When you hear the title for Rep. Pramila Jayapal’s new book—one that was just released in the middle of an election, a pandemic, and a nationwide reckoning on racism—it’s hard not to think of the congresswoman as prophetic. Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change details how Jayapal moved to the U.S. as a solo 16-year-old and became an organizer in Washington state, a path that gave way to her historic political career. “In this book, I talk about why I ended up coming to Congress, which, honestly, I never thought I would do,” she told ELLE. “I thought I was going to be an outside activist for my whole life.”
Jayapal is one of a handful of immigrants serving in Congress and was the first South Asian-American woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. She’s seen, according to Vox, as a “progressive outsider” who’s become an “activist insider,” advocating for the type of change often being demanded on American streets right now.
On Tuesday, Rep. Jayapal went live on ELLE’s Facebook to answer 20 questions about working during the COVID-19 crisis (including her essential cocktail and TV show), the Black Lives Matter movement, and what she’s looking for in a vice president. Find an abridged version of the Q&A below, or watch the full video here:
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What is the most ignorant thing you’ve ever heard someone say in Congress?
It was when I was on the floor and Congressman Don Young said to me, because I was challenging his amendment for predatory hunting on federal public lands, “Young lady, you don’t know a damned thing about what you’re talking about.”
This is a whole section in the book where I describe using that moment to shut down the House floor and do something called asking the gentleman to “take down his words,” which is essentially what you do when somebody insults you. Then standing there and refusing to back down and refusing to deal with this sexist—I believe racist, as well—remarks. I got an apology out of Don Young, and it was a pretty incredible thing because apparently it has never happened before.
What’s your go-to quarantine cocktail?
My go-to quarantine cocktail is an Aperol spritz. I remember when the New York Times article came out on Aperol spritzes and there were a lot of lovers and a lot of haters, but I find it the perfect thing. It reminds me of this time last year when I finally got to take a very delayed—like 15-year-delayed—honeymoon to Italy, and we drank Aperol spritzes every day.
Who is your top pick for vice president?
What I’m looking for is a vice president who energizes the base. I’m obviously looking for a bold progressive because I really think that’s important. I’m looking for somebody who really understands the intersectional nature of all of these issues as we’re seeing and that also recognizes that this moment is a moment for leadership. One of the things that is so important about leadership is being willing to take really bold action. I’m tired of people who just play to some mythical middle. Of course, we want to get swing voters, but we also need young people and folks of color and immigrants to turn out and to be excited about the next vice president and president.
What is your guilty pleasure TV show to binge watch?
This is one of the things that’s happened to me during quarantine. I find myself binge watching like crazy at the end of the day. I’m so tired of Zoom calls that I don’t even want to talk to my husband or do anything. I absolutely love Fleabag. I also love Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever. It is so beautiful and so well done. And of course, [Kaling is] a South Asian-American woman, as well, which is important. I love British television, the mystery series, the thrillers, and detective series. There’s a great one called Scott & Bailey, and there’s a whole bunch of seasons.
If you had only 10 seconds to speak to Trump face-to-face, what would you say to him?
Well, I would try never to be in the same room as Trump. I have tried very hard, and I’ve managed mostly to stick to that with the exception of the State of the Union that I went to. I suppose if I had to come face-to-face with him, I would hand him my copy of the Constitution and say, “Read it, dude. You really obviously don’t know what the Constitution is.”
What is the most random meal you’ve cooked for a fellow congressperson?
One is my first meal with AOC. I was like, “Come over and we’ll chat, but I’ve got a bottle of wine, I’ve got box soup, and I’ve got frozen pizza.” We had a fabulous time. My apartment has been, at times, a gathering place for a bunch of women of color. I had The Squad, but also a few others over, and I made my comfort food, a dish called chana masala. It was so great to be able to share that with my fellow sisters of color.
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What is the most important thing you’ve learned from Janak about being an ally to the LGBTQ community?
Janak is my kid. They are 23 years old, and they came out as non-binary. I think probably the biggest thing is the intentionality of how we talk about gender. When I wrote an essay about my abortion for the New York Times, Janak really helped me to think about the right language to use, to talk about women and pregnant people and also to center those voices. It means so much, the letters and texts and emails that I get about how I use they/them pronouns as a member of Congress. I just want people to feel visible.
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If you could quarantine with one other politician, who would it be?
Shirley Chisholm. I read her book Unbought and Unbossed, and it’s been such an important part of my life. I’d bring her back so that I could quarantine with her and I could listen to every story she was willing to tell me. That woman was a total trailblazer. We stand on her shoulders and others that came before her who have been doing this work and made this path possible for somebody like me.
What is the best thing people can do right now to turn activism into political change?
Register to vote. If you have not registered to vote, register to vote right now. If you have already registered, find five other people that you can register. Then, of course, vote and be active. Don’t let yourself be numbed to what is going on. Don’t let yourself be hopeless. Just know that strength comes in times of crisis. It’s important that people remember that and that we all do everything we can to take our country back and to provide a place where everyone can recognize that they belong and that we’re better than so much of what’s happened.
How have you been supporting the Black Lives Matter movement?
Long before I got here, racial justice was a big part of my work and my platform. In the State Senate, I was part of the group that brought the Department of Justice into Seattle to investigate excessive use of force against Black people.
I’ve had the honor of working with the Congressional Black Caucus leadership as they put together the Justice in Policing Act, which we just passed off the House floor last week. It is an important first step. It bans chokeholds. It bans no-knock warrants, like the kind that killed Breonna Taylor. It ends qualified immunity, which allows us then to have some accountability for police officers who do murder Black people. It establishes a national misconduct registry so that a police officer who has committed terrible misconduct in one department can’t just leave and go to another department and get hired and not even have anyone know about it. Most importantly, it puts money into Black and brown communities in the form of grants to actually lead the conversation on what transforming community safety looks like, transforming police looks like. The reality is that we have a long way to go and we are going to need new models of community safety and policing that will help us to guide this work forward.
Is there anything that got cut from your book that you wish was still in there?
When I got the book contract, it was 2013 or 2012, and it was supposed to be a book on immigration. I had a number of chapters that were already drafted that were in-depth portraits of immigrants that I had worked with and things we had gone through. I was supposed to finish it in a year and then I ran for the State Senate, so it got delayed. Then I ran for Congress, and it got delayed. Finally, my publisher was like, you have to write this book. By then it had changed from being a book on immigration to being this.
It wasn’t that anything got cut. It’s just that the book changed to reflect all the changes in my own life. My real hope is that the book will be useful to a lot of other women and folks of color and even some men out there who are seeking to understand how this world of politics works and how you navigate it. At the end of the day, I want people to feel hopeful about how to make change happen. I want them to have the tools that they need to make that change happen. I want them to feel their power. Every single one of us has enormous power. We have to know that and really allow ourselves to dwell in that place and then use that power to create good that matters for the world.
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