A Conversation with Washington State Senator Manka Dhingra

A Desi Woman Podcast
A Conversation with Washington State Senator Manka Dhingra


Hello, and welcome to another edition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host Soniya Gokhale and today we are so delighted to be joined by Washington State Senator Manka Dhingra. Senator Dhingra was first elected to the Senate by the constituents of the 45th Legislative District in November 2017, making her the first Sikh legislator elected in the country.

Soniya Gokhale (01:08):
She is the Deputy Majority Leader of the Washington state Senate and has sponsored and passed legislation addressing a wide range of issues, including curbing domestic violence and sexual assault, preventing firearm violence, providing property tax relief for seniors and people with disabilities, prosecuting financial fraud and reforming the criminal justice system with an evidence-based approach. Senator Dhingra brings two decades of experience as a prosecutor and behavioral health expert to her roles as Chair of the Senate Behavioral Health Subcommittee and Vice Chair of the Senate Law and Justice Committee. She also serves on the Ways and Means Committee. As a member of the Special Committee on Economic Recovery, she is helping the state to craft an economic plan to lead an equitable recovery from the COVID economic downturn.

Soniya Gokhale (02:06):
She also serves on several task forces dedicated to reducing poverty, reforming the criminal justice system and proving equity in state government and providing a sound and fair fiscal footing for the state. Outside of her legislative role, Senator Dhingra is a community leader and anti domestic violence advocate. And she co-founded Chaya, an organization that assists South Asian survivors of domestic violence. Senator Dhingra, welcome to the show.

Senator Dhingra (02:39):
Thank you so much. It is such a pleasure to be here.

Soniya Gokhale (02:42):
Well, it is such a distinct honor to have you, and we really can’t thank you for making time in your busy schedule to join us today. And one of the questions I always like to pose to the plethora of guests that I’ve welcomed from the South Asian community and our diaspora, it’s just to elaborate a bit upon their immigrant journey. Many of my guests have either immigrated to this country from south Asian region, typically India, or they’ve been born here to parents that immigrated here. And so I know that you were born in Bhopal India to a Sikh family, and your father actually worked for Union Carbide. Your mother was a school teacher, and I know that you moved here at a young age at the age of 13, and I’d love to hear more about that and how that bi-cultural experience has informed you, not only as a legislator, but also as a human being.

Senator Dhingra (03:40):
That’s such a great question because my story’s a little bit more complicated than that. My father actually came to the United States, the late ’60s he came to USC to get his master’s. And I had his side of his family that had immigrated here in the early ’70s. And so he got his degree and my mom and he had an arranged marriage and she did not want to move to the US. And so that is how he ended up in India, which is kind of unusual because at that time there are a lot of people who got married and moved to the US. So while he and my mom went to India and I was born in India, his parents had moved to the US, his sister had moved to the US and his other sister had moved to Dubai. So we had a lot of exposure to the US growing up because of his experience and because of where his side of the family was.

Senator Dhingra (04:38):
So when we then moved here when I was 13, it was interesting because we came to California and were surrounded by family, which is so unusual for so many people, because I feel when they come here they have that sense of isolation because they’re starting new, but it was different because I had my grandparents here and cousins here, but it definitely made for a very interesting journey growing up.

Soniya Gokhale (05:09):
Well, that is definitely a very different perspective. And thank you so much for elaborating upon that because I do believe that each and every story, a narrative is so different and yes, exactly what you outlined is a different perspective. And kudos to your mom for standing up and saying, “No, I don’t want to come to the United States quite yet,” because that’s absolutely a daunting process and consideration, and yet you did do it. And I think what’s really, really interesting about your background is that you didn’t always just come onto the public front to pursue a career as a legislator. Rather, you have a deep background in prosecution, you were a prosecutor and as well, you have a background in behavioral health. And I think both of those two backgrounds are so compelling and interesting. And I want to hear more about that and sort of what drew you into this line of work?

Senator Dhingra (06:12):
So I do come from a traditional Indian family where we have a lot of engineers and doctors, and I knew early on that I wanted to be neither. And I grew up reading a lot of Erle Stanley Gardner books about the Perry Mason stories. And so in ninth grade I had decided I wanted to go to UC Berkeley for undergrad, Yale Law School and I wanted to be a prosecutor. And what really drove me to be specifically a prosecutor was I come from a long line of really strong women, like my grandmother and her sisters, my paternal grandmother and all of them have just done a lot of work with survivors of gender based violence and just very strong feminists. And so I really wanted to be a prosecutor because I thought it was really crucial to make sure I’m helping survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.

