The George Washington University
May 3, 2023
5:15 P.M. EDT
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Warriors!
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Go Warriors. (Laughs.) (Applause.)
Well, Doug is not here. I can say it. (Laughs.)
Hi, everyone. Hi. (Applause.) Wow. What an extraordinary group of leaders in one place at one time. This is very exciting.
MR. WON: Would it be possible to get the house lights up just for a second so the Vice President can see what the room actually looks like? (Applause.)
THE VICE PRESIDENT: This is a big deal. (Laughs.)
Joe Biden would say that a little differently, but this is a big deal. (Laughter.) Very big deal.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Amazing to be with you today, Madam Vice President. I’m going to start off with a personal story.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Okay.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: In 2019, I was invited to be part of a show called “Never Have I Ever.” (Applause.) And my character is an immigrant, Tamilian mother raising an out-of-control teenager in Southern California. And the demographic parallels are crazy.
I’m an immigrant, Tamilian mother raising a truly out-of-control teenager —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: (Laughs.)
MS. JAGANNATHAN: — in Southern California.
But the creators, Mindy Kaling and Lang Fisher, encouraged all of us to do something which I’ve never experienced in my 15 years of working in TV and film, which is to enter set every day with your full self —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: — all our stories, all our experiences, all our heritage.
So — and that showed up in big ways, like in the plot and in the script, and showed up in small ways, like, you know, deciding whether we’d have idli or dosa with our hands that day —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: — or being in a no-shoe household or during — you know, during the scene, dropping words of endearment that my mother would say to me, like kanna, which means —
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Kannamma.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: — kannamma — which means “dear one.”
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: And my mother’s favorite word to me is kaive (ph), which means “brainless donkey.” (Laughter.)
But my heritage is something that would always make me feel like a bit of an outsider all these years. And suddenly it is a thing that makes and gives me an intense sense of belonging.
So many beautiful stories of the diaspora come from it and fuel me and it has brought me all the way to you today. So, what a gift.
I just want to ask you about your heritage. You’ve talked so much about where you come from and your complex heritage. I want to know, however, that and also how has it influenced how you have led in these last few years.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah. Well, I too was raised by a mother — well, I think for so many of us, if — if your parents’ first language was something other than English, the — you know, the — when people are feeling pure emotions, either of love or extreme frustration, they — they go back to the mother language. (Laughter.)
So I did not learn a lot of the language because my mother just didn’t have a lot of people to speak to in Tamil. But I did learn all the words of affection and frustration. (Laughs.) And I could recite some of them, but I’m going to spare you and myself from that.
But, you know, I think that one of the great gifts that so many of us have when you have been exposed to different cultures is that you understand in a very profound and sincere way that the vast majority of us have so much more in common than what separates us. You really do. You learn that, culturally, the love of a mother, the love of a grandparent, it’s — crossing cultures and languages is so common in terms of the experience that so many of us have. And I think that’s a real gift, especially in moments like this moment, where in our country in particular we are seeing these powerful forces that are trying to sow hate and division among us.
Those of us who have been raised with a lived experience, then, of understanding commonality I think have a particular commitment and conviction to make sure that those that would try and separate actually don’t win, in terms of that approach.
So there is that.
You know, my mother came to the United States by herself at the age of 19. And she was part of one of the first waves of India — Indians to come to the U.S. She came in, I think, ‘59.
And let’s talk about my grandfather. My mother was the eldest, and so we all know culturally what it means to be the eldest, to the chagrin of our younger siblings. (Laughs.)
And — and she actually applied — because she wanted to be a scientist, and she wanted to study in what was considered to be one of the best schools. And so she kind of secretly applied to UC Berkeley.
AUDIENCE: Go Bears!
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Go Bears.
And she got accepted, and she told my grandfather. And she said, “I want to go.” And my grandfather was a very progressive dude. He looked at his eldest child, who was also his daughter, and said, “Okay, you go.”
So at the age of 19 — you know, this is a transcontinental flight; she had never been to the United States — she went.
