- Straddling two cultures – Indian immigrant and a more western one – Slatter says she experienced challenges different from that of her father.
Vandana Slatter sounds happy as she cheerily greets me. And she definitely has a reason to smile. “Public service is in the DNA of my family,” says Slatter (D-WA), who just won her re-election bid to the Washington House of Representatives to represent the 48th District.
Family is paramount to Slatter, a pharmacist by training, who fondly reminisces about her father, who, a graduate from medical school in Lucknow, “landed in Canada” for his residency in 1960. After going back and marrying her mother, her parents settled in Prince George British Columbia, where she was born. The eldest of three daughters, Slatter comes from a long line of family that have worked in government and education in India. “My one aunt was a two-time mayor of a city in India – in Jaunpur — and my other aunt was the first woman to go to college in her town,” she says with pride.
“However,” she says laughing, “politics was not considered a profession in my family growing up.”
Encouraged by her parents to go to college and pursue higher education, Slatter received a Bachelor of Science in Pharmacy (BSc Pharm) from the University of British Columbia, Canada, a Doctor of Pharmacy (PharmD) from the University of Washington, and a Master of Public Administration (MPA) from the Evans School of Public Affairs at the University of Washington.
But politics won her heart from very early on. “I was Student Council president. I took part in speech contests and worked on a political campaign in college. But that was the closest I got to politics.”
Slatter became a hospital pharmacist. She did what many adult women do – got married to Greg Slatter – a Canadian research scientist and together the couple moved to Seattle in 1988 for his post doc, while Slatter finished graduate school.
It wasn’t until they moved to Michigan for her husband’s job at Upjohn Co., where she too began to work, that life took her in another direction.
“My life had not been about politics until that point, and then my son was born in 1996 and that life changing event was what informed me about what government means to me, but it was only 10 years after that that I actually ran for office.”
Talking about the experience to help understand why she believes in the importance of having representation in government, Slatter says, “With the birth of my son, I wanted to be able to stay home and breast feed him to give him a strong start to life. I didn’t have a lot of family in Michigan. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) had been passed a few years earlier under the Clinton administration. So, I took the 20 weeks unpaid leave and was grateful that I was able to have that time. And when I returned to the company, which is part of the Act, you get your job back and I got one in clinical research, a job I really wanted. And in that position, I was able to work on a novel antibiotic that twenty years later, was used to prolong my dad’s life when he was dying of cancer. To me that is what government is. Effective government removes barriers so that people can thrive and live up to their full potential.”
That feeling stayed with Slatter. She became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 2000, moved back to the West Coast and got a Masters in Public Administration. Even though she stayed in biotech for a number of years, she got engaged in politics and government. She was appointed to the Board of Pharmacy during a time when they were making a decision about whether women should have the right to emergency contraception. “Personally, as a pharmacist, I testified to the current board saying it was a slippery slope if we were going to allow conscience or religious beliefs of pharmacists to affect medical decisions being made by a woman about her own body. Eventually, I think many shared the same perspective and said maybe I should run for the open position on the board. Which I did,” she says laughing adding, “we worked on that rule and made it so that the pharmacy was required to provide time sensitive medication to people, including emergency contraception.”
The state (Washington State) was sued for this revolutionary decision and it went all the way to the Ninth Circuit Court that eventually agreed to uphold the rule. It was appealed again to the U.S. Supreme Court that decided not to hear it and upheld the decision on the Ninth Circuit Court. “This really showed me that even as a pharmacist, a person of science, although I never thought I could impact the government, I had an impact on policy and could make a difference.”
With this realization, Slatter joined her local Democratic Party, “to look to see if I could actually run for office.”
Losing her first race in her run for City Council, which Slatter calls her “political MBA”, taught her a lot. “I really didn’t know what I was doing. I had done some training. I knew how to campaign and I had good people supporting me, but it was still a new world that I needed to know more about.”
Finding the silver lining in her loss, Slatter says she made lasting relationships and got to understand what my values were and the spaces I wanted to be active in and I continued community engagement.”
Slatter ran again in 2015 and this time emerged victorious, defeating her two female competitors, all her hard work finally paying off. She joined the Bellevue City Council and served on it for a year after which people asked to consider appointment to the legislature, as the position had opened up.
She ran for it despite the challenges. “There was a person already slated to get the seat, but a lot of things fell into place such that I won the appointment,” she says with genuine gratitude. Slatter got into the legislature in 2017 and her journey into public service had truly taken off. “That’s sort of my long, non-linear path into politics,” she says laughing, “but the spark for public service was always in me.”