Senator Dhingra (07:10):
So that’s the path I’d laid out for me. I did make it to UC Berkeley for my undergrad, Yale didn’t want me, so I went to the University of Washington Law School and started working at the prosecutor’s office. And so definitely very much survivor focused. And then that’s around the time after I’d been at the prosecutor’s office for about five years when treatment courts were starting up. So the first mental health court was started in Florida and the second one was actually started in King County, Washington. And so I got exposed to it because I was in a supervisor and when this court was starting out, the supervisor kind of handled this hearing. And so that was my entry into behavioral health and criminal justice reform. And taking a look at alternatives to incarceration for individuals with behavioral health history.

Soniya Gokhale (08:06):
Well, I love to hear that background information about a strong line of women and your family. I think that’s very, very indicative not only of what you described about your mother, but yourself as well. And I did an interview recently with Patti Russo from the Campaign School at Yale University and your colleague, Washington state Senator Mona Das, and they sort of both underscored the fact that politics is quite brutal, it is not for the faint of heart. And so I really applaud and salute all women who enter the political arena and especially those from the South Asian diaspora. And I have to say that in researching for this podcast, I am so proud to offer with our listening audience, for those that may not be aware that you were first elected to the Senate by the constituents of the 45th Legislative District in November 2017 in Washington State. You are the first Sikh legislator elected in the nation, and that is so meaningful and impactful and in fact, I just interviewed Congressman Ami Bera from California, and he shared how there are many stories like yours pertaining to the South Asian diaspora and our community that are not being widely shared.

Soniya Gokhale (09:29):
So this is historic, your win is historic. And I celebrate that with you, even if we didn’t have the chance to do so in 2017. It’s huge, and so I really applaud you on that. And beyond that, though, as you stated, you are not only an advocate for those that are survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. You also walk the walk outside of your duties and obligations as a legislator. You co-founded Chaya an organization that assists South Asian survivors of domestic violence, and you led the organization’s work toward ending systemic violence through education and prevention, also serve on the board of a National Alliance on Mental Illness on the Eastside. And so would really enjoy you speaking more about that. And again, I think that’s an amazing accomplishment considering how busy you must be as a legislator, a mother, a wife. However, obviously you’re impassioned about this.

Senator Dhingra (10:34):
Yes, and I’ll just say we all wear a lot of different hats. So I got involved in working on gender based violence issues while I was at UC Berkeley. I was interested in issues around date rape. And so I had started volunteering at a place called the National Clearinghouse on Metal and Date Rape. And that’s when I was really introduced to more issues around domestic violence. And so I’d started volunteering then at a domestic violence shelter in Oakland called A Safe Place. And at the same time, there were a group of South Asian women in the Berkeley Oakland area who wanted to start one of the first South Asian domestic violence organizations called NARIKA. And so given my work with The Safe Place and I was invited to join this organization that was starting. And so I was working with them and then I graduated.

Senator Dhingra (11:25):
So when I moved to the University of Washington, I was interested in continuing that work. Now I have a lot of ties to California, but I didn’t in Washington. So I literally put up a flyer at the local South Asian grocery store saying, “Hey, anyone interested in working on issues of domestic violence call me,” and was connected through other means to this one other woman and she said there were a group of them working on domestic violence issues. So I got connected there. And what I brought were the lessons learned from starting NARIKA and what I had learned from A Safe Place and really trying to merge the two so that we can provide culturally competent services to individuals, but really making sure we have that accountability and transparency and are doing it in a safe manner. And so that’s how Chaya was created.

Senator Dhingra (12:20):
The name comes from a Rabindranath Tagore poem, where he talks about Chaya the shade and saying, “On your weary journey, let us provide you with shade.” And so it’s also really important and meaningful for me because it is about providing that shade so someone can get that respite and empowering them to continue on their journey. It’s not to replace the organization’s viewpoints, or further cause trauma to the survivor, but really providing that respite and enabling them to continue on their journey, whatever that may be. So it’s been quite a few years since Chaya was founded. I’m just so proud of the work that they continue to do.

