Washington state Senator Pramila Jayapal discussed affordable college, hate speech and funding the creation of an ethnic student center on campus before she spoke to around 60 students and community members as the keynote speaker for the Ralph Munro Institute for Public Education’s “Power of Civic Engagement.”
Jayapal is running for Congress in Washington State’s seventh congressional district, which contains much of Seattle and Vashon Island.
“I really enjoyed [the talk],” Sue Coulter, a resident of Snohomish county, said. “She talked about how you get engaged, and how important it is. ”
Coulter was attending the conference with her daughter Mo Moschell, a Western alumna, and her son, freshman Sam Moschell.
Before her speech, Jayapal spoke about issues that affect Western students in an interview.
Jayapal said Washington state is going in the wrong direction in terms of providing financial access to a college education.
“This is a no-brainer in my mind. We are driving young people away from higher education right now because we saddle you with mountains of debt,” she said. “We, as a state, used to pay for 70 percent of a 4-year education and today we pay for about 30 percent.”
On her campaign website, Jayapal pledges, if elected, the first bill she would propose would be debt-free college. Jayapal said investing in tuition-free college in the present will pay off because people will be less dependent on the government.
“If we invest in people now and we actually provide free education and allow people to not have to take on these mountains of debt, people get a higher degree,” Jayapal said. “In the end, I feel like it is a win for everybody to invest in tuition-free college now, and know we’re going to reap the benefits of it later.”
Jayapal said closing offshore tax loopholes would work as a way to fund free higher education.
“It’s not that there isn’t the money. It’s that there isn’t the will to take on those wealthy donors who are funding political campaigns, and therefore expect you to pay them back at the end,” Jayapal said.
In 2014, voter turnout by young people fell to the lowest point on record. Around 20 percent of Americans between the ages of 18-29 voted, according to a Tufts University study.
Jayapal said a focus of hers has been expanding access to the democratic process. In the last legislative session she advocated for two bills intended to make elections more accessible.
One bill would have voter registration automatic when interacting with state services, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles. The other, the Washington Voting Rights Act, would make it easier for local governments to restructure themselves to be more representative of their constituents.
“If you think of voter registration and civic engagement as three legs of a stool: there’s the getting people registered, there’s the educating people, and then there’s the actual voting,” Jayapal said. “We need to work on each one of those three components of voting to move forward.”
Jayapal said the state needs to remove barriers to voting to improve voter turnout.
“Why do we need to register to vote? Why aren’t you automatically eligible to vote when you’re born as a U.S. citizen? There are other countries in the world that do that, [where] you don’t have to register and then you’re automatically eligible,” Jayapal said.
After 9/11, Jayapal served as the founder and executive director of Hate Free Zone, a Seattle based nonprofit formed in response to hate crimes against people of color following the terror attacks.
In that position, Jayapal sought to curb the kind of hate speech that occurred on Western’s campus at the end of fall quarter. Jayapal said she would support expanding Washington state’s hate crime legislation as a way of addressing threats like those faced by Western students.
Funding for Expanding the Ethnic Student Center
Jayapal also addressed recent calls by ethnic student clubs for the creation of an expanded ethnic student center on campus.
“”I think [the issue is] more funding for universities. We [the legislature] don’t typically make the decision about what the funding goes to. We fund the university,” Jayapal said.
Jayapal said universities receive money from private donors that they can use to fund new projects.
“The university can make some commitments to moving on this issue without just placing the blame on the state’s shoulders.”
Jayapal said she supports the student led movement at Western to ask the university endowment to divest from fossil fuel companies. She said these student campaigns drive university administrations to consider what they invest in.
“Students really do have the ability to change how a university invests in a very significant way,” Jayapal said. “[Those] university endowments are huge, they really are big. It’s just been historically a place of tremendous opportunity for change.”