Crediting her family’s work in government and education in India, and comparing Vice President Elect Harris’ influence by her immigrant Indian mother, Slatter says, “My grandfather, who was involved in the Gandhian movement while in college, which was a pretty big deal at that times as well as my other family members contributions have profoundly impacted me and who I am today.”
But the path to political success was hardly easy for the South Asian American politician. “I am a first-generation immigrant to the United States. Daughter of immigrants, growing up in Canada. I often tell people whom I meet while running for office and who are immigrants from India and have children growing up here that, ‘I’m your child, but I am grown up now.’ I know that they and their children may never return to India in their lifetime, but I believe that if they have an opportunity to sit at the table where decisions are made that affect their economy, education, health and their future, they would. It’s important for someone to forge that path for them.”
Straddling two cultures – Indian immigrant and a more western one – Slatter says she experienced challenges different from that of her father. “I do know what it was like to move to another country as an immigrant and build a life, because I have had to do that here. But I knew the language, was comfortable with the culture. Growing up, I never really saw people that looked like me, except in a small circle of friends my parents had and family. Every room I went into, did not look like me, typically. I was the only brown girl in my school for a very long time. Definitely, there’s still prejudice, but I’ve learnt how to be part of the culture, to integrate and live and straddle two worlds, although I never felt comfortable in either!”
Slatter emphasizes that her dual identity is her greatest strength but also her greatest weakness. “It helps you recognize and be empathetic to those who don’t always fit in. It gives you a certain depth. I am finding that we are getting more aware of our diversity. That is a beautiful thing. However, I’m having to retrain myself out of straddling cultures and embracing my ethnicity,” she adds laughing, “I went from being ‘Van-dana’ with friends to “Van’ at work and back to ‘Vandana’ once again and I’m comfortable correcting people and teaching them how to pronounce it now!”
Slatter adds with solemnity, “I try really hard to be responsive to those that I know have felt all their lives that they have not been heard or seen.”
But the challenge she admits in this new woke world is finding her identity. “As a politician, part of what people want you to do is talk about yourself. And it was what I least wanted to do,” she says, laughing her infectious laugh adding, “all my life I’ve had to figure out what room I’m in, who I’m talking to, whether they will understand me. So now how do I relate to an audience I don’t look like, but live like?”
And as a woman Slatter has faced challenges that women, no matter the color of their skin, face daily. “I’ve been to meetings and been talked over or discounted,” she says adding, “one thing I learnt while on Bellevue City Council, that had three women at the time, and we were all getting frustrated at not really being heard at these meetings, although we were all council members and equal to the men there, was standing together. We had read an article about the Obama administration where women were amplifying each other and we decided to try it. We were actually able to get answers and be heard and it didn’t even phase the men. They didn’t notice it was happening.”
A problem solver at heart, Slatter admits that “whenever I feel I’m being treated differently, I recognize that there are ways to solve it and work toward that end and that has worked for me.”
Going into office in 2021, Slatter says the big question before the government is how they will operate given this “unprecedented and atypical year.” Slatter adds, “Right now the key priority has to be recovery from Covid. What that means is that we have to ensure people are healthy, we get our kids back to school and the economy opens up and get this virus under control. Our public health has to be supported and sustained. In order to do this we are going to need to follow the science and to put the community first, so that everyone gets the vaccine in a safe and effective way,” adding that the Biden-Harris win is a hopeful beacon that “now we (government) will listen to science.”
With Indian American stalwarts in Washington State government like Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal, Sen. Manka Dhingra and Sen. Mona Das, blazing the trail for Indian American women in politics, Slatter says, “I still got so emotional seeing Biden-Harris win, because she embodies our story – the immigrant story and now we (politicians) embody this shared story. Harris’ win speaks to the power of possibility. It speaks to a representation of our country – an administration that I hope will look more like our country – diverse, plural and enriched.”
Finally, when not busy affecting public policy, Slatter can be found enjoying the fresh air of the outdoors with her family and hoping to get back to fencing.
Anu Ghosh immigrated to the U.S. from India in 1999. Back in India she was a journalist for the Times of India in Pune for 8 years and a graduate from the Symbiosis Institute of Journalism and Communication. In the U.S., she obtained her Masters and PhD. in Communications from The Ohio State University. Go Buckeyes! She has been involved in education for the last 15 years, as a professor at Oglethorpe University and then Georgia State University. She currently teaches Special Education at Oak Grove Elementary. She is also a mom to two precocious girls ages 11 and 6.