Conversations at KCTS 9/Pramila Jayapal

Conversations at KCTS 9: Pramila Jayapal Episode 4/8/12
  • Conversations at KCTS 9

Pramila Jayapal

We talk with immigrant rights activist and OneAmerica Founder Pramila Jayapal about creating the Seattle-based organization plus the hopes and challenges for immigrants in America today.

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About the Episode

We talk with immigrant rights activist and OneAmerica Founder Pramila Jayapal about creating the Seattle-based organization plus the hopes and challenges for immigrants in America today.

About Pramila Jayapal

Pramila Jayapal is the founder and Executive Director of the Seattle-based, immigrant rights nonprofit organization, OneAmerica. She is an immigrant from India and has spent over twenty years working for social justice and protecting the rights of all individuals, regardless of nationality, race or religion.

Enrique Cerna:
Pramila Jayapal, welcome to Conversations.

Pramila Jayapal:
Thanks so much, good to be here.

Enrique:
Good to have you here. Well, the decision to move on after creating an organization that has done a lot in this community since 9/11. And now you have decided that you're going to move on from OneAmerica and do what?

Pramila:
Well, you know, I just want to say it's been like the most incredible privilege to grow and lead this organization over the last 11 years, but it has been 11 years, and I'm seeing the various connections that immigration has to so many other issues. And so what I know is that I'm ready to kind of move on to look at immigration within a broader context of a number of other issues that I've been working on. And so what I'm hoping to do is create a space for myself where I get to work on all the things I love to do and none of the things that I don't want to do, which of course, every executive director has a lot of those. But also be able to delve a little deeper into some of these issues that I've been looking at, how do we build this broader progressive movement, what are the connections between African Americans, for example, and immigrants, which is something that I'll be going to Selma, Alabama next week, and going on a march there, and really looking to see how do we start to deep urn the connections between different groups, how do we build this broader movement, what are the issues across the board that we will be looking at. I've watched immigrants just be seen as immigration reform. But what we've seen over the last 11 years is that immigrants are part of everything, health care, education, it's really us. And the big issue now, I think, is that this country is changing dramatically, what do we do, what do each of us do to be able to go into that gracefully, to be able to really encourage this whole population to be fully engaged. So I'm still going to stay connected to the issues, just in a different frame.

Enrique:
Let's come back here and talk about how OneAmerica, actually, it was first hate free zone. How it evolved, how it came to be, how it evolved. Take me there.

Pramila:
Well, it was 9/11 happened, I had actually just moved into a new house, and I was completely in boxes, and at that time, I feel bad saying this on KCTS, but I had a small tiny little TV, a little nine inch TV. And everything was in boxes. And a friend of mine called me. I moved into my house on September 10th. And I was going to write another book. My book had just come out. It was called pilgrimage, a woman revisits her homeland. Took me about two years. Right. And I had gone back to live in villages for two years. And that book had done pretty well. And so I was thinking about writing another book. And actually, at the time, it was going to be on south Asia and the growing role of south Asians in the United States and in the world. And so there I was in my boxes, and in my brand new house, and the phone rings. It was early in the morning. And a friend of mine from New York had called to say, have you seen what's happening? And I pulled my TV out of a box, and there it was, the twin towers, I saw the pictures of the hijackers flashed up. And I really, I just had this sense that everything was gonna change for people who looked kind of like me. And you know, I was born in India, and we had Muslims and Hindus and christians living in our house and interacting with us all the time. And I didn't really know exactly what would happen in this country. But I had this intuition, this premonition that there would be a lot of issues that would emerge. And sure enough, within a couple of days, I was working actively in the immigrant community at the time, particularly in the south Asian community, and I started getting calls from people, you know, Muslim women who were being harassed because they were wearing Hajab, kids who couldn't go to school because they were wearing turbines or Hajab, taxi cab drivers who were being attacked. And I think September 11th was on a Tuesday. That Saturday, I got a call from a school teacher friend of mine who said, Pramila, these kids are not going to school. Half of our class is missing because of all these hate crimes that are happening. And I remember getting off the phone and just crying first and thinking, this is wrong. I had just become a U.S. citizen. And you know, it was a lot about identity, but not just personal identity, kind of collective identity. And I thought this is just wrong. We need to do something. So I started calling a bunch of people. I had never been involved in politics. I had been doing international social justice work, but mostly traveling abroad. Got in a plane with Jim McDermott, who was my congressman at the time, for Monday morning at 10:00 in the morning, Sunday night, I thought to myself, I'm going to see a congressman. I should have something to say to him. And I wrote up something, and it said hate free zone campaign of Washington at the top. And then it sort of had a list of what I thought we should do, you know, direct support for people who are being discriminated against, policy advocacy, communications, and media. And went in to see him, and to make a very long story short, within 24 hours, we had pulled together a press conference at the Seattle center with Jim's help, with other people's help, we had Governor Locke was there, and a number of different people. And I was standing off to the side, and this press conference was to sort of announce Washington as a hate free state.

