The political influence of Indian-American women reaches unprecedented levels

India Abroad
Read More

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Never before have there been so many Indian-American women shaping and leading the American political and policy landscape, said Priya Dayananda, managing director of federal government affairs at KPMG LLP — and one of D.C.’s top lobbyists. “From Congress to K Street, and at the helm of national parties and movement organizations, these women are power brokers, influencers, and thought leaders and we are very proud of them,” she said.

Dayananda, who is also a former senior congressional staffer, celebrated this emerging influence of Indian-American women with attendees at Women Who Impact, a packed-to-capacity gathering of more than 200 activists, advocates, influencers and women leaders inside the Washington offices of Covington & Burlington LLP.

The timing of the gathering, hosted by the Indian American Impact Project on Oct. 2 was not lost on those there: It had been scheduled weeks earlier, but the surrounding landscape in the nation’s capital was being rocked by the explosive confirmation hearings for Judge Brett Kavanaugh, whose nomination to the Supreme Court spurred allegations of sexual assault from a number of women.

Dayananda and Mini Timmaraju, both members of the Impact Project board, were co-emcees, introducing such leaders as Democratic lawmakers Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington state and Sen. Kamala Devi Harris of California as well as Meena Harris, founder of Phenomenal Women Action Campaign; Seema Nanda, CEO of the Democratic National Committee; Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the Center for American Progress; Vanita Gupta, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights; Nisha Biswal, president of the U.S.-India Business Council. and Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor of Teen Vogue.
“We are thrilled that this event is at capacity,” said Dayananda in her welcoming remarks at the inaugural event. “That speaks volumes about the energy and enthusiasm for seeing women in leadership, especially talented women of color like the speakers you’ll hear from tonight.”

Co-founded in 2016 by former Kansas state legislator Raj Goyle and entrepreneur and philanthropist Deepak Raj, and formally launched earlier this year, the Indian American Impact Project is focused on expanding the ranks of Indian-Americans in government, politics, and public service. An affiliated organization, the Indian American Impact Fund, endorses and supports Indian-American candidates running for office. Former senior Obama administration official Gautam Raghavan is executive director of the project.

“We put this event together because for the first time in history, we have an amazing cohort of Indian American women who are shaping, and leading, our political and policy landscape,” Dayananda said.

Jayapal, one of the leading pro-immigrant advocates in Congress, kicked off the program. “We need to be fighting back against of these horrendous attacks as Donald Trump and the Republicans in Congress have continued to use immigration and immigrants as an incredibly divisive issue,” she said.

“It has meant that we really need people who understand the system to be fighting back. It has meant that number one, we really need to understand the system to be fighting back — against all of these attacks against family separation, ripping mothers from their children. We also have to project the vision of immigration than what is being presented to us…a vision of an immigration system that is humane, that needs to be reformed comprehensively, that addresses our businesses and also the 11 million [undocumented] immigrants, family reunification, that represents spouses of H-1B visas holders. Immigration has never actually been about policy. It has been about who we are as a country and what we are willing to stand up for.”

She said she was gratified to see the movement taking hold in the Indian-American and South Asian diaspora community among young people and women. “This younger generation is really active and quite amazing,” she said. “Young women and young men are realizing it’s OK to be political. In some of our families it was not OK. I know, I was not supposed to be a politician, but a doctor, or a lawyer, or an engineer. This is a different generation and to me is so exciting to see South Asian in politics and in campaigns, and we now have role models.”

She said strength comes in times of crisis. “When I look across the country and see all these people who have been silent before but have now realized that if they don’t raise their voice, somebody else will take that space, that is so inspiring to me,” she said, “when women tell their stories across the country in spite of deep pain and deep risk to themselves, to me, you can’t ask for anything else, except for voting.” 

Jayapal, who has been arrested protesting the Trump administration’s Muslim travel ban, family separation, and other anti-immigration policies has been described as “a leader of the resistance.” She exhorted the audience never to shy away from advocacy of all kinds and to draw from Mahatma Gandhi’s examples of non-violent civil disobedience.

Harris addressed the gathering, calling the attendees “a room full of leaders. I feel this is a point of inflection and a moment in a country where people in our country collectively are being required to look at themselves in a mirror and ask themselves, who are we?” she said.

“And, I believe that part of that answer is that we are better than this, and this is a moment in time that is challenging us to fight for the best of who we are. Right now, there are a lot of people who are feeling very distrustful of their government and leaders and institutions. This is not a time to be popular. This is a time to be leaders and speak those truths no matter how uncomfortable those truths may make other people feel. In the face of those powerful voices that are attempting to sow hate and division among us, let’s speak the truth. And what are those truths — racism, sexism, homophobia, anti-Semitism, anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim. Let’s speak those truths so that we can deal with them. Let’s hold on to these truths so that we own them and let them empower us,” said Harris.

The audience cheered and applauded as Harris said: “We are all in this together at this moment for a reason—because we know collectively that we have incredible power as individuals and as a group. And, so let’s take away from this summit, from this convening, this knowledge about power. This knowledge of who we stand for and what we stand for and that we are making a difference. Years from now, people are going to look at each one of us — maybe our children, our grandchildren, other people — and ask us, where were you during that inflection moment?”

“And the great thing is, we are going to be able to say, we were with women who impact, together. And, our answer is not going to be how we felt, our answer is going to be about what we did. So, let’s use this moment to rededicate ourselves to each other and let’s get out there knowing that we are powerful, our voices matter."