By Jake Chang, AsAmNews Intern
Since founding a nonprofit at the age of 16 to build libraries in underserved schools in her community, Janani Ramachandran has dedicated herself to a life of service and equity. Her ambitions led to a career in nonprofit work as a public interest lawyer, and more recently, a successful election as an Oakland, California city councilmember.
Taking office in on January 10, Janani Ramachandran,30, became the first queer woman of color, first South Asian and the youngest person to hold a seat on the council. With these firsts, the councilmember emphasized to AsAmNews that Oakland voters are ready for something different.
“It’s exciting that voters are ready for a change of leadership and folks who represent different demographics and backgrounds to step up, and it’s promising,” Ramachandran said.
Ramachandran was born and raised as the daughter of Indian immigrants in the East Bay. From her experiences with immigrant families, Ramachandran explains how there have been shifts across generations, especially among South Asians, in increased political consciousness.
“My generation has been able to step up and pursue representation more in the forefront of policy making through leadership roles or in other arenas of public life as well,” Ramachandran said.
A part of the LGBTQ+ community, Ramachandran also credits a greater welcoming of folks of her identity in politics.
“There’s an openness and an acceptance of people like me in many of these seats,” Ramachandran said. “That’s an important shift that we’re seeing and something that I’m happy about when it comes to many of my communities.
Despite Oakland being an open and accepting place for her, Ramachandran finds it difficult to come forward with many of her identities.
“I definitely faced attacks based on my race, my age, my sex, among other things,” Ramachandran said. “And politics is dirty. You do have to have a thick skin, even in a place that’s seemingly as liberal and progressive as Oakland. But I hope we’ll start to see progress with more representation.”
Ramachandran attended Stanford University and the University of California, Berkeley School of Law, where she was inspired to dedicate a life of service for those facing domestic violence and discrimination against immigrants.
Working as an attorney and member of the board of directors at the Oakland-based nonprofit Family Violence Appellate Project (FVAP), Ramachandran put her efforts towards legal advocacy and accessibility for survivors of abuse.
Co-founder of FVAP and Emeritus Executive Director Erin Smith commented on Ramachandran’s talents and abilities for furthering the organization.
“Janani is a passionate advocate for many different forms of social justice, and she fought tirelessly and skillfully for survivors of domestic violence and other forms of gender-based abuse during her time at Family Violence Appellate Project,” Smith told AsAmNews.
“We are proud of her election to public office and are optimistic about the good work she will do for abuse survivors and communities in need as an elected official.”
Ramachandran then went on to work at Centro Legal de la Raza, another Oakland nonprofit that provides legal services to marginalized immigrants and communities of color. She directly engaged with immigrant workers in wage theft and discrimination cases.
“I personally observed her carefully listening to our clients to understand their needs, goals, and how we could best help. She did so in a compassionate manner with a social justice and client-centric lens,” worker’s rights directing attorney at Centro Legal de la Raza Veronica Chavez said to AsAmNews. “She was a valued member of the team for her passion for workers’ rights and care in the work she performed.”
Ramachandran ran for the District 4 councilmember seat last year, expressing a lack of grassroots leadership from community-oriented government officials in city hall. She states that this definition of a leader means many things, from being a South Asian woman, LGBTQ+, but also as someone that worked with domestic violence survivors and nonprofits.
Given her unique background in advocacy, Ramachandran encourages people of different affinities to also run for office.
“Oftentimes, to get into positions like this, there’s this so-called pathway and belief that you have to have this long political career or specific kind of resume, which often leads folks with many of my identities not to seek office at this level,” Ramachandran said. “But I think times are changing.”
Since her first month in office, Ramachandran touched on a heartwarming moment where she delivered her office’s first-ever commendation. It was at the award ceremony of a UPS worker, Marlin, from her neighborhood being recognized for his service.
“He just has this absolutely charming personality when he does the work and really brings smiles to people’s faces,” Ramachandran said. “It was just a really nice moment to be able to bring a smile to one of our local essential workers’ faces.”
Speaking on her current policy platforms, Ramachandran referred to increasing public safety and alleviating fears of crime among residents and small business owners. Efforts include a campaign that aims to lift up businesses in District 4 that will launch soon.
“[We are] thinking holistically about public safety, having more of a police presence and advocating for that,” Ramachandran said. “Making sure we have more pedestrian foot traffic, pedestrian safety and making sure our neighborhoods are more walkable is also a part of the public safety conversation and something we’re hoping to amplify.”
“The more people that are out and about in our public spaces, the safer our neighborhoods become.”
In speaking more specifically about District 4, Ramachandran said that they have a relatively high Asian American population, nearing 20% of the district. In utilizing her professional work in domestic violence justice and AAPI survivors in particular, she seeks to address violence against AAPI communities.
Ramachandran also serves on the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs, where she focuses on health equity and providing accessibility to AAPI populations in holistic public health conversations.
“In Oakland, all those issues are very much there,” Ramachandran said. “And I want to make sure that we are inclusive of things like mental health and gender based violence in the public health conversation when it comes to the AAPI community in terms of access, cultural competency, among other things.”
Ramachandran states that these are processes that she is hoping to build upon during her first term.
“There’s always a lot going on, and I’m not overly ambitious about getting all sorts of legislation and things passed,” Ramachandran said. “But what I do hope to do is make sure that we can start to make change and be a part of that.”
Ultimately, the overarching goal for her is to make sure people feel heard, which starts with rebuilding trust and acting as a person who listens and takes action.
“I want to make sure that more voices can be heard, and that people can have faith in the system and see that, you know, we’re doing the best we can and they’re starting to make some changes,” Ramachandran said. “And even if the change actually happens incrementally, we’re working on it.”
AsAmNews produced this story with funding under the Stop the Hate grant program from the California State Library Commission and in collaboration with the National Association of Asian Pacifics in Politics and Public Affairs. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the Library Commission or the State of California.
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