In national, state and local races, more women of color are running for elected office and winning.
That’s true in Oregon too.
So what does that mean to be a woman of color who’s a politician in Oregon? And what does it mean for Oregon to have more women of color holding positions of power?
Four Portland metro-area leaders — Portland Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, Multnomah County Commissioner Susheela Jayapal, TriMet board of directors and North Clackamas school board member Kathy Wai, and Color PAC executive director Ana del Rocio — joined OPB’s “Think Out Loud” for a conversation about those very questions.
The wide-ranging conversation hit on the difference between getting elected and holding office, to how diversity changes government processes, to creating and finding safe spaces in politics.
“Think Out Loud” host Dave Miller started by asking Jayapal why she thinks more women of color are being elected in the years since President Donald Trump’s election.
Susheela Jayapal: I think we clearly saw our reaction to the 2016 election of women saying this is not our government and if we want to make it our government, we need to step up and figure out how to do that. I think we see the electorate and funders having a similar reaction — and you can’t underestimate the role of money in politics anywhere, and certainly not here in Oregon. … I think you see the consequences of a changing demographic. So in Oregon, our demographics are changing as they are nationwide and I think that’s having an impact as well. So those are just three of the things that I would pull out.
Dave Miller: What about you personally? Why did you switch from a variety of careers including law and philanthropy? Why go to politics? It seems like such a difficult world to choose to go into.
Jayapal: It is, and I think if you’d asked me whether I would do this, let’s say three years ago, I would’ve said no and probably something like heck no.
Miller: That recently? Three years ago you would have said that?
Jayapal: Absolutely. I decided to run summer of 2017.
Miller: How much of it was because of Donald Trump for you personally?
Jayapal: I think Donald Trump, for me personally, was in the background. So it was there in the mix, in the environment, but the immediate driver was much more local. The immediate driver for me was looking around my community and saying that if the trends that I see don’t stop, this is no longer going to be a community in which I want to live. And those trends are that even in a booming economy — disproportionately for people of color, for immigrants and refugees — this community is becoming unlivable. And if that continues, I’m one of those people, I don’t want to live in what that will become. So where can I put my skills to use?
Miller: Kathy Wai, why politics?
Kathy Wai: For me, I think politics, whether I knew it or not, had always been a part of my life and a part of my journey. My parents are originally from Burma … also called Myanmar. We emigrated when I was 6 six years old. We moved to the Bay Area. And I remember vividly my mother saying reasons as to why we’re leaving our country, a country that we were all familiar with, that we loved, that we called our place of home. And I remembered her saying, “We’re leaving this country for you, for your future.” … So I remember just at an early age as a child that politics somehow was sort of intertwined with my destiny of who I could become, of what my future could look like.
Though more women of color are running for office now than before, Color PAC executive director Ana del Rocio emphasized that they have a long history in politics.
Del Rocio told OPB earlier this year that many people of color, historically, wouldn’t run for hyperlocal positions like on a school board because those time-consuming, volunteer positions seem as better-suited for disconnected, wealthy white people.
She wants to change that perception. Her organization, Color PAC, helps support and connect candidates of color across Oregon to local groups.
Ana del Rocio: Women of color have always been involved in politics. We’ve always been voting at astounding rates. We’ve always been door-knocking and making phone calls for candidates that we support. We’re active and activist parents in our children’s schools. We’ve always been kind of there, but in the background, behind the scenes. It’s taken a couple of different dynamics coming to play.
At the national stage, people like Donald Trump being elected and really the strong visual of knowing that we can’t count on traditional candidates — traditional, dominant culture, white candidates. And also seeing that as diversity has played a role in increasing the number of men of color in office, we’ve also experienced that we can’t fully count on them either. We have the Ben Carsons and Marco Rubios. Even locally, we see that there’s a very divisive values conversation happening around reproductive justice with our men of color in office locally that don’t support the full spectrum of reproductive rights. That doesn’t work for us.
So if we’re not getting what we need in terms of representation from the traditional, dominant culture candidates, and we’re not getting it from men that look like us, we have to do it ourselves and taking center stage becomes the only possible option then.
Getting elected to office is only the beginning of the process for candidates. Once in office, the women told OPB, they often have to develop unique leadership styles in order to navigate working as a non-white woman in politics.
