Soniya Gokhale (00:05):
Welcome back to another episode of ‘A Desi Woman’ podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale and the voices I am seeking may have never been heard before, but their stories deserve to be told. What is a desi woman?’ She’s a dynamic, fearless and strong woman. She is your mother, your grandmother, your daughter, your sister. She is every one of us who is on an endless pursuit of self-empowerment and fulfillment. I am Soniya Gokhale and I am a desi woman.
Soniya Gokhale (00:40):
Hello, and welcome to another edition of ‘A Desi Woman’ podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And today, we are so honored and excited to be joined by US congressman, Ami Bera. Congressman Bera has represented California’s 7th Congressional District in the US House of Representatives since 2013, making him the longest-serving Indian American in Congress. As a first-generation American, born and raised in California to parents who immigrated to this country from India, Congressman Bera grew up believing that America was a land of opportunity, where if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could reach your full potential. He attended California’s public schools from grammar school through medical school, earning both his BS and MD from the University of California, Irvine.
Soniya Gokhale (01:36):
Representative Bera is currently a member of the house foreign affairs committee where he serves as chairman of the subcommittee on Asia, the Pacific, Central Asia, in non-proliferation. He is also a senior member on the house committee on science, space and technology. Congressman Bera is also Vice-chair for outreach for the new Democrat coalition, a group of over 100 forward-thinking Democrats who are committed to pro-economic growth, pro-innovation and fiscally responsible policies. Congressman Bera, welcome to the show.
Congressman Bera (02:13):
Great. Thanks for having me on.
Soniya Gokhale (02:14):
Well, it is such a distinct honor to have you here. I really want to underscore the fact that you are such an inspiration to myself and so many others from the south Asian community, not only in North America, but I would offer globally and across our diaspora. You’re the longest-serving Indian American in Congress, and of course, part of the samosa caucus. I know that your father immigrated to this country from India in 1958, your mother joined him shortly thereafter, and you were born and raised in Orange County. That story in and of itself is really remarkable. Here you are, not only a renowned and experienced physician. But now, the longest-serving Indian American in Congress. I have to ask you, how has this bi-cultural experience and background impacted and informed you not only professionally, but also as a human being?
Congressman Bera (03:07):
Yeah, certainly I grew up in a vibrant Indian American household. But, growing up at a time when our community was a pretty small community. I think when my parents were originally immigrated here in the late 1950s, maybe the total number of Indian Americans or people of Indian descent in the United States was probably around 10,000. In the late ’60s, early ’70s, when my aunts, uncles, my cousins started to immigrate, it was great to see that side of my heritage. Again, the values that I was raised with, Indian American values of family, of hard work, of focus on education and those opportunities, in my mind, aren’t just Indian values. They’re American values as well.
Congressman Bera (03:54):
Fast forward to 2009 when I had this crazy notion of running for Congress, I think I saw it as an opportunity to give back to the country that really has given my family, but also so many generations of immigrants, real opportunity at the American dream. To give back and again, pay it forward to that next generation. I don’t think I ever thought about both historic implications of being an Indian American running for Congress. Although, I had no idea that the first Asian American to get elected to Congress was an Indian American, Dalip Singh Saund, because no one ever taught us that history growing up. It’s fun to be part of the history of our diaspora here in America. I don’t see myself as a role model, but certainly I hope I’m an inspiration to others who want to get involved in politics.
Soniya Gokhale (04:44):
Well, there’s no doubt about that. You absolutely are. As a first generation American born and raised in California, you really grew up believing that, as you stated, the United States was a land of opportunity. And if you worked hard and played by the rules, you could reach your full potential. We often talk about the model minority myth, which is something that our diaspora community as south Asian can’t necessarily escape and some of the pressures that come with that. You do check a lot of boxes as it pertains to being a physician.
Soniya Gokhale (05:17):
But, what is really notable is that you did go through the California public schools from grammar school and then went on to medical school. And with the help of family, scholarships, working part-time, you put yourself through medical school while taking advantage of federally funded student loans and graduating with less than $10,000 in debt. And as you indicated, you do credit this country for their investment in you. I do want to know what your thoughts are regarding student loans. It’s not something we often relate to our community, but it’s absolutely on point. And you’re a perfect example of somebody that utilized this and didn’t come out with onerous debt. What are your thoughts on that?
Congressman Bera (06:04):
Yeah. When I think about what I paid to go to medical school, I paid $393 a quarter to go to medical school, which is just amazing. When you think about the students that I taught at UC Davis, they were paying $40,000 or $50,000 a year. I think the most important investment that we can make, our citizens, is in education. And that starts with early childhood education, even before kindergarten. Those investments, all the research has shown pay off the rest of your life. Same thing for those folks that want to go on to, whether it’s community college or to get a four-year degree. To me, those are investments that we’re making and cost shouldn’t be the differentiating factor. If folks have the ability and desire, we should want to make those investments and make it affordable for them.
