Pramila Jayapal on Crossing Political Divides

Pramila Jayapal on race, immigration, and how to talk across the political divide.

In today’s charged political landscape, you might think it’s impossible to win Republican support on progressive issues. But immigrant-rights activist Pramila Jayapal is undaunted. She says it is possible not merely to talk across the political divide but to change minds. Jayapal explains how to have tough, effective conversations about race and politics with people who don’t agree with you.

Madeline Ostrander: You have done a lot of groundbreaking work to get people to talk across the political divide on issues like race and immigration. How have you made that possible?

Pramila Jayapal: It's obviously a really difficult thing. Race instantly does tend to polarize people. When you raise the word “race,” the people who aren’t comfortable talking about it feel like they're being blamed. They don't want to acknowledge that it is a part of the conversation. Racism is deep-seated, and has consequences in terms of poverty, job opportunities, and school drop-out rates. Many people of color have felt the impacts of racism and worry that their experiences get ignored.

I think you have to immediately acknowledge that race is a difficult subject, and find a way to assure people that you're not calling everybody a racist. You have to acknowledge that there’s hurt on both sides. You have to talk about those issues without blame, and such a conversation requires compassion, kindness, and consideration of how your words sound.

That's not always the easiest thing to do when you're talking about something you're passionate about. The work that I do is often edgy, and it makes people uncomfortable and I have to be OK with that. Ultimately, it's about courage. It's about standing up for the stuff you believe in but doing it in a way that's compassionate. As I tell my son when he does something that isn’t appropriate, “It’s not about you, it’s about your behavior.”  We have to allow people the space to change without making them feel like bad people—even though there are some who may be. 

Madeline: Have you been able to have productive dialog with people who hold opposing political views?

Pramila: Yeah, we work to bring Republican Congressional representatives, law enforcement, and business leaders into our coalition on immigration reform.

Honest Talk About Immigration
Night of 1001 Conversations
Pramila Jayapal on the "Night of 1000 Conversations."

We got a signed letter from the president of the Washington State Sheriffs’ Association, advocating for immigration reform—the first statewide sheriffs’ association to submit such a letter. He and I are probably about as diametrically opposed in background and formative experiences as we could be. He's from Yakima County. When he talks about immigrants, he still sometimes uses language that is uncomfortable for me. If it were coming from somebody else, I might find it more problematic. But we’re both working at our relationship. I’ve been impressed with how he conducts himself, how hard he works to be culturally aware and to try and reach out, even though we don’t always agree with each other.

In my work, I have learned that awareness and awakening around race is a long journey; it’s part of the psyche. And people don’t jump from one view about race to another across a huge chasm. They take small steps. Our job is to not let the small steps be enough and to always demand larger steps. But we shouldn’t expect change overnight.

I know a lobbyist for one of the largest apple and cherry farmers in the country. He held vehemently anti-immigrant views. Then he fell in love with a woman whose father owns a farm and employs a lot of immigrant workers. She took the lobbyist out into the fields and introduced him to the workers. It probably helped that she told him she wouldn’t marry him unless he changed his view. But he has really changed, and he’s become a great advocate for immigrants. His story shows the possibility that people can change.

We have to guard against the view that people are stagnant. Sometimes it feels that way when you’re in the trenches. You feel like people are never going to change. But there are some people who can change, and you never know which of your words or interactions will move them.

Madeline: What kinds of arguments or reasoning do you use to find common ground with people who have opposite political views?

Pramila: Kids. When you start talking about wanting to provide the best for our children, that’s a common thread. Fairness. Most people want to believe that America is a good country, a fair country. Caring for others. I've watched some pretty interesting conversations in the health care debate where people talk about how their mother raised them to care for their neighbor, to care for people around them, that we're all in it together.


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