Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, Seema Nanda, Neera Tanden, Vanita Gupta, Nisha Biswal speak at “Women Who Impact.”
WASHINGTON, DC – It was an awe-inspiring sight at an event Tuesday evening hosted by the newly formed Indian American Impact Project: trailblazers in politics and public policy, all women who trace their roots to India, addressing a standing room only crowd of mostly young professionals.
Looking across “a room full of leaders,” Kamala Devi Harris, the first Indian American to serve in the US Senate, spoke of an “inflection moment” in America, of a “time that is challenging us to be the best of who we are.”
“Right now, there are a lot of people who are feeling very distrustful of their government,” she said. “This is not a time to be popular. This is a time to be leaders and that means speaking the truth no matter how uncomfortable those truths may make other people feel.”
The 200-plus people that packed a conference room in the law offices of Covington & Burling, located within the upscale CityCenterDC development, listened to Harris with rapt attention. She is the influential junior senator from California, a member of the Democratic Party, who has emerged as a possible 2020 presidential candidate.
Without naming President Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress, Harris told the audience, “In the face of those powerful voices that are attempting to sow hate and division among us, let’s speak the truth. The vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us.”
Among the truths, the senator noted that crimes against South Asian Americans have increased by 45 percent since November 2016 (when Trump was elected president). She pointed out that racism, sexism, antisemitism, anti-Muslim sentiments are all on the rise.
“Sexual harassment in the workplace is real; sexual assault of women and girls, boys and men, is real,” Harris decried. “People are touting that the economy is doing well, but not for the majority of people. Wages have remained stagnant while the cost of gas, housing, tuition keep going up.”
About what it means to be a woman in politics, Harris spoke of her journey: how she was elected District Attorney of San Francisco in 2003, and re-elected without opposition; then, in 2010, she was elected Attorney General of California — top cop of the biggest state in the country — and re-elected. She was the first female to hold those positions – an Indian-American and a woman of color!
“When we do what we do, it is because we know we are the best at the job and what can be done,” she told the Impact Project audience comprising largely of women. “We are adding value, we have purpose.”
The liberal senator who has cultivated a national following cautioned, “There will be many occasions when we are the only one in the room who looks like us. Don’t you dare sit in that room and feel alone,” she stressed. “Don’t you dare sit in that room and let anyone make you feel small. Use your voice and use it with power knowing that you represent a lot of people who are counting on you.”
Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman to serve in the US House of Representatives, was interviewed on stage by Meena Harris, founder of the Phenomenal Women Action Campaign and niece of Senator Kamala Harris – both trailblazers in their own right.
Jayapal pointed out that she “hit the ground running” when she came to Capitol Hill as she had worked on myriad issues before coming to Congress including immigration reform, reproductive health, women’s causes, and the minimum wage.
She spoke of “relationships of trust” she had built over the years and how they stood her in good stead when she was working on pressing issues as a lawmaker.
One of only twelve immigrants in Congress born outside the US, she noted, “As Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress have continued to use immigration and immigrants as an incredibly divisive issue, it has meant that we really need people who understand the system to be fighting back.”
“We have a much bigger vision, a vision of an immigration system that is humane, that needs to be reformed comprehensively, that addresses our businesses and also the 11 million (undocumented) immigrants, family reunification, H-1B visas,” she said. “Immigration has never been about policy. It has been about who we are as a country and what we are willing to stand up for.”
Jayapal has been called ‘a leader of the resistance’. She sees herself as a ‘hope-ist’ believing “strength comes in time of crisis. When I look across the country and see all these people who have been silent before but have now realized that if they don’t raise their voice, somebody else will take that space, that is so inspiring to me,” she told the Impact Project audience. “When women tell their stories across the country inspite of deep pain and deep risk to themselves, to me you can’t ask for anything else, except for voting,” she added.
It is noteworthy that Impact Project is an initiative of the Indian American Impact Fund, “a political action committee that helps talented and patriotic Indian-Americans run for office, win and lead.” On hand at the DC event were: Impact founders Deepak Raj, a New Jersey-based investor who is also the chairman of Pratham USA, and Raj Goyle, a former Kansas state legislator, now the director of Large Family Office; Gautam Raghavan who runs the day-to-day operations of the Impact Fund; and board members Priya Dayananda and Mini Timmaraju.
