Indian-American trailblazers speak of ‘Breaking Barriers’ at 2021 AAPI Inaugural Ball
By Geeta Goindi
Washington, DC, January 20, 2021 – It is an historic first: Kamala Devi Harris – a woman, of Indian descent – has been sworn in as vice president of the United States of America at an inauguration ceremony like no other given the dual threats of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic and domestic terrorism in wake of the US Capitol attack.
Addressing the 2021 AAPI Inaugural Ball Tuesday evening, Harris said, “The contributions of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community are woven throughout the fabric of our country and I am proud to be with you tonight as our nation’s first vice president-elect of Asian descent. My story is the story of millions of Americans. My mother, Shyamala Gopalan, arrived in the United States from India. She raised my sister, Maya, and me to know that though we may be the first, we should not be the last and I have carried that lesson with me throughout my career”.
It must be mentioned that both the Indian and African-American communities claim Harris as their own. The daughter of immigrants, her mother, the late Dr. Shyamala Gopalan, hailed from India while her father, Donald Harris, is from Jamaica. Her parents split when she was a kid and both she and her younger sister, Maya Harris, were raised by her Tamilian mother.
Harris has been a rising star in Democratic politics for some two decades now, breaking through glass ceilings with grit and determination. She became the first female and first woman of color to be elected District Attorney of San Francisco when she pulled together a coalition of people winning the 2003 election and defeating two-term, seemingly entrenched, incumbent Terence Hallinan.
She served two terms (2004-2011) before deciding to run for Attorney General of California. She became the first female and first woman of color to be elected top cop of the biggest state in the country – and re-elected to the position.
In 2016, Harris became the first Indian-American elected to the Senate. After she ended her 2020 Democratic presidential campaign, Joe Biden picked her as his running mate. Today, they were sworn in as president and vice president, around noon, at the Capitol.
On the eve of the presidential inauguration, Harris told members of the AAPI community, “From serving as the first woman District attorney of San Francisco, to the first woman Attorney General of California and the first woman of color to represent the great state of California in the United States Senate, your continued faith in me has brought me to this moment”.
Stressing the importance of unifying a nation deeply divided after four long, chaotic years of the Trump presidency, Harris told the online audience, “When I accepted the nomination to be your vice president, I did so fully committed to realizing the vision of a stronger, more united America that provides an opportunity for all. It is a vision that our president-elect shares and we will strive to fulfil it. The president-elect and I know that there is nothing that we cannot accomplish if we do it together and we are committed to working with you in the days and months ahead to rebuild our nation in a way that lifts up all Americans”.
Harris firmly espouses the belief, “None of us are free until all of us are free”.
At the remote inaugural event, she told Asian Americans, “As I prepare to take the oath of office as the next vice president of the United States, I carry you all with me. I could not be more grateful for your continued support at this moment and I cannot wait to see all that we will accomplish together”.
In keeping with the theme of the AAPI Inaugural Ball, ‘Breaking Barriers’, the virtual event celebrated Asian American and Pacific Islanders recognizing the manifold contributions they make to the nation. It was hosted by the Presidential Inaugural Committee (PIC) in partnership with prominent political advocacy groups — Indian American Impact Fund and RUN AAPI.
Neera Tanden who has been tapped by Biden to serve as Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), a cabinet position, gushed, “I am so honored to be part of the incoming administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris and I want to thank all of you for helping us get to this moment where we have this historic new administration”.
Currently, Tanden serves as President and CEO of the Center for American Progress, an organization dedicated to advancing policies that increase opportunity for every American. She herself has a compelling personal story, one that has shaped her outlook. As a child, she relied on food stamps and Section 8 housing – a social safety net that offered her single mother the foundation she needed to land a good job and lift her family to the middle class.
Biden has described Tanden as having a “brilliant policy mind with critical practical experience across government”. If confirmed by the Senate, she will be the first Indian-American and first woman of color to lead the OMB.
“Budgets are not abstractions”, she says. “They are a reflection of our values. They touch our lives in profound ways, and sometimes they make all the difference”.
In her remarks to the AAPI online gathering, she said, “I know for many in our community, there is so much to be proud of. Not only can we celebrate an incredibly diverse cabinet, but we can also celebrate the fact that we have the first vice president-elect who is of Asian descent. I am incredibly proud to serve alongside Kamala Harris and I am just incredibly grateful to all of you for all you’ve done to ensure that we are on the cusp of making change and making history”.
Among the trailblazers who addressed the celebratory event were the four Indian-American Democratic lawmakers serving on Capitol Hill: Rep. Pramila Jayapal of Washington; Rep. Ami Bera of California; Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois; and Rep. Ro Khanna of California.
“I am deeply proud and excited to call Kamala Harris our next vice president, the first woman, the first South Asian American and the first black American to ever be elected to this position of public trust”, Jayapal said. “Today, we prove that our democracy still works and that the power always belongs to the people through the power of our vote”.
“I want to thank IMPACT for everything that you have done to get us to this moment. I so look forward to continuing to build the voice and the power of our communities”, she added.
About the incoming administration, Bera noted, “These are a few humble people who get the importance of this moment in time to heal this country, to bring us together, to face with courage the challenges that are ahead of us”.
Expressing enthusiasm about the inauguration of Biden as president and Harris as vice president, Krishnamoorthi said, ‘I’m so happy that they are finally able to take over leadership”.
“All inaugurations are special, but this one is going to be particularly special”, Khanna said.