Enrique:
Hate free zone state.

Pramila:
Yes, a hate free zone state, exactly. And I was standing off to the side thinking my work is done, you know, this is what I pulled this together, and now I'm going back to writing my next book. And Jim kept introducing everybody to me as this is Pramila Jayapal with hate free zone campaign of Washington. And I said, congressman, there is no hate free zone. And he said, well, you better get one started then.

Enrique:
And you did.

Pramila:
And I did. So we moved from hate crimes to protecting civil liberties within the course of a few months. We found ourselves standing up against government intrusions, against deportations and detentions of Arab and Muslim men. And we were also doing a lot of education work in the schools. But it was very focused on that post 9/11 community, Arabs, Muslims, and south Asians. In about 2003, we started working on what was then known as the immigrant workers freedom ride, and it was the first sort of effort for comprehensive immigration reform that I had been involved with. We were instrumental in getting civil rights and civil liberties put on as sort of a key platform within what we wanted from immigration reform nationally. But that started a whole trend into working on broader immigrant issues, on federal immigration policy, and I think it really was recognizing that there was a big gap in organizing and policy advocacy for immigrants as a broad community. And I have always been incredibly proud of the multi ethnic organizing we do. You know, our base has moved, it's shifted over time. Used to be largely in this post 9/11 communities, now, 65% of our members are Latino. And that has been a beautiful shift to watch. Because people sometimes say to me, well, you know, you abandoned the Muslims, or you abandoned the post 9/11 communities, and I said, no, we have never just been about the post 9/11 communities. We started there because the need was people being discriminated against within that community, that's what we saw. But very quickly, when you do this work, you see both the power and the challenge of immigrants wherever they're from. And I think drawing those parallels between different communities, talking to people about why actually what Latino immigrants face, and what Muslim immigrants face, really do have a lot of commonalities. That's been one of the things that I've enjoyed the most about the work that we've done.

Enrique:
The evolution then from hate free zone to OneAmerica. What brought about the name change?

Pramila:
You know, I never liked hate free zone as a name. If I was thinking I was going to start an organization that was going to become the largest immigrant advocacy organization in the state and one of the largest in the country, I never would have chosen the name hate free zone, because it's a very static name. And there's a zone, and there's either hate on one side or not hate.

Enrique:
I think having the word hate in there.

Pramila:
Yeah. Starting as a sentence with I'm Pramila Jayapal and I work for hate free zone. I'm an incredibly optimistic person. Sometimes I wouldn't do the crazy things I do if I wasn't such an optimist. And I think that hate free zone was too static, too negative, and I tried to change it within three or four years of starting the organization. But you know, we talked to a lot of consultants and they basically said you've got too much name brand and it's too new. So if you change it now, it's gonna be a problem. So I sort of hung on to it, but I really didn't like it.

Enrique:
What year was this?

Pramila:
2008.

Enrique:
And how did you come up with the name OneAmerica, which actually does make a lot of sense.

Pramila:
It does. And I love the name. And people love the name. And it was so easy actually to make the transition. What happened is we had hired someone to do our work around the branding. And we had done a poll about immigrants, and we were looking for a campaign name that would sort of be useful. And so this is a separate poll. But OneAmerica was one of, we had tried OneAmerica and onewashington as potential names. And OneAmerica had polled really, really well. So then we moved into the rebranding effort. And they came up with, they came, after working with us for a couple of months, they came to present to us, and they said, here's the name we think you should have. Hate free America. And they had like a whole presentation around it.
[LAUGHTER]
And these beautiful boards. And I looked at them and I just said, that's not gonna work. I just was very clear. That is not gonna happen. And I said, so what else do you have? And they sort of Scrabbled around in their papers, and they're like, well, this is the one we really thought we should stick with. And they said, well, we did look at OneAmerica. And I said, OneAmerica, that's great, that polls really well in the polls for the campaign. It totally expresses the optimism of what we're trying to build. It provides sort of a bigger space for us. We were doing a ton of federal work, and we really do have a national presence, even though all of our organizing work is on the ground here in Washington. Our policy advocacy work is known around the country. And so that's what happened. It became OneAmerica.

Enrique:
You grew up in India. You are an immigrant.

Pramila:
Yes.

