women in leadership

South Asians for Biden hosted a virtual event Aug. 29 featuring four South Asian American women running for office. Clockwise from top left: moderator Mini Timmaraju, a board member with the Indian American Impact Fund; Kesha Ram, candidate for the Vermont State Senate; Nina Ahmad, candidate for Pennsylvania Auditor General; Harini Krishnan, co-chair of the California arm of South Asians for Biden; Sadaf Jaffer, Mayor of Montgomery Township in New Jersey; and Harbir Bhatia, candidate for Santa Clara, California City Council. (Zoom screen grab)

“This is a very hopeful moment. Our daughters becoming president is so much more real now,” said Montgomery Township, New Jersey Mayor Sadaf Jaffer Aug. 29, optimistically kicking off a Women in Political Leadership virtual event hosted by South Asians for Biden.

Jaffer was referring to Indian American vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, chosen by Democratic presidential contender Joe Biden to be his running mate.

Jaffer is herself a pioneer, as the first Muslim American woman to serve as mayor in the U.S. She was joined by three other South Asian American political pioneers: Kesha Ram, the youngest woman serving as an elected legislator in Vermont and candidate for the Vermont State Senate; Nina Ahmad, candidate for Pennsylvania Auditor General, who will be the first woman of color to hold a statewide office in Pennsylvania, if elected; and Harbir Bhatia, candidate for Santa Clara, California City Council. The discussion was moderated by veteran political strategist Mini Timmaraju, a board member with the Indian American Impact Fund.

“I’m so excited that we’re having this panel today with so many incredible, trailblazing women who are ready to usher in a new wave of leadership into the White House,” said Harris, in pre-recorded remarks.

“To all the young women watching this, I just want you to know that leadership starts the day you are born. You are never too young or too old to be a leader. Just lead, and don't listen that it can't be done, because I never have,” said the senator from California.

“Kamala Harris will reflect us,” said Ahmad. “I think we’re going to see a different America.”

“All of us on this panel know what it means to be left out and marginalized,” said Ahmad, a molecular biologist who was born in Bangladesh and grew up amid the country’s civil war. Ahmad is campaigning in a state that is 76 percent white and less than four percent Asian American. President Donald Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania in 2016. Pennsylvania is a key battleground state in the Nov. 3 general election.

In 2017, as Jaffer won her first term, beating her Republican opponent David Cheskis by 216 votes, the mayor said she experienced racism. “My opponent published a flyer calling me ‘dangerous and extreme.’ He wrote in his concession speech: ‘I was born in this county and now some Indian is going to tell me what to do?’”

Jaffer, who is Pakistani American, founded the Montgomery Mosaic after she was elected, an interfaith community aimed at stemming racism.

Ram, who is both Irish and Indian American, said she was grateful for Harris’s leadership. If she wins, Ram will be the first woman of color in the Vermont state Senate.

“Get in the game young, and get used to losing,” she advised political hopefuls. “It is okay to risk and okay to lose,” she said.

Bhatia noted that South Asian Americans are the majority ethnicity in Santa Clara, but “most are very passive. We have to convince them to participate.”

If she is elected, Bhatia will be the first Sikh American to hold a city council post in Santa Clara. The former engineer said she had never envisioned herself as a political leader, but found herself “needing to speak up and be more civically engaged to build a better community.”

“I want to create a pipeline of future leaders. There are so many marginalized communities who need to be heard,” she said.

Harini Krishnan, co-chair of the California arm of South Asians for Biden, concluded the event, stating: “This is the most consequential election of our lifetime. This is our moment. We need you to get out and vote.”

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