Interview with Pramila Jayapal: Developing Gender Based Strategies
As part of our ongoing effort to engage in exchanges with other movement leaders, Move to End Violence hosted a virtual fireside chat in September with immigrant rights movement leaders Ana Avendaño, Gaby Pacheco and Pramila Jayapal, where we explored different aspects of the immigration reform debate. Listeners wanted to know more about the strategies behind the work, so I followed up with Pramila Jayapal, co-chair of the We Belong Together Campaign to explore this in greater detail. Our interview follows. As you read this, think about how this might apply to this movement to end violence against girls and women.
Ana Polanco: At the September immigrant rights virtual fireside chat hosted by Move to end Violence, you mentioned that women have the potential to transform the public policy debate and create a kind of society that only women can create. What would a transformed debate look like, and can you tell us more about what that society would look like and for whom? How do we, as advocates, take steps towards that goal?
Pramila Jayapal: There are two immediate things that come to mind. First, I think women are uniquely qualified and positioned to think outside of boxes and silos. That’s because women are used to juggling many roles and because research shows that they actually tend to look more holistically at situations. Women understand the connections between multiple complex issues—from health care to income to immigration. Our public policy debate rarely makes these connections across issue silos, even though public policy would be better served if we could think about the connections between health care and immigration, or income and health, as examples. Designing our conversations and our analysis in ways that cross those silos gets us better policy. And women are in the best position to do that. Second, women tend to be more inclined to believe in many things that we might call “progressive policy” and to support the need for government support and action on those issues. For example, women support funding for education—because they are often the ones making key decisions about their kids’ education and they see the importance. Studies have shown that women often make more compassionate decisions about helping people to get a hand up. Research also shows that women understand the importance of community and family. Imagine if we didn’t have to start by describing the need for the government to actually take care of those who need it, to fund education, or ensure that everyone has access to affordable health care! Our debate would be transformed. When women speak, they tend to make the case for these values. For advocates to get to these places, we have to first examine how we talk about the issues. Do we make the connections often enough or do we succumb to the pressures to silo our issue? Do we connect the dots across issue but also across race? How do we make sure that we are constantly finding a place for anyone—regardless of color, ethnicity, religion or issue area—to be a part of our activism and our solutions? Do we frame our conversations from a values place? Do we support other women (and men) who are out there doing really good work instead of letting things get in the way? And finally, do we put forward a strong gender perspective in our work? Do we put forward women as courageous, compassionate and effective contributors or do we succumb to the easier norm of women as victims? All of these questions should guide our everyday work. We won’t meet them every single day but the more conscious we are of these questions, the more likely our answers will forward the unique perspectives that women bring to a debate.
Ana Polanco: Women have long been at the center of the immigrant rights movement, and you chose to actively put them at the center of your campaign. What strategic decisions did you have to make—around data, public policy, resources, etc. – in order to put women at the center?
Pramila Jayapal: Actually, I think women have and have not been at the center of the immigrant rights movement. They have in that we have a vibrant movement with strong women leading many of the prominent immigrant rights organizations. Women, as our campaign now talks about, also make up more than half of immigrants to the United States. But the truth is that both inside and outside of the immigrant rights movement, we had not built the case for the gender lens on immigration policy. As someone deeply engaged in the immigrant rights movement and a feminist myself, I’ll say honestly that we were a little lazy. And while there were many of us women leading organizations, the strategy we put together was often a strategy for the mainstream. We didn’t think about the benefits, opportunities or NEEDS of putting a gender lens on immigration. There was a lot of great work done by specific parts of the women’s movement—specifically, the domestic violence, trafficking, asylum groups had done fabulous work. And yet, it often felt like disconnected from the “real” immigration reform debate. And it showed—because women across the country (immigrant and non-immigrant), who should have been really active on this issue, weren’t.
So, our work started with doing a real gender analysis on immigration policy today and on immigration reform proposals of the past. There was lots of data out there on different pieces but no-one had really put them together in a coherent way that mirrored the framework of how the immigrant rights movement was talking about immigration reform. We did that work first: built a real gender analysis that we could share so that we could start to make a deeper and stronger case for why immigration reform is a women’s issue.