Enrique:
So your experience coming here.

Pramila:
Well, I came here when I was 16. And I came here by myself. My father had $5,000 in his bank account when he decided to send me. It was a huge sacrifice for them. I remember landing at JFK airport and just being terrified because everything looked so different to me.

Enrique:
Did you speak English?

Pramila:
I spoke English fluently, I had been to an international school in Indonesia, which is where I graduated from high school. And so I knew American culture. And so I actually thought that the transition wouldn't be that hard, but it was really, really different. And I felt like I spent many, many years trying to figure out what to do to fit in. And, um, you know, really Shunning my Indian identity for a while because I didn't think it was cool. And it wasn't until much later that I went to India to live on this fellowship and really reconnected with who I was and what that immigrant identity meant and what it had brought for me. But you know, I think compared to the circumstances of the people

Enrique:
When your father sent you here, was it to go to school?

Pramila:
It was to go to school. My parents believe deeply in education. And unlike a lot of their Indian counter parts, who sent all of their kids, most Indians at that time, if you cared about education, you sent your kids to England, to the U.K., because India was a British colony for such a long time, and people sort of thought about, you know, you go to oxford or Cambridge or something like that. My father, for some reason, had always been fascinated by the United States. And he always believed that this was the place that we would get the best education and have the brightest future. And so he was very clear that he wanted us to come to the United States. And I think, you know, he was also very clear that he wanted me to be a doctor or a lawyer or a business person. His dream for me was that I would be the C.E.O. of IBM.
[LAUGHTER]
And so...

Enrique:
Well, you became an executive director and a founder.

Pramila:
I did.

Enrique:
Close, but not quite in that area.

Pramila:
I remember calling him. We had no money for phone calls. And I would, I got one phone call home a year. And I used my phone call my sophomore year of college to tell him that I was going to be an English literature major instead of an economics major, and I held the phone like that.

Enrique:
When you came here, were you going to a prep school or a college?

Pramila:
No, no, I went straight to college.

Enrique:
One of those smart people.

Pramila:
My mother got sick of me, she kicked me out of the house early, I started early.

Enrique:
But you worked internationally, when you started your career, you worked for path.

Pramila:
I ran the fund for technology transfer, which was a brand new entity. In between college and business school, one of my commitments to my dad is I would work in the same job that I would have gotten with an economics degree. So I went to work on wall street. I mean I was on wall street in the mid '80s when Mike milkin was king and leveraged buy outs were the thing, and I was in the LBO department of paine Webber. Leveraged buy outs. And I did that for a couple of years, a wonderful experience. I did all kinds of things that I never should have done. I'm not surprised by the collapse of wall street at all, given what I was doing back then with deals. But I went to graduate school and I just really realized this is not what I wanted to do with my life. And so I moved to Seattle and started working for path, and ran this loan fund that provided loans to socially responsible health projects in Africa, India, all over. And that was a fabulous experience. You know, I think I worked there for four years total and built the fund up to have about a $6 or $7 million loan fund corpus that we lent out.

Enrique:
Let's talk about immigration. This is a country made of immigrants.

Pramila:
Yeah.

Enrique:
Yet we seem to be afraid of immigrants and immigration. It is to some degree, we welcome it, on the other hand, we are afraid of it, on the other hand, we may almost despise it. Why?

Pramila:
Well, I think I spent a lot of time thinking about that. I've read the history of our country, it's not that different today than it has been throughout the history of our country. I think we have a very complex relationship with immigration. Unlike Europe, unlike some other places, the strange thing in the United States is that our identity is actually tied to immigrants and to immigration. You think of the statue of liberty, you think of a nation of immigrants. We define ourselves by those things. Unlike Europe, which a lot of countries in Europe really do not at all. And so it's got that historic sense of, you know, this is who we are as a country. And that's what makes the antipathy to immigrants so strong and so stark. I think that it is a fear of the other. I think that it's a lack of education about, you know, really who this other is. And I think that fundamentally people have been manipulated somewhat to believe that immigrants are the cause of their losing something. So rather than thinking about how this is something where we can be stronger together, we can build a bigger pie together, we can do things together, it becomes that you're taking away something from me. And immigrants have always been a scapegoat in the history of this country.

Enrique:
You say that's oz been the history there, so why can't we get over it?

Pramila:
Because I think people as human beings tend to be naturally afraid. I think the thing that's hopeful as I look at the last 11 years that I've been doing this work, is that I actually believe that, and this is in spite of receiving death threats and lynching threats and hate mail.

Enrique:
You've gotten that.

