By Elizabeth Alvarado
Amid the lime green walls and folding tables of her campaign office, Senator Pramila Jayapal is taking a much needed break from her busy schedule that comes along with running for Congress. But then again, Jayapal is no stranger to tackling big projects.
Jayapal (D-Seattle) is campaigning to take the House of Representatives seat that Jim McDermott, who has announced his retirement, has held since 1989.
She’s campaigning in Washington’s 7th Congressional District which covers most of Seattle, all of Vashon Island, Edmonds, Shoreline, Kenmore, parts of Burien, and Normandy Park. Should she win the candidacy, she would become the first-ever South Asian American woman to be elected to Congress.
“Oh, the interview was moved up?” asks Jayapal as she sits in her downtown Seattle office about to eat her lunch of soup and salad.
“Yes, we had to reschedule,” says Danielle Fulfs, a staffer who also manages Jayapal’s schedule. This is a far cry from Jayapal’s childhood. But according to Jayapal, it’s her global history that has helped shape her current ambitions.
Born in India and raised in Indonesia and Singapore, Jayapal gained insight into the diversity of people around the world.
“I feel like I have a really international perspective on the world because I have lived all over the world and I have worked all over the world later in life,” says Jayapal.
When Jayapal was 16 years old, her parents took all the money they had, which was about $5,000, and sent her to the United States for college. She attended Georgetown University before going on to earn a master’s degree in business administration from Northwestern University.
“I think it’s given me an appreciation for the United States’ role in the rest of the world and foreign policy,” says Jayapal. “And all that is shaped by the experience of having grown up and lived elsewhere and then being an immigrant here. It’s also shaped a lot of my views on domestic policy as well.”
Jayapal is currently serving her first term in the Washington State Senate while also campaigning for Congress. Among her most significant endorsers are the National Women’s Political Caucus, United Food and Workers International Union and Democracy For America.
For someone who’s had a successful career as a Seattle-based civil rights activist for the past 20 years, it’s surprising to learn that political work was never something Jayapal planned to get involved in.
“I never was going to get involved in politics, but then when 9/11 happened I started the organization called OneAmerica, it used to be called Hate Free Zone, and it was really about standing up for civil rights and civil liberties that were really being targeted in the post 9/11 backlash,” says Jayapal, who views OneAmerica as one of her greatest achievements.
Since its start in 2001, OneAmerica has gone on to become one of the largest immigrant advocacy organizations in Washington state. In 2013, Jayapal was recognized as a White House “Champion of Change” for her work with OneAmerica.
Through her work, Jayapal noticed that minorities and civil rights champions were often underrepresented in political office.
“And then running for office happened in 2014 because I just realized that there aren’t enough of us in politics, in the government,” says Jayapal. “There are not enough people who represent the diversity of our communities. There are not enough people who just represent regular working folks so I decided it was time for me to run.”
Jayapal lists racial justice, immigration reform, immigrants rates policies, the Dream Act, driver licenses for everyone, Washington voting rights act, police accountability, gender freedom, women’s rights and LGBTQ rights as issues she’s passionate about.
“Everything is making sure that people get to live a dignified life, that’s really what it comes down to,” says Jayapal.
When it comes to the LGBTQ community, Jayapal explains that civil rights are still a huge issue, especially when it comes to discrimination and bullying, which hinders the ability of many to live life fully as they are.
“I helped really fight back against the awful transgender bathroom bill in the state senate. I fought for gay marriage. And I think those are all about this idea that you get to love who you want to love,” says Jayapal. “You get to be the gender identity that you are. You get to fully express yourself as you are. And we shouldn’t discriminate against people based on those factors.”
It’s these issues along with Jayapal’s passion that made Fulfs want to get involved in her campaign.
“Working on Pramila’s campaign is really exciting. Things are constantly moving a mile a minute, but it has been great,” says Fulfs. “I got involved because I was really inspired by what she is trying to accomplish. She isn’t trying to simply get elected. She is trying to build a movement. I knew that she was looking for folks for the campaign, so I jumped on board. It was a great opportunity that I couldn’t pass up.”
Jayapal believes that her upbringing and career have helped prepare her to run for Congress.
“I’ve never been somebody who’s been afraid to stick out and stand up against things that I think are wrong long before other people do, so that’s what I want to do in Congress. But I also want to use this as an organizing platform to bring more young women, people of color who have never really seen themselves reflected in the political system and want to be,” says Jayapal, adding that young women interested in making difference should learn to believe in themselves.
“Just trust yourself. It’s such a big thing because there are so many conflicting things out there that make you think you should be something you’re not and really, most of that wisdom is inside. Don’t ever think you need to know a-z for the plan of your future. You don’t have to have it all figured out.”
In 10 years, win or lose, Jayapal is committed to serving people as she has done in the past.
“I want to continue serving the movement for justice,” she says. “Whatever that looks like.”
Elizabeth Alvarado is a junior at the University of Washington majoring in journalism. Her work has been featured in The Seattle Globalist, The UW Daily, College Magazine, Fanciful Magazine and Drama in the Hood.