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Young and Elected: Kesha Ram
Twenty-two-year-old Kesha Ram is a politician whose career you'll want to keep an eye on. After graduating from the University of Vermont last spring, she ran and won a campaign to become the youngest member of the Vermont House of Representatives, and its only person of color.
Ram grew up in Los Angeles, and as a high school student she was involved in environmental activism. She worked to pass legislation banning carcinogenic chemicals from dry cleaning and started a recycling program for her school. At the University of Vermont she received a dual degree in natural resource planning and political science and her thesis focused on the environmental justice movement. As a senior, she was the first person of color to serve as student body president. Ram also served on the Burlington Mayor's Environment and Energy Coordinating Committee.
I recently had a chance to speak with Kesha about her influences, her thoughts on environmental justice and the political changes she'd like to see to improve the lives of young people across the country.
Your father migrated to the U.S. from India and your mom is a Jewish woman from Illinois. Has your upbringing in a bicultural home affected your politics?
My parents were married only a decade after the Loving decision [was made]. I brought that very personal perspective into the public debate and into the legislature while we were discussing [same sex marriage in the state]. Most recently I was approached by [a group of] Congolese women who had just created an organization to focus on the civil war that's happening in their home country of the Democratic Republic of Congo. They saw me as someone who was a salient person, someone who would be compassionate to write a resolution from the state to call on Congress to support the International Violence Against Women Act. They almost felt scared to approach anyone in the legislature because there was too big of a cultural barrier to overcome. [Since I] grew up in a multicultural household, I was really able to form strong bonds [with them].
Who are the people who have helped politicize you?
One of my mentors in the legislature is Rachel Weston. There were very few people under the age of forty in the legislature but she just decided to run and get out there and it was really inspiring for me. We kept in touch [while] I was becoming the student body president at the University of Vermont and she was running for the legislature. I was doing my thesis on environmental justice in the state and the fact that we don't have policies to deal with inequities around lead poising and sewage in mobile home parks. She helped me turn that into a piece of legislation.
You have been involved in a number of efforts to improve the environment. How did you become interested in environmental justice work and what are some of the changes you'd like to see in environmental policy?
One of my greatest modern day heroes is actually Van Jones. I met him when I was a senior in high school. I [was in] Los Angeles back then where environmental injustices are very apparent. But I had been approaching [the issues] from this very activist angle where, even as a person of color, I separated my passion for the environment from my passion for social justice. I never thought about the connections between the two.
And then I met Van Jones who was speaking to a group of environmentalists, [telling them], "You know you need to be thinking about juvenile over-incarceration, you can't be talking to people who are struggling to put food on the table and whose kids have asthma that they need to be saving the polar bears. If you don't think about the social justice component of all of this then your movement will fail." That was incredibly poignant for me because I realized I was speaking this whole different language about what it meant to be an environmentalist. It wasn't really seeing people in the picture.
A number of studies and articles have been released that confirm that low-income people and people of color are being disproportionately affected by the recession, by toxic air pollution and by a lack of adequate access to education and healthcare (PDF) in their communities. What kind of work needs to be done on a local and national level to change these inequalities?
As a former preschool teacher, my real passion is for early childhood education and the accessibility of higher education. The dollars spent in early child education are shown to prevent so much crime and school dropout from happening later on. At the same time, you have to give all young people an equal opportunity to dream. I think right now we have a really big problem with the cost of higher education. I'm hoping to join a growing chorus nationally of people who are telling President Obama that we're really cutting certain people off from educational opportunities.
What are some of the more challenging or rewarding parts of your work since you've been elected?
Challenging and rewarding are synonymous for me in some ways. I was just working on green jobs legislation this year which is something that is near and dear to my heart. I think [there is a] strong connection between cleaning up the environment, putting people back to work and showing people that you don't have to pit people against environment.
With every new issue you think, Wow that's a great piece of legislation. Then you hear some really compelling arguments from the other side and at some point you have to say "yes" or "no" to something. You may be able to amend it, but at some point it becomes a very black and white decision that you have to make. That can be a real challenge.
Oftentimes, I think young activists and organizers who are invested in grassroots work feel that there is a disconnect between the work they're doing and the work being done on a government level. Have you felt this disconnect? How do you think both sides can bridge that gap?
Part of the reason I ran [for office] was because I saw young people getting excited [about] what was happening on a national level but not on a state and local level. In some ways there is a lamentable lack of awareness about what happens in state legislatures or city councils.
There was a lot of excitement for what could happen if not only Barack Obama was the president but if we got more young people and more dynamic Democrats at a more local level. I saw young people get excited in a way I've never seen before. I just think we need to do a lot to uphold that momentum. I think, so far, young people are proving that they are staying involved and they are holding the president's feet to the fire.
Even though your term has just begun, do you have any thoughts about what you'd like your future political career to look like?
I'm really, really happy with what I'm doing now. For someone at the age of 22 to land a dream job and to be able to figure out if it's really what they love doing is a huge blessing. I'm taking it one session at a time. I feel like I'm able to make so much of a difference in this regard that if at some point it helps me to advance the causes that I believe in, then I will potentially run for other offices or see what advocacy I can do. But I'm really happy with my position right now and I'm [also] starting a job as the legal advocate for one of our local organizations called Women Helping Battered Women (WHBW). I just feel so great about engaging in my community and working on legislation that I know matters to people in my district and in my state.
Nina Jacinto is a freelance blogger living in the Bay Area whose writing focuses on issues of race, gender and media representation. She's a graduate of Pomona College and loves South Asian diaspora narratives, bargain shopping and the internet.