Democrat Kesha Ram made history last Tuesday when she became the first woman of color to be elected to the Vermont Senate in a state that’s more than 94 percent white.
Ram, the daughter of an Indian immigrant father and a Jewish mother, said her parents’ experiences deeply influence the way she thinks government can affect people’s lives.
“It’s generally a story about the American dream and the immigrant experience but it had undertones that really formed my thinking about policy,” said Ram, 34.
She was born in Los Angeles and her parents ran an Irish pub, but “between being a woman and an immigrant, it was very hard for them to access capital,” she said.
She said her mother was eventually able to apply for a loan through The First Women’s Bank of Los Angeles.
Without 1970s-era regulations that set out to give women access to small-business loans, “my story would not be the same,” Ram said. “So many times in my life, I felt the impact of policies that didn’t let people like me fall through the cracks, and it started to paint a picture for me of what I could do to help other people in politics.”
Throughout her campaign, Ram focused on a racial justice platform that included addressing disparities in access to health care, climate justice and support for criminal justice reform.
When she is sworn in early next year, Ram will become one of six senators representing Vermont’s Chittenden County district, the most populous county in the state. It will also be the second time Ram has held elected office.
Shortly after graduating from college, Ram ran for a seat in the Vermont House and became the youngest state legislator in the country when she won her race at 22.
Even though Vermont is one of the whitest states in the United States, Ram said it’s changing — Vermont has a growing population of resettled refugees — and that means campaigns have to change, too.
Opening the political process to everyone requires better outreach to immigrants and communities of color who often feel their concerns are brushed aside, she said.
“I often find that the best place to start is with the people who are partially engaged. You know, it’s just like anything where when you get someone to do something for a second time, you’ve gotten them to do it forever,” Ram said. “So when we take the people who start to put their toe in the water of voting and engaging in democracy and participating, we should really celebrate that and welcome them even further in.”
Ram said she focused less on the historic nature of her campaign and more on how to get diverse populations interested in local government. “We celebrate these firsts, like the fact that I am the first woman of color and the youngest woman in history in the state Senate, so that someone can transform that record,” she said. “Someone can be even younger or someone who is Black or indigenous can see a place for themselves to be first, because a little bit of that glass ceiling has been chipped away.”
That’s why, after Ram guaranteed herself a spot on the general election ticket after a hotly contested primary in August, she devoted time to supporting other, primarily female candidates across the state.
Ram said she hopes her recent visibility will inspire more Asian American women in particular to get involved in politics to advocate for the issues they believe in.
“Particularly for young Asian American women, I think that we are really taught culturally and socially not to fail. And that it’s a personal shortcoming if you fail,” she said. “That’s just simply not true.” Ram knows this firsthand, as her 2016 run for lieutenant governor ended in her finishing third. “We can’t live safe lives the way everybody wants us to if we want things to change,” she said. “Because, otherwise we won’t change who’s at the table.”