The International Studies Leadership Council (ISLC) hosted former Maryland gubernatorial candidate Krish Vignarajah as part of its 2020 Election and Future of American Democracy series in an event titled “Women in Politics” on Oct. 6. ISLC members freshman Alison Bader and sophomore John Strezewski moderated the event.
Vignarajah served as a policymaker for former First Lady Michelle Obama, focusing on the Let Girls Learn initiative, and as a senior advisor at the State Department under Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton. She is currently the president and CEO of Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service, the largest national faith-based nonprofit dedicated to serving immigrants and refugees in the U.S.
In 2018, Vignarajah finished fourth in a crowded Democratic primary for the Maryland gubernatorial race.
As the only woman who competed in the primary election and a mother to a newborn at the time, Vignarajah described some of the criticisms and disadvantages she encountered that male candidates did not have to face. She also noted how throughout her academic and professional careers, she often felt as an immigrant, woman and mother that she lacked adequate representation.
“I remember people criticizing me for running with a newborn. I wanted to own the fact that I was a woman running, I was a mother running,” she said. “In my career I have often been the only something in the room — the only person of color in the room, the only woman of color in the room, the only immigrant in the room. We cannot expect women and girls to raise their voices if they’re not taught that their voices matter.”
Freshman Jeremy Giles stated that he found Vignarajah’s determination in the face of various obstacles, such as coming to America as a child from Sri Lanka in a difficult financial situation and being a woman in a male-dominated field, inspiring.
“It’s amazing not only that she did it, but that it never really seemed to affect her,” he said. “She told us about how before a woman runs, you generally have to ask [her] seven or eight times, while a man is more likely just to go for it because he sees the route. That part of it is less talked about — that mental conditioning was really interesting.”
Vignarajah named the former first lady as one of her role models. She talked about how Obama helped her develop professionally and enabled her to realize the possibilities of maximizing her outreach efforts to vast audiences.
“Michelle Obama is constantly pioneering,” she said. ”She employed strategies in the East Wing that encouraged us to think of out of the box in ways that fostered that creativity and innovation in me and, frankly, ended up with this dynamic where often the West Wing would be looking to the East Wing.”
When asked about the prospect of Senator Kamala Harris becoming the first female vice president, Vignarajah noted that she is setting the way for many women after her.
“My mom would always say, ‘Be the first, but don’t be the last,’ and I do think that whether we like it or not, when you come into a role, and you realize you are setting a new record or making history, [you] must bear that burden and must recognize in many ways [you] represent many who are not on that stage,” she said.
Junior Thifany Braga noted in an email to The News-Letter that of the various ISLC events she has attended, she enjoyed this event the most.
Braga added that she appreciated Vignarajah’s discussion on how the language used by the federal government to describe immigrants shapes the public’s perspective.
“For example, she talked about how calling undocumented immigrants ‘illegal aliens’ dehumanizes them,” she wrote. “I’m very passionate about changing this language because, although I am a U.S. citizen today and never lived here undocumented, when I moved here in 2016 I was a legal resident referred to as an ‘alien’. Being called that made me feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.”
Throughout the event, Vignarajah affirmed that there must be a major change in representation in politics, and that change will stem from how we educate young women.
“In my career I have often been the only something in the room — the only person of color in the room, the only woman of color in the room, the only immigrant in the room. We cannot expect women and girls to raise their voices if they’re not taught that their voices matter,” she said.