And — and, in many ways, when I think of my mother’s story, I think of the — culturally that she was so comfortable and clear about where she came from and who she was. And she had a unique ability to, I think, really infuse in us a sense of pride and — and a sense of — of understanding that we should not let anyone define our identity.
My mother would often say, “You don’t let people tell you who you are. You tell them who you are.” (Applause.)
And, you know, I mean, this is an experience that I had growing up as the eldest child also, watching my mother who, if you ever met her, you would have thought she was seven feet tall, but she really wasn’t exactly five feet tall. (Laughs.) And, you know, she was this brown woman with an accent. And I also was acutely aware as the eldest child of how she would be treated and, at a very young age, understood also how people — how people would make certain assumptions about the character and the intelligence of someone else, based on those attributes.
And so, early in my life, I also understood how these — how these disparities and these stereotypes could attempt to define and marginalize people and what we must all always do to fight against that.
My grandfather was one of the favorite people in my life.
And I was the eldest grandchild, so he convinced me I was the special, favorite one, but I think he told all the grandchildren the same thing.
And — and my grandfather would take me — by the time we would — we would go to India every other year. And my grandfather had a tradition of every morning taking a walk with his buddies, who are all retired. And then they — this was, you know — they were part of, you know, the — the independence of India.
And — and my grandfather would talk with his friends about the importance of fighting for democracy and independence; the importance of fighting against corruption; the importance of fighting for equality, regardless of where someone was born or what so-called, you know, status — because, of course, India has a very troubled history with that.
And — and so my — my story is also a story of being raised in a family and in a community where there was a real fight to always uphold the importance of independence and identity.
And, in fact, I just recently got back from the continent of Africa, and it was a trip that I intentionally curated in a way that we would talk about the continent in a way that was about recognizing the — the innovation and ingenuity that is happening on that continent. Again, fighting against stereotypes, right?
And, in fact, I’m sure everybody here knows, but the median age on the continent of Africa is 19. Oh, yes. And there is some incredible work happening among young leaders there.
But — so three — of three countries I visited, started in Ghana, then Tanzania, and then I went to Zambia. Well, the Zambia trip was to highlight, as I did in the first two countries, what’s happening in terms of democracy and innovation.
But it was also because, you see, my grandfather and my grandparents and my grandmother lived in Lusaka, the capital of Zambia — my Indian grandfather. Because when many of the African countries — and I’ll speak about Zambia, in particular — when they gained independence and fought against colonialism and gained independence, the Indian government, which had just fought for independence, would send support.
So my grandfather moved to Lusaka with my grandmother, and we went to visit him there. And it was also nice to highlight something that we all know — who have learned about the history of the world also — to highlight these relationships that are about, you know, commonality based also on struggle, including the struggle and the fight for independence. And that was a special treat for me.
And I actually went to the place where they lived. It was since rebuilt. But my aunt who was there, who went on to head up the O- — she was a OBGYN. She went on to head up the
the OB section of PGI in Chandigarh, which is a teaching hospital in Chandigarh in India in the north.
She was a young postdoc there and worked with — had a friend who was a young African doctor down the street, and they would walk to hospital — you know this is “the hospital.” They used to walk to hospital every day. And it turned out that that young man ended up being the Minister of Health years later for Zambia and instituted what I’m told was similar to what we did here under President, then, Obama and Vice President Biden around the Affordable Care Act.
And so, it was just nice to also make these connections between all of these countries and commonality around a fight for independence, as an example.
MR. WON: Thank you for sharing that story. You know, it’s — it’s these stories that I think really help us connect. In addition to your illustrious title of Vice President, you also hold the title of being the most popular guest on “Dear Asian Americans,” which is obvious.
But I think when we listen to the stories — and I think people make assumptions about you and without getting to know your story. And so when we say representation matters, yes, it does, but we also have to do the additional reaching out and learning and asking the right questions of: Where are you from? Why are you doing this? And what do you want to do?
