When Women Disobey activists sat in at the Senate Hart Office Building in the summer of 2018, Pramila Japayal was asked to address the protest against the Trump administration’s brutal approach to border and immigration issues. Instead of delivering her remarks and exiting, the Democratic congresswoman from Seattle said, “I decided that I, too, would sit down with them and submit to arrest.” So Jayapal settled in. “We chanted and sang and talked about the need to reunite these families and to end the president’s zero-tolerance policy,” she recalled. Then she was taken into custody, along with more than 575 others. When the news broke, the congresswoman announced that she was “proud to have been arrested” for challenging “inhumane and cruel” policies.
No one in Seattle was surprised that Jayapal was willing not just to talk the talk but to walk the walk. She has for decades been one of the most outspoken and engaged advocates for women, people of color, and immigrants in Washington state and nationwide. After the September 11, 2001, attacks, she formed the organization Hate Free Zone to push back against the targeting of immigrants. The group sued the Bush administration to prevent the deportation of over 4,000 Somali immigrants. It launched education and voter registration campaigns and, eventually, under the name OneAmerica, was recognized as a model for the type of advocacy organization that was needed to take up the range of economic and social justice issues that needed to be a part of the broader struggle for immigrant rights.
Jayapal turned to electoral politics only recently, winning a seat in the Washington State Senate in 2014 and then winning an open US House seat in 2016. And she has maintained her ties to her own immigrant roots—as an Indian-born student who arrived in the United States on her own at age 16—and her activist organizing. She’s already the co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and a chief sponsor of Medicare for All legislation. We talked about her work in Congress for this week’s Next Left, but we focused much of our attention on the remarkable personal story that underpins Pramila Jayapal’s congressional service.
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Congressional Progressive Caucus Co-Chairs Call for an Impeachment Inquiry, The Nation, John Nichols
How Pramila Jayapal’s Inside-Outside Strategy Is Changing the Future of Progressive Politics, The Nation, Joan Walsh
Pramila Jayapal Wants Democrats to Know That Resistance Is Not Enough, The Nation, Joan Walsh
Rep. Pramila Jayapal arrested at D.C. protest of Trump’s ‘zero tolerance border policy’, The Seattle Times, Jim Brunner
How Glad I Am, Melanie Charles
La Princesa, Mima
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John Nichols: Welcome to Next Left, this is John Nichols of The Nation magazine. I met Pramila Jayapal a number of years ago, and I was blown away. She wasn’t in Congress, she wasn’t even running for Congress at the time, but it was clear that she belonged in Washington. She had a background as an immigrant, an activist, a state elected official, that had prepared her to do what needed to be done in Congress, to break many of the old patterns, and to try to bring a new politics to Washington. So it was no surprise that when she was elected in 2016, she really did change things quickly. Within three years, she has emerged as the co-chair of the Progressive Caucus, a lead sponsor on Medicare for All legislation, and the embodiment of congressional opposition to Donald Trump. Few members have risen so fast and accomplished so much so quickly, and there’s still a lot more that she wants to do. Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, thanks so much for joining us on Next Left.
Pramila Jayapal: It’s so great to be with you, John.
JN: I wanted to begin with something that happened in early June: You took the house gavel as the first South Asian American woman ever to lead the chamber. Why was that such a momentous moment for you?
PJ: Well, honestly, the reason it was so momentous was because of the issue that I was presiding over. It was part of the rules debate for the Dream and Promise Act, and as you know, I’ve worked on immigration issues as an activist for so long. I worked really hard on crafting the final piece of legislation through some very difficult times. And then on top of that, to sort of be able to go up and be the first South Asian American woman to preside over the House on that issue just felt like the whole reason for coming to Congress had become so clear. And for people around the country as we posted that little video of my walking up and taking the gavel, you really got a sense all over again about how important representation is, not just because of what it means for the futures that people imagine for themselves—like, “I can do this because I see somebody who looks like me there”—but also for the voices that it brings into the chamber, and I think that came through with the legislation.
JN: You are an individual who comes from a background that’s distinct from a lot of the other members of Congress. First and foremost, you were born in India.
PJ: Yes, that’s right. I was, and I think I’m one of only 14 out of 535 members of Congress who are immigrants ourselves, born outside of the country and then naturalized, new Americans, we say, and that’s a real honor.
JN: Tell me about growing up in India, was your family political?
