Before Rep. Pramila Jayapal was elected to Congress in 2016, she was an organizer and activist. The Washington state congresswoman brought that spirit with her to Washington and has been arrested three times while participating in civil disobedience.
In an interview conducted before Rep. John Lewis’s death on Friday, Jayapal said that serving alongside the civil rights legend made that kind of political action feel “appropriate.” “I’ve had the honor to serve with John Lewis so I don’t feel like getting arrested—’good trouble’ as he calls it—is out of bounds for us as elected officials,” Jayapal said.
The congresswoman wrote about her history of activism, starting her Congressional career at the beginning of the Trump administration, and her personal experience with issues from immigration to LGBTQ rights in her new book, Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change.
As the title implies, Jayapal offers reflections and a path forward for other women of color seeking political office. “The first time I saw my name on the gold plate outside my office,” she writes, “tears came to my eyes. What a moment this was: the immigrant woman of color makes it to Congress! I felt the weight of the responsibility I had: to represent, to speak truth, to bring a different set of voices and tactics to this center of power, to navigate the halls of an insanely arcane body that looked nothing like the rest of the country, so that people would have better opportunities for a future of dignity and respect.”
Jayapal spoke to Fortune about the new book, being shaped by the fight against anti-Muslim discrimination after Sept. 11, 2001, and the path forward for other women of color in politics. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Fortune: What does the subtitle of this book—A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change—mean to you?
Rep. Pramila Jayapal: It meant to me that there are specific barriers and things we have to deal with as women of color that just aren’t talked about enough. I wanted the book to address so many of the questions I get asked about the barriers to getting to Congress, but also how you cope with things when they come up.
There are barriers to running for office, from the Democratic Party machine that determines who the best candidates are to the fact that there wasn’t a tremendous amount of outreach to folks of color or women of color. Of course, fundraising is a big challenge. Once you get to Congress, because of the nature of the institution—and the institutionalized racism and sexism that is built in—that is the environment in which you’re operating.
The book chronicles your journey from outside activist to working on the inside of state and federal government. Now that you’re in your second term, how do you feel about that transition?
Well, I’m glad I’m here. I’m glad I did it. I still believe this is an incredible organizing platform. I feel that my theory of change—needing more organizers on the inside to be able to drive change—is absolutely right.
You write about being “an unusual elected official, in that I have been arrested three times for leading and participating in civil disobedience.” How have you reflected on those experiences during recent nationwide protests?
I’ve had the honor to serve with John Lewis so I don’t feel like getting arrested—“good trouble” as he calls it—is out of bounds for us as elected officials [Editor’s Note: This interview was conducted before Rep. John Lewis died on Friday]. I know some people don’t feel comfortable with it, but I feel it’s very appropriate.
As I look at these uprisings across the country, what occurs to me is they’re creating so much space for us to take a much bolder position than ever would have happened without those protests. If you look at the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act we passed through the House, the remarkable way in which we were able to move that very quickly—that would not have happened without those protests. I think it is critically important we keep the street heat on and we continue pushing the boundaries of what is seen as possible. If politics is the art of the possible, then it’s our job as activists and organizers, regardless of where we sit, to push the boundaries of what is seen as possible. Because the possible is not static.
What is the role of the South Asian community in anti-racism and anti-Black racism work?
It’s been so important to lift up the anti-Blackness that exists within our other communities of color. That’s something I’ve tried to do for years in the South Asian community. It stops us from going to a hierarchy of oppressions and helps us to underline the deep historical significance of anti-Blackness and why it is so different from what immigrants might face coming from other places or what any of us in different circumstances might face. That’s been a really beautiful thing to watch. To see many of our brown communities and our Black immigrant communities take on the differences in our experiences and the historical legacy of anti-Blackness and racism and white supremacy as it affects African-Americans.
You write about your grandmother and about attitudes toward women in Kerala, India, where your family is from. What lessons did both she and your family’s background teach you that you’ve used in your political career?
There was this really clear sense that women were powerful. Women had the power of the purse. Property was passed down matrilineally. That was a very deep thread through my consciousness from when I was a very young child. My grandmother would tell me stories about how you just married to be able to have a child—so if you got tired of your husband, you would put his shoes outside the door and he would come home and know it was time for him to clear out his things. There were funny stories like that that were part of giving me a real sense that I could control my destiny, which I think is not always true for many women in many societies.
There was also a legacy of achievement. My mom and every one of her sisters and brothers were highly educated. That gave me a sense that I can achieve things and I can work to bring my own beliefs and values to a profession and be able to succeed at it.
What did you learn about how to make change in favor of racial justice while working on related issues in the Washington state Senate?