Pramila:
Unbelievable amounts of that through the course of 11 years. I still believe that people are inherently good, and if you can draw the connections between their experience and the experience of somebody who looks different, and if you can get to that place where it becomes about what we all want, you know, better schools for our kids, roofs over our heads, food on the table, hard work, family. That you are able to build those connections. The problem is there's so much terrible stuff out there in the, you know, kind of conservative media, that has now become the mainstream media, that is moving people to a different place. Where, you know, fear is really being used. And people are being manipulated by their fear.

Enrique:
Immigration reform in this country. Just two words that never seem to become a reality.

Pramila:
I believe it has to do with the way politics works today, that if you look at the broader political sphere, what you have is a country that's being pulled to the right in politics. So you know, republicans who used to be actually really great on the issue, John McCain, Lindsey Graham, people like that in congress, have been pulled so far to the right by the tea party, that this isn't about logic anymore, it's just about politics. And their perception is that this, what I believe is a relatively small conservative minority, who doesn't want immigration reform because they don't like immigrants, that that minority somehow has taken power of politics. And we've seen that over and over again, where, you know, we just worked with the growers, right, central and eastern Washington, raspberries, farmers, asparagus growers, all these folks that might see differently on a lot of other issues, but on immigration reform, they're not just looking for a guest worker program. They are looking for immigration reform with legalization for the undocumented. Because they see that this so called unskilled labor that picks the apples and the cherries is actually incredibly skilled. They want those same people that they had last season and the season before and the season before, whose kids have now grown up with their kids, they want those people to stay. They don't want to bring in a new batch of workers every year.

Enrique:
Having grown up in the Yakima valley in central Washington, there is a skill to this, no matter what some people may think, it is very hard work. Haven't done it, but it is hard work.

Pramila:
Extremely hard work. And we did a report about the contributions of the immigrant workers in the state of Washington. And we called those workers essential workers because they are not unskilled or low skilled workers, that's very difficult work.

Enrique:
Well, when we talk about immigration reform, and you mentioned John McCain and Lindsey Graham, there are many people in the Latino community who are not at all that happy with president Obama.

Pramila:
Oh, yeah.

Enrique:
They feel that he has abandoned them, he has cracked down on enforcement. Yes, he says he wants immigration reform, yes, he says he wants to see the dream act passed that would give those young people who were brought to this country by their parents, and are here legally, but puts them into the situation of what is their future? Yet he has not done enough.

Pramila:
Believe me, I wept when president Obama became president because it was such a significant moment for me as a person of color, as a woman, as somebody who's believed deeply in social justice, as somebody who comes from somewhere else in the world, and this was the first president that seemed to understand that there was a rest of the world. To then see that this administration has deported more people than any other administration that we've seen, a thousand people a day being deported. We launched a massive national campaign called change takes courage, and it was really directed at president Obama. We got into huge fights with the White House. We had screaming match meetings with top people at the White House, including president Obama, and a couple of meetings. We wrote Op eds criticizing him in every way possible. We tell folks don't vote for this president unless he shows you what he can do on immigration reform. This year, this last year, we were able to work with the White House to get a couple of things done, prosecutorial discretion became a policy released last summer by the White House, essentially saying we're only going to deport the people who are serious threats to the United States. We're going to review the 300,000 cases that are in line for deportation and we're only going to deport the people that are serious threats. We have a family unity waiver that will go into effect at the end of this year. Those are small things, Enrique, they're not the big thing of immigration reform. It is true that this president can't do it without congress. And congress is gummed up, you know, we can't have a simple majority in congress pass anything.

Enrique:
We have a short time left, couple minutes here. What do you want to have happen as someone who is an advocate for immigrants, someone that has established this organization, that is doing so much work here on behalf of immigrants and their rights. Having a national presence as well, as you move forward with your life, what is it that you want to accomplish, what is it that you want the American people to do?

Pramila:
I want to have a country that really honors and respects the diversity that is the strength of this country. And I believe we can do that by organizing people on the ground to speak out and make their voices heard. It's been a deep privilege to see people start to feel their own power and to see our ability to then take that power and make change like redistricting and having our first majority minority congressional district. So what I'm looking to do as I move on and I hope that OneAmerica will continue to do and other partners is to believe that this kind of change is not change that happens quickly. And it's not change that happens without confrontation. And struggle and confrontation and setback, I think, makes us stronger as a movement. And so I believe that if we continue to build the power of the people on the ground, to speak out and to be fully respected for who they are as human beings, that that is the greatest thing that could happen for America, and for all of us that live here.

Enrique:
Pramila Jayapal, thank you so much for your time and best of luck.

Pramila:
Thank you very much, Enrique.

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