I never thought I’d run for office. Before running for the Washington State Senate in 2014, I had spent 20 years as an activist. I had always believed that we needed to push for change on the outside, through community organizing and advocacy. Along with my activist friends, we collectively demanded change, including from elected officials, while at the same time turning up our very pure noses at what we perceived to be a far too unrepresentative government. We often felt taken for granted, including by a Democratic Party that seemed nervous to talk about race for fear of alienating white voters, and too often took cautious votes designed not to upset anyone including big funders. Even though I engaged with the system of government every day, I had deep doubts about its effectiveness in serving the people I cared about the most.
So why did I run?
I questioned my theory of change. If elected officials determined so much that affects our lives, I asked, why were we organizers ceding this important political space? I decided we needed to work on the inside and think of elected office as a new platform for building a base of supporters, permanent organizing and progressive policy development. We don’t get a more representative government unless we run ourselves. We don’t get a more responsive government unless we start to systematically run organizing campaigns to change the way government works. We don’t get to understand what we are really dealing with or how to change it unless we know exactly how it works now.
Now that I’ve almost finished serving my first year in elected office, I know that every reason that I ran is more than true. I love my district, the 37th Legislative District in Washington State, where I have lived for more than 20 years. It is one of the most economically and racially diverse districts in the state, where over 100 languages are spoken; where African Americans were allowed to live when other parts of the city redlined them out; where poverty and wealth, entrepreneurship and struggle, openness and difference weave together in a giant tapestry. I’m able to work on a broad range of issues that affect people’s lives, while at the same time building trust back with discouraged people who feel like maybe they can start to trust government again.
I can also use this platform to center issues that don’t get enough attention—like race and racial justice.
I’m conscious of my race and ethnicity in the legislature—it’s hard not to be. 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. My background as an immigrant and as an activist means I enter the space with the perspective that race touches every single issue. There are, sadly, not nearly enough elected officials at any level of American government who are willing to acknowledge and respond to this simple fact.
I will never forget a meeting that happened a month after I was elected. Wanting to develop and move forward a racial justice legislative agenda in the wake of the deaths of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and so many others, I called a meeting of some leading black pastors and black activists in our state to ask for help in putting together a legislative agenda that would begin to address these critical issues of race and racial justice, specifically from the African-American community. At the end of the meeting, one of the participants remarked on how rare it was that an elected official would call such a meeting at the beginning of a term. “Usually, it’s only when people are out of office or at the end of their term that they are willing to talk about race,” he said.