We also had to get at the fact that many women didn’t see the issue as a women’s issue. So we decided to do some message development and testing. That cost money but we had great resources in Lake Research Partners and Anat Shenkar’s work. We interviewed key leaders in the women’s movement, and looked at previous polling. We used a woman’s voice, defying the general misconception that it is always more powerful to use a man’s voice in polling and message delivery. We got amazing statistics! Women were moveable on the issue! We just needed to talk to them, engage them, direct our messages and our messengers to them.
On resources, it was always a balance, but we always were determined that the campaign should be more than just policy analysis and messaging. We wanted to inspire grassroots action, build leadership among immigrant and non-immigrant women on the issue, and fundamentally shift the messaging from one of women as victims to women as contributors. We wanted to build a strong multi-racial movement that combined immigration and feminism and prepared us not only for this fight but for many into the future! That’s why things like civil disobedience and escalation were such a strong part of our campaign and inspired so much connection, resolve and courage—along with direct work with the Senate and House to craft smart policy that included women.
Ana Polanco: Campaigns are becoming the main vehicle for communicating with the electorate the public policy changes you wish to see. Are there important strategic differences that activists need to understand about how to treat male v female voters?
Pramila Jayapal: I think it probably depends on the issue, but I would say one of the main things we paid a lot of attention to was to not inadvertently box women right back into a particular role. For example, while it’s true that kids are a really important part of a woman’s motivation and persona, we also wanted to include women who are entrepreneurs or single. We didn’t want to just paint the picture of women in the family role. I think we have to be really careful about that because it just continues the cycle of boxing women into specific roles and there are all kinds of diverse roles that women do and want to play. Similarly, we had to be really conscious about racial diversity. Sure, we can speak just about Latinas in immigration reform, but think of all the opportunities we are missing to talk to Asian, Caucasian and African-American women! Our campaign really focused on defining immigration reform as an every woman’s issue—not just affecting some women. This component is often, sadly, left out of the immigration debate when we focus it only on one race or ethnicity.
Ana Polanco: If we want to accelerate our goal of ending violence against women and girls, how essential is it to increase the number of women in federal and state elected office? What are the benefits and pitfalls of getting engaged in political work?
Pramila Jayapal: Essential! The challenges are that the political system as it exists today is not exactly the most democratic or gender-neutral system! Women have to work really hard to get attention in politics—still. There’s huge inequality—and it only increases if you add the race piece on top. So—that just means we have to be more diligent, more focused, more attentive to finding every possible opportunity to develop women’s leadership at all levels and build the pipeline. We also have to get political donors—including women—to recognize that we’ll have to take on some risks and some uncomfortable things to get where we know is right. Like, we might have to support a woman who is taking on a male incumbent that may not be terrible but we know she could do better. The political infrastructure doesn’t always look kindly on such things but if we keep telling women to wait—for an open seat, for the time when they can get enough donations, etc.—we’ll never get to the goal. Let’s be bold!
Ana Polanco: As you mentioned during the webinar, having women leaders and defining a public policy issue as a women’s issue are two different things. When talking to the American voter, what do activists need to be really conscious about as they pursue public policy issues in the strategy development phase?
Pramila Jayapal: Have all your ducks in a row. Make sure you do the analysis. It’s convenient and quick (and much cheaper) to just do bells and whistles that largely rests on a communications strategy to give a different angle, but do you have the research and analysis to back it up? And always think about what you’re communicating through your spokespeople. Think multi-pronged approaches—find a way (even if it’s through collaboration with someone else) to connect grassroots organizing with policy development with communications. It’s all important.
Ana Polanco: Can you talk about a missed opportunity where women were not at the center of a strategy and it made a difference in the outcome of a campaign or advocacy effort? What was the big takeaway?
Pramila Jayapal: Well, the debate on jobs is something I have been pondering. Could we build a really strong gender analysis around jobs? Women in the labor force are becoming so much more prevalent and there is so much to build on that could help us carry a powerful jobs campaign, particularly since women are now taking on so much of the low-wage work in the country. I also wonder if we could have done more on health care. It’s possible it was out there and I didn’t know about it, so that’s my caveat. Certainly attacks on groups like Planned Parenthood and NARAL as parts of health care were opportunities that were well-utilized to put women at the center, and Moms Rising did some incredible work on this. But could we have done even more if we built a really strong gender analysis that went beyond what are traditionally seen as women’s health issues, and communicated it out better? Part of this is also that really good efforts that exist around gender and an issue aren’t always given the resources to carry it out further. Funders need to start thinking about—or even requiring!—their grants to have a very specific and intentional gender component to the work, in my opinion.