SATYAGRAH SOULS is a monthly political series presented by Silicon Valley’s community leader, Saratoga Councilmember Rishi Kumar, in highlighting the community involvement and success of Indian Americans in the United States. This series seeks to inspire us in giving back to our local community. We Indian Americans are going through a transitional evolution, as we get entrenched in a new world, embracing new culture, exerting zealous work ethics, supporting the American economy as entrepreneurs, high tech geeks, doctors, lawyers and more. We are definitely imposing the positive intentions and good citizen values upon this fantastic country and making a huge impact. But can our involvement run a bit deeper with issues near and dear to our hearts, perhaps within our local city, or with the local public school that our children attend? Do we sometimes hear our conscience imploring, “Am I doing enough?” Yes we can get involved just a bit more, push our comfort zone and enhance the learning and impact our involvement. Our involvement can simply start with developing a healthy curiosity in our local community, instead of being ‘busy’ bystanders. Once we get involved, we will quickly discover, how easy it is for us to make progressive change happen and how receptive everyone around is, to leverage our skills for it. There are leaders waiting to be discovered, why not “me”, by taking that first step? The give-back experience can be freeing, energizing – personally rewarding and transformative at the same time. There are many who have made their mark in doing just that. With this monthly series, we want to highlight these SatyAgrah souls who are showing us the path. Here is a SatyaGrah soul, who has found the calling…
The first Indian American Mayor of any city in US
Vini Samuel is a trial attorney who owns her own practice. She was born in Kollam, India and moved with her parents to Juneau, Alaska when she was 6 years old. She is the first female mayor of Montesano and first Indian-American female mayor in America, elected last November with 67 percent of the vote and with one of the highest voter turnouts in Washington State. In 2000, the Washington State Democratic Party named her a Rising Star. The former chair of the Grays Harbor Democrats, Samuel was a national delegate for Barack Obama at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. She served eight years on the Montesano City Council, was a former columnist for the Aberdeen Daily World and recently completed her term on Western Washington University’s Alumni Association Board of Directors. She also served as an elder board member and Sunday school teacher at the Montesano Church of God. Samuel and her husband have one son.
Let’s focus on what improves lives
Vini, we are so proud of you. You are the first Indian American Mayor of any city in the United States. How special is that? How does it feel to be a trailblazer?
You’d expect the first Indian-American woman to get elected mayor in a big city like San Francisco or a university town. So maybe to outsiders it’s a big surprise that this happened in a little logging town with one stoplight, with a fraction of minority population and gun racks on the back of trucks. But it’s not a surprise to me. Montesano is a place which invites you in and brings you into a family. When we moved here in 1997, it did not take long for us to become part of its fabric. That’s Montesano.
I am the first woman elected as mayor in our town – but I don’t feel like a trailblazer. I was the right person for the job at this time and it’s my honor and privilege to serve my town.
You won by a landslide in your elections – what were some of the key ingredients of this winning campaign?
I would point to one crucial ingredient: it’s always about the citizens. Not the candidate. What can you do to make this a better place to live, work and raise a family? I focused the campaign on exactly that.
That’s not normal for a campaign. Usually, candidates focus on talking about themselves and their opponents, about how they have character, integrity and leadership while their opponent has none of those things. If they talk about issues, it’s usually pretty shallow. I wanted to avoid all of that and focus on real, tangible things that would improve the lives of my citizens.
People responded to those positive ideas. Because it’s not about winning elections. It’s about getting things done for your citizens. If you are sincere and focus on the citizens’ and town’s needs there is no better foundation for winning. We did not waver from that message and stayed positive despite a brutal race.
From Kerala to Alaska to Washington – you have been on the move. What were your political learnings along the way. Did you have an Aha moment, realization that political engagement is your calling?
My father and mother were both teachers back in Kerala. My mother comes from a family of missionaries and my father from a family of educators. They taught me that wherever I was planted I needed to contribute to my community. So when I was in Alaska, in college and law school I worked countless hours as a volunteer in those communities. Though it was transitory, I still existed there and where I could, I helped. Politics was a natural fit for me – I believe in the American system and I believe that “you need to be the change you want to see” as Gandhi said. My ‘aha’ moment occurred when I was 16 and a political group asked me to speak at an event. I realized people would listen to what I would say and what I said could help make a change in those things which challenge us.