Soniya Gokhale (13:08):
Oh, we absolutely should be. And I will have a link on the podcast notes to Chaya as well as your site for Senator Dhingra that you can access. But it’s absolutely a huge issue within the South Asian community in this country. And again, I applaud you for taking a leadership role in solving this issue within our community, or at least trying to remedy what is occurring right now. Now another topic which I know that you have really taken head-on pertains to rehabilitated individuals and ability to expand clemency. I think this is extremely important because we know that the pandemic has really placed an inordinate amount of mental pressure upon everybody. I think we have seen an uptick in suicides in this country.

Soniya Gokhale (13:58):
The opioid crisis in this country continues to rage onwards. And for those that may be in a state of rehabilitation and perhaps coming out of the criminal justice system who have been incarcerated, I really, really find your approach to this… And I’m going to quote you directly. “The criminal justice system sees people at the worst moment in life. The system has not been doing a good job of recognizing that people change. For many years, our country allowed the need for punishment and the need for rehabilitation to get out of balance. Today, we have an opportunity to help restore that balance.” And so really would like to hear more about you on this topic. It’s not something we hear enough about, and yet those individuals that do exit the justice system, they need to find a way of life and find a way to work and thrive in this community. And it sounds like your bill is aimed at making that a little bit more meaningful.

Senator Dhingra (15:06):
Yeah. I’m glad you asked about this work because it is something that is really important to me, especially in the South Asian culture, we don’t talk about behavioral health. We don’t talk about mental illness, we don’t talk about substance use disorder and it really is something that we need to be removing the stigma from. So when I talk about criminal justice reform, I try to take a look at that entire spectrum, right? How do people come into the system to begin with? And so I think first you have to make sure you’re doing work there to stop that from happening. And so I always say one of the biggest criminal justice reform that people can engage in is ensuring that our children graduate from high school. And many people who don’t do this work are confused by that. But just that high school degree, having that, greatly diminishes an individual’s chances of getting involved in the criminal justice system.

Senator Dhingra (16:00):
So it really starts with our children and making sure that they’re successful. And that’s when you really have to take a look at trauma informed care, right? Taking a look at adverse childhood experiences. Are children coming from homes where they experience domestic violence, are they coming from homes where their family members may be using drugs and alcohol or struggling with mental illness? And if we are in a position where we can make sure we’re addressing those issues for that child and that child graduates from high school, you’ll see them not entering into our more expensive criminal justice systems, right? So, that’s one component of it. The second really goes back to what you started this question about is when we send individuals to jails, to prisons a component of that, right? The two components, one is you want to keep society safe.

Senator Dhingra (16:55):
And I firmly believe that the people who need to be locked away are those individuals who pose a risk to society. If they are not a threat to society, there are other ways of handling accountability and in a sense, punishing them for their crimes. But a huge component of that is actually trying to understand, “What are the factors that led them to commit this crime and how as a society, can we address those?” And for the vast majority of them, it comes down to substance use disorder and behavioral health and mental health. And so really making sure that while they’re in custody, that we’re providing those services and that we then have a transition plan to transition them out of prisons and jails into the community. And we have enough data to know that when there’s a warm handoff, when there is transition to housing and treatment and education and services, that individual will not go back into a life of crime.

Senator Dhingra (17:53):
So I think we really have to be smarter about the manner in which we’re handling our criminal justice system instead of being reactive. And it also means really understanding human nature and how to drive change.

Soniya Gokhale (18:08):
That is so incredibly insightful. And I have to say, I kind of got chills when you were speaking about the high school graduation. I have never heard that statistic and it’s so incredibly important. And so just want to revisit that when we have young adults that can matriculate and complete high school, you are indicating there is a notable drop-off in terms of their propensity perhaps to find themselves incarcerated. And that is huge [crosstalk 00:18:39].

Senator Dhingra (18:41):
Yes, it’s huge. And it’s something that people in the criminal justice system know really well. They know that those individuals, without a high school degree are the ones we end up seeing there. And so this is where wearing my policymaker hat and that’s what is really cool about me being in this position that I can do preventative work, where I can say, “Okay, we’re going to stop this. And we know the data’s very, very clear that when they graduate with a high school degree, their chances of getting involved in the criminal justice system plummet, it’s not just a minor drop it, they plummet.” And it also reduces us to the chances of going to an emergency room for severe mental health issues too. So, really we don’t talk enough about graduating from high school and enabling our children to be successful at that.

