Johanna Gusman, 35
From Manila to Cairo, Johanna Gusman has traveled the world fighting injustice as a human rights lawyer. Donning her signature jean jacket, she’s returned home to advocate for the human rights behind denied to people in her home state of Virginia.
What was the best advice you received before you ran?
Honestly, it was simply just to do it. Run. Any woman who has an inkling of running for office should run for office. The typical man wakes up, a wind blows, and they think, ‘Yes, I’ll do it.’ Whereas it takes several times for women to be asked to run before we get to that point.
I'm part of the EMERGE Virginia class which recruits Democratic women to run, especially women of color. I started in the EMERGE class in January, training for the 2019 year. So I'm kind of putting the cart beside the horse, being trained as I run. But I remember distinctly when Jennifer Carroll Foy came to a “Running for Public Office” course that I took at Georgetown with Alicia Plerhoples, who is running for Chair of the Fairfax Board of Supervisors, I raised my hand and I said, “I don't have proximity to a lot of wealth and many people assume that is electability.” And Jennifer was like, “Just run.” And I think that was for sure the best advice I got, because I wouldn't otherwise be doing this crazy thing called running for office.
I am the only woman running in a crowded primary. I wanted there to be options for voters to elect women. When there was an open seat in my home district, and there wasn't a choice to vote for a woman, that’s when I just knew - the time is now. It was a really organic moment.
I was leaving early from one of our trainings in February, because I was going to Moscow to speak at a World Health Organization joint meeting with the Eurasian Economic Commission, this crazy high level meeting in Russia, and I was questioning myself and thinking, “Am I qualified to run?” There were three other men who were running and I was doing that very female thing of contemplating everybody else's feelings before my own. It clicked in that moment, “No, I don't need permission to run for office. I am qualified to run. This is my home district.”
On your campaign you’ve regularly talked about the Equal Rights Amendment. For folks outside Virginia, can you tell me about ERA and why Virginia was so important in that fight?
So Virginia could be number 38 to ratify the ERA, which would tip the scales because you have ratification in two-thirds of the States for the United States Congress to pick it up. I was one of the organizers on the ground for it. I was one of the people that was arrested outside of Senator Collins office during the Kavanaugh confirmation. The movement has been a long time in the making, but Virginia being able to ratify the ERA would really push us towards equality. We would no longer be worrying about Roe v. Wade being overturned, but we would actually have constitutional equality for women across the United States.
You know, it's kind of ironic, right? We tell other countries how to write their constitutions. Yet many countries around the world have similar provisions in their constitution on equality between men and women, but we don't have it ourselves.
Virginia was very close to becoming number 38. But of course, it didn't leave committee. So many good things die in committee, unfortunately. So if we flip the house in Virginia, we will be able to ratify the ERA and make this a constitutional issue that Congress has to address. I definitely want to be part of that historic legislation and create history.
What drove you to be a human rights lawyer? What first drew you to the field?
So I'll start by saying that even my ability to go to law school was through getting a Gates scholarship. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has a program with the University of Washington, called the William H. Gates Public Service Law Scholarship where they recruit people to come and do public interest law. You sign a contract saying that for five years after graduation, you’ll do solely public interest law. They’ll pay for everything including your living expenses. I didn't have to go into a single dollar of debt to get my law degree, which is incredible.
I made the terrible decision of applying to medical school and law school at the same time, and when I got the Gates scholarship, that decision was made for me. But it was actually quite difficult because you get to law school and the first case that you read in property law class is on eminent domain and the stealing of land from the Native Americans. Then you learn about people being property and you don't have that legal language yet as a new student to be able to raise your hand and articulate why this is unjust, legally.
You never talk about racial implications in your criminal law class, and you never talk about gender, race, and socio-economics. I just remember thinking, “What am I doing in law school?” I thought this would be about justice. But to do well in law school, you don’t have to think critically about any of those things.
But I was able to go to a training in Italy on refugee and international law. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation paid for me to go there during my spring semester, and when I was able to just study human rights law I was like, “Okay, this is the crux of everything. This is the law that I believe in.”
After I graduated law school, I worked directly with the United Nations. The majority of my legal practice has been abroad with the UN and the World Health Organization, because I've been so serious about only wanting to subscribe to those ideals. So it's a very conviction-driven and personal decision.
“I wanted there to be options for voters to elect women. When there was an open seat in my home district, and there wasn't a choice to vote for a woman, that’s when I just knew - the time is now.”
I was in Geneva, working for the World Health Organization in November of 2016. I remember sitting at my desk, and in the first 100 days after he was brought into office, I thought, “I cannot call myself a human rights lawyer if I don't get back to address the litany of things that we knew were coming down the pipeline.” So I came back and returned to my hometown. I didn't necessarily think it would mean running for office. But this is where I'm at.
You're famous for always wearing a jean jacket with buttons of all the issues you care about. How did that tradition start and what are the issues on the jacket?
It was a very organic thing. It was the easiest way to show people what I'm about. I literally show them that these buttons are what I stand for. People have pinned their issues on me. You don't question why I'm running. It’s clear and simple. Especially for those of us pushing for these progressive values, you've got to be clear with your messaging, because it transcends even party lines.