PJ: Not at all. My family was really not political at all. Other people in my family have been. My great aunt on my mother’s side was actually the first woman gynecologist in India. She was very well known. She went into villages to really promote reproductive choice for women, and she wrote the OB/GYN textbook that’s still used in medical schools today. My uncle on my father’s side was, I think, the number-two person in the Labor Department in Kerala. Kerala was a communist-controlled state. [They had] very, very progressive labor laws there. But my parents themselves were not political at all, they really were just about trying to make a better life, trying to make sure that we had good values, but they weren’t political.
JN: Kerala is a unique region of India. As you say it has radical traditions, and it’s also been a place where the circumstance of women has been a front-and-center political issue. Did that influence you as a child?
PJ: Yes, very much so. It’s a matrilineal society, so that means that name, property, everything, goes through the mother’s line. That orientation was very clear in the policy approach before even the socialist party, when the Maharajas were there. Very progressive, and those ideas went through into the health system. Kerala has one of the best public health care systems in the world. Actually, it was a model when I was working in public health for its outcomes. It also has extremely high female literacy rates up to 92, 93 percent, which was sort of unheard of for women. And I think that there was a real emphasis on believing that women were extremely strong and my grandmother would tell me stories about the strength of women, and my grandfather was very, very committed to making sure that his three daughters all got an excellent education. So that was always very, very important for us growing up and I think I had the sense that we had a lot to offer and we should follow our dreams.
JN: You started following your dream at a young age. Am I right that you came to the US at 16 to go to university?
PJ: I did. I did. My parents had about $5,000 in their bank account. But then my father went through some very tough times in his employment. At the time that I was graduating from high school, he had about $5,000 in his bank account and he really believed in education and for whatever reason he believed in the American education system. Most of his colleagues and friends were sending their kids to the UK, if they could afford to send them anywhere, but my dad was taken with the idea that in America anybody could be anything, that American Dream story that has gone so far abroad even though today in the United States it seems lost for so many people.…
He and my mom decided they were going to take all those savings and they were going to send me to the United States. I was 16 years old. I came by myself, and I went to Georgetown University. I think I was so aware of the financial strain on my family in doing what they had done, that I don’t think I ever allowed myself to really think about how difficult it was, or what failing looked like. I felt a tremendous amount of pressure to sort of be successful and deliver for my parents.
But I do remember all of the things that were so new, I had never seen snow. I didn’t know how to dress. My feet would break out in rashes because I had to wear socks and I never used to have to wear socks. I didn’t know a lot of the phrases, and to this day, even after all this time in the United States, I still get tripped up by some of the old idioms and phrases that people use. and I couldn’t go home, because we didn’t have any money to go home during the year. We didn’t have enough money for phone calls either, and there was no Skype at the time, so it was all about aerograms. Every Sunday, I would sit down and write an aerogram to my mom and my dad about life in the United States. My mom still has those, actually.
JN: You went through Georgetown and then Northwestern, and then you went into finance, into banking, is that correct?
PJ: Well, after college what happened is, I was supposed to be an economics major because if your parents take all their money and they send you to the United States, you’re supposed to be a doctor, a lawyer, or a CEO. That was my dad’s parting words to me, “Doctor, lawyer, CEO, that’s what you have to shoot for.” Well, I didn’t really like economics that much. I was good at it, I did well in it, but I loved writing and words. And so my sophomore year of college, I used the one phone call I was allowed to have every year back home to call my dad from the dorm phone and tell him that I was going to be an English literature major instead of an economics major. I had to hold the phone away from my ear as he screamed at me and said, “I didn’t send you to the United States to learn how to speak English. You already know how to speak English.”
I promised him, sort of as the mea culpa, that I would get the same job with an English degree that I would have gotten with an economics degree. I interviewed with investment banks which were really big at the time, this was 1986, and I got several offers from top investment banks, and I decided to go to Paine Webber and work in leveraged buy-outs on Wall Street. I was 20 years old, John, and I learned a tremendous amount about numbers, about finance. I’m very, very proficient in those areas which has been helpful to me on a whole lot of levels I don’t think people expect me to be. But I also learned I really didn’t like it and I did not want to do that. And so I didn’t know what to do, I went on to get my master’s in business at Northwestern University, and it was while I was there that I started to realize, “Wait a second, I can take the business skills that I’m learning and the passions about what I really care about in the world, and I can put them towards good use.” And I met Mary Houghton, who ran ShoreBank, was an early founder of ShoreBank, doing economic development in distressed neighborhoods in South Chicago.
JN: One of the most famous projects in the United States on really trying to do an ethical banking.