Soniya Gokhale (19:33):
We do not at all. And I do think you sort of referenced that model minority myth, which I often address in the course of this podcast, because as a graduate of UC Berkeley and you sort of joke, that it’s Yale’s loss by the way that you didn’t attend that university, but we don’t often associate a lack of high school matriculation or graduation with our diaspora. And yet I’m certain, it is the case in this country. Our demographics are changing and even if not for our community, for the greater good of the society at large in this country, I think that’s a hugely important point. And I do want to point out that as a mental health and crisis intervention expert, Senator Dhingra, you’ve also been an Instructor at the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission for the 40 hour Crisis Intervention Training for law enforcement officers to reduce the risk of tragedy and improve the response to people in crisis.

Soniya Gokhale (20:33):
This is actually so important because we’ve heard so much about #Defund the police and police reformation, and this speaks directly to that issue, but you’re quite informed on this topic. And so it sounds like you really are someone that should be, and you are in your state on the front lines working with law enforcement. The goal is not to vilify them certainly, but it sounds like you’re providing them with the tools they need to directly quote your site, “Reduce the risk of tragedy and improve the response to people in crisis.” Because I think oftentimes when they do arrive at the scene of a crisis, many times there may be drugs or some sort of mental health issue at play. And I don’t know that they’re trained in this area. So we’d like to hear from you on this.

Senator Dhingra (21:29):
I’ll tell you the only people who don’t have a choice but to respond as law enforcement, right? You call 911 and you ask for help and they’re going to show up. We don’t have that system anywhere else. And so they have become the default for showing up in situations that they’re not trained for. And this is where the behavioral health crisis comes in. I was very excited last session to help a Representative Orwall on a bill that actually creates, or the federal government authorized 988 as a behavioral health number. And so in our country actually next summer, people can call 988, and that’s going to be a behavioral health crisis line. And so that’s the work we’re doing is really making sure that when it truly is a being a health crisis, you can call 988 and you can have behavioral health professionals show up, not law enforcement.

Senator Dhingra (22:24):
And if there are safety concerns, if there’s a weapon involved, there’s a danger to someone’s safety, then you have a corresponder model where both show up and work together to diffuse the situation. But for very long the default was 911 and law enforcement showing up. And we know that a lot of the officer involved shootings have involved individuals with behavioral health crisis. So it’s really important to make sure that we are again, doing training on crisis intervention, because the tools that you need to interact with someone who may be going through behavioral health crisis is very different than the tools you need to handle someone in the criminal justice system, right? When officers show up, they control the situation, they bark orders, and they’re in charge. When you go to behavioral health situation, someone may be hearing voices already. And so when an officer starts shouting at them, they’re listening to competing voices, and so that situation is not going to go well.

Senator Dhingra (23:24):
But if that officer understands it’s a behavioral health crisis, they can take a step back, speak slower, use fewer words, and really deescalate. So there are different skills that are needed. And we live in a society where overall our society is safer now than it was 10 years ago. And so the skill set is different, the needs are different, and we just have to make sure that people responding to crisis are trained for the situations that they see themselves in.

Soniya Gokhale (24:00):
Well, I think that is incredibly remarkable. I had not heard about this either. And so could you repeat that again, instead of 911, those that perhaps are in the midst of a mental health crisis will now utilize a different emergency line. And so, if you could repeat that, that’d be wonderful.

Senator Dhingra (24:21):
Absolutely. So the federal government has authorized the use of the number 988. So we have national suicide prevention numbers, and those are long, regular telephone numbers. And so the behavioral health community for a very, very long time has been advocating for a different number where you can do suicide prevention, behavioral health crisis. And so the federal government authorized 988. It goes live next summer, so regardless of where you are in the country, you can call 988 for help. Now, different states are going to then do things differently on what happens when you call 988. So we were one of the first states in the country to have a robust bill around it. It passed this last session and I’m so very proud of it. And we are taking this opportunity in the State of Washington to create a robust behavioral health system, where we are creating hubs all through the state, where trained individuals will be able to do crisis intervention, deescalation, suicide prevention over the phone, we’ll have the ability to send out crisis mobile units.