As a community, what else can we do to get more Indian Americans elected to office?
Get involved — in your community, your city, your county. Help other people run elections for school levies or local office. It’s the best way to get to know other like-minded people, to make a difference in your neighborhood and to build relationships if you ever do decide to run. All politics are local and relationships are the heart of local politics.
Are there Indian American issues in your city or locally that you are engaged with?
There isn’t a large minority population in our city—but more and more Asians, Hispanics and other minorities are moving to our city, our county and to Washington state. Part of that is because Grays Harbor and our entire state is truly connected to the rest of the world by a long history of international trade and immigration. But part of it is that this is a great place to live, a place that embraces new ideas and people. It still has that Wild West spirit of exploration and discovery.
There are always proposals that come to city councils like ours that would take us backward. New waves of immigrants typically generate a new backlash. That melts away with the second and third generation, but it happens. We have to work together to resist politicians and policies that would divide us. This nation has prospered by being the land of liberty that welcomes all people. I’m dedicated to protecting that tradition and making sure that people of all races, creeds, colors and religion can come here and contribute to the American Dream.
Is political empowerment important for the future of our Indian American community in this country?
Of course. You have to get informed, get involved, vote—and yes, run for office. We may come from India but now we are Americans. What we bring to this New World is a perspective unique to the Indian community. Our focus is on family, on education and our children. We know how to co-exist in a multi religious state. We have an obligation to our adopted country –and our adopted family of fellow Americans to make this place better than we found it.
It’s easy for people to feel like they don’t have a voice, that they can’t make a difference, so why bother. That sort of apathy is poisonous to our democracy. So we must have political involvement to solve the large problems facing our country. Perhaps our community will be the bridge of communication this country is desperate for right now.
What advise do you have for the young Indian American girl who is inspired by your leadership? How should she get going?
We are a community of planners and we follow steps but get involved whenever and wherever you can. It’s not about getting your bachelors, then a master’s degree or law degree, before implementing a plan you’ve been working on for years and finally putting it into action.
Politics doesn’t work like that. You have to learn by doing it; and you can’t predict when an office might open up. When you’re in high school and college, volunteer on campaigns for candidates you respect and learn from the bottom up. Do internships with your lawmakers. It won’t be glamorous at first. You’ll wave signs, knock on doors and write letters. But its’ the best way to form relationships; those relationships are how people get jobs in politics or wind up running for office. This time teaches you and hones you both with the successes and in the losses that you experience.
Vini thank you! We wish you success with all future endeavors.
Dear Readers, Do you have a story to share? We invite you to introduce us to folks in your community who are making a difference – we would love to profile them. Are there similar stories you are familiar with locally. The ones who helped address a simple issue in the community to make life a bit better. Perhaps someone you know decided to make a run for school board, was appointed to the planning commission. Provide us your insights on Indian Americans locally and nationally who are making things happen. These perspectives will help construct roadmaps for our community to empower ourselves, to hopefully ignite a desire in all of us to represent our local communities as doers, leaders, establish and entrench ourselves in this glorious country of America and help make it a better place
ABOUT RISHI: Rishi is an elected city councilmember in Saratoga, CA and politically active in the state of California, he continues to follow his passion for community service, seeking to provide services to his citizens cheaper, faster and better, making a difference. Rishi has community outreach and engagement a key focus for his political leadership. As Saratoga’s community organizer, Rishi is host of many community events in Saratoga, many of which are free and always inclusive usually addressing a need or a cause. Rishi’s day job is as a Silicon Valley hi-tech executive but his zeal for community service effervescent. Rishi is also the President of the Bay Area Indian American Democratic Club (www.baiadc.org) whose charter is to further the interests and values of Indian Americans, work towards political empowerment and advance ethical standards in the political system. You can reach him via his website www.RishiKumar.com.