Senator Harris credits her Indian grandmother and mother for being her role models at NDI event
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, May 5, 2017 – Democratic Senator Kamala Harris of California, the first ever Indian-American elected to the upper chamber of Congress, delivered the keynote address at the 2017 Madeleine K. Albright Luncheon held in the nation’s capital to inspire the next generation of women leaders.
Some 240 people packed a ballroom in the upscale Ritz Carlton hotel downtown on Tuesday afternoon for a great cause – to promote the political empowerment of women worldwide. The event was hosted by the National Democratic Institute (NDI), a non-profit organization founded in 1983 “to support and strengthen democratic institutions worldwide through citizen participation, openness and accountability in government”.
Addressing the eminent audience, Senator Harris, 52, whose full name is Kamala Devi Harris, credited her Indian grandmother, Rajam Gopalan, and mother, Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, for being her role models. “I come from a long line of tough, trailblazing, phenomenal women”, she said. “My grandmother would go into villages in India with a bullhorn, telling poor women how to access birth control. My mother came to the US at the age of nineteen to study endocrinology at the University of California, Berkeley, and eventually became a leading breast cancer researcher. There’s no way I could have begun my political journey without strong role models like them to inspire me”.
And what a journey it has been! Harris became the first female and first woman of color to be elected District Attorney of San Francisco. Recalling the chorus of naysayers when she ran for office, she was told, ‘It’s not your turn’, ‘It’s not the right time’, ‘It’s going to be really hard’. Her advise to young women: ‘Do not listen’.
“I did not listen”, she told the NDI gathering. Rather, she pulled together a coalition of people and won the 2003 election, defeating two-term, seemingly entrenched, incumbent Terence Hallinan.
Harris served two terms before deciding to run for Attorney General of California. Again, she was discouraged. But, she persisted and became the first female and first woman of color to be elected top cop of the biggest state in the country.
Now, Harris proudly serves in the US Senate. “From this platform – and every step along the way – I have tried to live another lesson my mother taught me: ‘You may be the first, but make sure you aren’t the last’,” she told the NDI audience.
Referring to the challenges, Harris bemoaned that “women are about 51 percent of the US population, but make up just under 20 percent of the US Congress, and only about a quarter of state legislators”.
Globally, she noted, women are 50 percent of the population, but hold only 23 percent of seats in national legislatures. “There are countries where women who engage in the political process face not just slurs, or whisper campaigns, or comments about their clothes – they face rape, violence and even death. Imagine being killed for trying to serve in parliament or for trying to cast a ballot”, she said, incredulously.
Harris commended NDI for its work in strengthening democracy around the world. “We must do more to promote women’s voices and perspectives across the globe”, she underscored. “Bringing women into government is not just the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do. It yields better policy, healthier democracies, and stronger communities”, she said.
Harris had a non-violent solution for defeating terrorism: empower women and girls. “That’s how we build stronger, more resilient communities that can resist violent extremism”, she said.
To spur economic growth, particularly in developing countries, she asserted, “Make sure women can contribute the same as men”.
At the NDI event, the 2017 Madeleine K. Albright grant of 25,000 dollars was awarded to Women Act for a Living Together (WALT) for its work to build a better life for women in the Central African Republic plagued by extreme unrest and violence. The grant was established in 2005 to recognize former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s contributions to the empowerment of women worldwide. At the tenth annual luncheon, she presented the award to Angeline Kel-Kaigama, Secretary General for Gender-Elections-Democracy, at WALT.
Albright herself is a trailblazer having served as the first female Secretary of State (1997-2001) under President Bill Clinton. She is now a distinguished Professor in the Practice of Diplomacy at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service, and chairs the NDI. She is a formidable speaker and spoke so eloquently at the luncheon on Tuesday on an issue close to her heart: women and politics.
The event, she explained, “supports organizations which are making a difference for women, especially young women at the grassroots level. Our goal is to inspire the next generation to lead and to give young women the tools they need to overcome obstacles and make their voices heard”, she said.
A vocal critic of President Trump, she noted, “The cause of supporting democracy has never been more important. Here in the US and around the world, the principles of NDI are being tested”, she said, referring to the rise of nationalism, and an erosion of confidence in national and global institutions. “Almost everywhere, new technologies are making it easier for the public to express anger, but not for governments to solve problems”, she said.
Formerly America’s top diplomat, Albright told the audience, “The US, once an example to the world, is confusing our friends and encouraging our enemies. All this has caused some to proclaim that democracy is destined to fail. The pessimists are wrong”, she asserted, describing herself as “an optimist who worries a lot”.
Among other speakers at the NDI event were Barbara Mikulski, former Democratic Senator of Maryland (1987-2017), who introduced Harris. Mikulski, the longest-serving woman in Congress, is now a Professor of Public Policy at John Hopkins University, and an NDI board member.
“What a wonderful woman entering the United States Senate”, she said, about Harris. “She brings talent, she brings energy, she brings new ideas and old-fashioned values. She brings a legacy of service. When she broke barriers, she wanted to make sure others didn’t have barriers to break”.
“She’s a fighter, she’s an advocate, she’s tireless, she’s unabashed. She’s just my kinda girl”, Mikulski said.