By Ariana Damavandi, Center Communications Intern
Despite having a seasoned career as a political organizer, Yasmin Radjy, the National Political Director for Planned Parenthood Action Fund, didn’t always see herself taking up a career in politics.
A born and bred Californian, Radjy describes her upbringing in Palo Alto as “idyllic,” noting that “a big part of why [she is] involved with politics has, in part, to do with just how idyllic [her] family’s Iranian-American immigration experience was.” As she recounts, “I didn’t face discrimination in ways I could recognize growing up” and although her parents withstood sacrifice and loss as a result of the 1979 Revolution, “they were able to build most everything back.” Radjy explains that while her experience is an important story of the Iranian diaspora, it did not play the most significant role in her political formation— at least not on its own.
With only her family’s story as a reference point, Radjy understood Palo Alto as a place of progressive ideas and a place where ‘The American Dream’ was attainable. But as she aged into adolescence, this narrative began to falter as she was exposed to people of different class and ethnic backgrounds from her own.
Specifically, the differences between Radjy’s family and her childhood babysitter’s opened her eyes to the pervasive inequities faced by other diasporic communities, as well as the privileges she benefited from. Her babysitter, who “immigrated here from El Salvador” with her three children, “had a very different experience.” These issues raised questions for Radjy about inequality in our education and immigration system, and how they “manifest in not just economic ways, but also in disparities of opportunity.” Despite the similarities she could see between Salvadorian and Iranian immigrant cultures, she understood that “a family very, very close to her own, without the same level of formal education and economic opportunity, had a much more challenging experience.”
Witnessing first-hand the preferential treatment received by those of more affluent socio-economic status, particularly in terms of education, Radjy found herself wanting to reimagine and reinvest in Bay Area public schooling. Through teaching, she believed she would be able to help bridge some of the gaps that led to the drastic difference in life trajectory between her babysitter’s family and her own.
This desire eventually brought her to the University of Pennsylvania, where she initially studied education, but then switched to urban studies after feeling education classes alone were not meeting the holistic and interrelated needs of Philadelphia schools. In urban studies, she was introduced to an intersectional framework that better explained and addressed the social injustices she kept encountering. Her coursework allowed her to become “passionate about how housing issues intersected with education and how economic issues and racial justice issues and everything just fit together.” In spite of this growth in understanding, Radjy still thought of these social phenomena as largely apolitical.
She didn’t make the connection that her studies were inherently entwined with our political system until her senior year of college, when a friend brought her to a 2008 presidential primary rally for then-senator Barack Obama. The event finally pushed Radjy to “connect the dots for the first time,” and recognize that her “unwillingness to engage in the political process” regarding socio-economic issues was “completely counter to the things that I cared about,” she said. This watershed moment propelled her career and overall outlook in a new direction. Radjy uprooted her post-grad plans to do non-profit work in New Orleans to instead work as a rural field organizer in Ohio with the Obama campaign. During this campaign work, Radjy “fell completely head-over-heels in love with the organizing process” because “it was about the volunteers and community members that we were investing in as leaders and as advocates for their own communities and equipping them with the skills and resources that they needed.”
Once the election was over, Radjy wanted to dive deeper into organizing. To do this, she reached out to one of her undergraduate thesis advisors who then connected her to the Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), a broad-based, long-standing organization whose aim is to strengthen citizen leadership, develop trust, and take action on issues identified by local community leaders. Between 2009 and 2011, she worked with the IAF as an organizer in Des Moines, Iowa and San Antonio, Texas, focusing on community-directed initiatives and congregation-based organizing. Radjy described working for the IAF as “transformational and so informed how I look at the world.” But after spending two and a half years moving from place-to-place, each time having to rebuild a community for herself from scratch, she returned to the Bay Area.
Without knowing exactly what her next steps would be, Radjy took a job in the private sector for Monitor 360, a consulting firm mainly focused on foreign policy and national security issues. Though she enjoyed the job, it didn’t feed her soul. To satisfy that feeling, she pushed past fears of being “this newbie who isn’t politically connected to the community” and signed up to volunteer at the National Iranian-American Council (NIAC) as an ambassador. Immediately, her apprehension about volunteering in the Iranian-American community was thoroughly disrupted. What she experienced was an organization that was “tremendously interested in building teams of volunteers that were doing what was right for that community.” Radjy quickly made it her mission to integrate the organizing skills she had acquired as a campaign and IAF organizer into this new role at NIAC. In doing this, she “became obsessed with the mission of teaching skills in [the Iranian-American] community in a way that would activate us more politically and make us more effective.” Not long after initially signing up, Radjy was recommended for and accepted the role of Outreach and Field Director for NIAC. A large part of her work as Director revolved around continuing to strengthen NIAC’s organizing efforts, which included co-founding the organization’s political action arm— NIAC Action. She stayed with them for two and a half years and still serves on their Board of Directors.
While she made impressive leaps at NIAC, she felt she needed to broaden her skillset and networks, in order to keep being effective. In her own words, “I felt like I was beginning to plateau from an impact perspective, and both to benefit NIAC [and] our community, as well as myself as a civic leader and person working in the progressive space— I felt I needed help from some more mentors [and] a bigger network to be able to level up and have more scaled impact.” So in 2015, Radjy left NIAC to begin a master’s program in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School.
Once again at a pivotal point in her life during a paradigm-shifting election, Radjy and a cohort of her peers from the Harvard Kennedy School began developing a way for people to tangibly resist the rise of reactive, conservative politics. By early 2017, they co-founded Resistance School, a free training program that uses education, engagement, and action to equip progressives with tools to be politically engaged on federal, state, and local levels. That same year, Radjy also collaborated with the founders of MobilizeAmerica, a similar progressive project, but with a specific emphasis on electoral organizing. She worked as Virginia State Director during the House of Delegates and gubernatorial races to mobilize support amongst voters and tap into progressive networks and organizations.
Most recently, Radjy has joined the Planned Parenthood team, first as the Director of Organizing and Training at the Planned Parenthood Federation of America and now as the National Political Director for Planned Parenthood Action Fund. This new role is, says Radjy, “by title different from organizing— we do our federal endorsements, our PAC contributions, manage our candidate and committee relationships— but in practice, I view it as an organizing role. We’re not organizing volunteers in districts, but we are organizing the DC Beltway actors who can influence outcomes for reproductive rights.”
Through all of her experience in organizing and public policy, Radjy truly believes in the power of the Iranian-American community, as she reflects, “I think our community has a wider reach than we recognize… we’re doing a lot of work behind the scenes that may not be getting public credit, but is actually pretty transformational.”
Photos courtesy of Yasmin Radjy