PJ: Correct. And early, that was when it was very early in its nascent stage, not many people were really thinking about how do you revive distressed communities? What does it mean to go into a community? What is the finance that’s necessary? How are people getting screwed in their home prices and their everything? What’s available to them? She was fantastic and she was a great mentor of mine and we ended up setting up an economic development concentration at Kellogg [School of Management at Northwestern University], and that was what then led me to do a summer internship, when all my friends were going to work in consulting banks and consulting firms and back to investment banks, I went to Thailand and worked along the borders of Laos and Cambodia doing rural economic development, and that sort of set me on the path that I really wanted to be on.
JN: Then you ended up in Seattle.
PJ: I did because I had another foray after I graduated, still like the voice of my father over my shoulder saying, “What about business? What about business?” And I thought that maybe if I went to work for a company that was doing work on products that really mattered, that maybe that would make a difference. I got offered this great job at a Seattle-based company that had just been voted or ranked as one of the top companies in the country to work for, and it was a heart defibrillator company. They were recruiting MBAs to be in upper management, and to do that, they had this really unique program where you had to go spend a year in sales, and so they put me in Cincinnati, Ohio. I moved to Seattle because I love Seattle, but I ended up getting transferred to Cincinnati, Ohio, where I was the first person of color and the first woman to ever be in that district, and high stakes!
The medical equipment business is actually very lucrative for sales reps, tough to get in. They were not happy to see me there, and I did it for a year, just long enough to show them that I could beat all of them in their sales records and drive my little Ford Aerostar van across eastern Indiana and western Ohio with my defibrillators in the back, and go to fire departments in eastern Indiana where they’d never seen a person of color before and would say, “Where are you from?” And I’d say, “India,” and they’d say, “Where in Indiana?” And I’d say, “No, no, no,” but it was a great experience, and I really learned a lot that I was able to apply to my advocacy work later about how you build bridges with people who are pretty different and what does it look like in rural communities? Even though we weren’t necessarily talking politics, it was an experience that really taught me about the humanity of everybody, the sameness of what we really want for ourselves in our lives, and how that is true regardless of the tremendous other differences that might exist in where we were born or where we came from or what we look like.
After that medical equipment piece, I started working in the nonprofit world. I was doing international development and working with women in villages in India and Africa on public health issues and economic development issues, it was really wonderful. It was about eight years. And as part of that, I went on a fellowship to live in India for two years in villages, came back with a child who had been born extremely prematurely, almost died. And 9/11 happened soon after that. And I ended up starting an organization, what ended up being an organization because we were organizing against the discrimination that initially Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, were facing in the wake of 9/11 being called terrorists. Muslims being detained in the middle of the night, deported. I started working on some of those outrages, turned into an organization, which continued to grow and which I led for 11 years, that became the largest immigrant advocacy organization in Washington state, one of the largest in the country.
JN: At that point there was not just the discrimination but also a tremendous amount of ignorance about immigrant communities, and the group that you started as Hate-Free Zone…
PJ: That’s right.
JN: You really sought to bring together people from a lot of different communities. It did a lot of education in Seattle and I think in many ways helped Seattle to become an outpost for perhaps a better understanding.
PJ: Initially it was around Arabs, Muslims, and South Asians, but then we heard about the Latino community and we heard about the API [Asian Pacific Islander] community, and all of the challenges, and it became clear to me that taking on government policy… And at that time, very few electeds wanted to stand with us and say, “We should have due process,” because it was all in the frame of terrorism and national security, and there was this idea that you were being unpatriotic if you questioned the government around these policies that were violating civil rights and civil liberties for all of these communities. And if we were going to take on a battle like that, it had to be a big coalition.
So we did some of the earliest organizing, both in ethnic communities that had never organized before. There were no Somali organizations at the time in the United States. We were also able to bring in labor. In 2003, I led the immigrant workers freedom ride coalition from Seattle, with the head of the King County Labor Council, who I’m very happy to say is my husband now, but that was not the case at the time, but a really important moment for immigrant rights and the labor community coming out after being sort of anti-immigrant and closed until 2000. That was the beginning of labor really showing open support for immigration reform. We were able to tie a lot of these things together and build that larger coalition and build the base that I think has made Seattle so progressive on a whole set of issues, including immigrant rights. We passed the first-ever, one of the first sanctuary city ordinances, as they’re called now. We called it a “Don’t Ask” ordinance back then. In the Seattle CityCouncil we established an Office of Immigrant and Refugee [Affairs], but we also started building the base for paid family leave, for $15 minimum wage, and for so much else that we ended up doing.