Senator Dhingra (25:31):
We are also mandating that all health plans do next day appointments so that someone who’s in a crisis can actually get the care they need, it’s not just a phone call. That there was follow-up. We are also looking at bed tracking. So if someone needs to go to an emergency room or the need to go for supportive housing, we have a statewide system for tracking those beds. And really making sure we’re also looking at cultural competency and language access so that you can get help in different languages. We are also one of the first states that is going to have a tribal line for the native Americans in our state, so that we can again be culturally competent for that population as well which sees a high incident of substance use disorder. So it’s something that I’m very excited about. We are having meetings on a very regular basis on building up the system and making sure that we are taking this opportunity to provide a statewide behavioral health crisis support system along with the 988 number.

Soniya Gokhale (26:38):
Unbelievable. Well, you should be incredibly proud of all that you’ve mentioned, but especially just so impressed by Washington State and everything that you’ve identified there. I love Ohio, but my goodness, that is just music to my ears, everything that you’ve indicated. And I have to say just an observation, this pandemic has just absolutely the entire world is still dealing with it. It has not relented as of yet, but it’s almost as though your unique skills and qualification sort of bought you for this moment. And I say that because not only do you have the background in mental health, but also a former prosecutor, and we know the stressors that have been placed on society at large, from a mental health perspective. But in addition to that, you also are very impassioned about ensuring economic recovery. You’re a member of the Special Committee on Economic Recovery, and you’re helping the state to craft an economic plan to lead an equitable recovery from the COVID economic downturn.

Soniya Gokhale (27:47):
In addition to that though, you really, really focused on generational poverty and breaking that cycle. And in some respects, it sort of ties in to what you mentioned about high school matriculation. I would imagine many of the young adults that are coming from households and they don’t make it through high school, perhaps that’s the case within their households. I don’t want to surmise, but as you’ve indicated on your site, Washingtonians are caught in the cycle of intergenerational poverty to some degree, and you are working towards a pathway to self-sufficiency and helping your constituents through a bill that was passed by an overwhelming bipartisan majority. And so if you could tell me more about that.

Senator Dhingra (28:37):
Absolutely, I’m so glad you asked. All of this work does tie together, right? Because all of it is about historic trauma, intergenerational trauma. And it all really is about, “How do we make our children successful?” And really, it ties down to that is, “How do we set them up to be successful?” And this is one thing that it doesn’t matter what your political affiliation is, it doesn’t matter what culture you come from. The one thing that I find that every human being wants is they want their children to have a better life than they did.

Senator Dhingra (29:14):
And so this drives a lot of the work that I do. And so when you take a look at levels of poverty and especially a level of hunger insecurity, and I think this is where me being a Sikh woman really comes into place because as you grow up with langar, you’d go through the [Foreign 00:29:29] and everyone’s fed all the time. And so to me living in this country, we should not have people who are food insecure. People should be able get a meal. And so if you go with that premise of making sure people are fed, that our children are successful, you end up working in areas that are about poverty reduction, that are about making sure we’re taking a look at equity. We’re taking a look at systemic racism and really taking the manner in which the state shows up for people.

Senator Dhingra (30:01):
For very long, the conversation is really about us versus them, right? “There’s something wrong because they’re poor, we have to just give them little bits of money.” And it really isn’t about that, it’s about, “How you make people successful?” One of the issues, and this, again, ties into my work with gender based violence and the work I’ve done with women is we know that women tend to be below the poverty level much more than men do because when they end up getting a divorce or they come and households of violence, they’re the ones that struggled financially. And so when we offer individuals public benefits, we may give them a little bit of money for childcare, but the minute they get that raise, they lose their childcare. And so they actually end up having less money than they did before. And so if you want to break that cycle of poverty, you have to have a conversation about, “How do you have a plan to exit poverty? How do you have a plan for generating wealth?”

