Profile in Color: Meet State Senator-Elect Kesha Ram from Vermont, America’s Whitest State
- In a conversation with American Kahani, Ram says, “It’s a gift that people — young women and young people of color — share their stories with me. It keeps me going.”
As the first person of color in the Vermont state legislature and at one time the youngest legislator in the country, Democrat Kesha Ram has never been afraid of ambition.
And on Nov 3, 2020, Ram became the first woman of color elected to the Vermont Senate, placing her alongside five other State Senators for the Chittenden County district. Ram came in third in the six-seat Chittenden District with 46,504 votes, according to unofficial results posted on the Vermont Secretary of State Election website. All six seats in the district were won by candidates backed by the Democratic and Progressive parties.
The UVM and Harvard alum has broken numerous barriers throughout her career as a social scientist, legislator, equity consultant and leader. Choosing the life of public service seemed natural to Ram from an early age. The daughter of an Indian immigrant father from Punjab and a Jewish American mother, who opened an Irish pub, Ram says, “As a child, I had benefited from a lot of programs meant for supporting young and gifted kids, opportunities that I might not have had access to otherwise.”
When her parents divorced and her mother became a single mom raising three kids, Ram says, “knowing that if I was on the free lunch program, I could take the SATs for free, was a really big deal. My life has been supported by the policy work of others, who said there are smart, hard-working young people out there who just need a chance. Kids like me just needed some barriers lowered to succeed. Those policies greatly helped me and I want to turn around and help others the same way.”
Ambitious from a young age, Ram’s political journey started in the 5th grade.
She was first elected as Student Body President of her elementary school in Los Angeles. “I would write speeches on note cards and go to the school board and I would talk about violence around the school and kids who might be going hungry,” Ram said. “They weren’t getting an update from the student council president about T-shirts or something.”
Ram graduated from UVM with a Bachelor of Science in Natural Resources Planning and a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. While in school, she was a member of Slade, a student-run ecological cooperative.
She said her educational background was a good source of training that continues to help her make data-informed decisions. “Data tells stories and stories give you data,” Ram said. “I tend to be a dichotomous thinker in terms of being very data-driven and very emotional and oriented towards storytelling.”
In the years following her graduation from UVM, she has advocated for more effective data collection accounting for demographic differences across the state. Recently, this initiative has helped to identify how to best distribute resources during the pandemic.
“We saw huge disparities in infection rates for Black Vermonter and for new Americans,” Ram said of the COVID-19 pandemic.
As Kamala Harris’ State Chair for Vermont Ram, and a long-time admirer of the Vice President-elect, Ram says “My father passed away in 2015. He was an immigrant from Punjab, who ran an Irish pub in LA. He didn’t take to too many politicians, but he always respected Kamala Harris and he instilled that respect and admiration for her in me at a young age. I have had a chance to relate her story to mine – I have a Jewish American mother and an Indian immigrant father. I thought I knew how elated I would be to learn Harris is earning a place in the White House but when it happened, I could barely describe the feeling knowing that the Biden-Harris team will be in the White House and will be our partners in the work that lies ahead.”
In her path to political success, Ram has overcome quite a few hurdles. “In a state like Vermont, which is pretty overwhelmingly white and homogenous, to be a brown person and have a name that’s different sounding, people instantly assumed I was not from here. You get the attitude more here that ‘you don’t look like a lot of other people, so you must not be a real Vermonter’,” says the olive-skinned Ram.
More than 94% of Vermont’s population is white. In Chittenden County, where Ram won, this number falls to 90.3%.
Ram adds, “In this moment of racial unrest, Vermont is taking a much harder look at itself and recognizing that the attitude of pushing people away is unsustainable for the future of our state. There is an awareness that we need to be far more welcoming to really attract more people.”
According to Ram, 90 percent of Vermont’s population growth over the last ten years has been people of color from refugee resettlement programs and from people who come to work in the fields of academia, medicine and technology. “It is up to us to retain those folks, if we are going to have a bright future, with young leaders from the next generation. We have to be thoughtful in welcoming them here.”
“My driving force is in making people feel welcome,” Ram said. “But changes are coming in this country and Vermont is on the tail end of demographic shifts of figuring out what the next generation will look like and what demands they will have.”
Ram took a sabbatical from politics after she lost the 2016 Democratic primary race for lieutenant governor. The respite from politics gave her time to attend the Harvard Kennedy School and reevaluate what matters to her.
The push to get people of color into state office doesn’t stop with her election.
“I want to turn around and help recruit the first Indigenous woman, the first Black woman,” she said. “Many other firsts and seconds and onward so that we can have a robust conversation and no one is seen as monolithic.” The state has struggled with a lack of diversity in politics for some time.
An inspiration to all that meet her, a humble Ram says, “I have heard from young people that come up to me and say ‘I saw you speak at my high school’ or ‘you inspired me to look at such and such college’ and then add another layer to this by saying, ‘you’re the first Asian American leader I have met in Vermont’. This responsibility, when I hear it, hits me hard. It’s a gift that people — young women and young people of color — share their stories with me. It keeps me going. It’s why I work so hard. And with my story, I want young people to know that it’s okay to lose. You can pick yourself back up and try again. Rest, recover and return, stronger and even more ready to take on the challenges ahead.”
And although her family is thrilled by her win, Ram admits when she first ran, her dadiji (who is now deceased) was not on board when she saw her become the youngest legislator in the state. “The first thing she said to me was you are such a good singer, why don’t you go back to singing. I guess even being a starving musician was a better option than being a politician,” she says laughing at the memory.
Her grandmother, having lived through the Partition of India, had seen the greed and corruption of government officials. “For her, politics was not a noble pursuit and this attitude just made me a better, more virtuous legislator. It made me try harder to be someone she could be proud of. I do what I do for and because of her.”
Ram is certain her father, who worked his whole life to make them better citizens and stand up for what they believed, would be proud of her today, although he’s not here to tell her himself. “As an Indian publication, I’m sure your readers will relate when I say that my father, who would take me to my speaking engagements, never really said that he was proud of me, until I remember, this one instance, he told someone who asked him if he was proud of me that he was. I will hold onto that memory forever!”
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.