If we are going to have any chance of solving the problems before us, it's got to be through finding common ground. I started with the Virginia Ratify ERA button and you won't find a picture of me without it. It's really just grown organically from people giving me buttons. Virginia Green New Deal, Moms Demand Action.
I tell people this is the most intensive job interview I've ever had. Because in order for me to represent you, you've got to see yourself. You have to see your issues and what you care about. And I that's what this jean jacket represents.
This is what a lot of the women, especially those women fighting for the ERA 36 years ago, looked like in the 70s. So what they were doing back then fighting for the environment, fighting for women's rights, all of these issues of justice— we’re putting on our jean jackets again and continuing the fight. As Virginia goes into 2019, it’s going to be a litmus test for how America will vote in 2020. And I think in order to make this a People Powered movement, you've got to look like the people you want to represent.
What perspective do you think is missing from Virginia Legislature?
“You know, it's kind of ironic, right? We tell other countries how to write their constitutions. Yet many countries around the world have similar provisions in their constitution on equality between men and women, but we don't have it ourselves.”
I think it's a very interesting kind of story that I bring to the table. So after I graduated law school, I went and I worked in Manila, Philippines with the World Health Organization. I did a Fulbright in Samoa. I was a Clinton Fulbright Scholar there and helped them write their very first Human Rights Report. When I was in Cairo, Egypt, I worked with the United Nations Development Program, and then I went back to Geneva with the World Health Organization. I also had a stint at Oxford before returning to the US.
To have traveled around the world like that and to have these diverse perspectives in the areas that I worked means I have seen and learned and driven policy solutions in different countries. International diplomacy skills can go a really long way in bridging the gaps that we see at a local level. I think it’s made me passionate to return home, and seeing how split our General Assembly is, how good things like the ERA die in committee— I’m ready to take on the work cut out for us.
I always really, truly believe in the saying, “Think globally, act locally.” That’s definitely what I hope to do, and what I would bring to the General Assembly here in Virginia.
What issues are you hoping to take if elected?
The issues are what you hear at the doors, at the community meetings: healthcare, education, housing, the very basic things that I believe that you have a human right to. This is what affects everybody's daily lives.
So when I talk about healthcare, I talk about how the hardest thing about returning to America was losing universal care, and how we walk around with this invisible burden. The fact that the number one cause of bankruptcy in the state is due to health care, the fact that people deal and have to swallow the injustices of being denied care by insurance companies and that outrageous hospital bills exist because there's zero regulation on what they're allowed to charge for even the simplest of things. This has to be fixed. When you walk around with insecure healthcare, you have insecurities throughout everything, because your health touches all parts of your life.
Education is, of course, a huge one for me. Not only because my mom and my brother are both teachers within Loudoun County’s public school system, but also because I know firsthand exactly what it means to have access to education and have that be a direct way to undercut inequality. I would literally not be able to run for office right now had I not been given a scholarship to go to law school. I wouldn't be able to be a human rights lawyer if that didn't happen.
In Virginia, we have public institutions that are so wonderful and people come to our state for these schools. We have to do something about student debt. We have to reform the loan system, it is completely unequal and inequitable and we cannot expect that people can live any amount of economic freedom when you graduate five to six figures in debt, just even with undergrad debt. I always say that when we free people from these kinds of debts, this is how you build a society that has good primary care physicians, rural doctors, good public defenders, and good teachers.
“You have to prove extra why you deserve to be running, particularly when you're a young woman of color.”
Do you feel you face any adversity or people who doubted you for your identity, either for your age, race, gender, etc?
I mean, I will be very candid. There are definitely barriers that exist for women who are running all over the state. You have to prove extra why you deserve to be running, particularly when you're a young woman of color. And you have very little wiggle room to make any mistakes. There is this extra burden of perfection.
One of the more difficult things has been having to speak with other women about why I am running and several things that have been said to me are, “But they're already two feminist men running, why would you enter?” Or “You are only running because there are brown men running.” And I'm like, I'm a brown woman!
I realized as a younger candidate, one of the things that I have had to learn is to empathize with, cut through the noise, and be able to bring the conversation back to the issues that matter. For so many women, their agency is about how you deal with the political system that is tied to men and power. So part of smashing the patriarchy and disassembling that power is to empower other women. And that's why you'll see a lot of my hashtags on women supporting women. I think we have to break that stereotype of fighting with each other, and we have to show that it matters to be represented in this way.
I wanted to take this on because I knew we faced extra barriers and extra internal biases for being taken seriously and being considered a political force. I just wanted to do something to raise the profile of all women because we need that extra support. Not because we are any less deserving, but just because people need to see that it’s possible, locally too. I knocked on a door of a mother and her little daughter said she recognized me and my jean jacket. She said one day she wants to run too. To inspire that kind of change is everything. Women on the ground are so much the driving force of politics and democracy, especially the women of color. We keep the Democratic Party moving forward.
What is the best piece of advice you’d give to another young woman running for office?
The same given to me, just do it. There is really no better prep than just running. I think there is an appetite out there for young progressives, for people really pushing for change in which there is an infusion of humanity. And the way that we get there is simply by more people to opt in.
The views expressed in this interview are those of the candidate, and do not reflect the beliefs and views of Ballot Breakers or its staff.