Monday, June 20, 2011


There are not enough women or minorities in office, and there should be. Yes, I am saying this because I am a South Asian woman living in the US.

But that's not the only reason. Women make up the majority of the US population, yet hold an alarmingly small percentage of public office positions. Quick, name another period of history where the majority in a population was ruled by a minority in power....

Time's up!  South Africa during apartheid.

Not a fun comparison, but this is a sorry situation. During Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner's speech at the Amazing Women's Conference in Berkeley, CA,  she pointed out that of the over 1,000 members to have served in the California State Assembly, she was only the 200th something woman to ever serve  in the state assembly.  I'm guesstimating that it's around 20 percent. More accurate figures point to even lower percentages, around 18%. Well that's history, right? Let's look at present figures, In 2011 women held 16.6 % of seats in Congress and hold 17% of the 100 seats in Senate.  The kicker of course is that women make up 50.7 percent of the US population, according to the 2010 US Census Bureau. To top this off, for the first time in 30 years, 2011 has seen a decline of women serving in Congress. I've heard that at this rate it will take 600+ years before women have equal representation.
If all things were equal (which they are not as I've outlined in other posts), women should hold slightly over 50% of these seats, but they don't. Women are a majority whose rights and interests are not represented fairly or evenly.

What about minorities in legislature? The U.S. population includes 12 percent African Americans, 9 percent Hispanics, and 3 percent Asian/Pacific Islanders and other groups.  White people make up 72% of the current US population, and I remember reading that the percentage of white males in the US make up around 32% of the total population (don't quote me on this). In Congress, however, 90 percent of the lawmakers are male, and 87 percent are white. (source:

When it comes to race and gender, major systemic changes that reflect the interests of the population as a whole are not being properly represented. I am stating the obvious and most likely preaching to the choir (since most of you reading this blog are my friends and/or other  activists). So it's great that we may know all of this, but how many of us are running for office? 

I spent a few hours last month at the headquarters opening of the David Chiu for Mayor CampaignDavid Chiu is running for Mayor of San Francisco in 2011 and if he wins he will be the first elected Asian American Mayor of the city of San Francisco. 
David Chiu speaking at his campaign HQ opening
Chiu's district includes Chinatown, which is the largest Chinese community outside Asia. Obviously Chiu is not running on just an Asian American base, to be an effective public servant and to win office, you need to collect votes  and appeal to voters from all sectors. It reminded me of when Jean Quan won the mayoral race in Oakland and became the first Asian American woman to hold the position of Mayor of a major city. My friend Jennifer Pae also ran around the same time as Quan. Jennifer ran for Councilwoman of District 2 in Oakland, CA and I volunteered non-stop for her campaign. One big reason for my enthusiastic involvement in Jenn's campaign was due to my previous work with the Ready to Run Rising Stars program at the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University. My work with Rising Stars was focused on getting young Asian women to join CAWP's  'Ready to Run' program for women who want to run for office, seek higher office, work on a campaign, get appointed to office, or learn more about the political system. This was one major reason I supported Jennifer. Though she did not win the election, I was inspired and proud to see a young Asian woman putting it all out there and just going for it. That is how roads are paved and examples set.
Outside of the Jennifer Pae Campaign HQ
I hope that last paragraph was inspiring, but there's a long way to go. Really long. We need more people like the those that I mentioned above. Where are my South Asians at? Bobby Jindal? Nikki Haley? Please, we need South Asians that run on a platform that actually address issues impacting the South Asian Community.
Kamala Harris, my political girl-crush
There are some great examples of South Asian politicians currently holding office. Recently, Kamala Harris was elected as the Attorney General of the state of California, becoming the first female, African American, and Asian American attorney general of CA and the first Indian American Attorney General in the US (wow all that in one person, you go girl!)  Ravi Bhalla is an Indian Sikh American who ran in the primary for Assemblyman in my former state, New Jersey.  There's Upendra Chivikula -- an extremely active South Asian Assemblyman--also in NJ who I had the pleasure of meeting on various occasions. There is also my old friend Dr. Nuran Nabi, who is Bangladeshi and is a committeeperson for the city of Plainsboro, NJ.
Again, these stories are great but we need MORE. I should run for office, maybe one day I will.  Maybe I can just run so that I can say I did, then I can bug everyone else to run. I am not saying that people should be voted into office exclusively because of their ethnic background or that I will vote for someone just because they are a minority or a woman. I need to agree with a candidates politics and the policy stances they take. But there is a chance that people who look like me may understand the needs and issues I care about more than people who don't, just maybe.  Without women and people of color in these positions, crucial voices and issues may not be brought to the table. Our absence unfortunately often signals our silence. Take the example of when I attended a panel in Sacramento hosted by the California Commission on the Status of Women about the troubling misrepresentation of women in media. The panel was made up of mostly white women save for one Latina woman, Elmy Bermejo, the Interim Executive Director of the Latino Issues Forum. Many issues were discussed, but the issues relating to minority women were absent until Elmy spoke up.  The point is if she were not there that day her voice and the voice of minority women would have been absent from that discussion.

Abel Guillen speaking to supporters and friends
I relayed this point to Abel Guillen, a member of the Peralta School Board in Oakland, CA who is considering a run for California State Assembly. I expressed the point that him running for and perhaps winning an elected office would bring voices to the table that would otherwise be silent if he was not there.

Run, please run. At least think about it, or consider doing it one day. Encourage our young leaders. Mentor. VOTE. Encourage others in your ethnic communities to vote, since many of them don't do or may not have the resources to even do that much. It's great that there are plenty South Asian or Asian engineers and doctors, but in order for there to be real progressive change there needs to be strides taken within the public sphere. I'm not an engineer or a doctor, but I hope to be part of this movement, this change towards more diversity in the decision making bodies that represent all of us. Women need to run, lots of them need to run and they need to run now. Yes women's rights have improved greatly since women's suffrage and the women's rights movement of

the 60's, but we haven't reached equality, not by a long shot. Run sisters run, run brothers run, it can happen. The people mentioned above are helping to pave that path, and it is up to me and you to make sure that kind of action continues, with our generation and the ones that will come after.