About the Impact Project, Dayananda said, one of the goals “is to increase the visibility of leaders in our community. For the first time in history, we have an amazing cohort of Indian American women who are shaping and leading our political and policy landscape. These women are power brokers, influencers and thought leaders, and we are very proud of them.”
Among the leaders is Seema Nanda, CEO of the Democratic National Committee (DNC), the first Indian-American to hold such a pivotal position.
“I’m incredibly excited about the breadth, the diversity of the candidates” who are running for office in the 2018 midterm elections, she told the Impact Project audience. “We are seeing a historic number of Indian-Americans running for office.”
Nanda, a long-time civil rights attorney and advocate, noted that Republicans in Congress are about 80 percent white men. “Democrats in Congress are just over 40 percent white men,” she said to loud cheers. “When you have that kind of diversity and that diversity is just going to increase, it changes the conversation and it changes policies,” she averred.
Nanda was excited about the surge in the Democratic primary turnout pointing out that over 4 million more Democrats voted as compared to the last time. But, her excitement was tempered by caution. “I don’t like to talk about a ‘blue wave’ because I don’t want anyone to get complacent,” she said.
The DNC head urged the gathering to support the “incredible crop of Indian-American candidates.” Among the many political hopefuls, she mentioned: Hiral Vyas Tipirneni, an Arizona-based physician running an admirable campaign in a predominantly conservative district; Sri Preston Kulkarni who is reaching out to the sizeable Asian American community in his Texas district; and Aftab Pureval, “a rockstar in a very tight race in Ohio.”
Timmaraju moderated the conversation on building and keeping political power with Nanda and Neera Tanden, President and CEO of the Center for American Progress.
Tanden, an alumni of the Clinton and Obama administrations, emphasized, “In policy-making, it is vital to have different voices at the table.” She affirmed that in all the interactions she has had on various issues such as health-care, education, the economy, her immigrant experience has been helpful in enriching the conversation.
Tanden was vocal in denouncing the anti-immigrant sentiment emanating from the White House. “From day one of the Trump presidency, we have seen groups against Muslims, LGBTs, immigrants,” she bemoaned.
Noting that there are some 35 days until the mid-term election, she urged the gathering to take action, encourage people to vote. “If you want to see the change, we have to be the change,” she said quoting Mahatma Gandhi on his birth anniversary.
Nisha Biswal, President of the US India Business Council (USIBC), and Vanita Gupta, President and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, participated in a conversation on ‘Public service: worth it or worthless?’ moderated by Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Teen Vogue.
A former Assistant Secretary of State for South and Central Asian Affairs at the State Department, appointed by President Obama, Biswal spoke of “building common ground,” and shared her story of finding a way to build bridges and reaching outside her comfort zone post the 2016 election.
“One of the things I wanted to do being passionate about the US-India relationship and wanting to continue building on that is work with and engage the business community, understand organization in the US Chamber of Commerce which tends to be right-of-center, find the commonalities that we have,” she said.
“In the US Chamber of Commerce and USIBC, there are a lot of things that divide us and on which we disagree. One of the things that the United States has consistently sought to agree on is the relationship with India. That has been bipartisan over several decades,” Biswal said.
Regarding trends shaping American politics, she was upbeat and hopeful. “There is the politics of division; there is also the politics of hope,” she reasoned. “The 2008 election was an enormously inspiring election built on hope. I don’t think that is too far beneath the surface despite the polarization that we see. There are opportunities to bring the country back together, bring us back on the path of building greater unity.”
Gupta enthused, “It is incredible to see the amount of South Asian activism and engagement in perilous times.”
Devoted to the cause of civil rights, she stressed on the need for “values of inclusion and justice” in the face of “some of the most challenging attacks.”
Referring to the 2016 election and the aftermath, she said, “We are not facing an attack on just one community. This is fundamentally an attack on who we are as a country.” It is important to fight back and not sit on the sidelines, she advised.
Gupta has spent considerable time in rooms full of policemen examining their practices and making a case for reform. Given her petite frame, Indian background, and the fact that she is a woman, her presence may be perceived as an oddity.
Women “are often in rooms where people expect us to appear in a certain way. I love the anomaly,” she said about her demeanor. “It takes people aback.”
Following the Impact Project event, Timmaraju said, “The energy and enthusiasm in the room was undeniable. These phenomenal women inspired all of us to dream big, blaze our own trails, and always fight for the values of our community. Looking around, it was clear to me that the future of our community is bright – and that future is female.”