By Janice Nesamani
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Destiny seems to have groomed Shasti Conrad for a political career, specifically at a time in history when women and people of color are finding their voices on the social and political stage in the United States. Conrad, the current chair of the King County Democrats and first woman of color to ever hold the position, has an impressive resume—campaigning for Barack Obama and then being a part of the Obama administration, being on the National Advance for Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign in 2016, and working with Nobel Laureates Malala Yousafzai and Kailash Satyarthi.
Conrad was born in Calcutta and adopted at two months by a single mother living in a small Oregon town. Her identity as a person of color raised in a predominantly white world gives her a unique perspective, allowing her to straddle two worlds and playing the role of a translator.
“I grew up in a small town, where I was one of only two Indians at school, everyone thought we were sisters. I went on to graduate from high school and got a scholarship to Seattle University. A leadership fellowship is what brought me to the political arena,” Conrad said.
Conrad’s mother and grandmother played vital roles in molding her into the leader she is today.
“I grew up on a farm with my mom and grandparents. My grandfather passed away when I was 5, so I was predominantly raised by my mom and grandmother—two strong women,” she said. Conrad recalls going to voting booths with her grandmother, originally from the U.K., who had to work for her citizenship in the U.S.
“My mother owned a daycare center and took pride in creating an environment for kids to flourish, ensuring people from every background, in particular those from lower income communities, had a safe place to be able to leave their children,” she said. “The older I get, the more I see my mom’s social work background and my grandmother’s strong sense of civic duty pull through in the work I’m drawn to,” she said.
Journey to the White House
Conrad’s senior year sociology thesis was on political activism in the community, during the time when Barack Obama ran for office. Obama, the first person of the hip-hop generation and a viable Black candidate who spoke to the millennial generation, drew her to him. Conrad had also read Dreams From My Father, where Obama spoke about being a cultural translator, existing between the white world and people of color.
“Raised by a Caucasian family in a predominantly Caucasian town, but having the experience of being a woman of color, made it so that I was walking back and forth between those different worlds. It gave me the gift of being a translator. I was able to talk about what it is like to be a person of color in the U.S. and ways in which we are treated to white audiences that didn’t understand it or didn’t have friends with those experiences,” she said.
After Obama’s win, a friend who had gone to set things up at the White House told Conrad about an internship program and she applied.
“I was chosen to be in the first class and that changed my whole trajectory. My plan had been to be a professor. I was going to go into a Sociology PhD. Program,” she said. However, she admits always being called to activism. “When Obama ran and won, I saw this amazing opportunity to talk about social justice issues in an environment where I could influence change and be connected to communities,” she added.
The White House was an eye-opener for Conrad.
“I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and was 23 when I got to the White House.
Suddenly, I was surrounded by people who had gone to Princeton, Harvard, and Yale with access to a world I had never experienced,” Conrad said. “Seeing the ways in which power is maintained, protected, written, and created predominantly by white men, even under the Obama administration, was a wake-up call to being able to say, ‘Let me see if I can understand how this works, so I can try to create access for more people like myself,’” she said.
After her stint at the White House, Conrad decided she needed to make sense of what she had experienced and applied to Princeton.
“I needed to be able to speak the language of policy makers through my graduate school degree, while understanding how power plays in politics. This set me up well to come back to my own community to say, ‘How do I make this accessible for women, people of color, millennials, and Generation Z?’”
Like a lot of people, Conrad was devastated with the results of 2016, but came back and decided to run for state senate in the 37th district.
“It was partially because the rhetoric at the time was, ‘Let’s leave and go to Canada.’ And I said, ‘No, you will not chase me out of my community,’” she said. Conrad feels if the future has to be rebuilt, it will be led by women and people of color.
“I wanted to stay and be a part of the party because I knew it was going to need rebuilding, people who could be even-keeled, fair, and could understand there was a need for change. The last couple of years have just been coming in to learn and understand who the players are and what works,” she said.
Chair of King County Democrats
Conrad didn’t plan on being the county chair of the King County Democrats.
“Last year, there was a need for leadership change at the county-level and I was a part of that call. I believed it needed to be led by a woman and people who understood the party. It needed to open itself up to underrepresented communities and be made relevant,” she said. As chair, I felt we needed a safe space for people to come in and get work done and feel like they can be making a difference in their communities,” she said.
Conrad acknowledges she is different from previous chairs. “Just like conversations about women running for president, I got: ‘You’re not prepared. You’re not experienced enough. You really don’t know what you are doing.’ To them I say, “You know, I sat in the West Wing, you know I worked for three Nobel Laureates, you realize that I have been a part of this community for many years. I feel like I am ready for this type of leadership role.”