JN: It was almost natural at some point because you were on boards, you were on commissions, you were helping to organize on the $15 wage and doing all these things that you would think about getting into politics. Was it in 2014 that you made your first race?
PJ: It was. I wasn’t on that many boards and commissions because I was considered sort of a radical person. We had done so much organizing and so much pushing of elected officials that I wasn’t necessarily the first person that they’d turned to.
JN: You were a troublemaker.
PJ: I was, a bit. “Good trouble,” as [Congressman] John Lewis likes to say. But I was appointed to the $15 board and we did a huge organizing effort with the governor in 2008, around “new Americans,” so I was on that New Americans Policy council. But I generally was fairly skeptical of people in office, but I had this brainwave one day, watching the people who were running for a couple of particular races, that I was thinking about it the wrong way perhaps, and then instead of thinking about it as elected office, separate from organizing, we should really be thinking about elected office as just another platform for organizing. And that if we could get organizers into elected office, that we would start to change what was expected and delivered from government, and that by not doing that, we were actually ceding this incredible organizing opportunity. It was a whole theory of change that I had. I had no idea if it was possible or how to go about it, but I decided I would just run for the state Senate and try. That was a test and I saw, “Yeah, this is possible.” But I knew that really for me and the issues I was working on, Congress was perhaps a really great place to do that.
JN: You moved quickly, because you were elected to the state Senate in 2014, and then after doing a lot in the Senate and becoming a very high-profile member, suddenly the veteran congressman from Seattle, Jim McDermott, decided to step down and that created an open seat, and your campaign in 2016, really I think in many ways anticipated some of what we saw in 2018, where people who were coming from activist organizer backgrounds, sometimes elbow their way into a position where they could run, they weren’t always welcomed. But it was this notion of an urgent new politics, and I really see your 2016 race as sort of, a groundbreaking campaign in many senses.
PJ: Thank you. I feel like in some ways because Trump won, we never got to celebrate some of it. But the tactics and the strategy were just as important to me as what the outcome was. And so just saying we’re not going to run a traditional kind of campaign, we’re not taking corporate PAC money, we’re going to run a doors campaign, a field campaign. I also, before I ran for Congress, I had endorsed Bernie Sanders. I was the first state elected official to endorse Bernie. I endorsed Bernie because I was running on the same issues he was running on, and I saw his consistency and I was excited by his boldness. And people told me I was crazy. I was not running for an office, higher office, at the time but I thought it was a really important moment and campaign and I wanted to be right there fighting for those things. It ended up being a great decision when I decided to run for Congress, because he made me and Zephyr Teachout from New York and Lucy Flores from Arizona the first three candidates that he endorsed for Congress, and I think that was also very, very helpful to the campaign. He was incredibly helpful to my campaign.
JN: I would argue that you were helpful to his campaign because, well, obviously you made an eventual endorsement. But, also, at a critical stage when the Sanders campaign was coming under pressure to open up more, to talk more about issues of race and gender, you wrote some very important commentaries, which I think were taken seriously by the campaign as Sanders and others tried to expand their message.
PJ: Yes. I had not endorsed him. This was in August, August or September [of 2015], Sanders came out to do a rally with us. I was speaking at it as well around the Social Security and Medicare anniversary. But a few days before that rally, his team called me and said the senator was going to do a rally for his presidential campaign at [the University of Washington] that night, and would I introduce him or be one of the people that introduced him on stage? And I said I would think about that and I would probably love to do it, but I wanted them to know I had not endorsed him at that point. They were so taken aback and they said, “Why not?” And I said, “Because I really would like to see what his platform is on racial equity, on gender, and on guns.”
Three issues that I felt I needed more information before I was going to endorse him. They called me back the day before the rally and said, “The senator would like you to introduce him anyway. He understands that you haven’t endorsed him, and would you be willing to sit down with him for a one-on-one meeting to talk about your concerns?” I said, “Of course.” That was scheduled for after the rally, and I came off the stage and he was the next speaker. He gave me a big hug, he said something like, “You said everything I was going to say.” Got up on stage, the crowd was very excited to see him, a huge crowd, 5,000, 6,000 people I think, and he was interrupted by folks from the Black Lives Matter movement who took over the microphone and the stage and really challenged the whole notion of whether or not he had a racial equity platform, and shut it down. He actually did not get to speak. It was a difficult moment for everybody there.
