Pramila Jayapal is on a mission to become the first Indian woman elected to U.S. Congress, first woman to represent 7th District

By Lindsay Peyton, West Seattle Herald

Pramila Jayapal is not the type to rest on her laurels – even though she certainly could.

“I am someone who has to be constantly challenged,” she admitted. “I’m absolutely not daunted when someone says something is not possible.”

Looking back on her career, she can rattle off a long list of accomplishments – from stopping the Bush administration’s illegal deportations with a lawsuit to founding Washington’s largest immigration advocacy group.

As state senator, a Democrat representing the 37th legislative district, she has made progress on a number of fronts, expanding access to contraceptives for women on Medicaid, passing laws to enforce rape kit testing and introducing bills for free community college.

And before any of that, she made her way as a young immigrant, alone in the U.S., to attend college. She rose through the ranks in various positions, working in finances in Wall Street and sales in middle America, before pursuing her passion for broader, national and international issues.

But Jayapal is not looking back. She has her sights set firmly on her next hurdle – running in the race for U.S. Congress and hoping to be the first woman elected to represent the 7th District.

“I’m humbly asking people in West Seattle to vote for me,” she said. “West Seattle is a really important place for me. I want the people there to be involved – and tell me what their issues are.”

Jayapal made an appearance at the 34th District Democrats regular meeting on Wednesday, Aug. 10 – and is willing to meet constituents at neighborhood gatherings. She kicked off her tour of neighborhood meet-ups at Youngstown.

Jayapal plans to make a number of appearances and lead volunteers in effort to spread her campaign message before the general election on Tuesday, Nov. 8.

Her network of supporters includes 17-year old Elena Siamas, a senior at West Seattle High School, who is enrolled in the running start program.

Siamas serves as a field intern – and has been knocking on doors, making phone calls and putting up yard signs in the area.

She first heard Jayapal speak at a Bernie Sanders rally.

“I was very moved by her passion,” Siamas said. “There’s just something about her charisma. She’s an once-in-a-lifetime candidate. She’s intelligent, and she really knows what she’s doing.”

Siamas sees Jayapal as a role model. “I love Pramila,” she said. “I’m very inspired by her.”

Jayapal came to the U.S. from India at 16 years old. Her parents used their entire savings to send her overseas.

“They really believed this was the place where I would have the most opportunity,” she said. “It was a huge sacrifice for them – and it was a huge opportunity for me. I feel like I have to take the opportunity I had and translate it to others.”

Jayapal’s parents pushed her toward a major in business, law or medicine – but she decided on another path. She earned her bachelor’s degree in English literature from Georgetown University and then her master’s of business administration from Northwestern University.

From there, she headed to Wall Street and began working in investment banking. “There were no people of color there at the time – and very few women,” she said.

Still, she said the experience was amazing and taught her a lot. “I can look at a spreadsheet and figure it out in only a few minutes – and tell you what’s wrong with it,” she said.

Jayapal then met Mary Houghton, co-founder of ShoreBank, who become her mentor. Houghton taught her that business skills can be used to do social good.

“That was my introduction to what I loved,” Jayapal said.

She went to Laos, Cambodia and Thailand to work in international economic development.

Then, in another career twist, Jayapal took a position in medical sales – covering territory in Ohio and Indiana. “I stayed long enough to beat all the sales records,” she said. “It was the first time that I was not living in a big city. I learned how to talk to people with very different political views.”

Jayapal moved to Seattle in 1990 and took a job at the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health – providing loans, grants and technical assistance to health programs around the world.

“Ours were the projects no one else would lend to,” she said. “They just needed someone to have faith in them – and they were successful.”

Jayapal then traveled back to India and wrote a memoir about the experience, “Pilgrimage: One Woman’s Return to a Changing India.”

She was still in India in 1997 when her son Janak Preston was born prematurely. She decided to return to the U.S.

As a single mother, she still kept up her advocacy efforts. After 9-11, she learned about violent attacks against Muslims. What started as a one-woman effort grew into a major nonprofit, OneAmerica.

“It just kept growing and growing,” Jayapal said.

Eventually, her efforts led her to politics. She believed she could make more of an impact as part of the political system.

“Why don’t I just go do it?” she asked her self. “I could try to represent and use elected office in a very different way.”

Her mission is to serve as a liaison between constituents and government – to serve as an organizer.

“We need mass movements to move policy forward,” she said. “We can’t get what we want to happen unless we build public pressure. This is our government – and we need to take it back.”

Jayapal is committed to supporting women’s rights, promoting diversity and fighting income inequality, homelessness and college debt. She also plans to work to create jobs, make health care more accessible, protect the environment, protect LGBQT rights and promote campaign finance reform.

“I see everything as connected,” she said. “I’m not a mom on Monday, an immigrant on Tuesday, a worker on Wednesday. I’m all of those things, all of the time. It’s all important to me.”

Jayapal now lives in Columbia City with her husband Steve Williamson.

“I don’t mind dreaming big – and yet know how to be practical to get there,” she said. “You put out a big vision, and then you work for it. You never let go of the dream.”