Melissa Harris-Perry: Okay, y'all. Throughout the month of March for Women's History Month, The Takeaway is joining forces with the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. We're going to be bringing you the stories of Women Leading Locally. Today, we're heading down to the Florida State House.
Anna V. Eskamani: My name is Anna V. Eskamani, and I'm the State House representative for District 47 in Florida State Legislature.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I asked Representative Eskamani to tell us a little bit about her mother and how her mother inspired her to get involved in public service.
Anna V. Eskamani: My mom is the epitome of courage. She came to this country as an immigrant from Iran and worked multiple minimum wage jobs to make ends meet. In 2001, navigated another diagnosis with cancer that would ultimately take her life in 2004 when I was just 13 years old. During that time, I was one of her main caregivers, really got closer to her, which made the loss even more difficult. To this day, I honor her life every single moment from what I do in public service, from what I do in my communities. She really is that angel that I owe everything to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm wondering, as I'm thinking about the history of Iran and of those who became immigrants to the US, how you might be processing this moment in Ukraine.
Anna V. Eskamani: It's incredibly painful to watch. There are so many great people around this world who find themselves in tumultuous and traumatic experiences because of their governments. For so many Iranians, you're tied between two governments that have historically been at odds with one another and have also looked towards people as pawns. I think for my mom, growing up in Iran and moving to the United States as an immigrant, she never had the chance to see her sisters before she passed away, and they never had a chance to come to the United States due to immigration policies.
You just see the sorrow and the separation between families. When I look at the people of Ukraine and their calls for freedom and liberation, it's something that I know me and my family definitely relate to.
Melissa Harris-Perry: As you talk about governments that use their people as pawns rather than as people, that's such a powerful vision. Talk to me about your district. Who are the people of District 47? What do y'all do there?
Anna V. Eskamani: Orlando is a very sweet place to call home. I was born and raised in Central Florida, my parents made this community our home. I am not someone who ever thought I would run for office. I mentioned already growing up in a working-class family and I went to public schools, K through 12, and University of Central Florida. That's really where I started getting involved in human rights advocacy and environmental issues, and of course, domestic policy, and really started getting engaged with different policies that impact women and girls.
I'm a Planned Parenthood patient and former staffer. When I ran for office, I ran on a platform that lifts up old people and District 47 is a reflection of that. We're home to the Pulse nightclub tragedy. It is a community that finds power in pain. I was elected as a first-time candidate in 2018, re-elected in 2020 with the wave of women who ran around the nation for the first time. I carry those values of equality, of justice with me everywhere I go and that applies to my work in the Florida Legislature.
Melissa Harris-Perry: I'm interested also in this connection between, as you talk about Planned Parenthood and reproductive justice, the Pulse nightclub shooting, which brings us to all kinds of intersections of identity as well as of gun laws and of those sorts of tragedies in our nation, but also the working-class status and parents working multiple jobs, and for everybody who thinks of Orlando as Disney World, and maybe not always thinking about everyone who has to work at Disney World to make Disney World be magic for everyone else.
Talk to me about how you pursue both an economic growth or economic justice framework and a kind of intersectional social justice framework.
Anna V. Eskamani: I will tell you that I have no patience for policies that attack workers and for policies that make it harder for the everyday person to achieve the American dream. My family experienced that. In fact, my dad was an engineer on the weekdays and then worked at Walt Disney World as a customer service representative on the weekends to make ends meet.
The only reason why my family could even go to Disney World was because my dad had commenter tickets by being an employee. The reality is that, for many Floridians, they can't afford the most magical place on earth because of their income. We're a service-driven economy. While folks struggle to make ends meet, and we have families who are either homeless or precariously housed, living in hotels and motels, Florida continues to pursue corporate tax breaks to companies like Disney and others that are making record profits, while everyday Floridians don't see those type of breaks.
I do integrate an economic justice agenda into my work and to also help unpack these issues for my constituents because, again, I think we focus so much on social issues, and rightfully so, there's so much work to be done in ensuring every person can live life in a wholehearted way and be their authentic selves. At the same time, you can't do that if you're never going to achieve economic independence. I do try to amplify the working class struggles of my district in everything that I do as a lawmaker.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Speaking of things that you do as a lawmaker, one of them is very close to my heart because I am an absolute diaper justice advocate. It is like I got turned on to diaper justice issues maybe about 10 years ago, and I tell you, you don't want to say the word diaper to me because you will not get out of that conversation for half an hour. Let's talk about the diaper tax ban that you accomplished.
Anna V. Eskamani: I share in your passion. I believe deeply that if we want families to be successful, we got to set them up for success. A part of that is tackling the expenses with parenthood and whether that takes shape in childcare or early education investments or, in this case, the cost of essential services and goods like diapers. Believe it or not, in the state of Florida, diapers are still taxed.
