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Three Indian American Women Reflect on What a Kamala Harris Vice Presidency Means to Them

Today, history will be made as the first Black and Indian American woman will accept the nomination to be the Democratic Vice Presidential Nominee of the United States of America. In this historic moment, we reflect on our humble beginnings as immigrants or the children of immigrants and women of color who have each taken active roles in our community. 

~In Sanskrit, the word Kamala means lotus, as in the lotus flower. In the Hindu religion and mythology, the lotus stands as a symbol of purity and enlightenment amid the muddy swamp upon which it sits~

Dr. Priya Bhat-Patel is a Council Member in the City of Carlsbad, CA and a candidate for California State Senate, District 36. Dr. Bhat-Patel is leading the statewide initiative for Family Justice Centers across the state of California.

As a proud Indian American woman, hearing that Senator Kamala Harris is our 2020 Vice Presidential nominee for the United States of America brings me hope and breaks barriers. As a dedicated daughter of immigrants, a fearless woman, a proud Californian, a fierce legislator, and a strong Black and Indian American woman, Senator Harris gives others like me opportunity, inspiration, and a sense of belonging. It is a moment I never imagined experiencing in my lifetime. As Senator Harris takes the stage this week, she does so for herself and a new generation of leaders.

I myself am the proud daughter of Indian immigrants, who came to the United States to provide endless opportunities to our family. I admire and emulate their grit, tenacity, resilience, and passion. From them, I learned to fight for a better world and a future that we believe in. Growing up in Carlsbad, California, a coastal city in North County San Diego, I did not see people like me in places of power, including in the government. Instead, I saw mainly White men making important decisions for our communities and knew we needed to alter the systems in place to create true change. 

In 2008, the first year I could vote in a presidential election, I proudly voted for Barack Obama. I remember the day vividly. Was I going to see history being made? Was a Black person going to become the next President of the United States? I still get chills when I remember the night and the overwhelming feeling of hope. Again, I never imagined that I would live to see such a monumental day. President Obama did what many of us in Black, Indigenous, and Brown communities are all too familiar with: work against the privilege that our White counterparts have to break through barriers and stereotypes. 

Fast forward to 2018, when a historic number of diverse individuals, including a record number of women, ran for office. Ten years after casting that vote for President Obama, I decided to run for Carlsbad City Council. I won, becoming the first Indian American Council Member in the County of San Diego. The day I was sworn in is one of the proudest moments of my life. I am blessed to act in this role, and live my purpose every single day. I make the choice daily to serve our community members, and consistently ask where else in places of power are our voices necessary. My experiences on City Council solidified how strong leadership is needed at all levels of government. This pushed me to run for California State Senate in District 36. When elected, I will be the first Indian American in the State Senate and the first Indian American woman in the state legislature. I will continue to stand for equity and systemic change.

Senator Kamala Harris and I share this commitment and drive. As daughters of immigrants, Californians, legislators, and Indian American women, we both swore the same oath to protect those we serve. This commitment comes from who we are and paves the way for generations after us. May this moment in history elevate the voices of those who should have been represented in places of power long ago. 

Go get ‘em, Senator Harris. 

Dr. Priya J. Shah has been teaching Gender and Sexuality Studies for over ten years. She serves on the Equality CA Advisory Board, Human Rights Campaign (HRC)’s Parents for Transgender Equality Council, and the Orange County Equality Coalition (OCEC)’s Board of Directors and is currently working with Desi Rainbow Families to put on the first South Asian American panel on supporting transgender and non-binary youth.

I was born in Canada to Indian immigrant parents. We moved to the United States when I was just a few months old and I’ve thought of myself as a “California girl” ever since. Well, kind of. Being an Indian American California girl was a little different: I never owned a yellow polka-dot bikini, I was more likely to spend my summers in the library than the beach, and I had no idea that someone like myself could ever be involved in the glamorous and powerful world of American politics. 

As I got older, my early feelings of not quite fitting in became recognizable to me as a consequence of the American immigration system, the ambivalence toward Asian immigrants even after the Asian Exclusion Acts were partially overturned in 1965, and an even longer and more weighty history of white supremacy in relation to the exploitation of Black American labor. The legacy of all still existed in our corner of the Bay Area. 

Far more than the tanned and leggy heroes of Baywatch or 90210, my heroes growing up were civil rights leaders and freedom fighters - Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, the Ghadar Party, and later, in graduate school, radical Black feminists like Audre Lordre and Angela Davis and the Bollywood and Indian American entertainers and academics who were just starting to pepper our collective cultural awareness. While I planned to exercise my growing political consciousness in the academic sphere, it still never occurred to me that as an Indian American woman I could have a role to play on the ground or in the crafting of policies and legislation that affected the day-to-day lives of my community. 