In positions of power here in Washington and across the country, we’re seeing more and more folks of Asian American, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islander descent choosing to run for office. And that’s not really on the menu of things that were approved by our parents. Right? It’s a very short list. I think we all know what it is. And politician isn’t really one of them. (Laughter.)
We’re seeing that more. You’re leading the way, obviously. And the administration is leading the way in having representatives from our community. Hopefully we get another one — big one — soon.
Talk to us about the importance of representation in leadership, particularly within the government.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So I’ll connect this previous conversation with your point. Because I think that there are people who know, as part of my origin story, that my parents were active in the Civil Rights Movements. That’s where they met, at Berkeley.
Go Bears. Okay. (Laughter.)
But some people, I think, couldn’t wrap their head around, “How did your mother, who’s a young Indian woman, get involved in the Civil Rights Movement?” And then there was a bit of clarity when people thought about the fact that, “Oh, right, the movement for independence, for freedom.” Right?
And so I think that there is also, as part of the origin story of a lot of immigrants, a really deep knowledge and understanding of the power of government and — and — and the importance of democracy and what happens when democracies don’t exist or are not intact, when there are oppressive regimes, when there is corruption.
And so it is not as though the immigrant story is that one comes here and has no knowledge and awareness of it. Right? And I think that’s a really important point to — to acknowledge. It is a matter of then whether one, you know, decides that, you know, do I want my son or
doctor [daughter] to become a doctor — (laughs) — or, okay, law school is okay. (Laughter.)
And — but representation matters, right? And so what we are seeing with more recent generations of the kids who come from immigrant families is a recognition that if we are to be fully a part of — if we are to be fully actualized, we should not be excluded from any system and we should not self-select to exclude.
And I think that’s part of it. I think, also, part of it, frankly, is, you know, I saw a lot more activism, in terms of social justice and civil rights activism after we’ve had awful incidents like the — the hate crime that happened against people who appeared to be South Asian or Muslim or — or were profiled — right? — because they were wearing a turban after 9/11.
And what ended up happening around just understanding you can’t expect other peoples to fight for your rights. We build community, and we’ll build coalition. But one has to also step up and make sure that we are all in the room when these fights occur so that each person can offer their voice based on their lived experience. And I think we have seen that happen more and more. (Applause.)
But we still have so much more work to do. And it is also about political activism, in terms of just voter participation. But, for example, I’m going to be in Georgia later this month. (Applause.) And — and the AAPI turnout for not only us — for Joe Biden and me — but for Warnock and Ossoff really helped determine, if not was determinative, in terms of the outcome of those elections.
So we — there’s work that we have been doing also to get people more actively involved. And people are seeing themselves in the system because of the people on the stage and in this room. And I think that we are seeing more activism as a result of that. And it’s sorely needed. It’s sorely needed.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Ah, okay. So, an important topic on my mind being a woman, a mother, a survivor of sexual assault is reproductive healthcare.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: And with the, you know, Roe vs. Wade being overturned, we’re seeing unprecedented attack on the reproductive healthcare system. I was delighted to know from your team that 74 percent of Asian Americans surveyed said abortion should be legal in all or most cases. And I would love to know what is the administration doing to address those needs.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, first of all, thank you for being so courageous to tell your story.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Of course.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: And this — this is an issue that I think is some — is something that demands and requires all leaders to speak up. And we all need to build on the movement that started before and led to Roe v. Wade being decided. And we must pick up to move forward and get a United States Congress who has the courage and the willingness to pass legislation that would put the protections of Roe v. Wade into law at a national level. (Applause.)
And, again, I come at this being raised by a mother who — who fought for women’s health rights and fought for the dignity that women should have and deserve to have in the healthcare system, and fought against the inequities that were present there.
And so, this issue of fighting for women’s reproductive care — for me, it’s just something that is very personal in terms of just a lifelong acknowledgement and understanding about the disparities and the unfairness and the indignities that women can face in the healthcare system.
And, you know, if you compound race, if you compound language barriers, profound impacts result. And so, on this issue, let’s look at where we are.
The United States Supreme Court, the highest court in our land, just took a constitutional right, that had been recognized, from the people of America, from the women of America.
