Sydney Kamlager ’14 wants to improve the lives of Black Californians by tackling inequality, especially in the criminal justice and housing fields.
When Sydney Kamlager discusses her family, the women take center stage.
Her grandmother was a political organizer for Harold Washington, the first Black mayor of Chicago; her mother was active in her actors’ union; and her great-great grandmother — “Gram,” to Kamlager — was born enslaved but later freed by President Abraham Lincoln.
“Gram was with us up until my third birthday. She had amazing stories of resilience, and she was someone who really demanded excellence. So, she instilled an incredibly strong work ethic in my mother, and she in turn shared that with me,” says Kamlager, who, after taking a break from her studies to pursue a career in public service, graduated from the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences in 2014 with a bachelor’s degree in political science.
Now representing California’s 30th District in the State Senate, Kamlager points out that her great-great grandmother’s legacy is not purely a personal one, nor is it one that has sunk back into the mists of time. She points to a bill she has introduced: ACA-3 would amend the state Constitution to prohibit all forms of slavery and involuntary servitude. Currently, the Constitution allows an exception when punishing a crime, meaning prisoners are not free to refuse to work while incarcerated. The bill serves as a reminder that enslavement and its effects did not end in the 19th, or even the 20th, century.
“I have a personal connection to slaves and to people who are former slaves, and I wanted to be able to talk about Gram’s life and elevate that in this discussion because I think folks say, ‘Oh, that happened 400 years ago.’ And I can say, ‘Maybe it did, but some of us can still remember family members who were not born free,’” says Kamlager.
A sense of justice
Kamlager grew up in Chicago and New York City, but she credits her Jesuit high school in Chicago with instilling a sense of service early on.
“I spent one particular summer in West Virginia in the Appalachian Mountains, working with families who were poor, and you get a very real and clear sense of the haves and the have-nots, a real sense of poverty and basic human rights,” she says.
She decided to attend USC so she could spend more time with her father, who moved to L.A. after her parents divorced. At the university, she studied with Michael Preston, then a faculty member in the Department of Political Science, whom she describes as having an “oversized reach and impact” on L.A. politics. The experience was instrumental in introducing her to the local political scene and the issues central to it.
Kamlager took a break from her undergraduate studies to start on her career, holding positions at several nonprofits before shifting to politics. In 2018, she was elected to the California Assembly, and in 2021 she won her current seat in the state Senate.
Housing and criminal justice
Recently, Kamlager has focused on several issues related to homelessness and criminal justice system reform. One piece of legislation, which she hopes to reintroduce next year, would create an L.A. County housing authority trust fund that would develop affordable living spaces for people in the area. Another, developed in conjunction with the Keck School of Medicine at USC but recently vetoed by Gov. Gavin Newsom, would have expanded funding for street medicine teams — medical workers who provide care to the homeless.
“USC has a phenomenal street medicine team, and it was really using that team as a model for the kinds of street medicine teams that are out there or might develop because of this,” she says.
Regarding the criminal justice system, Kamlager says it currently exemplifies a number of social problems rooted in inequality. She notes that more than 90% of people in the state’s gang database are Black or brown, and Black individuals are five times more likely to be on probation for a longer period.
“These are examples of the vestiges of slavery and Jim Crow, where we see certain people differently, we treat them differently, we punish them differently, we grant them limited access to things,” she says. “We also see that in the environmental space, in things like a lack of clean water and green canopies for communities of color and poor communities — the inequality.”
Kamlager also says the justice system has a high degree of sexual inequality.
“Women are now the fastest-growing population in prison, and we’ve learned that sexual abuse, human trafficking and sexual assault tend to be a part of the equation for how they ended up in prison,” she says. “I sponsored a bill that would allow a judge to take into consideration circumstances like sexual assault and human trafficking that may have contributed to the crime.”
Kamlager is excited about her upcoming senate session and her role as vice chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, which she says will allow her to “elevate the lives of Black Californians.” It’s her way of adding to the legacy of her foremothers.
By Meredith McGroarty