Vice President Kamala Harris gets warm welcome in Reading

Sep. 19—A few dozen Reading Area Community College students stood behind a rope in the lobby of the school's Miller Center for the Arts Tuesday afternoon, packed together closely.

They buzzed with excitement, their eyes fixed on a door on the north side of the theater. Many held their cellphones in their hands, ready to snap a photo when the moment arrived.

And then, it happened.

The vice president of the United States walked through the door, waving as the crowd squealed and cheered. Suddenly, Kamala Harris was standing in front of them.

The vice president smiled brightly as she shook hands, posed for selfies and chatted with the students. The students, in turn, gushed over Harris. A few even shouted, "We love you."

Moments later, the scene outside of the Miller Center repeated. This time, it was amplified.

About 200 supporters, most of them RACC students, had gathered outside the theater to catch a glimpse of the vice president. She more than obliged, taking time to greet them and share a few words.

She said she wanted to visit RACC — a trip that is part of Harris' ongoing "Fight for Our Freedoms" college tour — because she had heard the school is all about creating leaders. And she told the crowd that from what she saw, it was true.

"When I look at you, I know the future of our country is bright," she said.

Harris' monthlong college tour will see her visit at least seven states in an effort to mobilize young voters and highlight issues that impact their lives. Tuesday was Pennsylvania's turn to play host.

The event was a discussion between the vice president and actress Annie Gonzalez in a question-and-answer format.

Much as she did with the students she met before the event started, Harris praised those who were lucky enough to get seats inside the theater.

"I know what you're doing here in Reading," she said. "These are extraordinary students. And you all, I'm here because I'm counting on your leadership to help direct our country based on a vision that is about understanding everyone should be free to live their best life and that we fight for those freedoms every day."

Harris went on to speak about the 2020 election, the one that saw Joe Biden end up in the White House and her become the first woman to be vice president. That, she said, was only accomplished because young voters made their voices heard.

She said the record turnout of young voters in 2020 bucked the idea that young people don't want to vote or that their votes don't matter.

"So, when people turned out in 2020 — even though there were the doubters; I would say some of the haters, let's keep it real — record turnout," the vice president said. "And it's because you voted that Joe Biden is president of the United States and I am vice president of the United States. It's because you voted."

Harris said young voters have legitimate concerns they want government to address, and they have been leading the way on issues such as climate change, the fight for equity and inclusion, commonsense gun control and protection of women's reproductive rights.

"I think about the generation of the young leaders here — you all have only known the climate crisis, your whole life," she said. "You all, in your lifetime, witnessed the highest court in our land take a constitutional right that had been recognized from the people of America — from the women of America. You all, your generation, will have mothers and grandmothers that had more rights than you will have.

"Your generation has had to go through, from elementary school on, on the first day of school in addition to learning the name of your teacher and where the bathroom is and where your cubby is to learn how to protect yourself from an active shooter."

Harris said young leaders aren't waiting for others to figure out how to fix those issues. They are taking action.

"And so, I'm here just to say thank you and to encourage you to keep doing it," she said. "I'm here to say, you know, I have an expression, 'I eat no for breakfast,'" she said. "Somebody tells me: 'No, it can't be done. Nope, nobody like you has done this before.' I don't hear that.

"And nor should you ever hear that."

Harris said students in the room must not be content with the status quo and should fight for change at the ballot box. That's the way some of the biggest things in American history have gotten done, she added.

"The greatest movements in our country that have been about the empowerment of people, the fight for equality, for freedom, the expansion of rights — those movements have almost always been led by students," Harris said.

Tackling issues

The event at the Miller Center concluded with three students each asking a question about what the Biden administration is doing about an important issues.

Nangelie Zapata, a second-year student, asked about the disproportional impact of climate change on poor communities like Reading.

"Let's start with what you and everyone here knows: The climate crisis is a threat to us as a species and this planet that God gave us to live on," Harris said. "And we need to take this issue seriously and understand that the clock is not just ticking, it is banging."

Harris said the administration is always focused on equity, including when it come to climate change and environmental injustices. She brought up the issue of lead water pipes.