And what we then saw is: In states around our country, extremist so-called leaders started proposing and passing laws that would criminalize healthcare providers — literally laws that provide for jail time for doctors and nurses and healthcare providers; passing laws that make no exception for rape or incest.
And many of you know: A majority of my career was as a prosecutor. And as a prosecutor, I specialized in crimes of violence against women and children.
The idea that you would say to an individual who has survived an act of violence and violation to their body — to say to that person that, after that, you will also be deprived and we will take away your ability to make the next decision about what happens to your body — that’s immoral. That’s immoral.
And that’s what’s happening in our country with these people who puff and huff, and they’re so big and bad, and they beat their chests. They’re supposed to be strong; we’re supposed to just be in awe of their intelligence. And what they’re doing is absolutely unconscionable.
And, on this point, let’s also recognize that for women of color, women with immigrant background, women who may have language barriers, the impact on them is even more severe in terms of where can they go, where will they have the ability to be in a safe place to address one of the most personal issues that a person can face?
And the concern I have — and we have so many leaders here that I would ask us to all be also thoughtful about on this issue — is: There is also underlying this a centuries-old issue of judging women based on their sexuality. And so, an environment that on this issue is also intended, and certainly has the effect, of making these individuals feel embarrassed, ashamed — as though they’ve done something wrong.
And what that means in terms of compounding their sense of isolation and, in that way, suggesting to them that they are alone and that they’re not seen and that we don’t care about supporting them and their voice and their autonomy and their independence.
So there’s a lot at play on this issue. And, ultimately, I think that the way that this is going to be resolved is we have to keep voting, and we have to vote people in office who have the courage to stand up and agree that this is about foundational principles that are about freedom and liberty.
And I want to say this point also. Let us also agree and speak loudly: One does not have to abandon their faith or deeply held beliefs to agree the government should not be telling her what to do with her body. (Applause.)
You know, but talk about going backwards. Right?
So you look at this moment we’re in where, you know, a lot of the work that we’ve been doing as an administration — I think today demonstrated that — has been to address what we must do in terms of empowerment of communities, but also to fight against injustice. Right?
And when we think about where are we’ve been in the last few years in terms of everything from anti-Asian hate crime, to what we are looking at in terms of attacks on fundamental freedoms like those that — of a woman to make decisions and a person to make decisions about their body, to the attacks we’re seeing on voting rights, to the attacks we’re seeing on — on LGBTQ and trans folks, the attacks we’re seeing where there are literally — can you imagine, in this year of our Lord 2023, book bans? I mean, really, likes — like, what? Book bans.
And what we’re seeing in terms of — in places like Florida, where, literally, teachers who have a — who are in a same-sex relationship and have a spouse and a family are afraid to have photographs of their family in their classroom for fear that it will then evoke a conversation with a student that is basically — this — these so-called leaders are saying “should not be happening in that classroom.”
Talk about these — there are attempts that are happening right before our eyes to roll back all of the hard-won freedoms that we have collectively fought for.
And this is a time for everyone to stand and to speak out and be very active. You know, there’s an old poem about, “They’ll go for, they’ll go for, they’ll go for, and then they’ll come for you. And who will be left?” That’s the moment we’re at right now, and that’s why it’s so important that we renew, always, our commitment to the coalition and to standing together and saying no one should be made to fight alone. (Applause.)
MR. WON: Thank you so much. You know, speaking of coalition’s and allyship, our community have felt that very strongly over the last three or four years as attacks, racist attacks, hate crimes, and even murder against people who look like us in this room have risen. And gun violence is something that we continue to deal with.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MR. WON: And there are moments in that — or there’s some positives in that many of us in this room have either become more active in the community or have recommitted to continuing to fight, to work. And we find friends in different communities who share, and we finally realized that we are not so much different after all.
