Lizzie’s Interview With Opal

Opal Vadhan is an Indian American woman who has established herself in the world of politics successfully. At just twenty-seven years old, Opal is the Executive Assistant to former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. Opal is Mrs. Clinton’s right hand woman, ensuring everything is in order when it comes to meetings, traveling, and anything else on their busy schedule. Opal’s parents immigrated to America from India to give birth to her, and they stayed in America to give Opal a better life filled with opportunity. Opal was born and raised in New York and has always been a woman who goes after what she wants. After graduating from Pace University in 2015, she got an extremely competitive internship at the White House and worked for Hillary Clinton’s National Advance team during her 2016 campaign. Opal currently resides in Forest Hills, New York and has been working through the pandemic, helping in any way that she can, including working with the World Central Kitchen. Opal is a testament of what hard work can achieve. She believes in the power and will of the American people, and in more representation for women of color everywhere.

Representation Matters

“In America it’s just that when you’re younger, you definitely want to fit in … you wanted to be white, you wanted your parents to be from here”

Growing up, Opal felt out of place in her schools because of the color of her skin. She felt as though she was somehow lesser than her classmates because of it. Her experience is one among most girls of color who understand the prevalence of colorism in America. Jolie Brownell, in her Ted Talk, elaborates on this and says the simple yet poignant phrase “Light skin is still in” (5:46). Opal shares the sad fact that as a young girl, she wanted to be white because being white would mean having it easier in life. The stigma surrounding darker skin is amplified in media representations that rarely show dark skinned women or girls.

Representation of women of color is something that Opal believes has progressed since her youth. Growing up, she saw no Indian American women and the only representation she saw of Indian Americans was based on stereotypes, such as Indian American men working at a 7/11 or having Indian accents. Today, Opal thinks that Indian American representation is progressing with shows such as Mindy Kaling’s new Never Have I Ever and our new Vice President Elect Kamala Harris, who is the first Indian and Black woman in the White House. Our studies of representation reveal that progress has occurred, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Opal shares the same opinion that there can and should be more representation of women of color in all fields, including media. She works in an environment that prides itself on diversity, and Hillary Clinton has ensured that her work environment is inclusive and safe. Opal is thankful for this but knows that there is always room for more women of color in workspaces and more offices should be not just hiring but promoting women of color and relying on their leadership.

Opal emphasized the importance of representation because it is a topic that affects so many people, especially women of color. Growing up, white girls constantly see themselves everywhere: the television screen, magazines, billboards, etc. Young girls of color, especially when Opal was a child, grow up not seeing enough empowerment of their skin color and this could cause self-esteem issues, among other problems. Opal illuminates the idea that representation of all races is vital to the empowerment of young girls everywhere. They should be told at every point in their lives that their skin color does not determine their worth. Opal is proud to be an Indian American woman who has proved that her skin color does not measure her worth.

Immigrants Make America Great!

“You wanted to excel, you wanted a chance at the American dream, so I definitely felt like there were pressures growing up to be better”

Raised by immigrants, Opal always felt that she needed to be the best at whatever she did. She was put on a path from childhood to grow up and become a doctor, lawyer, or engineer. However, she had her own plans. She knew from a young age what she was passionate about and that was helping people. She wanted to be a person who would make the world better for young girls and women in America. She veered off the path she was sent on because she knows the importance of being an independent woman. In her essay “Mother Tongue,” Amy Tan relays a similar feeling of wanting to steer away from what you have been told to do. She writes, “Fortunately, I happen to be rebellious in nature and enjoy the challenge of disproving assumptions made about me” (258). Opal knew what she was passionate about and did not let stereotypes overtake those passions. She took advantage of every opportunity in her education to become a leader in public service. She faced the pressures, like Tan, of being in a family of immigrants and had to make the bold decisions for herself. Opal believes strongly that immigrants are what make America great. Being an independent woman is the reason that Opal has become so successful with such an important job at her young age. Opal is not one to get to the top and forget about where she came from, though. She is always trying to throw the rope down to young girls to help them find their passions.

Opal shared a story with me about how in the first grade, her teacher told the students that along with other supplies, they needed to bring elbow grease. Opal and her mother went to stores trying to find it but could not. When she told her teacher, embarrassed, she learned that this was just a saying, not anything literal. This funny story is something Opal still remembers to this day because it was an example of how her and her mother felt out of place. Opal’s parents had to adjust to life in America and Opal had to adjust to not having parents who knew everything about the American way of life. Grateful for them and the life they gave her, though, Opal carved her path courageously and proved that being a daughter of immigrants was something to be extremely proud of. Contrary to what many people believe about immigrants, the majority of them are truly just searching for a better life and more opportunities, and they deserve to be treated like the human beings they are. There is serious xenophobia and racism surrounding immigration that needs to be weeded out through better policies and better education about our immigration system, leaving no truth behind.

A Seat at the Table

“They’re constantly looking at women of what they wear, and how they look, and how they act, and I think that’s just a double standard in this country, and that still exists”

There is a double standard that exists in America for women in the workplace. Men simply do not have to worry about what they wear or how they look, and they do not have the fear of being made uncomfortable at work. Women are subjected to unwarranted advances, stares, and jokes that they have to shrug off. These are all barriers to a woman’s success in the workplace. Opal understands this double standard and also understands that numbers of women in leadership roles has increased because of the bravery of so many women of past and present generations. She points to women such as Shirley Chisholm and Malala Yousafzai who have paved the way for so many women and girls, and the record-breaking number of women who ran for congress in 2018 and won. There continues to be so much work done about the injustices that exist for women, especially women of color, and Opal sees the increasing leadership of women as a sign of moving forward. It is harder in the workplace for women of color who often are not taken as seriously as white women, and their needs are often not taken into account.