When my youngest daughter was almost seven years old, she came out as transgender. Her bravery and the urgent need to advocate for her in school, in the doctor’s office, and with our family and the larger community, thrust me into local politics in a way that I never imagined for myself. I had to learn how school boards and city councils and state legislators make and implement policy. It was during this time that I first met Kamala Harris. She was running to represent California in the Senate and a friend of mine offered very affordable tickets to come to a meet-and-greet at her home. I was completely in awe of this woman who stood as tall as me but commanded the room. Her charisma was palpable but what moved me, even more, was the intelligence, knowledge, and compassion that she showed on every topic she addressed. She spoke of her dual ancestry - Black and Indian - and her parents pioneering work as civil rights activists. She spoke of the crucial nature of that work in her fight for same-sex marriage and the work that still needs to be done to bring America closer to the promise it made so long ago. Listening to her gave me the courage to raise and wave my hand above all the men who had pushed their way to the front of the audience. She looked directly at me and I asked her to please remember our transgender youth in her continuing crusade for equality and equity. As she was leaving, she shook my hand over the crowd and said, “Thank YOU for all you do for your community - never give up.”

From that day forward, I have kept Kamala Harris as my role model in activism and political work and her words as my mantra: never give up fighting for your community. When my daughter and our family decided to sue the private school which discriminated against her, Kamala Harris shared her support with the world. When I ran to become a delegate representing my community to the Democratic Party, won, and was able to attend my first state convention, I was finally able to tell her in person what she has and continues to mean for myself and my family. And when I and the other mothers in our community began to advocate more loudly than ever that Black Lives Matter, we - Black, Indian, and White alike, looked to her for inspiration. Kamala Harris being chosen as the Democratic Party’s first women of color candidate for Vice President means that my Indian American and LGBTQ daughters, the Black daughters of my friends, and indeed every one of my daughters’ friends - regardless of race, immigration status, gender identity, or sexuality now know that if they keep working hard, they too can have a role to play in the politics of their country - implementing policy and holding power that impacts each and every American. 

Priya Vedula, MPH,  is a first-year medical school student in San Bernardino County and a community advocate. She sits on numerous boards and committees for organizations that champion women's rights, environmental justice, and health equity.

I am a first-generation immigrant whose parents brought her to the United States to give her a shot at the American Dream. My parents knew that in America, their daughters would have a world of opportunities. They were always purposeful in their approach, teaching us that whatever path we choose, it must be in service to our nation and to our communities. Many people look at us through the “Model Asian” stereotype lens, neglecting to understand the struggles we faced as people of color in a system that was not necessarily designed for us. The problem is, keeping my head down and following the (said and unsaid) rules of this system doesn’t work for me any longer because it doesn’t work for my community.

I grew up knowing that I could never run for president because I wasn’t born here. Moreover, I watched as year after year, our president was a white male with prior government experience, families in politics, and a degree from an Ivy League school. As a child, I internalized that there was an inherent sense of superiority in the white male. One that females couldn’t have. One that a woman of color, like me, wouldn’t have. 

But that all changed in 2008 when I watched a bright, strong, eloquent black man, with the name Barack Hussein Obama, earn the majority vote of the people of America. His slogan was more than a symbol, it was a self-fulfilling prophecy- it gave us all HOPE for a brighter and more inclusive future. Because of what he did, ten years later, a young Indian American girl with a dream voted for the first time on a ballot after receiving her citizenship. She proudly drew a checkmark next to her name on the ballot for the city council at the age of 25. That girl was me.  

2018 was the year of the proliferation of women running for office. It was the year of the SQUAD. It was the year Michelle released Becoming and reminded us that we all deserve to be in the halls of power. Women, and particularly women of color, reminded us that we were born ready with the talent and qualifications to serve our own communities. No longer were we going to be told that we don’t belong. This scared and threatened the status quo, and they pushed back. 

But when people stand up, it creates a rippling effect. Just as Obama’s run in 2008 opened the floodgates, the campaigns and victories of the women in 2018 opened the pathway for six women to take the presidential debate stage, one was a woman of color. And this week, for the first time, I saw this Black Indian American female presidential candidate become the nominee for one of the highest positions in the world. This is truly an iconic moment, against the backdrop of the COVID-19 pandemic that has revealed the pernicious effects of an inequitable system juxtaposed with the display of outward racism that prompted hundreds of thousands to march for justice for innocent Black lives. Out of this, arises Kamala Harris. She has been a powerful figure from the very beginnings as California’s Attorney General and Senator. Now, she will be the most powerful woman on the planet, one heartbeat away from the presidency as they say. And through this strong and bold woman, I see the avenue through which our Asian Americans and our Black siblings will find unity and uplift one another as we strive for a better America. Through Kamala, I see a path for young black and brown self-identifying women across this nation to reach their highest potential, take their seats at the table, and lift this nation to greatness. 

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