A Voice for the Voiceless
Congresswoman Wilson is a voice for the voiceless. As an elementary school principal, she stood up for the health of her students by opposing the construction of an environmentally dangerous waste facility being built across the street from her school. She won the fight, forcing the Miami-Dade County Commission to close the plant. As a community leader, she stood up for the fair treatment of locally incarcerated female Haitian refugees who faced poor living conditions. In 1984, long before she knew her political destiny, Congresswoman Wilson successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress for their release. As a legislator, she has passionately advocated for education and economic policies that give all children and adults the opportunity to reach their full potential.
Congresswoman Wilson’s lifelong commitment to our most vulnerable populations is rooted in her faith, family, and passion for public service. Congresswoman Wilson was born on November 5, 1942 in Miami’s Overtown community, but was raised in nearby Liberty City. The daughter of Beulah Finley and Thirlee Smith, a small business owner and local civil rights activist, respectively, she learned the value of community activism at a young age. Her parents, who taught her to care for the downtrodden and less fortunate, were among the first African-American homeowners in Miami-Dade County. Her brother, the late Thirlee Smith, Jr., rose to become the first full-time African-American reporter at the Miami Herald.
A Lifetime of Service
Congresswoman Wilson earned a Bachelor of Science in Elementary Education from Fisk University in 1963 and a Master of Science in Elementary Education from the University of Miami in 1972. After graduating, she served as a teacher and as assistant educational coordinator for Head Start in Miami and later, as Assistant Principal and Principal of Skyway Elementary School. In 1992, under her leadership, Skyway Elementary was honored by Education Secretary Lamar Alexander as part of President George H.W. Bush’s “America 2000” plan to upgrade national education standards. From 1992 to 1998, Congresswoman Wilson served on the Miami-Dade County School Board, where she successfully led an effort to integrate African-American history into the Miami-Dade County Public Schools curriculum.
As a member of the Miami-Dade County School Board, Congresswoman Wilson acted to positively intervene in the lives of at-risk male youth. In 1993, she founded the 5000 Role Models of Excellence Project, a program that has provided a model for dropout prevention initiatives across the nation. Since its inception, 5000 Role Models has awarded more than $5 million in scholarships to minority boys and helped thousands of young men turn their lives around. The program currently operates in over 110 Miami-Dade County public schools, serving more than 6000 young men. Congresswoman Wilson also established a 5000 Role Models chapter in the Pinellas County School District. In 1997, the program was honored with the Teaching Example for the Nation Award by President Bill Clinton at the Summit for America’s Future in Philadelphia, PA.
In 1998, Congresswoman Wilson successfully ran for the 104th District in the Florida House of Representatives, where she served as Minority Whip until 2002. From 2003 to 2010, she represented District 33 in the Florida State Senate, serving as Minority Leader Pro Tempore and Minority Lead Whip. It was there that Congresswoman Wilson became known as the “Conscience of the Senate,” a title that acknowledged her willingness to tackle issues of social and economic injustice and her long history of working with her colleagues across the aisle to pass bipartisan legislation. While serving in the Florida legislature, she achieved a series of feats including working with Republican Governor Jeb Bush to remove the Confederate flag from the State Capitol; mandating HIV/AIDS testing for newly-released prisoners; opposing high-stakes standardized testing; pushing for a ban of the term “illegal alien” in state public records; and partnering with Republican Governor Charlie Crist to restore voting rights for ex-felons.
In 2010, Congresswoman Wilson was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives to serve the 17th Congressional District of Florida. Committed to providing greater economic opportunities to her constituents, Congresswoman Wilson helped bring over a billion dollars in federal investment to her district. She also sponsored a hugely successful jobs fair, attended by 9,000 people and 150 employers, which resulted in job offers for hundreds of South Floridians.
In the 112th Congress, Congresswoman Wilson worked hard to represent the needs of underserved and vulnerable people. She introduced the “Rilya Wilson Act,” which requires each state to develop a plan for the prompt reporting of missing foster children, successfully advocated for the Obama Administration to extend Temporary Protected Status to Haitian nationals, hosted a foreclosure prevention and mediation conference to offer assistance to those struggling with mortgages, and requested that the U.S. Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division investigate the Miami Police Department following the shooting deaths of several black men by police in 2010 and 2011. The Congresswoman also visited Israel, reaffirming the importance of the U.S.-Israel relationship and enabling her to learn first-hand the complexities of the region.
In the 113th Congress, Congresswoman Wilson will build on her record of outstanding public service while serving on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce and the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology. At the request of her colleagues, Congresswoman Wilson will serve as Ranking Member of the Subcommittee on Technology.
A Pilar in the Community
Congresswoman Wilson is an influential force in the South Florida community. More than 2,000 people attended her consecration ceremony at the Historic St. Agnes’ Episcopal Church in January 2011.
Many organizations, like the Florida Association of Women Lawyers, the American Cancer Society, the Florida Cable Telecommunications Association, and the NAACP, have applauded Congresswoman Wilson on her longstanding public service career. In 2013, she received the Broward Black Elected Officials Inaugural Lifetime Achievement Community Service Award. She has personally contributed to the community through her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. Congresswoman Wilson served as the Director of the South Atlantic Region for four years and as Director of AKA Connections, the political action arm of Alpha Kappa Alpha, for six years. Congresswoman Wilson is also a 25 year member of the prestigious LINKS, Inc.
Congresswoman Wilson is widowed and is the proud mother of three children, Nicole, Kesha, and Paul, and five beautiful grandchildren.