By Jessica Kai Curry
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
I’m sitting on the other side of the table, hoping fervently that my recorder is working because I don’t want to miss anything that Shefali Ranganathan is saying. Seattle’s deputy mayor is engaging, interesting, and knowledgeable. Immediately upon sitting down with her, one is filled with a strong sense of her integrity, while her confidence about who she is, where she comes from, and what she brings to the table, is not only inspiring, but also reassuring.
Mayor Jenny Durkan announced her transitional team in November 2017, and in December, Ranganathan’s position, as Deputy Mayor of External Relations, became official. Ranganathan is one of three deputy mayors, the senior deputy mayor being Mike Fong, and David Moseley is the deputy mayor for Operations. She comes to the mayor’s team from Transportation Choice Coalition, where she was executive director, and where she spearheaded innovative city initiatives such as Orca Lift, a project which serves as a sample of her approach.
“The Orca Lift was a creative partnership. It was the Transit Riders Union. It was the homelessness advocates. It was Kate Joncas, who ran the Downtown Seattle Association. This unlikely group of people came together and said, ‘You know what? If we want to truly give people an additional tool in their tool box of economic opportunity, it’s making transit more affordable.”
Ranganathan is enthusiastic about alternative ways of looking at things that people from different backgrounds, and different departments in the City, can come up with when they work together. This type of policy-making is something that she believes Seattle, in particular, excels at.
“We are really good at trying things outside the box…there’s a reason that Amazon, Microsoft, all started here. It’s because, I think, people are willing to take risks, and it’s not just ‘we’ll take risks for the sake of taking risks,’ it’s innovating and taking a risk to solve sticky problems.”
Despite the Deputy Mayor’s conviction, know-how, and solid credentials, her appointment has come under fire in recent days.
While Ranganathan is not the youngest member of the mayor’s team, and has distinguished herself time and again — she was awarded the “40 Under 40” award by the Puget Sound Business Journal — Ranganathan has nevertheless been criticized for not having the proper sort of experience for the position.
As Durkan has stated, the diversity of her team is very important, but this might not be the sort of diversity that one imagines. While ethnic background is important to the lived experience that Ranganathan, as an Indian American, brings to the Mayor’s office, what is equally if not more important is her career and life experience.
“I think that’s what enriches the conversation, because there is a value that comes with experience, and then there is also the fresh perspective … You look at the mayor’s team and it’s the full range.”
Born in the southern Chennai region of India, Ranganathan was one of two daughters and one son in a household that was rather untraditional by Indian standards. Her father, as well as both of her grandmothers, were very forward-thinking in terms of the roles of men and women, and encouraged Ranganathan to be the same. When speaking of her grandmothers, Ranganathan explains that their independence reminded her not to let cultural barriers affect her life decisions. Growing up in a family that encouraged Ranganathan to think, “I can do whatever I want to do” versus, “You can only do X, Y, or Z” was, she said, hugely impactful.
“There was never that, ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’”
Ranganathan came to the United States on the verge of 9-11, in August of 2001. It was a trial by fire, a time when her character was further forged, this time by her schooling and her friends.
“It was a very challenging time to be a person of color … and I think, overnight, I grew up. You have this perception of what the U.S. is and that is shattered in many ways — and I think it was for America, too … it was a lot of learning for me. It was also a great exercise in tolerance and understanding of someone else’s perspective.”
It was during this time that Ranganathan came to fully appreciate the importance of public transportation and urban infrastructure, two areas that had grown to be of increasing interest to her in her degree field of environmental science.
“Everyone needs to get somewhere, and in cities that have good public transportation, it can make or break, right? I’d think about infrastructure and how it can create barriers to opportunity or pathways to opportunity.” She brought this same understanding to Seattle, and now she is bringing it to the mayor’s team, where she is excited about being positioned in such a way that will allow her to help improve some of the areas that are most troublesome for the Emerald City.
Upon news of her appointment to the mayor’s team, Ranganathan’s father proudly stated in an Indian newspaper that he hoped his daughter would serve as a role model to other women, not only in India, but in other countries. Ranganathan laughs affectionately when she hears this.
“I think of it in terms of, I have a young daughter, and I want her to grow up the way I did.” Ranganathan explains that her desire is that her daughter, and any man or woman, sees in her a role model of “hard work, integrity, and a sense of it has to be deeper than just the job.” She realizes that “there are not very many people that look like me” in the political sphere of the United States (though the numbers are growing), and she hopes that her presence will allow others to believe that there are more options out there.
Says Ranganathan, “I’ve had a chance to talk with people [in City Hall] over the past month and a half. People deeply care about this work and they want to make a difference, and I think that it’s, ‘How can we get that message out?’ Not just for girls, but for everyone. I am living proof that you can be passionate, but also bring to bear the resources of the City to actually solve problems.”
Ranganathan is enthusiastic about the love that her colleagues in City Hall feel towards the City of Seattle, and especially Durkan.
“There is a genuine love that she has for this city [that] you can’t fake. She deeply cares about what happens here. I don’t think she has any illusions about the challenges, but I think she brings to it not just the policy focus, but the deep love for the City that expresses itself as, ‘I want to do what I can in my term and be able to improve people’s lives.’”
When asked how Seattle could continue to be a leader and role model in these trying times, Ranganathan answered, “Standing up for an inclusive, welcoming city is just the right thing to do. There is nothing political about it, but it is political. What is the phrase? ‘Love thy neighbor.’ People are at risk. Mayor Durkan [is] willing to stand up to President Trump… our policies should be run by our values, and if one of our values is to be safe and welcoming, then how does that live in terms of our actions? And I think that’s what you’re seeing here. It’s not a political stunt … Everyone wants to belong. And I think that … as we have these policy debates, we mustn’t forget that people are at the center of those conversations, always.”
Outside of work, Ranganathan said she and her family “live to eat!” “My favorite neighborhood is the International District. We love to try new food.” She explained her appreciation for the way that food unites people, and how even cultures that appear to have very little else in common, can come together over food. “Food is such a uniting thing.”
Unity. Connection. Caring. We are in good hands.
Jessica can be reached at email@example.com.