"The grandparents in communities that have had those lead pipes have been for years saying, 'Look, we may not have a medical degree, but we know what this is doing to our babies,'" Harris said.

The problem is, Harris continue, people living in wealthy communities have the money to replace those pipes. People in poor communities don't.

"Our perspective as an administration — again, guided by equity — is it's a public health issue," she said. "When the babies of our community are suffering and becoming sick, having learning disabilities because of that toxic water, it is our responsibility to address it as a public health matter and that we will take care of it and pay for it as a government. And that's what we decided to do."

Harris said the Biden administration is determined to make sure every lead pipe in America is removed; a goal that is on track to be completed.

The vice president cited other administration efforts, including rebates for installation of new HVAC systems to address air-quality issues and putting resources into helping low-income communities deal with extreme weather events.

Johnathan Alexander Pensado had a question on women's reproductive rights, asking if the U.S. could ever follow the lead of a recent decision in Mexico that asserted medical procedures such as abortions are between a patient and her doctor.

Harris was quick to point out that the decision in Mexico was spurred by demonstrations, largely led by students. She said sometimes the public has to force the hands of decision makers, showing them the right direction or giving them the courage to do what they know is right.

As for the decision itself, Harris said she supports it and would like to see it made in the U.S.

"So, on that subject, I think it's very important to agree, I think most people do, one does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling her what to do with her body," she said to a loud round of applause.

Unfortunately, Harris said, some states are moving in the wrong direction. Some have threatened serious prison time for doctors or nurses who take part in abortions, and some have limited access to abortions even in cases of rape or incest.

The idea that a politician could say to a survivor or a violent crime, a violation of their body, that they don't have a say in what happens to their body after that attack is "mmoral, Harris said.

"And again, this is the reason to really take seriously elections," Harris said. "Because what the Supreme Court took away, the United States Congress can put back in place, in terms of those protections, under a case called Roe v. Wade."

The final question came from Jamie Szarawara, who asked about the administration's plans to increase gun safety laws while still protecting the Second Amendment.

Harris said that is an issue of critical importance, particularly in light of the school shooting crisis. The vice president said she has talked to middle school students who are afraid to go to certain classrooms because they don't have closets to hide in if an active-shooter situation develops.

"The children of our country are sitting in classrooms where their brain should be focused on all the wonders of the world," she said. "And there is some piece of their attention that is about whether there might be a shooter busting through the door."

Harris also said too many American families have been touched by gun violence and that there is no reason the country can't enact an assault-weapon ban, tighten background checks and establish red flag laws.

The vice president called leaders who fight against such measures feckless and went on to say that the country needs people with the courage to do the right thing.

"And again, that's why elections matter," she said.

To that point, Harris encouraged everyone in attendance to speak with friends, family and neighbors about the importance of voting. She pitched the website, which has information on registering to vote.

A quick visit

Harris flew into Reading Regional Airport aboard Air Force Two, landing just before 11:45 a.m. She was greeted at the airfield by Reading Mayor Eddie Moran, who spoke briefly at the Miller Center event.

Hopping into a black SUV, she was whisked away to RACC, her motorcade shutting down portions of Route 222 and Route 422 as it traveled.

Following the Miller Center event, Harris traveled to the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 743 training center in Spring Township. There she spoke with apprentices learning the trade, lauding the importance of unions like the IBEW.

"Like President Biden always says, unions built the middle class," she said.

Harris said unions play a key role in building up and strengthening the country. That includes the United Auto Workers, currently staging a strike.

The vice president said she and the president support workers rights, collective bargaining and the right to strike.

Harris said a new contract between the UAW and American car companies needs to be one that helps build the middle class. And she wants the UAW to remain in the center of the U.S. auto industry.

The vice president told the apprentices that she hopes the union and their training provide stability and success for them.

"The apprenticeships being provided here allow each of these young leaders and workers to live their best life," she said.

After spending just over four hours in Berks County, the vice president departed the airport aboard Air Force Two just after 3:45 p.m., the jet soaring through blue skies over Mount Penn.