Opal with Malala Yousafzai at the University of Oxford in December 2018

Opal is someone who has carved her own path and is a woman who knows her strengths. She is a person who believes that it is not about what school you go to, but what you make of it. The feminist authors we read all believe in taking control of your own life. Women have come too far to let their lives be in control by someone other than themselves. Opal understands this, and that is why she has always made herself available to any opportunities that came her way. She gained skill sets through different leadership positions and internships. Opal prepared herself for the career she wanted and went out and got that career through her own hard work and commitment to helping others. Although she did not always have a clear trajectory of her career path, Opal knew what she was good at and never doubted her abilities. Opal also admits that her work is not always light and motivating. There are times when she is emotionally exhausted from the work she is doing. In those times, she looks to her boss and remembers all the people they are helping. She remembers that she is coming from a place of privilege and power where she can help others, and this keeps her motivated. This is why Opal is a perfect example of a woman of color who has become successful and always thinks about how she can promote the success of others.

“Women are incredible multitaskers, you know. Women can juggle so much … and women lead with empathy”

Being not only a woman, but a woman of color, has made Opal a strong advocate for herself and all the other women who deal with intersectional oppressions. Opal knows how hard it is for women of color to break those glass ceilings and make themselves heard and listened to. She feels an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be working for someone who has always stood up for women and she is empowered because she has the opportunity to do the same. While Opal works in a diverse and safe environment, many women of color do not. Women of color are subjected to lower wages, sexual harassment, unfair maternity laws, disrespect from co-workers and clients, and so much more. There needs to be more women leaders who will invest in the promotion of women of all races. Opal is a woman who has proven her leadership in all areas of life, and she is a testament to what it means to be a woman leader and a woman of color who gets things done.

Voting For Our Future

“But I can’t emphasize enough vote in every election you are able to, right, not just the general, the midterms, the primary election, because the people you elect to office are the ones that are out there fighting for you”

Slightly embarrassed, Opal shares that she had never voted before 2016 because she never grasped the importance of her vote. In a year that has been marked by a heavy political awareness, Opal understands now more than ever how important every vote is. Although she has never witnessed it firsthand, she knows the prevalence of voter suppression in America. It is a dangerous force that disproportionately affects people of color. In 2020, there was too much on the ballot for key voters to be left out of the race. Opal mentions how the Trump administration has threatened our democracy, from over 600 children at the border still not knowing where their parents are to the Muslim ban to the more than 250,000 Americans dead from COVID-19. Because of all these injustices and more, Opal has been pushing those around her to vote in every election and has been working to educate those around her about the importance of voting. She mentioned how she believes that Stacey Abrams should be the governor of Georgia right now but she is not due to the voter suppression that occurred in 2018. From the words of Stacey Abrams herself in her article “I Know Voting Feels Inadequate Right Now,” “Voting will not save us from harm, but silence will surely damn us all.” Opal voted for all the people in her life who have been directly affected by the Trump administration and their policies. She explains that people do not vote because they cannot see past their privilege.

Opal with Stacey Abrams in April 2019

“I think change really happens when you put laws into action”

Opal believes in the power of policy making. Social movements come to fruition when substantial policies are implemented that work to prevent any further injustices. Opal has been inspired by movements such as March For Our Lives and Black Lives Matter that aim to uplift the voices of those who have been harmed by America’s policies. She believes strongly in the power of people coming together for a common goal, and she believes that despite setbacks, the country is moving in a good direction by voting Donald Trump out of office. Opal’s mention of the kids who started the March For Our Lives Movement is a reminder of the power of the youth to shape movements and generations. Her take on Black Lives Matter is one that is shared by many: no parent should fear for their child’s life when they leave the house. The criminalization of African Americans, especially Black women, is something that needs to be worked on socially and politically. Yes, marches, protests, political rallies, community organizing all works, but laws need to be implemented for real change. This is why we vote for the people who not only care for the American people, but represent the American people. Her job with Secretary Clinton has convinced Opal that change happens when laws are put into place. She is a trustworthy source, since she is surrounded by change-makers all the time.

Reflection

I met Opal for the first time last March when she came to speak at our shared high school. I remember being so excited for her to come because she had so much experience and such an impressive job. I was not disappointed, as she gave the audience such great advice about careers and being a woman in the workplace. When Opal agreed to do this interview, I was ecstatic but not surprised. She is always searching for ways to help people in any way that she can. Her experiences as an Indian American woman have made her the strong, independent, and kind woman she is today. As a white, heterosexual, female who is always trying to learn more about the ways in which I am privileged, it means so much that Opal shared her story with me. Her experiences in an immigrant family, her views on representation of women of color, and her strong opinions about voting and social movements made me realize how important it is to share perspectives. The questions I asked Opal were meant to help me get an understanding of how she views the world being an Indian American woman. She helped me see America in a way that is different from how I normally see it, and I am grateful for that. Opal is a person who I will always admire because of her hard work and her willingness to help others in good times and bad.

I’ll share the two biggest lessons Opal learned from her boss, Hillary Clinton:

  1. “Practice the discipline of gratitude”
  2. “Do the most good you can”
Opal with Hillary Clinton in 2016

Works Cited

Brownell, Jolie. “Call Me By My Name, Not My Stereotype.” TED, Jan 2020, https://www.ted.com/talks/jolie_brownell_call_me_by_my_name_not_my_stereotype

Tan, Amy. Mother Tongue, 1990. Threepenny Review.

Abrams, Stacey. “Stacey Abrams: I Know Voting Feels Inadequate Right Now.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 4 June 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/06/04/opinion/stacey-abrams-voting-floyd-protests.html.