Senator Dhingra (30:58):
And so you have to think longterm on again, how do you make people successful? And if you’re able to implement policies that really make sure the state is helping people develop that plan to exit poverty and helping them develop a plan to accumulate wealth, you can stop intergenerational poverty and you can stop that cycle of people doing well. And then something bad happens, right? Someone gets sick, you lose your job and they’re back in poverty. And so it’s really fascinating to me on how all of those issues intersect and how I think we, as a state can deliver better outcomes if we are really having those deeper conversations on taking a look at these issues, and they all tie down to, “How do we make sure our children are successful?”

Soniya Gokhale (31:47):
Well, I think that is so important that you pointed out all these, the red tape. If you get so much assistance, then suddenly you don’t qualify for another type of aid. And as you stated we need to get to the core issue here of making people successful. And I think it’s so incredibly important and you really to be applauded on your work on that front. And I do want to ask you clearly a huge proponent of women, everything you outlined just now about single mothers and women sort of bearing the brunt of a lot of the poverty and the generational poverty that we see, not only in Washington State, but really nationally and yes, globally. No question about that is so important. You also are supporting a bill that would offer tax exemption for certain feminine hygiene products.

Soniya Gokhale (32:43):
And I know that in Michigan, they’re contemplating the same type of bill called the Tampon Tax. So just want to hear more about that. It is shocking to me that in 2021, we are being taxed on this product, which is just incredible. Being from South Asia, we know that there’s many things that need to happen in order for feminine hygiene products to be readily available for women, not only in the global South, but other parts of the world, but here we are in the most advanced country in the world, and we continue to pay tax on these items. So just want to hear more about that from you.

Senator Dhingra (33:20):
I love that bill, we in the State of Washington no longer pay tax on menstrual products. So there’s just so much stigma around menstruating, especially in our culture. And so I think it’s really important for us to have an honest conversation about the human body and the female body and transgender bodies and a human body is a human body. So it’s an interesting story. I don’t have a lot of history in politics. I have a lot of history in policy. And so when I ran for office four years ago, I really don’t come from a political background. I come from very much a policy oriented background. And so when I ran my campaign, it was very important for me to engage the youth. At that time, my kids were… Oh gosh, yeah, 13 and 15.

Senator Dhingra (34:10):
And so we have a teen campaign committee where I engage over 250 teenagers in this campaign, and we can talk a little bit more about modal minority and South Asian kids because a lot of them were South Asian. And so after I won my election, I told the teens, I said, “You know what? You guys have such brilliant ideas. I want to make sure I sponsor at least one or two bills that have been brought to me by the youth.” So every year I sponsored two bills that teenagers have brought to me. And the feminine hygiene product bill was one that these girls from Lake Washington High School wanted me to sponsor. And so it is a bill brought to me by high schoolers. We drafted it, they came and testified in Olympia the whole time, and it was really great.

Senator Dhingra (34:56):
And one of the other bills that they brought to me last year was one that provides free menstrual products in all our schools and colleges. And so now in the State of Washington, other than not paying taxes on menstrual products, every high school bathroom, every college bathroom, every middle school bathroom is going to have free feminine hygiene products. And again, all brought to me by teenagers.

Soniya Gokhale (35:22):
Senator Dhingra, that is just phenomenal. Oh my goodness. Just when I think I’ve heard every story that could inspire me, I hear him more, what a spectacular idea. I mean, really to take that to the youth and then work with them to bring this bill to passage. Oh my goodness, really, really just exactly what we, I think, as Americans want to see happening with our legislators. So thank you for sharing that really, really beautiful example of, of really engaging youth. And I do think, I mean, they’re the future of this country. And so I love that idea. I have not heard it before from any of the numerous legislators that I’ve interviewed. And I do want to ask you, I recently interviewed… I think I made reference to this, to Patti Russo with the Yale Campaign School and Mona Das, Washington State Senator.

Soniya Gokhale (36:17):
And we talked about how there is such an abundant need for more women to enter the political arena, either to run for office or to serve as campaign managers or in some capacity along the campaign world. And I want to get your input on that and your thoughts on it. I mean, as they indicated, it is brutal, it is not an easy arena to be in and yet boy, you make it sound pretty effortless. I would imagine being a prosecutor is not a walk in the park either, but I just want to hear more from you about that and what you find perhaps most rewarding about this role?