I learned that it’s really hard. Race is not something that’s easily taken on, whether you’re a Republican or Democrat. It’s even harder across the aisle, but frankly, we’ve got work to do in our own party. I also learned that just because something’s hard, you can’t stop fighting for it. When I first got to the state Senate, one of the first bills I wanted to write was to end the transfer of military equipment to local police departments. I was told by many people in my own caucus that that was crazy. Now we’ve passed that through the House. I’ve learned that it’s important to stick to your values, to fight for what you believe in, to know it might take some time, to be open to when you have an opportunity to bring in people that may not have been there before. You always try to call people in as well as call people out.
In what ways does the Democratic Party have work to do?
We’ve come a long way. But Democrats have presided over some bills that have criminalized immigrants, including the war on drugs and Bill Clinton’s welfare reform bill. That is where a lot of the criminalization of Black people, of poor people, of immigrants really started to come into play. We’re still living with that legacy. We took too long to recognize that for-profit prisons should not be around—that the whole incarceration system is fundamentally racist. We are moving, we have moved, and we are 8,000 times better than most of the people on the other side, no question about that especially in this Trump environment, but we have to look at how things like austerity politics and austerity spending, trying to focus on budget deficits at a time when there’s so much devastation—that that is actually advancing institutionalized racism as well.
You write about how your “activism was shaped in the crucible of Sept. 11, 2001.” What has that meant during the Trump Administration?
It prepared me in an odd sort of way. Because I had gone through that after Sept. 11—so much of what we fought against was this anti-Muslim sentiment and many of these other similar things we’re seeing now again under the Trump Administration—it prepared me. It gave me the relationships. It taught me about how to respond rapidly to an administration that you’re fighting. After Sept. 11, taking on the Bush Administration around Somali deportations around special registration—it felt familiar in a terrible sort of way to then come into the Muslim ban and so many other things this President has been doing.
How did your experience as you describe in the book—navigating immigration restrictions including while dealing with the difficult birth of your child—inform your views of immigration policy, especially over the past few years?
It had always been a central part about how I think about why I’m here and how I have to pay it forward. It’s not sufficient for me to say, thank goodness I got my citizenship, now I don’t have to worry about anyone else. It’s more like, I’ve been fortunate, I’ve been one of the lucky ones and I have to work to make sure other immigrants have these opportunities. I saw myself the stress, the fear, the anxiety, the isolation that policy can cause to human beings. That has been threaded to everything I do in recognizing how much human harm there is when you pass a policy or make a statement that is so exclusionary to a whole group of people. In my mind, immigration has never actually been about immigration policy. It has always been about who we are as a country and what we’re willing to stand up for.
In a 2019 speech on the House floor during debate over the Equality Act, you spoke about your child, Janak, coming out as nonbinary. What has being the parent of a nonbinary child taught you?
There’s no profession that has taught me more about everything than parenting. It really is a phenomenal opportunity, responsibility, and often a huge challenge. From being the mother of a preemie baby that had a lot of health issues to whatever the regular challenges are as kids go through their different phases. Being able to share with Janak their full identity and their coming out and being able to fully support them and to see from a mother’s perspective what it meant to Janak to be able to fully express themselves was so unbelievably beautiful. I’ve always been a supporter of LGBTQ rights, but you see from a very different perspective the detail of what a child worries about when they have to wonder which bathroom they go to or they’re afraid to go into a store and try on a dress because they’re afraid of what people are going to say. It just gives you a depth of knowledge. The conversations that have followed from that have been so beautiful and educational. I think Janak has taught me about the intentionality of language and the distinctions of how we think about gender and sexuality and of identity more broadly.
What made me so furious is the way [Republicans] were talking about transgender and nonbinary people during the Equality Act. I was not planning to say anything about Janak. But it felt like I could speak now from the very personal perspective of being the mom of a nonbinary kid about how offensive this was and how important it was to recognize the crucial nature of identity. I would have spoken out on it anyway, but I’m not sure it would have been as powerful. I spoke from the heart. Merriam-Webster added they/them to the dictionary and they cited my testimony as one of three instances that led to a giant search for those pronouns in the dictionary.
There are a record number of women running for Congress in 2020, even more than in 2018. What’s your advice for them?
Think about what you want to do, not who you want to beat. Stay focused on the goal of having power of elected office. Bring that into everything you do in the campaign. And I also tell people; work really hard. We as people of color and women of color, we always have to work harder. Sometimes people say to me, it’s so frustrating, we have to work so much harder. I admit I’ve felt that too, but the other way to look at that is: think about how much better the world would be if everyone worked as hard as we do. We’d have much better policy, much better results, if people took their work as seriously as we do. The last thing is to really be yourself. Stick to your values, don’t allow somebody to make you sound like a robot because you’re supposed to be dispassionate. Bring all of yourself to what you do. All of your identity, all of the things that are part of who you are, don’t shy away from them. Bring them in. People want to know who you are.
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