First South Asian American Woman to run for Congress
Reshma Saujani is a dedicated community activist, a Yale University legal scholar, and an attorney in New York City. But first and foremost, she is the daughter of political refugees whose story embodies the promise of life in America. Her parents, originally of Indian origin, barely escaped the brutal regime of IdiAmin in Uganda. Forced to flee during the government’s violent persecution of foreigners, her family lost everything. But amnesty in America gave them a chance to rebuild.
Growing up in suburban Chicago, Reshma distinctly remembers the discrimination they experienced as one of the first Indian families in our neighborhood. It was a defining period in her life that sparked her commitment and dedication to community activism. As an undergraduate at the University of Illinois, Reshma organized voters against the Republican Contract with America in 1994, and volunteered for the Clinton-Gore Campaign in 1996. She continued her studies at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, where she worked part-time to pay for school. After earning her Masters in Public Policy, she traveled to South Africa, where she helped the National Democratic Institute support the post-apartheid government of Nelson Mandela.
After graduating from Yale Law School with a mountain of debt from two postgraduate degrees, Reshma joined the prestigious firm Davis Polk & Wardwell. Despite the demands of her job, she was determined to use her legal skills to continue her activism. As an attorney, she volunteered pro bono on social justice cases, including asylum cases to ensure legal representation for the most vulnerable defendants. Reshma also worked with community organizations to register young voters across New York City.
After the enactment of the Patriot Act, she volunteered with the New York Bar Association to offer free legal services to documented immigrants in Queens. Reshma painfully witnessed innocent New Yorkers having their civil liberties being violated day after day. This experience emboldened her to build a national movement within the Democratic Party to encourage South Asian Americans to get involved in the political process.
In 2008, she became the Deputy General Counsel of the Liquid Markets business at Fortress Investment Group. Over the past two years, Reshma has become increasingly frustrated by the short-sighted policies of the government and the financial services industry that have left hundreds of thousands of people unemployed and struggling to find work across New York City. She realized that she could be most effective in bringing about reform by using her expertise to help the public sector solve the complicated issues that plague Wall Street. That’s why she resigned at her job at Fortress to fight full-time for the jobs of everyday New Yorkers.
Reshma says now is the time to dedicate herself to public service, and to use her deep understanding of the financial industry to give voice to those who have been overlooked and forgotten during the economic downturn.
Reshma Saujani, plans to challenge Rep. Carolyn Maloney in the 2010 Democratic primary on September 14, 2010.
Asiance: What is a typical day like for you?
Reshma: I get up in the morning. Then I go to spin class. I had ACL surgery about a year ago. So I have to make sure my knees are still working. Then we have about 9 or 10 meetings a day. We meet with policy people, economists, folks at non-profits. We meet with seniors, young people, peers and potential donors. Then, we normally have a house party every night.
I would say we start at about 6 am and then we end at midnight.
Asiance: What would you say are your top 3 issues on your platform.
Reshma:Number one, one, one! is jobs and the economy. Second is education. And third is immigration.
Asiance: Do you feel being Asian is a help or hinderance in your bid to run?
New York City, in my district, is one of the most diverse districts in the country. I think that our immigrant story is common. My parents were political refugees. We came from nothing and had every opportunity, which is every New Yorker’s story. It doesn’t matter where your parents came from or your grandparents came from. Our story is their story too.
Asiance: What do you want to say to people who say you are not experienced enough or don’t have a political track record?
Reshma:Well it’s not true. I think in New York, the standard model of somebody who runs for office is a professional politician. You start at the club, then you’re a district leader, then you run for city council, then you run for x. We have to change what the model is. I have been organizing community, women, young people, communities of color. Since I was 13 years old, I’ve been a community activist. So over the past decade here in New York, I’ve been organizing the Asian American community, young people and women.
I have a very deep track record of community involvement here in New York City and nationally.
Asiance: What about the South Asian conferences? Do you participate?
Reshma: Yes. I m speaking at the Savvy conference. I’ve been active in SAYA! (South Asian Youth Action). I was on Obama’s Asian American leader ship, one of the co-chairs for the grassroots committee for Obama’s presidential campaign. I started South Asians for Kerry. That was the first South Asian organization that was geared toward one candidate. We registered hundreds of thousands of people to vote and raised over a million dollars for John Kerry. I was actively part of SASO (South Asian Student Organization) and then helped organize Hillary’s Asian American outreach effort for her presidential campaign.
I started the South Asian Leadership Council at the DNC. South Asians for Kerry lead to the South Asian American Forum, which is called SAAF, which is the first political action committee created out of the South Asian community.
Asiance: Do you know about Kamala Harris? What do you think of her?
Reshma: Love her! She’s tremendous. She’s a real role model for me, personally. When I was thinking about running for office, we had actually put together an event for Kamala, in New York. Just hearing her speak and her passion and drive. When she started everyone told her that she couldn’t do it either. I was really inspired by that. She was definitely one of factors in my life that inspired me to run.
She’s very down to earth. Her narrative is what inspired her to run for office and give back. Both of us have a deep love for this country. Oftentimes people say we’re crazy for running for office. I think it’s because we feel this country has given us so many opportunities and now we have the opportunity to give back to a nation that has given us so much.
Asiance: You’re pro wall street?
Reshma:There’s a woman I met, her father is a taxi cab driver and I think she works for Morgan Stanley. The opportunity for her to work at a bank or a law firm has allowed her to get her family out of the cycle of poverty.
The average compensation on Wall Street is $70,000 or $80,000. It’s not like these fat cat bankers you keep hearing about. We also need accountability and transparency and I think it’s inexcusable that it’s been over 18 months since the financial collapse and we still haven’t passed a financial regulation bill in Congress.
I think a smartly regulated financial services industry will be a more productive one. In New York, 20% of our tax revenue comes from the financial services industry. One job created on Wall Street is 3 jobs created somewhere else. So it’s our bread and butter. Anywhere else, we can’t afford to demolish that industry. At the same time, we all understand why people are really angry. My father’s entire 401K was depleted. So the anger is understandable but we all need to sit around the table and figure out how to solve this. There’s an opportunity for efficient capital deploy and really help revitalize New York City. I want to make Wall Street a partner in helping create jobs here in New York.
It’s the major high growth industry in the city.
You are the first Indian-American woman to run for Congress and you are counting on South Asians for support. Do you have any prominent Asian women on your team?
Reshma:I always give credit to " Aunties for Race” which is a group of women all across the country who have these small dollar donations and are really the engine behind this campaign. What some would call grassroots organizing is a transplanted form of India's "aunty”network. We were able to raise a lot of money not from large donations but from these people making $50, $20 donations.
I always tell this story about my friend’s mom in New Orleans. She has my fundraising letter and she takes it to temple and she solicits money in support of me. Those women have really been the backbone of this campaign.
Do you have a favorite politician of all time?
Reshma:I have received a lot of inspiration from Ghandi. He has been a tremendous example for people in the civil rights community. I grew up reading his work. He’s always been a role model for me?
My grandfather was active.
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