Pramila Jayapal, the newly elected member of Congress from Washington state’s 7th District, never intended to become a politician. Jayapal will speak and be honored at “Rise Up,” the founding conference for People’s Action, in Washington, D.C. next week.
Rep. Jayapal came to politics through an unorthodox route. She is a longtime civil rights activist, not a former Hill staffer or lifelong campaigner. It’s clear, even after a brief conversation, that she is not motivated by the kinds of ambitions we typically ascribe to politicians.
“I’m an organizer first,” she said. “I never really thought I would run for office.”
When asked about the relationship between movement activism and electoral politics, Rep. Jayapal elaborated:
“My world is the world of organizing and activism. But I decided to run for office because I actually believe that the philosophy and approach that we have in the organizing sector should permeate elected office – that we should have elected officials who think about (it) as another organizing platform, and bring the perspectives of the grassroots to bear on the critical issues facing our country.”
That led to a conversation about the historical relationship between movement activism and electoral politics. The question was posed: Aren’t you talking about a different fusion of these two activities? You’re saying that elected office can be an organizing position.
Rep. Jayapal discusses elected office as an organizing platform
“I actually don’t think that we have the structures in place yet for this new way of operating,” Rep. Jayapal explained, adding:
“As we get more activists and organizers … into office, that terminology of ‘inside/outside’ becomes less meaningful. What we really need to do is establish a set of structures that allows us to think of ‘inside’ as being, not elected office vs. activism, but ‘inside’ as being those who are really committed to organizing tactics and a progressive vision collectively. That included elected officials, and it includes organizers.”
“That’s the ‘inside,’” she said. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking and talking to my good friends in both communities about how we establish those links in a much better way and how we take down some of the barriers we’ve put up – for good reasons, by the way.”
That led to the next big set of questions: Aren’t you really talking about re-envisioning the way we think of politics and activism in our society? We’ve traditionally thought of politics as a career, and of activism as a form of citizen participation. Are you saying we need to abandon these silos and think more inclusively?
Rep. Jayapal on breaking down the barriers between activism and politics.
Rep. Jayapal spoke about the importance of creating a “new vocabulary” and new institutional structures to support this new blend of politics and activism.
Lastly, the conversation turned to the College for All Act, which Rep. Jayapal has introduced in the House. (See “Why I Introduced the College for All Act” in The Nation.)
Rep. Jayapal on the College for All Act
Rep. Jayapal has laid out an ambitious goal for herself and her allies. She wants to create a new model for political change by melding two distinct worlds – the worlds of politics and activism – into something that has the best qualities of both but is not limited by the restrictions of either.