Can you address what you and President Biden and the rest of the administration are doing to address the continued attacks on our community, particularly with gun violence?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So we are seeing a rise in hate crimes, period. Right? I mean, my husband — the first Second Gentleman of the United States of America — (applause) — has been doing a lot of work fighting against antisemitism. And so we are seeing, you know, a rise of that. A horrendous rise in in Asian hate crime, where grandmothers are afraid to go to the store, and — and their families are afraid for them to go to the store, which is part of their routine and their social — right? — traditions.
We’re seeing the marginalization. We’re seeing the bullying. We’re seeing a tenor where — where one should be praised for their so-called strength, but they evidence their strength and it’s measured based on who they beat down when, in fact, I think we all agree you measure strength based on who you lift up. Right?
And so there’s a lot of work that we have to do against this moment of this tone and this approach to what does strength look like, what does leadership look like?
And in that regard, on the issue of gun violence then, there are a number of specific things that have to happen.
In terms of to your question — what our administration has done under President Joe Biden — we have passed smart gun safety legislation for the first time in 30 years that moves the ball forward. (Applause.)
But we’ve got more to do. We have more to do. We should have a national ban on assault weapons. These are designed — (applause) — these are weapons of war. There are weapons of war that have no place in the streets of a civil society.
We should have red-flag laws. We should have background checks.
Why should we have background checks? Well, because you might want to know if someone has been found to be a danger to themselves or others before you let them buy a gun. (Applause.) It’s just reasonable.
And we have — and we cannot be seduced into — into perpetuating this false choice that suggests that you’re either in favor of the Second Amendment or you want reasonable gun safety laws. It’s a false choice.
I support the Second Amendment. I also want to see an assault weapons ban. I also want to see universal background checks. I want to see red-flag laws. I want to see that our babies are not sitting in a classroom where they should be able to learn how to read and write and explore their ideas about what the future of the country can hold, but instead they’re sitting there also being taught how to hide in the closet and be quiet if there’s an active shooter in their classroom. That’s what’s happening.
I grew up in California where — you know, I’m going to date myself, but when I grew up, you know, the only thing we had to learn was, you know, ducking under a table if there’s an earthquake. Right?
Now our children are literally afraid.
I have talked to kids who say, “I like this class and I like this, but I don’t like going to fifth period.” “Why don’t you like when a fifth period?” “Because in that classroom there’s no closet.”
So there is so much about this issue that is about saving lives in — on every level. And we need people to have the courage to act, and that is the one thing that is lacking in this United States Congress and in legislatures around the country. And again, we have to step up and we have to demand action. Lives are at stake. (Applause.)
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Madam VP, it is Small Business Week.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yes. (Laughs.)
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Yay!
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Moving on to a different subject. (Laughter.)
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Yeah. So, well, you know, we’d love to know what the administration is doing to support small business, especially Asian-owned small business. And I just remember during the pandemic, places like Chinatown and Filipinotown were deserted. There was no foot traffic.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah, and J-Town.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Yeah. There was — there’s just no bouncing back, because it was such an erosion. And our Asian entrepreneurs are historically less likely to be funded.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Yeah.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: So, would love to know what’s being done.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: So, I love small businesses.
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Yeah, me too.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I really do. And I actually — we had — growing up, my mother would work long days and weekends and — from time to time, and there was a woman who lived two doors down from us, Mrs. Shelton, who, if our mother was working late or on weekends, we would go and — and stay with Mrs. Shelton. And we lived in the apartment above her nursery school. She was a small-business owner.
And her — her role was to be almost a matriarch in the community. She was not only a business leader, she was a civic leader. She would mentor — I — I would see her from time to time counsel young parents. She was part of the fabric of the community. And that’s who small-business owners are, right?
They — they’re the ones who will sponsor the local softball league. They are the ones who, you know, will recognize the people who come in and — and notice if you’re having a good day or a bad day, and if it’s a restaurant, maybe sit you down and know exactly what you’d like to eat.
And not to mention that half of our workforce who works in the private sector, not in government, either runs or works in a small business.
So there are many, many reasons to support our small businesses. And the point that you are making is a critical one: Not all of them have equal access to capital.
