New American Leaders

New Orleans       With all of the deserved celebration and whoopsie-do about the historic diversity of the newly elected Congress, talking to Sayu Bhojwani, the founder and director of the New York-based nonprofit, New American Leaders, on Wade’s World seemed as right on time as these new representatives themselves.   Sayu made some interesting points that underscored that this election was not a combination of magic and miracle, but the result of years of grassroots work in communities and by the candidates.

The topline is well-known at this point.  The new Congress is the most diverse in American history.  Two Muslim women, the first, are now in Congress.  Two Native Americans were elected.  Latinas from the left and middle gained seats, including the youngest woman ever to be elected from the Bronx.  Donna Shalala, former Cabinet secretary and president of universities in the Midwest and the South, was the gerrymandering of the new gang and elected as a freshman Congressman from Miami.  Expectations are high!

In our conversation, as well as in her book, People Like Us:  The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door, Sayu underscored the points that let to the election of new bellwethers of change like Ilhan Omar, who became the first Somali-American to be elected to Congress representing the 5th District of Minnesota.  She didn’t come out of nowhere to suddenly be elected.  She ran campaigns for other candidates elected to her state’s senate and the Minneapolis City Council.  She served as a policy aide, a health and nutrition worker, and as head of a national nonprofit advocating for immigrants from East Africa living in the United States.  By the time she was elected to the Minnesota house, she had paid her dues in grassroots politics, preparing her way to move up when Keith Ellison, who had been the only Muslim in Congress, stepped down.  This theme came up again and again in Sayu’s book where races for local school boards, city councils and state legislative seats against all odds had taught old lessons in grassroots politics to new leaders who kept challenging and running until they won.

Part of the backstory is obviously changing demographics challenging an older generation trying to hold on.  Sayu is unforgiving about the replacement of a veteran woman who had been office for 44 years by a younger woman representing the new majority in the district.  She thought perhaps the older war horse had been a progressive in her time, but she had settled into a liberal rut, allowing a new progressive to step forward now.  Sayu is equally unapologetic in her advocacy of term limits to make room for new leadership.

Small donations beat big money.  New communication methods have been easily adapted to modern campaigns by new leaders.  The need for more equitable redistricting and the end of gerrymander would be critical in allowing the next generation to move forward.  If Sayu is right, what we are seeing in the new Congress is not an exception but another leap forward in the changing of the guard to new leaders with profoundly different and more inclusive views of America’s future.

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