Power Lines

Pramila Jayapal Sees the Big Picture

The candidate for state senate charts a unifying course that goes far beyond narrow single issues.

By Josh Feit June 2, 2014 Published in the June 2014 issue of Seattle Met

Jayapal never planned to run the state's largest advocacy organization.

Image: Mike Kane

Everyone has his or her own morning-of-9/11 story. Pramila Jayapal’s seems familiar at first: awakened by a long-distance phone call from a friend on the East Coast, in this case a pal who was working in Boston after graduating from Bastyr; being told to go turn on her TV; and seeing the horrifying images. But Jayapal’s story diverges there. “I watched all these scenes, and I felt, ‘Everything is going to change for people that look like me.’” 

Jayapal, currently running for the state senate, was not an activist at the time, though she was on the board of a group called Chaya serving Asian and Pacific Islander survivors of domestic violence and had also been interviewing Muslim families in White Center for a project she was doing for her work at the Annie E. Casey Foundation. She began hearing stories about violence against Sikhs and Muslims, and says the final straw was when a middle school teacher and friend called her in tears to report that Muslim families were withdrawing their kids from school because they were getting harassed on the bus about their hijabs. It was the third family to withdraw this week, her friend, who was white, said. Jayapal, who’d only become a U.S. citizen herself one year earlier, remembers thinking, “This is not the country I signed up for.” 

One week after 9/11, Jayapal organized what turned out to be a resonant press conference at Seattle Center with U.S. representative Jim McDermott to call attention to the outbreak of jingoist racism. A friend who worked at Microsoft got her a meeting with McDermott. “I’d never spoken to an elected [official],” Jayapal remembers. “And the night before I met him, I was nervous. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to have something to say to this guy.’ ” 

At ten o’clock on the night before her scheduled Monday meeting, Jayapal drew up a memo of points to persuade McDermott. Across the top of the document, she wrote “Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington.” McDermott was sold. And at the press conference the next day, glomming on to Jayapal’s impromptu phrase, McDermott introduced her to the media as “Pramila Jayapal of Hate Free Zone Campaign of Washington.”

Jayapal nudged McDermott, “No, no, you don’t understand, congressman. There is no group.” McDermott just looked at her and said, “Well, I guess you’d better make it happen then.”  

Several weeks later, in early November 2001, Jayapal was walking from her house down the hill to Rainier Avenue and saw FBI agents raiding the Maka Mini-Mart, a Somali grocery. “I just couldn’t believe it.” She and a few friends began calling attention to the raids. “I just thought I was responding to what the community needed. It never occurred to me that it was going to become the largest immigrant advocacy organization in the state, and that I would run it. And the more I saw deportations, and detentions, we just started standing up and saying, ‘What happened to due process?’”

Stepping up on behalf of immigrants, though, quickly turned Jayapal’s work into a de facto social service agency referring people to lawyers and agencies. It was the first point of contact for immigrants, who were calling Hate Free Zone’s help line or streaming into its headquarters, a one-room office now home to a yoga studio on Rainier. “It was a bit of a triage center initially,” says comedian Hari Kondabolu, who worked at Hate Free Zone between 2005 and 2007. “When I got there, that was my job, to talk to people who called our number. Our phone number was a big number for social services. But around this time we started thinking about comprehensive immigration reform, and voter registration, and trying to get immigrant communities to organize and connecting different groups.” 

Jayapal always had a broader vision. She saw a larger canvas, one where Muslim victims of hate crimes, African American kids who were MIA in Seattle’s infamous education achievement gap, low-wage Latino workers, and low-income communities plagued by environmental hazards were all struggling within the same broken system. 

Jayapal understood the larger power of the work she was doing when her group won a lawsuit on behalf of four Somali men who’d been threatened with deportation; the verdict stayed the deportation of 4,000 people. “It wasn’t just a lawsuit. It was an opportunity to organize people to speak out about what was happening to them,” she says. “Having people understand that their individual injustice was part of a larger collective injustice, that is an organizing moment when somebody realizes that their story is just one.” 

In 2008, she changed the group’s name to OneAmerica. While Hate Free Zone was a “courageous” name that “stood up to power,” Jayapal says, it limited the group’s expanding mission. “When you’re in a zone, you’re static. You’re either in that zone or you’re out of it.” The new name captured the shift. “I wanted something that portrayed the breadth of our work. I’m an incredibly positive person,” Jayapal says. “I’m the eternal optimist. And to start every sentence with, ‘I’m Pramila Jayapal with Hate Free Zone’?” she pauses, and laughs. “Every sentence had, in those first few words, hate, and I’m not about hate. I’m about love.”

