California Gets a New Congresswoman


In her first week as a congresswoman, Sara Jacobs ’11, SIPA’12 (D-Calif.) was still acquainting herself with the labyrinthine halls of the Capitol when the unthinkable happened. Seated in the House Gallery, she heard commotion in the distance. A split second later, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) was whisked off the floor by security. The noise turned out to be rioters storming the building. “They told us to take our evacuation hoods out from under our seats,” Jacobs recalls, referring to the spacesuit-like protective gear that members of Congress wore over their heads as they ran to safety on January 6. “Then we had to evacuate, but there was no direct route out. We had to climb over chairs and handrails until we got to the final secure location.”

It was a terrifying start to Jacobs’s career in national politics. At 31, the recently elected representative is the youngest woman in her freshman class and the third-youngest member of the House. But witnessing the insurrection drove home the reason she entered politics to begin with: to put communities back together again after they have been torn apart. “We should focus on the fractures in our society that allowed something like this to happen,” she says. “We’ve long had an issue with white supremacy, white nationalism and racial resentment in this country that we’ve never really addressed. Those wounds are showing themselves very clearly now.”

Jacobs believes she is well equipped to tackle these systemic problems thanks, in part, to her time at Columbia, where she participated in a five-year joint program at the College and SIPA. When she arrived on campus from her hometown of San Diego, she wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life. On a whim, she took an American foreign policy class, and was fascinated by how good governance can change societies. She took more political science courses, and joined the Columbia Political Union and the Political Science Student Association. “I was always focused on the kinds of problems we don’t have the answers for, versus the ones that we just need political mobilization to solve,” she says.

In her graduate work, Jacobs specialized in international conflict resolution, where she analyzed the forces that tear countries apart and studied the root causes of violence. She spent her 20s traveling around the globe, applying what she’d learned to broker peace in the real world. At the State Department, she developed policies to foster stability in Mali and the Sahel; in UNICEF’s innovation unit she came up with creative strategies for improving children’s lives in developing countries. And at the United Nations’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations, she drew up best practices for nations in the throes of conflict. These experiences allowed Jacobs to observe communities in the midst of strife, but also showed her that it is possible to heal divisions and move forward. “I’m using a lot of what I learned in my master’s program as we’re looking at how we repair this country,” she says.

Case in point: Some of her earliest actions as a legislator were designed to close this painful chapter in American history and set the country on a path toward healing. She voted to impeach President Donald Trump, co-sponsored legislation asking Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) to resign for calling for violence against Democrats and supported the Biden administration’s Covid-19 relief bill.

These days, she puts her training to use in roles on the House Committees of Foreign Affairs and Armed Services. With polarization at a fever pitch in the United States, Jacobs’s lessons in peacekeeping are now critically relevant. She points out that new communications technologies often exacerbate conflict, and social media is contributing to antagonism and misinformation here at home, but she believes these platforms can be better regulated so they are less likely to spur conflict. “I’ve worked in countries that are far more divided and polarized than the U.S., and there have been processes to bring the country back together,” she says. “It is definitely possible.”

In her role in the 117th House of Representatives, Jacobs is tasked with tackling unique challenges due to the pandemic and the havoc it’s wreaked on the economy. But she sees possibilities for growth, as well: Congress has never been more diverse, with a record number of women — particularly women of color — elected last year. Jacobs believes she and her fellow congresswomen can play a role in rebuilding the country more equitably. She points out that a disproportionate number of women left their jobs during the pandemic, and creating policies that enable them to return to the workforce is key to helping the economy rebound. “We’re just rolling up our sleeves to get things done and trying to avoid partisan bickering,” she says. “We have the opportunity to not just remake the economy, and the societal and political structures of the past, but also to use this moment to figure out how to set us up well for the future.”

Jacobs often thinks back to her time at Columbia, and the course of study that prepared her for this moment in American history. As she sits in her office in the Capitol, specific books from the Core Curriculum often come to mind. “I have been referencing Thucydides a lot lately,” she says. “He had a lot to say about rebuilding the international order.”

Elizabeth Segran ’05 is a senior staff writer at Fast Company and the author of The Rocket Years: How Your Twenties Launch the Rest of Your Life. She lives in Boston with her CC’05 husband, whom she met freshman year; daughter; and books.