Pramila Jayapal doesn’t procrastinate like other people. Some lose hours to the internet or social media; some doodle or sleep or text or read. But Jayapal—who has served in the House of Representatives since 2017—has developed her own tactics: When she wants to stall, she runs for elected office.
Jayapal first received a contract to write a book about immigration in 2012. She was an organizer at the time, focused on reform. But about 18 months into the process, she decided to enter the race Washington State Senate. “So I told my publisher, ‘Well, I’m not going to get it done, but if I win, I can write a book about going from organizing to elected office,’” she recalls. “And they were like, ‘Great do that. That would be amazing.’”
But in 2016, Jayapal announced her bid for the House of Representatives, and the book was sidelined once more. She has spent much of her first two terms focused on immigration, health care (she’s a proponent of Medicare for All), and the Green New Deal. She’s also become the co-chair of Congressional Progressive Caucus. She has become so skilled at navigating the entrenched power structures that seem to control the House of Representatives without compromising on her values that Vox deemed her the ultimate “activist insider.”
And it was in that context that, in 2019, her patient publisher reached out. “He said, ‘I will publish anything you write, but you have to give me something,’” Jayapal remembers.
The result is Use the Power You Have: A Brown Woman’s Guide to Politics and Political Change. Published late last month, the book is an account of her time in politics and a roadmap for organizers who want to follow in her footsteps. In its candid acknowledgement of her wins and losses, it’s also a far more honest read than most political memoirs. If she was going to at last sit down to write it after almost a decade, she did want it to be interesting.
“I think a lot of people don’t want to share what they’re really going through because they’re worried they’ll get criticized for it or because they can’t talk about it in a way that is going to protect themselves from whatever political fallout might come,” she explains. “So people remain removed and aloof. And that’s not who I am. If I’m having a real conversation about political power, I’m going to be honest about it because what’s the point otherwise?”
What follows is just that: A real conversation with Jayapal about political power—its opportunities, its limitations, and its emotional toll.
Glamour: We last spoke in 2017, and you were so open about the fact that serving in elected office can be a lonely experience, particularly as a woman of color. A lot has changed since then, and so many women of color joined you in the House of Representatives. Have you felt that change?
Rep. Pramila Jayapal: Yes. It was a sea change, absolutely, and it was so exciting. But I think we’re still a relatively small number compared to where we need to be. I’m still the only person of color the Democrats in Washington State have ever sent to Congress. And so I do feel that same sort of loneliness sometimes. What I’ve found is it doesn’t really go away, but you do find new friends and you do find a new community, and that is really helpful.
I interviewed Stacey Abrams a few weeks ago, and she told me, essentially, that politics takes such a long time because you don’t get what you want—you get what you can negotiate. I find that both galvanizing and sort of dispiriting. You came to politics from organizing and activism. Did you find that to be true then too? Is that just the nature of social change? That it’s an exercise in compromise?
It is very similar in terms of the time that it takes and the time it takes to build movements. But I think what is different is the negotiation. I do think it’s easier to be pure as an activist. Your job is to push boundaries as far as they can go.
In politics, you are now a part of the body that is negotiating [with the activists]. And when you’re on the inside, it’s a funny role that you have to play; you’re both pushing and you’re negotiating and then you’re also voting. It’s not like you can just negotiate something and then sit back and see how other people vote. You actually have to vote on it as well, and you have to stay in the game even if you’re unhappy with the outcome.
You wrote in 2019 about having had an abortion, as a number of states passed restrictions to further limit access to the procedure. It’s not at all an uncommon experience, but it is rare for a woman in an elected position to be open about that. How hard was it to share that?
I thought about it a lot. I had shame about it and I had fear about sharing it, but it just felt like the right thing to do in that moment. I wanted to be open.
I do communicate in a much more intimate way than many politicians do. When I was an activist and in the State Senate, I remember I would talk about love a lot. And when I did, people would react with this tremendous surprise like, “Wow, you talked about love.” It’s like, “Well, yes. I did.”
I think that’s a lot of what politics is missing. People don’t feel connected. People don’t feel bonded. People don’t feel like the person that they’re talking to is a real human being. It’s a risk to be open, because you’re more vulnerable. But I want people to know I’m a real human being.
Even if you’re a privileged person, with a secure job, this is a stressful time. How are you coping?