It took a unique journey—from immigrant to successful businesswoman to social justice advocate—for Jayapal to achieve such political vision.

Jayapal, 48, is from a middle-class Hindu family in India—her father worked as an engineer for an oil company— and moved to the U.S. by herself when she was 16. Her parents wanted her to get an American education and a lucrative job. Leaving her family behind, she went to college at top-notch Georgetown University in DC. There was only enough money to phone home once a year, and in her sophomore year she used the precious phone call to inform her dad she was changing majors, from economics to English. He flipped, but she promised him she’d land on her feet. 

She actually got a job right out of college on Wall Street for Paine Webber and shortly after that earned an MBA from Northwestern University’s prestigious Kellogg School outside Chicago. Following a stint doing rural economic development in Thailand in 1989, she landed a job for a Redmond medical company called Physio-Control selling medical equipment for its Midwest office in Ohio and Indiana, making commissions off big-ticket, $20,000 items. She was the first woman—and woman of color—in the district. “’Where are you from?” customers would ask when she walked in to sell a defibrillator to a fire station in Western Ohio. “India,” she’d say. “Oh yeah? What part of Indiana?” 

To the surprise of her male colleagues, she rocked sales, but eventually “was done with the private sector”—and moved back to Seattle to take a job with the global health organization PATH overseeing a loan fund, which she grew from $1.5 to $6 million, lending money to support international health clinics.

That didn’t stick either. “The higher I rose in the international development world, the more I felt like I wanted to live in the countries I’m jetting in and out of.” So, she applied for a fellowship to live and work in small villages in India for two years, before moving back to Seattle after her son was born and contracting for the Annie E. Casey Foundation, right before 9/11. 

After leading an invaluable direct response to the post-9/11 civil rights crackdown during the Bush era, and then connecting that response to a larger political effort during the Obama years, Jayapal finally left OneAmerica in 2012, putting the organization in the hands of Rich Stolz, whom she’d known from his national work on immigration reform. Stolz, a Korean American, had been the policy director for the Fair Immigration Reform Movement.

Having grown from its one-room office on Rainier Avenue and $260,000 budget back in 2002 to a $2.1 million organization today with 24 employees, OneAmerica has made good on Jayapal’s broader mission to reform the system, passing this year’s biggest headline achievement in the state legislature: the DREAM Act, which made children of undocumented immigrants eligible for college financial aid. Passing the DREAM Act built on other reform work OneAmerica had done—passing legislation at the city level prohibiting, first the police and then all city officials, from inquiring about immigration status; passing legislation at the county level limiting detainment due to questions about immigration status, and implementing a project with the Gates Foundation funding a digital literacy project that gave immigrants hands-on tech experience. 

And just as Jayapal connected hate-crime attacks to other systemic problems, the group has also enhanced its understanding of the system itself. It’s not just that income inequality and the environmental crisis both disproportionately impact immigrants and people of color, it’s that the issues themselves are connected. You could argue, for example, that raising the minimum wage supports green land-use planning because it keeps the working class living closer to employment centers, preventing sprawl. A unified theory of progressive politics.

It was, in fact, impossible not to notice OneAmerica’s presence earlier this year during the Proposition 1 campaign to save Metro bus funding. Sudha Nandagopal, chair of OneAmerica Votes (the group’s PAC), sat alongside the usual suspects from the transit community during press briefings on the car-tab measure. And sure, groups such as Transportation Choices Coalition testified at public hearings to support it; but so did Stolz, who connected bus funding to “social equity.” 

Having successfully transformed her organization from one that fights the system from the outside to one that crafts legislation to change the system from within, Jayapal is taking the final step in that trajectory by running for the state senate. She is one of a new wave of candidates and legislators—like Cuban American state representative Brady Walkinshaw, who the Democratic Party appointed earlier this year, and Taiwanese state representative Mia -Gregerson, appointed in late 2013, that is extending the party’s platform, or perhaps forcing it out of its static zone. 

Certainly, Jayapal remained engaged politically after leaving OneAmerica; she was a big supporter of Ed Murray’s mayoral campaign (he’s endorsed her senate campaign), and she was appointed to his minimum wage task force and his police chief search committee. But a seat in the senate would keep her at the center of the broad-based politics she and OneAmerica have created. “People have been asking me to run for this seat or that seat for a long time. And I always said, ‘No, I’m the person on the outside. I’m the advocacy person.’ But I just suddenly realized, what would it be like if we could organize from the inside?”

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