Wai: I feel like every time I’m in that TriMet board room and I’m in that public seat … that I’m quite literally carrying a lot of the voices and a lot of the experiences of young women, of immigrants, of folks who grew up on the east side of Portland and in the Numbers. And so for me, it’s a huge honor. It’s a big deal to know that like, wow, I’m in the seat and I can make things happen, right? I can enact policy. I can disagree. I can amplify those voices. So I think for me, it’s a huge honor and I don’t take it lightly. … I am always thinking about the voices of our young people in primarily in the city of Portland. I’m thinking about those immigrant and refugee communities whose English might not be a first language. I’m also thinking about our houseless community.
Miller: So what’s an example of a policy decision that you think you made because of that? I mean, when you have all of those communities in mind, some of which you’re a part of, some of which you just are maybe more aware of than a richer, whiter male-er, older member of the board — how do you think that that is actually affected a vote you’ve taken?
Wai: So early on in my board decision making at TriMet, we were presented with an opportunity to look at a fare ordinance. And I just felt really in my heart that we didn’t really engage enough community organizations and that it just sort of felt like a rushed process on the behalf of our agency. And I knew that this was going to be a big deal because it was the type of vote that would need unanimous support from all the board members. So I knew, OK, if I was the only one who disagreed with it, this would come to quite literally a screeching halt. So I remember, that day I was on the fence. I was going back and forth. But again, what really was my inspiration and my strength was just hearing those voices from East Portland, hearing those community members who I know that if I went ahead and I did not consult with them, they would be pissed at me. … I halted a process and eventually after we did get some of the feedback back from community members, I did eventually vote for it to move forward.
Jo Ann Hardesty: This is a great example of how we lead differently, right? Traditionally, you know, you sit, somebody makes this report, and this happens to me all the time at City Hall, right? They’ll come in front of you. They’re the certified smart people, right? And so they come and they make a presentation and they say, “OK, and this is why you need to vote yes for this.” And then when you start unpacking it, and we [women of color] tend to ask questions: Well, how does this impact my community? Is this something that’s going to be implemented in a way that’s equitable? Are people of color going to benefit from this investment? How are they going to benefit from this investment? These are conversations that don’t happen if we’re not in the room.
del Rocio: The way I see it when you walk in this world, as both a woman and a person of color, when it comes to policymaking, you don’t cut corners. I think a lot about the recent workplace issues that we saw surface in both the state Capitol and in Multnomah County. When I was working there, there were so many efforts, some of them related to making the working space safer for women who need to get rid of harassment, gender-based harassment. OK. The Capitol, whoever’s working on those equity issues, they can wave a magic wand and make gender-based harassment go away. Yes. And I, a woman, would still not be completely safe in that building because they had not tackled the way that I, as a woman of color, experience discrimination and harassment, which is layered. It’s not just because I’m a woman, [it’s] also because I’m a person of color. We take that approach in that lens — and the intersectionality is what it is — into consideration at every single point when it comes to decision making, whether it’s asking the right questions to the right people or really making sure that the policies before us are super inclusive.
Just tackling one issue is not enough. And we know that inherently, viscerally and also theoretically.
Miller: Susheela Jayapal, you are unique in terms of where you sit compared to the three other folks on the panel here, that you are on a majority women of color elected body. … What impact do you think that has made on policy?
Jayapal: There are ways in which having women of color in the conversation change the process and you can’t see from the outside. You can’t say, “Hey, it’s because women of color were there that you landed on that policy.”
But what’s happening in the background is that we’re asking the questions that get us there. So in terms of the county commission, yes, we are all women and we are majority women of color. By way of context, that was true before I arrived in the seat. So in my nine months there, I think I would be hard-pressed to point to one policy and say we got there because of our composition. But what I have seen consistently is that conversation is different and more is better. … And so that means that those conversations are easier and faster for me than they are for Jo Ann [the only black woman on Portland City Council] because … we’ve got three women of color bringing that lens.
… In many of our institutions, we talk about having an equity lens. And typically … it’s often a checklist and it’s good. I’m not minimizing it. It’s a tool. We come with the lens. The lens is part of our identity, right? It’s not a complete lens. I don’t have a lens of a black woman. I don’t have a lens of a Latina. But I have a lens of race that’s just built into how I approach an issue. And so I think that’s what one of us brings. And when you’ve got three of us and we all bring it, we get there faster.
Miller: Jo Ann Hardesty, I hope isn’t a dumb question. … When are you most aware that you are the only person of color and woman of color, the only black person, the only black woman on the Council?