But certainly up at the front, I could see what was happening, that this was a supposedly progressive community and everyone was being very divided and there was some very nasty stuff coming from a lot of the Caucasian folks who were there who felt like, why were black folks protesting a progressive white candidate, and that it was totally inappropriate to shut it down. It was nasty. And I wrote a piece, I couldn’t sleep that night, I wrote a piece that The Nation published, that was really trying to make a case for why this was a really important moment and why we had to talk about racial justice in the context of progressive politics and why Bernie Sanders had a very important role to play in that.
Before that, and after the rally, I met with Bernie and Jane, his wife, and we had a really fantastic conversation, though I will say that he was naturally, I think, extremely upset about what had happened and felt that he wasn’t being given the credit that he needed. Talked to me about the fact that he was putting together a racial equity platform and it was in the works and would I be helpful on that? And I said, “Of course I would,” and that I thought he brought a really incredibly unique voice to the table.
I did introduce him that night. I told him some things that I thought he really needed to emphasize. He took them in and he said them at the rally, and he said them believing them not just… I think he did kind of, that was a turning point moment, I don’t know if he would describe it that way, but I feel like it was, and he came out with his racial equity platform shortly after that. It took me several more months to endorse him. I think it took me maybe another two months of back and forth with him, with his campaign to endorse him, but when I did, I went in wholeheartedly and was very, very impressed with his trueness to wanting to address these issues, but perhaps not having the fluency and not having had to do it as the senator from a very, very white, small state in a very different part of the country.
JN: This is your organizer side, this is your activist side in politics, bringing it into electoral politics. As it turned out, Bernie Sanders did not become the Democratic nominee or the president, but you got elected to Congress, and you arrived, you were sworn in a couple of weeks before Donald Trump became president of the United States. One of the most striking things was that here you are settling into Congress, literally a new member, and then Trump does the Muslim ban, and you really threw yourself into that struggle.
PJ: Yes, I knew it very well. It wasn’t actually the first Muslim ban, that was back after 2001. I knew all the players. I knew exactly the minute I heard about it, I knew I had to take action and I needed to use my new role to do that. I headed straight to the airport, called up all my activist friends and said, “We need people out here. We have to protest this. We have to stop it.” Had to threaten to shut down the airport if they wouldn’t let me go talk to the CBP [Customs and Border Protection] people, and was able to stop—working with Northwest Immigrant Rights Project, attorneys, pro bono attorneys from different firms, the ACLU—were able to stop some families from being put on the plane and deported, but also able to generate enormous numbers of people holding welcoming signs and really calling out the values that we should be having in protesting this discriminatory ban.
JN: When you say threatened to close down the airport, there was a point where you were saying you needed to get through the, I guess, the TSA security or something. And they were saying, “No, you can’t.” And you said, “Well, I’m going to create an incident here.”
PJ: Yes. I told them that I was a member of Congress, all of two weeks or something at that point, but I said I was a member of Congress, I had a right to go and talk to the CBP officials, the CBP officials were not coming to talk to me, and that if they didn’t let me go through, then I would have to just go through. And they said, “Well, it will set off an alarm.” And I said, “Well, I really don’t want to do that. I think you either have to let me through or I’m going to set off the alarm.” They agreed to let us through, several of us, and we got Senator Murray on the phone and we challenged the CBP folks who were in charge there. As we were there, the lawyers had also been working on a temporary injunction, which came through right as we were there. That is how we were then able to stop the plane as it was on the runway, getting ready to take off from deporting some of the folks that were on the plane.
JN: Congresswoman Jayapal that’s a remarkable story of how a member of the House can be both an elected official and an activist. I’m interested, one of the things that you put a big emphasis on is cultural, and making sure we don’t just think about people from a policy or statistical standpoint, we also understand them by the movies they like, the books they read, the music they listen to. Tell me, what’s some of the music you’ve been listening to?
PJ: Oh, yeah. I love music and I have a lot of old favorites, Stevie Wonder and some amazing Earth, Wind & Fire, but I also have a 22-year-old who is a musician and has been really keeping me right in the thick of current music that really reflects social justice and also features folks of color, and so incredible artists like Melanie Charles, who does really remarkable jazz, Bad Bunny, a wonderful Puerto Rican artist named Mima. Some of these folks are just doing such amazing music and because of how music can get out there, you don’t have to be on a major label, and all of these folks are bringing voices from the ground and beautiful music at the same time. That’s my little quick playlist of what we were listening to as I drove my 22-year-old partway across the country, after they graduated from college.
JN: That is a great playlist, Congresswoman Jayapal, I want to thank you so much for joining us on Next Left.
PJ: Thank you, John, for all you do.