Despite the fact that you need diapers to raise your children, we know that, in this country, at least one in three families experience diaper need. I've been very engaged with our diaper banks throughout Florida in helping to collect diapers and support their work and raise money for their efforts. This proposal that we are pursuing would eliminate the diaper tax in Florida. Right now, we've been successful in getting a version of our policy into the Florida House's Tax Package.
It would be a year-long tax break on diapers. We're hoping to make it permanent. It's not in the final tax package yet, but it's making its way through the process. We're hopeful that when this session ends, we'll be able to declare that policy win for the people of Florida.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Now, tell me about Make Us Visible Florida, which you're also trying to move.
Anna V. Eskamani: I mentioned my Iranian roots. I'm the first Iranian-American elected to any public office in Florida. It's something that I don't take lightly. I feel every day that it's my responsibility to be a representative of not just Iranian-Americans, but of the immigrant story to ensure that for Floridians who often feel unseen, invisible in this process, that they find their voice.
There's a coalition of Asian-American and Pacific Islander leaders who started a group called Make Us Visible Florida, really, as a reaction to the rise in anti-Asian hate in America. Part of our efforts is to integrate into Florida schools the historical contributions of the AAPI community within the context of social study coursework. This actually is a bipartisan bill, we've been able to secure four Republican co-sponsors, but it hasn't been given a hearing yet.
It definitely speaks to some of the obstacles we face in this process where it's highly polarizing to talk about identity, but we're not giving up. We're going to continue to ensure that for those who feel like they don't have a voice, that they build a presence in this process and hopefully achieve that representation throughout our education curriculum and, of course, other parts of government.
Melissa Harris-Perry: To bring the experience of being in the State House, in part, to a key national story occurring, can we talk about redistricting a bit? I'm wondering what the process has been like in Florida, and if you've had an opportunity to weigh in at all.
Anna V. Eskamani: Unfortunately, Florida is not immune to gerrymandering and to unconstitutional map drawing. Like other states in America, our process is one where the state legislature draws the State House seats, the State Senate seats, and the congressional maps.
At this point, we've seen in front of us the legislative seats, which I voted no on because I did not feel like they met Florida's constitutional requirements, and right now, we're in the middle of a debate with the congressional maps because Governor Ron DeSantis has decided to play politics with this process and is trying to eliminate a minority access seat in North Florida which is very much drawing concern from whether it's constitutionalists or racial equity groups because this was a seat drawn to meet Supreme Court president 10 years ago.
We are waiting for these maps to come to the House floor and to debate them, but it's very unfortunate because a process that is really supposed to be focused on ensuring every Floridian has a voice in Congress and Legislature is becoming one of a partisanship.
Melissa Harris-Perry: When you arrived in the state legislature, what has been most surprising for you? Was there anything about the experience of lawmaking at the state level that you thought would be one way and has proved to be something else, good or bad?
Anna V. Eskamani: The Florida House has never had a woman speaker in its entire history. When you walk into the Florida House floor, there are portraits surrounding you, and every image is a former speaker, and every image is of a man and majority are white men. Florida has had two men of color who have served as speakers and both were Cuban Americans.
You come into a space as a woman and as a woman of color and as a young woman of color surrounded by a system that was not built for you, by a system that actually prefers that you not get involved.
I knew it would be challenging to stand on my own two feet and to advocate for my community and to build a path for other women and women of color to follow. What I think I have found to be surprising is the incredible support, not from the chamber, per see, but from the people in this state and the people in this country who are hungry for this type of representation, who don't want politicians who are already catering to a corporation the second they walk into the door but they want politicians that come from the community and care about equity and are serving directly impacted people above their own interests. I'm taken aback by that type of support and I'm very grateful for it.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Our conversation is part of a series that we're calling Women Leading Locally. When I say those words to you, Women Leading Locally, what does that mean to you?
Anna V. Eskamani: It reminds me of the reason why so many women run for office. It's not a career move. It's not driven by ego or some greater agenda. Historically, it's been grounded in serving your local community. I know for me when I made the decision to run for office it was not easy. I went back and forth, back and forth. Ultimately, my decision was grounded on the people that I care about in my hometown and the work that I could do in a place of public service.
Melissa Harris-Perry: Sure. It wasn't for that $29,000 a year base salary?
Anna V. Eskamani: Definitely not. In fact, like many lawmakers and state buddies, I do have another day job as well. By no means is it motivated by the salary? I think what's so interesting to your point though is the number of politicians who, once they term out, in the case of Florida we have term limits, they join the lobby core. They never really leave the system. I think for me I want to do my job. I want to do a good job and I want to give that torch to the next generation to carry it. I think that's also what motivates people like me to do this work.
Melissa Harris-Perry: That was Anna Eskamani who represents the 47th District in the Florida State House.
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