Hardesty: When I first got the city councilor [seat], you might remember that apparently Wednesday mornings were white men who came and cursed out the City Council and yelled and jumped up and down. … My first Wednesday, I was shocked. I leaned over and said to the mayor, “Is this normal?” He said, “Yeah, every Wednesday.” And I went, Oh no, I don’t think so. Right? So the next week I did a public statement and said, “This is not OK. This is the people’s house and everybody has a right to have their voice heard and you’re just sucking all the air out of the room and that’s not appropriate.” You come to City Hall today, it’s a different place. And it wasn’t that I was like — you know, I’m a hundred pounds. It wasn’t like I was all powerful.
But the point was is that I just called it out. We live in the Pacific Northwest, which I call “Pacific Northwest nice.” Right? Which means that people don’t confront the issue. That’s really the problem, right? We talk around it. We run circles around it, but we don’t address it. But as an African American woman, early in my administration, I’m questioning an expert and I’m told I’m bullying her and I’m talking in a very the same tone I’m talking now. The question was really a simple question: Can my daddy stay in your apartment complex? But the woman goes crying, screaming from the City Council chambers. All of the sudden, I’m a bully because it’s good to be able to just say, the black woman’s a bully, so then you can just ignore her. Right? But again, I didn’t run away from it. I took it head on and basically said, You will not silence me. I was elected by 67% of the voters because they thought I was the best person for this job. I will not be silenced in this position. That’s how we lead differently, right? I didn’t get elected so I could just like go with the flow and fit in. Because if the flow was working, I wouldn’t have needed to run for public office.
Miller: So I don’t know if the four of you have noticed this, but I am a white man. I’m just curious how you think this conversation would have gone if I hadn’t been here. You all know each other. You have your own relationships. What would you have gotten to talk about, do you think, if I hadn’t been here?
del Rocio: As someone who does not currently hold an elected role, I will venture out and say that it’s difficult speaking about the traumatic experiences that get placed before you, when you’re in office and it’s difficult. You can’t speak about it publicly, right? Because you open yourself up to a ton of additional vulnerability and attacks. So these spaces of just having women, women of color speaking with each other and offering support become even more critical because we’re able to vent and share, “Hey, this, look at this email that I got from a constituent,” or “Look, I went to jail.” Right? Like you’re able to unload all these traumatic experiences and be replenished by people that are standing by your side, have an equal vision for the state that they are working with you towards.
Jayapal: I think that’s exactly right. I think if we’d been in a room together, we would have moved towards, “Here’s something that happened to me yesterday.” Yeah. And those are hard to share on the radio. But that is where the conversation probably would’ve gone.
Hardesty: I agree. And I wish there was something like Color PAC around when I first ran for office because the kind of campaign schools that were around when I first ran were trying to teach you how to look and act like a white male. Right? And you may not have noticed, but I am black and I’m female and I will never, ever, ever be able to take that persona on. But the theory at that time was … there was an appropriate way for women to look. Padded shoulders would make you look stronger. You know, it was just ridiculous … . One last thing I want to say: I try really hard not to have my pain in public. I need safe spaces that I can go to. I’m a professional, so I will never actually cuss somebody out in public. But behind closed doors I may. But we need that space and we need the people that we know are not going to judge us, that are not going to say, “Well, how did you provoke her?” And because of all our lived experience, [the other panelists] are never going to ask me those kinds of questions. So if you weren’t here, we would be having those kinds of deeper level conversations.
Jayapal: And just one more point on that. It picks up on what Ana was saying earlier about all of the things that we as women of color have to manage. So the additional thing we have to find time for is to structure those safe spaces. That’s something that comes just in the atmosphere for somebody from the dominant culture. But we have to spend time on cultivating those spaces.
Wai: And I think for me, being elected again, being in these public roles, I’ve had so many young women, young people, women of color, Asian women in my community say, “Kathy, we’re watching you. We’re hearing what you say. We’re behind you, thank you. Thank you so much for being there and being there for me.” And so for me, that continues to be, I think, my biggest source of inspiration and source for why I want to wake up. why would I want to do like three different jobs? … That’s the reason. I look at my sister, I look at my mom and grandma, actually. Those are all three women who made tremendous sacrifices for me so that I can have a better future here in this country. And so to have them look at me and say all of the pain and all the struggles were worth it. That makes me feel really proud.
Listen to the full conversation in the audio player at the top of the page.