First, I do feel my privilege every single day. I get to stay home. I get to work from home, for the most part. I still have a paycheck. I still get health insurance. But even so, I do feel we’re opening up too soon. I don’t think we should force people into these positions where they’re having to say, “Well, listen, I have got to put food on my table. So I have got to earn a paycheck. So I have got to go back to work.”
There are 27 million people who have already been kicked off of their healthcare. There are over 100,000 people who have died. And those number are not the most current numbers. Those number will grow. But not knowing how much they’ll grow or who will be affected is a source of constant anxiety. The uncertainty is what is so hard for people.
I feel it too. It’s tough for me as a mom, and it’s tough for me as a daughter, too. My parents live in India, and I don’t get to visit them often. I was supposed to leave to see them on April 4. Of course, I had to cancel.
The truth is I don’t know if or when I’ll get to see my dad. He’s 90, and my mom is struggling. I talk to her every day, but she’s on a different continent and I can’t help her. And then my own kids are in Colorado and Oakland, and I’m not able to see them either. These are just hard times.
I work hard to make sure that I have time to do things that just allow me to continue to see joy in the middle of what sometimes feels like really overwhelming devastation. My husband always calls me the hope dispenser, because I’m an optimistic person, but in order to dispense hope, you’ve got to keep your dispenser filled. And I think if we can get out and see the sunshine and go for a walk and hug the people we can hug, that’s the most we can do right now. And then we have fight like hell for everybody else who desperately needs us to be fighting.
The pandemic is exposing a lot of gaps—gaps in health care, gaps in child care, gaps in access to education or other services. It’s proven that a lot of what progressives have been talking about is a problem, but I imagine it also feels a bit too-little-too-late.
You never want to gloat about being right in the middle of a disaster—especially a disaster like this one. It’s the pandemic, it’s economic devastation, it’s police violence and anti-Blackness, and then it’s the disaster that is the president who’s destroying everything. I do think we are connecting these dots to a certain extent, and that is so important. But we still have to be willing to take on the institutional structures that have cemented those who have power with their power.
Frederick Douglass said power never concedes without a demand, and I think that is true. Now we’re beginning to see the demands. We’re seeing it in the movement for Black lives, around the killing of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and so many other people. We’re seeing it on some level around COVID, with the government covering free testing, although I think that we need to do more. So, sure, I might be right. But it doesn’t feel good to be right because I would rather have it fixed.
You served on the joint “unity task force” that Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Bernie Sanders convened to set priorities for a Biden administration, if he wins. You worked on health care, despite not having much agreement with Biden on the issue. You were also a supporter of Sanders during the primaries. How did you come around to wanting to work with Biden?
Well, I have practice with not seeing the candidate I want win. I was with Bernie in 2016 as well. And this time was hard because Bernie was winning these primaries and just doing so well, and then all of a sudden it changed so fast. At a certain point, it was clear, “Okay, Bernie’s not going to win, and there is no progress possible with Donald Trump in the White House.” So it was not a question for me that I would support Joe Biden.
In terms of serving on the task force, I think we still did make a lot of progress. We did not get Medicare For All, which no one will be surprised to hear. But we did make a lot of progress, and I hope people recognize that our movement is not stopping. It’s going to continue to grow.
Right now, we’re focusing everything we have on getting Joe Biden into office, and then once he’s in office, we’re going to focus everything we have on continuing to move the ball forward. Progressives have done that over and over again. When we proposed the $15 minimum wage, no one thought it was possible. Now it’s the standard position. Immigration reform was seen as impossible. People ran in the other direction from it. Now our position is the standard position.
Progressives are first to the best ideas. So we have to pave the way, we have to walk the road, we have to do the work, and then we can bask in some glory when every one claims it as their own and forgets that it was even a fight to get there.
Do you have strong feelings about who Biden should pick for his vice president?
I just hope he picks the most progressive person that he can. I love Stacey Abrams, and I love Elizabeth Warren. I think that the times are such that the pressure to choose a woman of color is real and important for a lot of reasons. But whomever it is, I hope it’s a person who can motivate young people, progressives, and folks of color. That’s what we need.
When you think about this book in bookstores and you think about the person who is picking it up, who did you write it for?
I get a lot of questions from people who want to know how they can be more effective advocates for justice. How do you balance what you’re fighting for and how do you not lose hope? I wrote it for those people—people who are interested in making change, who want to know how to organize, and who’ve sometimes been told that they don’t have power. I wanted people to feel like, No, you’ve got power. You just have to use it.
This interview has been edited and condensed.
Mattie Kahn is the culture director at Glamour.
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