By Noah Foster-Koth /// Senior Staff Writer
ON FRIDAY APRIL 1, a Washington State Senator was scheduled to speak at Lewis & Clark College during her campaign for US Congress. This was no April Fool’s Joke – Senator Pramila Jayapal visited campus as this year’s Distinguished Visiting Scholar, in an event hosted by the Pamplin Society of Fellows at LC. Jayapal gave a lecture in the Council Chamber that detailed the experiences that fostered her political interests and motivated her current run for Congress.
Jayapal was born in Madras, India in 1965. When she was four, her family moved to Indonesia, where she spent most of her adolescence. When Jayapal graduated high school at the age of sixteen, her parents used their savings to enroll her in Georgetown University in Washington, D.C.
“My parents took all the money they had — it was about $5,000 — and used it to send me to this country, because they really believed this was the place where I would have the best education and the brightest future,” Jayapal said.
After college, Jayapal found a job on Wall Street. She soon realized that she did not want to continue working in the private sector and eventually moved to Seattle, Washington, where she began work at a nonprofit health organization known as the Program for Appropriate Technology in Health (PATH). While working at PATH, Jayapal discovered a passion for politicalactivism.
“I really wanted to go and live with people who were trying to make change happen in their communities,” Jayapal said.
In March 2014, Jayapal decided to run for Washington State Senate. She saw political office as another opportunity to “change the government, make it more responsive and more representative of who we are as a country.”
“We can’t just criticize what’s there,” Jayapal said. “We have to try to change it.” Jayapal was elected with a 74% majority vote.
Once she gained office, Jayapal found that her position as a Washington State senator helped her achieve more of the changes she wanted in her state. One of her most recent projects was renaming state landmarks that are racially offensive, such as “Coon Lake” in Washington’s Chelan County.
“I didn’t know this existed in Washington State until this constituent brought me the issue last year,” Jayapal said. “I worked with him to change the name of ‘Coon Lake’ to ‘Howard Lake.’”
“We can do so much more by using the political platform,” Jayapal said, adding that “a bigger platform is a better platform.” The opportunity for a bigger platform arose when Representative Jim McDermott stepped down from his seat in Congress eight weeks ago. McDermott had served fourteen terms as the representative of Washington’s 7th Congressional District. Jayapal is now campaigning for the position McDermott vacated.
If Jayapal wins, it will mark the first time that a South Asian woman has held a seat in the United States Congress. After her lecture, Jayapal answered questions from the audience. One student asked Senator Jayapal for her thoughts on the polarization between the Republican party and the Democratic party.
“How do we breed understanding between the two groups?” the student inquired.
“I actually believe we need a multi-party system in this country,” Jayapal said. “It makes me frustrated that we only have two parties, because it pushes people into one party or another.”
Another student asked Jayapal which candidate she was supporting in the 2016 presidential election.
“I am a huge Bernie Sanders supporter,” Jayapal said. “I was deeply inspired by his willingness to tackle the big systems….He has been so consistent for fifteen years on everything he’s been saying about breaking up the big banks.”
Jayapal also offered advice to students who are considering politics as a future career.
“Really think about the issues that drive you. Try to get some on-the-ground experience working directly with those issues. And don’t ever let anybody tell you that you can’t do it. There is a political system, and it’s pretty hard to break through, but it’s not impossible.”