Pramila Jayapal began her best-known community work after she saw Arab Americans, Somali refugees, and Muslim Americans being discriminated against and attacked.
In the days following the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks, she established the non-profit Hate Free Zone, now known as OneAmerica, to counter anti-Muslim backlash. Now, despite heading to Congress under a President-elect Donald Trump administration and a “hostile” Congress, the representative-elect remains undaunted.
“We have fought and won before,” she told NBC News. “We have been through some incredibly dark times in the history of country, and we have moved forward. It hasn’t been as quickly as we want, but we are extremely powerful when we are united.”
Jayapal, a Democrat, made history Nov. 8 when she became the first Indian-American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, the first woman elected to represent Washington’s 7th Congressional District, and the first person of color elected to the Washington state congressional delegation.
The 52-year-old will be taking over a post previously held by fellow Democrat Rep. Jim McDermott, who physically stood next to Jayapal as she announced the founding of Hate Free Zone in 2001 and retired after nearly three decades representing the 7th Congressional District.
“It feels very familiar today, actually, with what we’re dealing with. Just like after 9/11 when we started with organizing people in communities to stand up against these civil liberties abuses.”
As a current Washington state senator, Jayapal represents one of the most racially and economically diverse districts in the state, she said, and has advocated for an increase in Washington's minimum wage, free two-year community college tuition, and automatic voter registration.
She won 57 percent of the votes in the race for Congress, with challenger Brady Walkinshaw, a Democratic Washington state representative living in Seattle, coming second. During the campaign, she received endorsements from Sens. Bernie Sanders and Kirsten Gillibrand as well as feminist activist Gloria Steinem.
Jayapal came to the U.S. at 16 years old to study at Georgetown University. She was born in Chennai, India, and was raised in Indonesia and Singapore.
“I’ve always thought of the United States as a place where so much was possible and so many opportunities were out there,” she said. “As an immigrant, I have lived, in a way, the American dream, and I want to make sure that opportunity is available for everybody.”
After graduating, she worked as a financial analyst and earned a master's degree in business administration at Northwestern University. A year after earning her master's and working in the private sector, she became an activist.
“It feels very familiar today, actually, with what we’re dealing with,” she said. “Just like after 9/11 when we started with organizing people in communities to stand up against these civil liberties abuses.”
"We have fought and won before. We have been through some incredibly dark times in the history of country, and we have moved forward."
Jayapal said although she’s not elected to an “administration's Congress that I was hoping to come into,” she is ready to set the Democratic Party, now an opposition party, to be the “first, second and third lines of defense” against any possible attacks on civil rights.
“Many of the President-elect’s picks for cabinet positions are deeply troubling,” she said. “If their history and their record were to hold, we would be looking at attempts to roll back a woman’s right to choose, housing assistance, the Affordable Care Act — it’s all of these things are the exact opposite of what my constituents here want to see, or what I believe people across the country want to see.”
Even so, Jayapal said it’s also important to figure out how to work together across the aisle on issues that even Trump brought up in the campaign trail such as jobs, transportation infrastructure investment or even the minimum wage.
Outside of specific legislation, especially as a first-term member of Congress, Jayapal hopes to also lay the groundwork to push for more progressive policies.
“Policy is about real people and real stories and sometimes we forget that.” Jayapal said. “Statistics are just a compilation of people’s stories put on paper, and legislation is our attempt to address those real challenges for people.”