How did Pramila Jaypal become a senator who has combated intolerance post 9/11, advocated to ensure debt-free college for young people across America, and encouraged civic engagement among young South Asian Americans ?
Read below to discover how this remarkable Indian American moved from a career on Wall Street to one in public service on the West Coast.
How did you become an activist and how did it change after Sept. 11?
I wasn’t born with activism in my blood.
When I was 16, my parents took the last $5,000 they had and sent me off to Georgetown University.
They got me to promise that I’d pursue a career in a field that would earn me a good living. Right out of college I landed a job on Wall Street. While I made good money, I found myself growing restless.
I felt empty.
After obtaining my MBA from Northwestern University, I worked for PATH, providing loans to women’s health programs in developing countries, including India.
In contrast to my 1980s Wall Street days, this experience was transformative, giving me a front-row seat to the existence of true inequity.
But my roll-up-your-sleeves era of activism, however, began in earnest in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, with the wave of hate crimes directed against Muslims, Arabs and Sikhs.
I created Hate Free Zone, not only to combat such intolerance but to start a dialogue about how we can bridge the differences between us.
Known today as OneAmerica, it is the state’s largest immigrant-rights organization and a leading voice in the push for comprehensive immigration reform.
OneAmerica is also at the forefront of advancing the principles of democracy and justice at every level by building power within immigrant communities in collaboration with key allies.
How did your career lead to your running for office?
It was only after a career in activism that I decided to run for office.
I had long believed, as many advocates do, that it was only through a process of organizing and activism on the outside that we demanded change from our elected officials on the inside. But in so doing, too often, we felt taken for granted, including by a Democratic Party afraid to confront head-on the uncomfortable social issues of our time out of fear of alienating some voters or upsetting big funders.
I reasoned that if elected officials determined so much of what affects our day-to-day lives, why were we ceding this space?
It was clear that we needed movement builders who understood that the role of an elected representative is not only to pass good policy and block bad, but to be a bridge between government and the people.
As a Washington State Senator, I have been proud to serve Southeast Seattle, pushing to raise the minimum wage, increase equity education and improve voter access.
I’m running for Congress at a time when a progressive movement is building across this country. The time has come to tackle the inequities spawned by a system rigged to favor big corporations and the top 1 percent over regular Americans. We need to fix that: raise the minimum wage, expand Social Security and Medicare, and ensure debt-free college for young people across America.
What should people who don’t hold office know about the life of a senator?
The first year is like drinking from a firehose…There’s so much you need to learn and about such a wide range of issues, I don’t think I could have imagined what it was like fully. But the reasons I ran, in terms of making sure new and different voices are at the table, still ring true.
In our Republican-controlled Senate, I’m both the only woman of color and the first-ever South Asian American member of the state legislature. That makes a difference. Additionally, life in the minority party means you always have to be creative and strategic about how you get things done.
Relationships and power are relative to your position in the minority. I’m conscious of my race and ethnicity; it’s hard not to be. My background as an activist and a woman of color means I bring with me the perspective that race touches almost every single issue. There are, sadly, not nearly enough elected officials at any level of American government willing to acknowledge and respond to this simple truth.
More generally, my favorite part of a day in Olympia is meeting with constituents and listening to their stories – the sad, moving, tragic, heartbreaking, uplifting, motivating stories of the people I’m elected to serve. We get only 15 minutes; it’s never enough time.
What are the greatest issues for the South Asian community in Washington, and what are your policy recommendations?
Consistently, immigration is a pressing issue for South Asians in Washington State, both in terms of the decades-long backlogs that keep families separated and the tortured process for those on employment-based visas to seek permanent residency.
Another group, the spouses of H-1B visa holders, mostly women who hold multiple degrees and would like to work in the U.S., have recently seen limited gains in obtaining work authorization. But still too many of them are left out, unable to work.
Comprehensive immigration reform has always been an important policy issue for me and one that I plan to continue pressing in Congress.
There is invisible poverty within the rapidly growing South Asian community, shattering the myth that all South Asians are wealthy. Others rarely see the problem because people seldom seek help, publicly, turning instead to the community and other South Asians who understand the culture.
While this is less of a policy issue, we are always searching for ways to tap the vast resources of our high-tech entrepreneurs and find opportunities for them to contribute back to the community. Immigrants don’t often grow up in a culture of community service and civic engagement and so the idea of giving back doesn’t occur to them naturally.
I’ve made it a priority to reach out to young Indian-Americans to do campaign work and to serve as legislative interns and pages.
I want to get the South Asian community more involved so we can lift up the next generation of leaders.
How did you ethnically/culturally identify growing up, and why? Did this identity pose any challenges? And now?
I identify as an Indian American. I’m a very proud of my Indian heritage. My parents still live in India and I have strong, deep connections to the culture, the people and the country. I spent two years there in the 1990s doing meaningful development work, living simply among people in villages and towns all over the country.
Being an immigrant has deeply influenced so much of my worldview and of the connections I made with people from every walk of life. I’m very proud to talk about my Indian background and to bring it into my work.