A challenge for her is that Democrats are experiencing PTSD from 2016.
“There is a lot of pain and people feel traumatized under the Trump administration’s regime. We tried to implement a code of conduct and change the culture into a space where people are oriented toward organizing real grassroots action,” she said.
One of Conrad’s passion projects is demonstrating the Democratic ecosystem in the area and she spotlights partner organizations at meetings.
“We have incredible organizations doing great work and full of really talented people who are toiling hard, trying to help their communities. Democrats have to be better about showing up for them and not just expecting them to vote when we tell them to,” she said.
Conrad feels 2019 is a big bench-building year because of the local races. “It’s an incredible opportunity for people to go through this process. It’s the best way to get to know your community. You knock on your neighbors’ doors, you hear what they care about, what they are facing, and you learn people are people. Everybody wants to be able to feed their kids, take care of their parents, be able to get up and do their jobs.
What they need is healthcare, affordable housing, and education. They need these basics and the system has to be set in place so we can actually give that to them,” she said.
Conrad finds the Trump era both awful and exciting because people are pushing back on the idea that they do not want their government to be bought and paid for by the one percent.
“I see my value and the experiences that I’ve had in that I can help to be a bridge for people who want to be involved and push back. I know a lot of the players and how they think because I was around them for most of my 20s. I can help by opening some doors.”
2020 Democratic election
The long campaign season makes Conrad nervous.
“It is exciting to hear so many people articulate why being a Democrat matters and what we care about. We are getting to articulate our vision of America and hearing that from Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren,” Conrad said.
Her concern has always been that it is easier for Democrats to turn on each other than it is for them to stand united. “There is a saying: Democrats fall in love and Republicans fall in line. My message is to remember we are in this together. We can have people we are excited about, but at the end of the day, the vision we have for America is in stark contrast to the Trump administration’s, so we have to be in alignment.
Conrad loved seeing a diversity of candidates who spoke to a hopeful future that was positive and inclusive at the 2019 Democratic Primary debates.
“It demonstrated a pull leftward, now speaking to the policies laid out primarily by Sanders in 2016. I look forward to getting to hear about Democratic values from a nuanced, sophisticated perspective from so many talented and strong candidates,” she said.
Speaking about the presidential candidates, Conrad mentions Warren and Harris, but adds that Cory Booker and Julian Castro stood out on night one.
“It speaks to dynamics that play out through different sectors, where people of color and women know they will be held to a different standard, and therefore do our absolute best to rise to the top. They had to be prepared, well thought out, or they would have been vilified more than a John Delaney or Eric Swalwell,” she said. “I am energized by the real possibility of a woman or woman of color being our frontrunner.
We as Democrats are at our best when we are authentic and bold, both of which Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris were that night and are on the campaign trail,” she added.
Conrad is focused on her role as chair of the King County Democrats. “I’m very excited by several of our candidates who are running. We have a full slate of very strong candidates, especially down in SeaTac, where a lot of people of color are running,” she said. Conrad mentions that people often ask her how to fight the Trump administration and focus on national politics.
“I tell them there is a Trump-loving mayor in SeaTac. You want to fight Trump, let’s go to SeaTac and make sure their city council reflects that community. That is where I see real opportunities for hope,” she said. “We are trying to build up the party and bring in more people and more diversity. Party leadership is chosen from within. If it is the same people, you replicate the same things. I’m excited and nervous about 2020. The state committee decided to go with the primary instead of next year. The county level will be helping with the delegation that will go to the DNC,” she added.
Professionally, Conrad is the campaign manager for the 100 Million Campaign in the United States. It is the brainchild of Kailash Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Peace Prize with Malala Yousufzai in 2014.
“I have been with the foundation for about two and a half years. Our mission is ending child labor and child trafficking and we want it to be youth-led. We believe that if young people set their mind to it, then they can end it in their lifetime. We talk about globalizing compassion, which plays into politics, too,” she said.
Conrad admires Satyarthi and Yousufzai, who have a vision for a better world and are relentlessly focused on it. “They don’t care if people say it can’t happen. They build social movements by helping people see the best in themselves. I am trying to bring that ethos to my political work,” she said. “At King County Democrats, I talk a lot about a collaborative leadership model. For years, it had been built on a strong chair and was top down. I don’t need the party for me, we are building this together. In fact, I want a pipeline for other people to come and take my place,” she said.
“I’ve been thinking about what it takes to really change the world, create something meaningful that people want to be a part of and make changes that can have a big impact. It comes down to being able to move past your own ego and see the endless possibilities. When you are working with people and believing in the goodness in them, that is all you need,” she said.
Janice can be reached at email@example.com.