Congressman Bera (06:58):
Because again, in my case, I have the opportunity and the ability to go on to med school. But, the return on that investment was then going back and practicing in the community back to the [inaudible 00:07:14] Congress, having the ability to… Or when I was in college, having the ability to run for Congress. So again, an investment in education is an investment and there’s a return on that investment.
Soniya Gokhale (07:25):
Well, no, you’re the embodiment of that. There’s no doubt about that. I know that the United States departure from Afghanistan and now the subsequent evacuation of refugees, US citizens, and other individuals seeking to leave the country has featured very prominently in your work, and that you and your staff have been working around the clock, responding to urgent pleas from constituents whose families and colleagues are seeking to flee Afghanistan. Many of our listeners may not be aware that Sacramento happens to be one of the top five metro areas in the country were foreign-born Afghans are settled and thus, this is an even more urgent matter in front of you. So, I want to ask you about any updates you might have on this front. I will offer that just yesterday, you Zoe Lofgren and Jerry Nadler led 12 members of Congress in sending a letter to Secretary of State, Anthony Blinken, and Homeland security secretary, Alejandro Majorkas, urging them to provide timely guidance on how the administration will evacuate remaining Americans, lawful permanent residents and vulnerable people out of Afghanistan. Anything you’d like to add to that?
Congressman Bera (08:41):
Yeah. One of the things I’m most proud about with Sacramento County is how welcoming we have been to refugee populations, not just the Afghan refugee, but Syrian refugees and others. As you already mentioned, we do have one of the largest Afghan refugee population here in my district, in the United States. So, we have a lot of individuals that have family members, relatives, sons, daughters, that are vulnerable. Many translators that help support our troops. And our office has submitted over 10,000 names to the state department, to central command, of folks that have wanted to get out of Afghanistan. My hope is many of those 10,000 have made their way out already, and we’re aware of some of them. But we also are very aware that there are American citizens, visa holders, and other vulnerable Afghans that are still stuck in the country looking for transit out to either United States or to third countries.
Congressman Bera (09:39):
The purpose of the letter that was sent yesterday with Congresswoman Lofgren and chairman of the judiciary committee, Jerry Nadler really was to get a sense from the administration, what their plan is for those that are still in country. How we can get them information, if they’re in contact. How many people are still there and what we can do to support as the president said in his own words, about any us citizen, visa holder, or vulnerable Afghan, that wants to try to get out, we’re going to do everything we can to get them out. And that really is the point, to give us guidance. So, when my staff is talking to constituents, we can let them know what the plan is.
Soniya Gokhale (10:24):
Well, we really appreciate that update. I want to pivot now. One of the many notable characteristics about your time in office is your willingness and ability to work across party lines in order to achieve much needed change on behalf of this country. Just yesterday on September 7th, you and three other legislators, two of whom happened to be Republican introduced the Ensuring Access to General Surgery Act. This bill would ensure that we have high quality data on where general surgeons are in short supply around the country and this especially as important for rural and other underserved communities. Just to quote you directly, you stated that we already know our aging population will lead to physician shortages in the near future. This bipartisan legislation will provide us with critical data. So, we can target resources in the areas most in need of general surgeons. I really think this is remarkable because it’s an example of how you’re using your background as a clinician and physician to really drive change for this country and move beyond the partisan politics we hear so much about. Any other comments you have on this?
Congressman Bera (11:42):
No, other than, I think it’s an ethic in my office that if we’re introducing legislation, we’re going to want to look at, to see if we can find a Republican member of Congress to work with. Legislation like this particular bill is not partisan at all, right? You have got medical needs in every community, whether it’s Democratic or Republican and be known that we already have physician and healthcare worker shortages. We want to start addressing those shortages, particularly in rural communities where they have fewer resources, fewer hospitals, fewer physicians and nurses, and to try funding in centers, to get more doctors to work in some of these communities. So, that really was what this piece of legislation focuses in on the gen surgery population, but there’re many other needs in terms of your citizens and other healthcare workforce issues that we work on. And again, try to work with Republican doctors often in a bipartisan…
Soniya Gokhale (12:50):
Well, no, that’s extremely inspiring. I know that many of us had heard about an infrastructure plan and bill. And I think again, this comment by you underscores your background and unique perspective on this issue because you have indicated that Congress really needs to address broadband access for telehealth. And why it matters is that the pandemic has certainly brought this to the forefront, virtual doctor’s appointments, therapy sessions, any number of other appointments could become the norm, even as more people get vaccinated. But many communities, like native American tribes lack access to high-speed internet. I want to get your comments on this and what your thoughts are about tele-health. Do you actually see that becoming the norm as it is increasingly becoming that case?
