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The Change Maker

By Reetika Khanna Email By Reetika Khanna
April 2020
The Change Maker

Virginia Senator Ghazala Hashmi, Ph.D., is a former Georgian with fond memories of the Deep South. Also an immigrant from India, she sees herself as an American above all. As a Democrat, she represents District 10 and is the first Muslim elected to the Senate in Virginia. Given her progressive views on religion and politics, and a pragmatic approach to socioeconomic and cultural issues, Ghazala’s voice represents calm reason and resolve, both of which are much needed in our highly polarized environment.

Politics today is often akin to a gladiatorial sport. What roused you to step into the arena of public service?

For the past twenty years, I taught and also served as an administrator at a community college in Richmond, Virginia. Increasingly, I became frustrated by the challenges that so many of my students faced. Many struggled with issues of housing and food insecurity. A large majority of the students attended college part-time because they had to work full-time in order to support families and pay tuition costs. Community college students are actually members of the community itself: they are frequently working adults, individuals seeking to retrain in order to get new jobs or first- generation students who understand that education is an essential pathway for social mobility. My frustration with these increasing challenges led me to focus on policy and policy development that can help the people whose lives I care about.

I was also compelled to run for office because of Trump’s Muslim ban. I knew that I had to speak up, step up, and become more visible as a Muslim woman so that my friends and colleagues might see the impact that such policy decisions have on the lives of people they know personally and care about.

As an Indian-American Muslim woman, what challenges did you face when you decided to run—and how did you tackle them?

I’ve long considered myself an American first and foremost, and I think that my friends, neighbors, and colleagues see me in the same light: a typical American working mother. Thus I never thought that being of Indian origin or that my faith would present any unique set of challenges; many people face opposition for a variety of reasons. I have encountered bigotry at different levels, but I expected that. I know that people react negatively sometimes to people or to conditions that they don’t understand. I make it a point to reach out to as many diverse and different communities as I can. My husband and I have always had a wide array of friends. I ran very openly as a Muslim and as an immigrant from India, but the issues that I focused on are the issues that matter to me and the residents of my district: education, gun safety regulations, healthcare, and the environment.

How did your family react to your decision to run for office?

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My husband and daughters have always been extremely supportive. I could not have launched a campaign of this size and scope without their involvement. My parents and siblings have also been huge cheerleaders. My father, who taught political science for 30 years at Georgia Southern University, has been actively engaged as an advisor and cheerleader.

What successes have you had in your current role as a Virginia legislator?

I have had a variety of bills pass both Chambers this session, and I am especially pleased that three of my significant pieces of legislation are moving forward:

• The Environmental Justice Act that seeks to define environmental justice for the Commonwealth and requires that all governmental agencies consider the impact of policies and processes on communities that have often been most negatively affected by environmental injustice.

• The establishment of the Office of New Americans within the Department of Social Services. This new office will facilitate immigrants and immigrant communities within the Commonwealth as they establish businesses, navigate our legal and governmental processes, and find housing and educational opportunities.

• The provision of more funding to our school districts so that they can hire additional teachers to help English language learners and thus improve our ELL students’ reading comprehension and writing skills. We see a significant difference between the testing scores of ELL students and their peers for whom English is the native language. Increasing the number of our ELL teachers will help students gain the skills they need for academic success.

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As a Democrat, how do you view the current state of the 2020 presidential race? Do you think the Democrats should have done anything differently going into the primaries?

The primary process is always a challenging but necessary one. A competitive field helps candidates to hone their skills and their messages; it allows voters to examine candidates’ positions and identify the individual whom they want to support. I endorsed Senator Elizabeth Warren in December.

Countless young Americans will be graduating soon. What advice would you offer the passionate Indian-American youth who aspire to run for public office in the future?

I always advise such young people to become actively engaged within local party committees, to support candidates—whether at the local or the state level—by volunteering for campaigns. Campaigns need talent, passion, and energy for canvassing, phone banking, and fundraising. I also recommend internships wherever possible. During this General Assembly session, I’ve had three college students interning in my office, and they have had a chance to develop some skills in working with constituents and policy development. Early engagement, skills development, and the establishment of a wide network all help individuals who may seek public office in the future.

You’ve spent a few years in Georgia—how long exactly did you live there? How was that experience? How does it compare to living in Virginia?

I was born in Hyderabad, India. After my father completed his Ph.D. in international relations from the University of South Carolina, my mother, brother, and I joined him in Statesboro, Georgia. I was four years old. I completed my undergraduate work in English at Georgia Southern University and my Ph.D. at Emory University in Georgia. And so I lived in Georgia from 1969 – 1991. My husband and I moved to Richmond, Virginia, as newlyweds in 1991.

I love the South and have deep friendships with the people I grew up with, went to school with, and my college friends. Georgia is a beautiful state, and I will always consider it my home. My husband, daughters, and I all love Virginia as well. My husband grew up in New York City, but he has fully embraced living in the South. We value the warmth, hospitality, and kindness of the community we have here.

Where do you get your news? What newspapers and magazines do you read?

I read as much as I can for news and information. I read our local paper—the Richmond Times Dispatch—for local and state news. I also read The Washington Post and The New York Times. My favorite magazines are The Atlantic and The New Yorker. I also look at a variety of digital news sources.

In his poem, “Where the Mind is Without Fear,” Rabindranath Tagore talked about “narrow domestic walls” fragmenting the world. In a recent interview you are quoted as saying, “the community is not polarized but segregated.” Could you elaborate? What do you think is causing this fragmentation?

In that interview, I was speaking about the Indian-American community that I see in the States. Much of this immigrant community tends to stay within its religious or regional affiliations. Thus we often do not see socializing or interactions across or outside of these groups. I think the generations of Indian-American children who have grown up in the States are helping to dismantle some of these compartmentalized identities. Many young people in college see themselves as belonging to a broader South Asian American culture, and they feel at home in multiple cultural identities.

Do you think Indian-Americans can assist in countering the assault on India’s secular ethos?

I think we all have a responsibility to speak out and renounce attempts to create division, chaos, and sectarian violence. Like the United States, India is a secular democracy. Its progress, strength, and national identity depend upon its people and its government charting a path of inclusion across religious, ethnic, regional, and linguistic differences. We have to embrace pluralism and use it to strengthen our societies. The public good is not served well when we are divided in so many ways. Many Indian-Americans are deeply connected with families and communities in India, and we know that we have an obligation to promote national unity and social-political progress.


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Author of Kismetwali & Other Stories, Reetika Khanna is an Atlanta-based freelance writer who likes to spotlight people with purpose. She has worked with ELLE as a senior features writer, and as an associate features editor with ELLE DÉCOR, Mumbai. For more, go to ReetikaKhanna.com



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