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An Indian American Woman of Substance: What Kamala Devi Harris Brings to the Table

An Indian American Woman of Substance: What Kamala Devi Harris Brings to the Table

  • Shyamala Gopalan’s daughter has already broken numerous glass ceilings, just a couple of them are left.

Imagine the smell of pongal, biryani or dosa and sambar wafting across the White House. Imagine the relighting of the diya on Diwali and imagine the feeling of immense pride around the globe to have a woman of Indian origin in the White House. Sounds like a fairy tale but all this changed when Kamala Devi Harris agreed to be the Vice Presidential candidate with Joe Biden. Kamala is a graduate of Howard University and the University of California, Hastings College of the Law. She has already broken numerous glass ceilings with her professional success by becoming California’s first Indian-American to serve as District Attorney of San Francisco, Attorney General of California and U.S. Senator.  

Knowing Kamala involves knowing her strong Indian roots that have directly influenced her. Well known facts are that she was born in Oakland, California to Shyamala Gopalan Harris and Donald Harris. Her mother was an immigrant from India (specifically, Chennai) and father was an immigrant from Jamaica. They got married in 1963 after meeting at a civil rights demonstration in California. They divorced when Kamala was just 7. Her sister, Maya and niece, Meena both of whom are accomplished lawyers served as campaign managers when she ran for presidency earlier this year. She is married to California attorney Douglas Emhoff. 

What I found just as fascinating are the less well known facts. Her grandfather, P.V. Gopalan, graduated from college and became an Indian career civil servant and served as Director of Relief Measures and Refugees in the federal Government of Zambia, following its independence from Britain. He was also the Joint Secretary to the Government of India. Due to his various postings, his four children were largely raised by their mother, the strong and fearless Rajam. As a result all their four children were well-educated: G. Balachandran obtained a PhD in economics and computer science from the University of Wisconsin, Sarala is a retired obstetrician, Mahalakshmi was an information scientist who worked for the government in Ontario, Canada, and Kamala’s mother Shyamala became a renowned cancer scientist. 

Kamala’s grandfather, whom she adored, was progressive beyond his time. At a time when women were expected to be solely homemakers, he allowed his oldest child, a 19-year-old unmarried daughter, to apply and go to the United States of America to study. As his own brother, G. Balachandran had noted in an interview, “At that time, the number of unmarried Indian women who had gone to the States for graduate studies — it was probably in the low double digits. But my father was quite open. He said, ‘If you get admission, you go.’” Kamala recounts that her maternal grandfather had a vital influence in her passion for public service. 

Kamala’s grandfather, whom she adored, was progressive beyond his time. At a time when women were expected to be solely homemakers, he allowed his oldest child, a 19-year-old unmarried daughter, to apply and go to the United States of America to study.

Family was clearly a strong source of inspiration for “Shyamala and the girls” (as referred to in Kamala’s 2019 memoir, The Truths We Hold). They all turned out to be a force to reckon with by being a powerhouse based on academic achievements, public service, and political activism. Politically biased critics may say she does not embrace her Indian heritage. Kamala has not only embraced both the Indian and Jamaican African American cultures but displays the best of both cultures. This is all due to her mother’s influence who was a pioneer and an achiever herself. 

Shyamala boldly left India in 1958 at the young age of 19 to come to the United States to get a PhD in nutrition and endocrinology from the University of California in Berkeley. In India, she was a talented classical Carnatic music singer just like her own mother and had studied home sciences. Her father found home sciences to be well below her intellectual capabilities and encouraged her to pursue her higher studies. She went on to do cancer research. During this time she also attended civil rights demonstrations and often took both her daughters. Knowing Kamala is to know that she was raised by a strong Indian woman who imparted the values of hard work, public service and Indian culture to her daughters. 

So what does the trailblazer, Kamala Devi Harris believe in? To name a few, she has taken a firm stance on so many important issues such as death penalty, criminal justice reform, hate crimes and cyberspace sex crimes as an attorney general. As a senator addressed climate change, healthcare, legalization of medical marijuana, path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants, ban on assault weapons, tax reform, abortion rights and placed strict rules on the truancy of elementary school children. 

As an attorney general, she was against the death penalty and worked to reduce repeat convictions with criminal justice reform through the First Step Act. This aimed at reducing sentences for nonviolent offenders and offer education and job training in federal prisons so they could be self-sustaining citizens after being released from prison. She created a special Hate Crimes Unit, focusing on hate crimes against LGBT children and teens in schools. She also tackled serious issues as convicting sex criminals by creating an eCrime Unit within the California Department of Justice, targeting technology crimes such as “revenge porn.” Her efforts led to many perpetrators being arrested, charged with felonies, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms.

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She also recognized that the youth and the community suffer when children do not attend school regularly. She boldly stated that chronic truancy among elementary school students is crime by the parents. With the support of the California Federation of Teachers, she stood behind the idea that habitual truancy in this age group is directly proportional to criminal activity as an adult.

As a Senator, she tackled climate change but also understood that the current healthcare system is not sustainable and worked towards reform. As a doctor who prescribes medical marijuana, I appreciate that she worked to legalize cannabis. She also fought to create a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants by supporting the Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act (DREAM Act). After seeing the senseless deaths of innocent people including children from assault weapons, she worked to ban assault weapons (aka semi-automatic firearms). In her home state, she respected a hospital’s right to refuse performing abortions but set conditions to empower women by requiring them to be provided alternative providers/options. Aside from working on tax reform, she was known for her precise and strict questioning in Senate hearings. 

In November 2020, it is up to us to decide if this highly qualified candidate should be the next vice president. It is imperative we go to the polls and vote. No other deed can be so rewarding as to vote for the qualified candidate who represents Indian Americans with pride. Grassroots efforts done by organizations such as Asian American and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) for Biden and South Asians for Biden (SAB) are underway with empowering outreach efforts via social media so the public can make informed decisions this November. They have been targeting outreach efforts via phone banks and social media campaigns. Let’s all unite together to vote the first Indian American, Kamala Devi Harris into the office of Vice Presidency.

Dr. Pallavi Gowda, a U.S. Army veteran, is an osteopathic internal medicine physician who lives in Rockville, Maryland. She was stationed in Fort Meade, MD at Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center, where she served as a Chief Medical Officer in Force Health Protection. She received numerous awards such as the National Defense Service Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Army Superior Unit Award. Now she has her own private practice and divides her free time doing community service projects as well as with her two children.

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