Congressman Bera (13:45):
I really do. And I think the pandemic has accelerated trends that were already happening in telemedicine, video visits, audio visits, even. Again, it’s not a partisan issue because both Democrats and Republicans want to figure out how post pandemic we can continue to give people access to telehealth and telemedicine. What we found is that it improves the efficiency by which healthcare providers can deliver services to their patients. But it also, I bet when we do the final examination will improve the outcomes as well. We also know for many senior patients and folks that may live far away from a doctor’s office, it’s a very convenient way to access their admission. The part we have to address is that not every community has equal access to broad and services to high speed internet.
Congressman Bera (14:38):
That’s why in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill, one of the areas we worked on the hardest was to make sure that there was adequate funding to get broadband access to those communities. Not only just rural communities, also underserved urban communities that have unreliable access to the internet. We also know it’s very important for our students. We’ve seen many at times have to go virtual. But, if a student doesn’t have reliable internet access, well that’s going to impact their ability to get their education. So that’s another reason why we think these investments are super important, not just for today’s patients or today’s students, but also for tomorrow’s students. This is an opportunity for us to build that 21st century infrastructure that’s surely needed.
Soniya Gokhale (15:28):
Well, there is no question about that, and I did want to touch upon briefly, small business. You are a huge advocate of empowering small business and recognize that in today’s economy, small businesses employ over half of America’s workers and really are responsible for over 97% of all exported goods. You’re very impassioned about ensuring that there’s access to capital. And as we know, certainly amongst the south Asian community or other minorities, nothing is more important to the success of small businesses than having access to adequate financing and the loan approval process needs to be simpler and more accessible for the average small business owner. Just want to hear more from you about this.
Congressman Bera (16:17):
Yeah, one of the things that I’m most proud about within the pandemic was the PPP loan program that really helped a lot of small businesses keep people employed, but also survive the pandemic and move forward. Now, as these innovators, small business owners try to jumpstart our economy and move this forward, they do need access to capital. You do need that ability to… Especially in those early years of building your business, to both get the capital to grow your business, but also be able to hold on the profits and capital to reinvest in your business. So that you can go from that small business to a larger business. And again, that’s where the real innovation and impact comes from. So, small businesses those ops nurse, we’ve also seen a tremendous uptick in folks of [inaudible 00:17:14] during the pandemic also started their own businesses. I think that’s a good thing. And I think we will see many of these businesses pick up as, now again, we kind of see this new 21st century economy start to evolve and grow.
Soniya Gokhale (17:32):
Well. I know we’re coming to the end of our time here, but I did want to touch upon one topic that you are particularly impassioned about, and that pertains to our veterans. You believe that the mistreatment of veterans is a national tragedy, not to mention immoral and un-American. You fully worked across party lines to get more medical staff into the VA system so that no veteran has to wait for months on end for the care they need. And you’ve cared for veterans in VA hospital. I do want to understand more, you voted for a pay raise for the men and women who serve our country. I really wanted to call this out because it’s not something we hear about enough, I would estimate.
Congressman Bera (18:18):
Yeah. Again, when I think about our veterans, these are men and women who stepped up to answer the call of duty to serve our country, to protect our national security interests, both at home and abroad. We should do everything we can to honor their service by honoring them. That starts with making sure you have the VA system provides the best healthcare possible, but they have good access to that care. But, even in my home community here in Sacramento county, we see a large number of homeless veterans. One thing we’ve worked extremely hard at is, let’s get those homeless veterans houses. Let’s provide them the basics, food, shelter, clothing, safety, security. But then let’s also, if they’re suffering, whether it’s PTSD or other traumatic brain injury, et cetera, let’s make sure we’re addressing those underlying root cause issues. So we can, again, give them the best chance at a full life that they’ve allowed us to experience. That’s why that shouldn’t be a Democratic or Republican issue. That should be a nonpartisan issue where, we members of Congress are honoring those that honored us with their service.
Soniya Gokhale (19:31):
Well, absolutely, absolutely. We are at the end of our time together. Congressmen Bera, we cannot thank you enough for joining us today. Even if you’re not aware of it, you are a huge inspiration every day. We’re watching you. Please keep doing this challenging work. It’s an increasingly alarming global world that we live in. And yet, here you are making all these tough decisions on a daily basis. Cannot thank you enough for joining us today.
Congressman Bera (20:02):
For having me on. And again, I’m an optimist. And while we face a lot of challenges as a planet, if we’re willing to come together, work together as a world and the country, we can overcome a lot. So again, thank you for having me on. Be well. Be safe.
Soniya Gokhale (20:17):
Awesome. Thank you so much, Congressman.
Congressman Bera (20:19):
Okay. You’re welcome. Be well. Bye.