Photo of Monith Ilavarasan. Provided by Ilavarasan.
Early August, presidential candidate Joe Biden chose Sen. Kamala Harris to be his running mate. Many in the South Asian community marveled at the fact that Harris came from a South Asian background. However, even with her running for vice president and the Asian American electorate growing significantly in number, there is little campaigning done toward these communities.
Located in the San Francisco Bay Area is a small town that exemplifies this trend. Pleasanton, nestled in the foothills of California’s Amador Valley, faces a year like no other. Monith Ilavarasan is running for mayor, the first Indian-American candidate to ever do so. Ilavarasan is running on a progressive platform in a traditionally conservative city, one that has long lacked diversity in its leaders, from city council members to boards of directors. A whopping 32.7% of Pleasanton residents are Asian American but despite that fact, this reality is not reflected in the local government.
And Pleasanton isn’t the only city to experience this phenomenon; the trend can be spotted all across the map. Voter turnout for municipal elections has steadily decreased, as low as 20% in many places. The remaining subset of voters is typically whiter, older, and wealthier than the rest of the population. Thus, more and more local governments are only represented by the interests of the few.
Even though since 2010, there has been growth in the number of Asian Americans who vote in local elections, many still believe that their votes and their voices are insignificant. Paired with minimal campaigning towards their communities, immigrants who have never voted have no reason to be more civically engaged. Ilavarasan is well-acquainted with the feelings immigrant communities may have of wanting to distance themselves from any form of politics. However, he knows that the immigrant struggle deserves to be represented in our government.
“You have that tie into that struggle, in some way, shape, or form. And you’re able to bring that perspective in a way that just fundamentally can’t be brought if you don’t have that kind of deep tie into that experience,” Ilavarasan explained.
The increasing diversity in many communities is finally being reflected in the areas’ local, state, and federal governments. While there remains a long way to go, candidates of color like Ilavarasan offer a glimpse of what our leaders could look like in the coming years.
More immigrants are becoming increasingly invested in the political sphere. But leaders are not reaching out to their communities at the same pace, missing the opportunity to make disengaged minorities feel heard. Many South Asians are left misinformed due to the lack of contact from campaigns, not encouraging them to enter the arena themselves either.
There could be many reasons that stop people of color from running for office such as believing they wouldn’t share the residents’ platforms. But Ilavarasan says a city’s diversity and most pressing issues are always changing. He sees a more progressive Pleasanton than years past.
When asked about the most surprising thing he has learned while campaigning, he said, “There’s this broad perception in Pleasanton that it is a conservative community. Every time I talk to people, especially people who are more liberal, more progressive, and I say I’m running on a progressive Democrat candidacy, they’re super surprised… numbers show you that Pleasanton is a majority democratically leaning city.”
Ilavarasan’s campaign is more than just about representing his own race, though. He said he hopes to build on inclusivity and ensure that the expanding diversity of Pleasanton is met with policies that support their growth, especially aimed towards serving Black and Latino populations and minimum wage workers. He also recognizes that having representation in politics will only encourage others to push for their ideals. “It is really important to see people who look like you and who have had the same life experiences as you take a chance to do something like that. I hope it does push other people to go, but I’m more than just a South Asian person running. I want the ideals to penetrate and that to be kind of the driving force of why you run, not just kind of like token representation. To me, that’s not as important as getting the ideals pushed to a broader platform,” he said.
For Ilavarasan, one of the most important things is to approach the political conversation with a sense of empathy. “Even with people who you have harsh disagreements with, it is always worth just listening. And then asking probing questions without being combative because then you just get a deeper understanding of who they are. Most people just want to have a nice life where they have family and are not bothered a ton.”
Unless people begin to have conversations, they will never be able to recognize the similarities everyone shares.
It can be difficult to find a reason to stand up and speak out when it feels like no one wants to listen. But those conversations are important to have, no matter how difficult. Instead of asking someone’s party affiliation first, maybe we should start by asking, “What is the vision of the world that I want? What will it take to achieve that vision? And what are my biases and underlying principles that are driving that vision?” Ilavarasan said.
And like Monith Ilavarasan, you may be surprised to find that there are more people that answer the question the same way you do, more than you ever expected.