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[Series] South Asians Spicing Up Politics: Susheela Jayapal

What experience led you to public service?

Public service, in some form, has always been part of my life. I came to the U.S. at 16, to go to college. My parents used all of their resources to send me here. I’ve always felt so grateful, not only to them, but for the fact that my particular immigrant experience — arriving here speaking English, and by choice, gave me opportunities that so many others don’t have. With that gratitude came a feeling of responsibility for paying it forward, in some way, through public service. I volunteered with various service organizations in college; when I started practicing law, I picked a law firm that encouraged pro bono work, and I represented applicants for political asylum and children in foster care. I wound up my legal career as General Counsel of adidas America, and the work I did there that I found most fulfilling was developing and implementing our first set of labor standards for our overseas factories. And then I got involved in nonprofit work, working in philanthropy and serving on the boards of organizations working on reproductive healthcare, education, social services. The jump to public service through elected office was one that I would not have predicted, but in a way everything I’ve done till now has really led to it.

2 . What role has your south asian identity played in your political perspective?

When I arrived on my college campus, in 1979, there were very few South Asian students, and even fewer — less than a handful — who were “foreign” students (as we were called back then). I felt both incredibly visible, and yet invisible, because people didn’t seem to know quite what to make of me and my experience. I carry that feeling with me, and I come at politics from that perspective, of an outsider. I think that’s a helpful perspective — it means you’re always curious, always questioning, and willing to depart from the prevailing orthodoxy. And for me it also means I’m always trying to identify whose voice is not being heard, whose needs are not being met, and to elevate that voice and those needs.

3. What advice do you have for South Asians who might run for office?

Recognize that there is no one South Asian American experience. My experience as someone who came here for college more than 30 years ago is different from the experience of someone who’s arriving today as an undocumented immigrant, is different from someone who was born here, and so on. And at the same time, recognize the universality that connects us to all immigrant communities, to all communities of color, to all other communities that have not had a voice, have not been represented.

4. Why should South Asian Americans vote?

For the same reasons everyone should vote. Because decisions made by local and national governments will affect their lives and the lives of their children. There is no such thing as being apolitical, or unaffected by politics. And also because voting, and engaging in our communities and our politics, will root us here in a way that’s not possible if we don’t.

Polls open November 6, 2018. Go Vote!

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