that “it’s something that women do to ourselves. I thought everyone around me was extremely accomplished. I just didn’t feel like I was qualified. Like I was an equal.” Reflecting on her experience, Breaux stated, “society tries to set up tiers where white men are at the top and Black women are at the bottom. From what you see in history. What you see in the media. That women of color are less than.”
She continued, “I don’t think I was overtly aware of it, but there is something in our society that permeates and says that ‘as a Black woman in society you are only regulated to do certain things or not to be in the spotlight.’ History has shown us that’s wrong. We have Barbara Jordan, Shirley Chisholm, Stacey Abrams and Kamala Harris. We are seeing Black females everywhere. We’re all outspoken and confident. I think the message to little girls today and for Black women is that we are equal to the task. We can do anything and we belong anywhere. That was a different message than the one I received growing up.”
In 2005, an elected official told Sen. Breaux that she shouldn’t run against him for the open seat in the Indiana State Senate. He suggested that she should run for City Council because she was unqualified. Sen. Breaux went on to win the seat and has held it ever since. From a young age, Breaux says she’s been driven to spread good. During her self-described “fiery activist” phase, Sen. Breaux earned her Bachelors of Business Administration degree from Boston University and she served as Vice President of her class. She was also an organizer for Ted Kennedy in 1979. If you speak with Breaux just for a while, you will quickly learn that the heritage of women in her family kindled her fire for change and made her the woman who she is today.
Raised on E. 34th Street and Gladstone Road, residing in her district, Sen. Breaux succeeded her own mother, Senator Billie Breaux. Sen. Billie Breaux held her seat from 1990 to 2006. Sen. Jean Breaux said she “felt like that seat needed to maintain a strong African-American voice which matched the district’s constituency.” Jean says her “biggest role model” is her mother. Former Senator Billie Breaux during her time in the Senate served as an Assistant Majority Whip. Rep. Julia Carson recommended Sen. Billie Breaux run for office after seeing her work with Henry Richardson and Bill Crawford. What really empowered Billie Breaux to run for the Senate was her involvement in the Indiana Teacher’s Union after seeing her daughter’s battle with segregation in the Indianapolis Public School system.
Billie Breaux’s own drive for uplifting the lives of her children and community is rooted in the legacy of her own mother Pearl. Senator Jean Breaux’s grandmother, Pearl, was able to “see beyond how poor her family was” and send all of her eight children to college—all while organizing her West Virginian coal mining community around Democratic politics. Pearl’s own trailblazing story is the foundation for her daughter and granddaughter. Mother and daughter were raised to know that there is “power in numbers” and they have brought that same belief to the people of Indianapolis for over 30 years. The Breaux women, much like the rest of the Eastside of Indianapolis, have the ability to make it through, “because we have always been able to make it through.”
Looking to the future, Sen. Jean Breaux believes that there is still work to be done. “I would like to see an Indiana that is more progressive and more open to self-examination. We don’t shut the door on people who aren’t our focus. I feel like we put our head in the sand and don’t try to see real issues. We don’t want to divest from coal, we have areas of our state where water is contaminated. The foundational need for life has been impacted. Not seeing it only makes the problem worse. We don’t have enough people of color at the table, we don’t have Black people at the table, in order to really have effective public policy.” Despite the hardships that persist, Breaux is committed to the long fight and remains unwavering in her mission to bring about the change we need.
The daughter of a public servant and the granddaughter of a coal organizer, Senator Breaux has built a career and legacy of lifting up those most in need through electoral politics. There is a lot of work to still do, and she will be the first to tell you that. But Senator Breaux, like her mother and her grandmother, is making history each day. She is legislating and speaking out to improve standards of living for women, Black Hoosiers and everyone who calls Indiana home. We thank her for her dedicated service to the people of Indiana.