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Roads to the Capitol: Six new members of Congress on their personal journeys

An athlete. A principal. A painter. These six new members of Congress come from all walks of life.

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I know that a lot of successful people who overcome adversity say they were always confident, that they always knew that they were going to make it if they kept their eye on the prize. It was the opposite for me: At that point in time, I knew I wasn't going to make it; I knew it was over for me. But then I got a job created by an act of Congress; it was the old CETA program: Comprehensive Employment and Training Act. I was assigned to work with truant high school students. Here I felt like the biggest loser, but now I was starting to work with kids, to help them. And that's what did it. That's what turned me around. Yeah, it gave me a paycheck, but the fact that I could actually help people rejuvenated me. I decided to go back to school, back to Cornell and graduate.

See, that's when I realized: Anything can happen to anybody. When I thought that things were going to end for me, I had the same intelligence, insight, aptitude that I have now. Human will can only take you so far. So if I can let people know: There's somebody here to help you; your government's here to serve you, that can inspire people somehow to do things they already have in them. I may not be able solve all problems for people, but if they see that I'm genuinely trying to help them, that gives them the confidence to do something on their own. It's about empowering people to realize the obvious: In a representative democracy, they're in charge. And the fact that I go to the single mom living in the shelter, to people living on the street, as the guy that works for them, their congressman, it elevates people that have given up -- not just on government but on life. That's powerful.

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Rep. Frederica Wilson (Fla.-17)

Party: Democratic

Age: 68

Previously: Florida state senator, state representative; school board member

FYI: Served as a school principal. She founded 5000 Role Models of Excellence, a mentoring program for at-risk boys. She is known for her intricate hats, worn in the tradition of her Bahamian grandmother.

My father finished the third grade, and that was it. But he was a quiet giant who fought injustice. Growing up in Texas, he went through a lot of abuse from the larger population. He could tell you about racism that would cause you to weep. That's where he got his fight from, the treatment that was levied against him. He couldn't take it, so he fled Texas and wound up in Miami, where he met my mother. When I was a little girl growing up, I would watch him. He taught people how to register to vote at our home, and how to maneuver the legislative process. I helped him, so it just kind of stuck with me that it was something that I was supposed to do. It was almost like instinct. And so when I would see an injustice, if I felt that I could make it right, I kind of stuck my nose into it.

When I was a principal, the county commission gave this company permission to build a garbage plant right across the street from my school. I said: "Please, you can't do this. I have 900 children in this school." I went away on vacation, and when I came back, I smelled an odor blocks away. I couldn't believe it! I said, "How am I going to have school with this horrible odor?" We couldn't have physical education outside; the children couldn't even stand outside to catch the school bus. So I wrote letters to the governor, and I had my children write letters. I put them on school buses and took them down to each county commission land use committee meeting, and they stood up on blocks and testified. Then it was indicated to me and my family that it was the Mafia's initiative and to leave it alone. My own children were at my school, and my son would catch the gifted bus on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays. Someone called and said, "She better leave [the plant] alone, or one time her son might not get to that gifted program." So I called the school district, and they said, "We told you that you need to leave it alone." When I went home that night, I prayed. I said to myself: Am I supposed to come to this school every day and just pretend that that's not there? I mean, what am I going to say to my students? I couldn't come up with an explanation, so I just kept fighting. And we closed that plant down. It was a $27 million-dollar plant, operating full steam, and we closed it down.

What it does is embolden you for the next fight, that you can make a difference. Whenever something comes to me that is not just or will make a devastating impact on a group of people, and I feel that I can make it right, or fix it, then I go after it. And I fight. I fight real hard.

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