So when we think about younger small-business owners — it’s interesting, I think they more self-identify as entrepreneurs, but they are actually small-business owners. (Laughs.) And — and — but with great ideas and with ambition, which we want to encourage, but don’t necessarily have generational wealth and access to capital.
So the work that I’ve been doing has been — it actually started in the Senate. Working with some of my colleagues in the Senate, we got 12 billion extra dollars to put into community banks. And so our administration has been building on a lot of the work that is about bringing private equity investment and private investment together with what we are investing in community banks to increase the capacity then from people who are in the community to give capital and access to capital to these small businesses to start as startups but also to grow and expand.
And we’re seeing great return on that. Under our administration, we’ve also seen an historic increase in the number of small businesses being started, and — and many of whom are communi- — in communities of color. And it’s work that we have to continue to do.
But to your point in particular, when we’re thinking about Asian small businesses — and of course, it ranges. You know, it’s everything from construction to a daycare center to a restaurant to — it ranges. There’s — the work is just literally about understanding the value of that small business to that community culturally; understanding, to your point, there are people in that community that want idli for breakfast. (Laughter.)
And — so, the South Asians here know what I’m talking about. Right? (Laughter.)
And that’s the only restaurant that will make idli for breakfast. Right? But, you know, the big bank won’t necessarily know that. And — but community banks do. And they understand the importance of a particular product or a service to a particular commo- — community. So, yes, that’s a good idea, and let’s fund it.
So, that’s the work that we’re doing. (Applause.)
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Thank you.
MR. WON: And to everybody here, obviously, and those watching, we need to support our businesses, not just in Heritage Month but all throughout the year. Because when you invest, when you spend money at our businesses, we then go take that money and give it to a friend, a neighbor, another small Asian business, and that’s how we’re going to make our community stronger.
Thank you so much for spending your time with us today. The theme of today is “visible together.” And whether it is, you know, talking about reproductive rights or gun violence or identity in leadership, we’re all working very hard in our own ways to make this a safer place for our children and our next generation.
For many of us to see you get elected was such a big deal because it was a first. And for my kids and for all of our kids, I don’t want that to be a big deal anymore. I just want it to be, “Oh, another one.” You know?
And you get to be the first, but I want you to share with us sort of your parting thoughts to the future leaders of our country. Maybe some of them aren’t here in the audience, but certainly some are watching, and a message of inspiration and hope from the Vice President.
THE VICE PRESIDENT: I’ll — I’ll offer two.
One, my mother would say often to me, “Kamala, you may be the first to do many things. Make sure you’re not the last.” So, that is part of the responsibility we each have. (Applause.)
But the other piece of advice, in particular to maybe some of the younger leaders here that I — but, actually, it doesn’t matter the age. You will often find that when you walk into that boardroom or that meeting room, a conference room, you will often find that you will be the only one there who looks like you or who has had your life experience.
So here’s what I’ve got to say: You walk in that room with your chin up and your shoulders back, knowing that when you walk in that room, you are representing the voice of so many people who are so darn — I was going to say it differently — proud — (laughter) — proud that you are in that room.
And that we — and just remember when the lights were on; they’ll probably come on again — and that we — you remember this — we are all in that room with you. You are not walking in that room alone. (Applause.) And that is critically important to remember.
You know, sometimes I think — I know it is intended mostly to be a compliment. But you know when people say, “Oh, you’re special.” (Laughter.) Oh, but —
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Do grandfathers count?
THE VICE PRESIDENT: But my grandfather — it’s different. Okay? If grandpa said it, it’s a different thing altogether.
But sometimes when you’re told that, it can also be about saying, “Oh, you’re the only one like you,” which is another way of saying you’re alone. You’re not alone. Don’t ever walk into those rooms being made to feel or think that you are alone. We are all in that room with you, and that is critically important, because we have so much work to do.
And we should do it always with pride and with a sense of knowledge that we come with people. You come with people. (Applause.)
MS. JAGANNATHAN: Thank you.
MR. WON: The Vice President, everybody. (Applause.)
END 5:53 P.M. EDT