Senator Dhingra (36:58):
So yeah, I’ve been first many times in my life, right? I was the first South Asian prosecutor in King County. You mentioned me training at the Criminal Justice Training Commission. Again, I’m doing this 40 hour crisis intervention training for law enforcement and I show up and I’m this woman of color telling them what to do. So I’ve had a lot of experiences that are challenging from showing up in court and defense counsel walking in and I’m standing at counsel table and he’s like, “Can you get the prosecutor for me?” Because I don’t fit the image of a prosecutor. And I would say, “I am the prosecutor,” to when I became a supervisor and have this defense attorney come in and say, “Oh, can you get that approved?” And I’ll say, “I don’t need approval, I am the supervisor.”

Senator Dhingra (37:44):
And I can tell you a story about the Criminal Justice Training Commission, those couple of years into doing the training and I do it. It’s a week long course and I only teach one hour, one day. And I decided to audit the whole class because it had been awhile. And so I ended up going and it just so happens that that week it is a class full of men. And so I’m the only woman, I go sit in the back because I’m just auditing the class. And the class begins, and the officer in front of me turns around and he goes, “Hey honey, can you get me a cup of coffee?” And I look at him and I go, “No.” And so after a minute, he gets up to get a cup of coffee, so I look at him and I go, “Hey, can you get me a cup of coffee?” And so he gets me one and the next hour I get introduced. So I stand up and I go to the front of the class and I do my presentation, and right after I finished, he comes running down and he’s like, “I am so sorry ma’am, I had no idea who you were.”

Senator Dhingra (38:43):
And it just kind of shows you that there’s so many times in my life, people just make assumptions and don’t know my background or what I’m doing. And so for me running for political office we haven’t talked about what made me decide to run, but it really was a national election where I felt that I had to do something. So I attended my first political meeting that December 2016 and then I ran for office in February 2017. And so it really was a lot of my experiences being a prosecutor that helped. I also had an incredibly supportive boss who told me, “Hey, go run for office and if it doesn’t work out, you always have a job here.” And so I really didn’t have a lot of financial pressures that way. I’m married, I have kids, we’re financially stable. That again is a huge factor in determining when to run for office. And I had a very, very supportive family. The immediate family, and then my mother and my mother-in-law willing to come and help out around the house.

Senator Dhingra (39:48):
So all of those things made my journey very, very different. And I do love the policy and I love engaging with people. So, that’s the kind of stuff that I love about the work is the bills that I work on, the subject matters I work on. And I’m just really so humbled and proud that every year since I’ve been in the Senate, I’m the one who’s had the most number of bills passed. And I really do think it’s because the work that’s done comes from people who are doing the work. And so the solutions make sense because they’re based in practicality. What I don’t enjoy is the politics. It’s something I deal with and I deal with it just fine, and I navigate it just fine, but that’s where there are a lot of things I just kind of shake my head at and continue doing what I’m doing, but it is tough, but it’s also very, very rewarding.

Senator Dhingra (40:45):
It’s just such an honor to be the first Sikh legislator, and it’s something that people reach out to me from all walks of life. And they’ll tell me stories of how something I said or something I did or a bill I worked on touched them. And it’s always very humbling when you hear that. So just being able to impact people’s lives I think is just so powerful.

Soniya Gokhale (41:10):
Well, we are already coming to the end of our time together, but I have to say that I am very excited about dropping this podcast episode and sharing your incredible and inspiring story with a whole world of listeners who may not be familiar with you. And I love the quote that, “Luck is when preparation meets opportunity.” I wouldn’t say there’s anything lucky about your career, but it’s a perfect example of incredible preparation combined with this opportunity. And like I said, I do encourage listeners to access the podcast notes because the number of bills that you have been involved in passing and the hard work that you’re doing is so incredibly inspiring and admirable. And we really just can’t thank you enough for joining us today. Senator Manka Dhingra, any other closing comments?

Senator Dhingra (42:05):
I’ll just say thank you. It has been such a wonderful conversation. I’m just very excited for your podcast. I think just elevating the voices of women elevating the voices of women of color and desi women, I think is fantastic. And these are stories we don’t hear very often. So I’m very excited to hear about all your other guests.

Soniya Gokhale (42:24):
Oh, well, thank you so much for that. And I will have you back as often as you will say yes. So thank you so much, Senator.

Senator Dhingra (42:33):
Thank you, always a pleasure.



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