Why I Want to Build a Better Democracy

As a young girl in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran, I never expected to be fighting for democracy in the United States.

A child holds a national flag during the celebrations of the 50th anniversary of Victory Day in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Dec. 16, 2021. On this day in 1971, the Pakistani Army surrendered in Dhaka, marking the end of nine months of atrocities in Bangladesh. (Syed Mahamudur Rahman / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

During the war for Bangladeshi independence, my four older siblings and I would huddle under candlelight in the bomb shelter beneath our home to do our homework and argue with one another. The outside world was filled with violence—but inside the shelter I felt a sense of comfort in spending time with my mother, brother and sisters.  

Because I was so young, what I remember most is not the fear but the love; the closeness of my family and the experience of sharing time and space together. But the harsh reality of growing up in three countries—Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran—each swamped by political turmoil, war and revolution, would become clear soon enough.  

In 1979, I was 12 years old when I woke up to learn that Pakistan’s popularly elected prime minister, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, had been hanged by the Army. That same year, I moved with my mother to London at a time when race riots were erupting across Britain’s major cities and racial tensions were escalating between the white and rapidly growing South Asian community. I could see and feel the tension as I rode the No.14 bus to and from school each day. 

What I saw in each of these countries was how fragile democracies are and how quickly they can fall apart.

The Pakistan that my grandfather had a hand in creating is much different today than it was in the 1970s when I was growing up there. Yes, there was substantial poverty, illiteracy and vast wealth and class differences, but there was also a level of stability and, most of all for the young country, the promise of better lives and times ahead. I still have a beautiful extended family there, but I don’t feel safe taking my Finnish husband there, given heightened Islamism, dislocation and violence.    

What I saw … was how fragile democracies are and how quickly they can fall apart.

My experiences in these countries instilled in me a desire to devote my energies towards ensuring stable, democratic governments in which all people can have a say in how they are governed. Today, as a first-generation immigrant to the United States, I’m striving to see my new home become the first truly multi-racial democracy in the world. That’s a dream that I’ve worked toward these last two decades.   

That means improving democratic systems and practices, and ensuring that they are rooted in rights and equity. It means seeing that those with the least voice and power have real access to democratic institutions. It means expanding access to the ballot while fighting voter suppression, election denial and threats of violence directed at voters and elections officials; promoting the supply of good information as an antidote to increasing misinformation and disinformation; and guaranteeing that key major institutions, like the courts, function in and for the public interest.   

Fortunately, I haven’t had to do this work alone. At Open Society, where I’ve spent the last decade, we support organizations engaged in organizing, advocacy and litigation to protect and expand the right to vote. 

That work was especially important, as the COVID-19 pandemic threatened to prevent Americans from participating in a national election. In 2020, against the challenging backdrop of the pandemic, I helped convene over 150 donors to tackle the problem. Together, we worked to make vote-by-mail available wherever possible. We encouraged people to serve as poll workers and delivered personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and face shields to public-facing election workers. And we helped Americans exercise their right to vote—whether by mail or in person.

In the end, we protected voting not only in the face of the pandemic, but also at a moment of extreme voter suppression and disinformation. 

The 2020 election may have concluded, but the challenges we face are still real—and our work is ongoing. A few months ago, I assumed the role of executive director of Open Society’s United States team. That means being one of the highest-profile women of color working in the nonprofit sector. My background and experience will undoubtedly inform my approach, even if my long-time aim remains the same: to build the first truly multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy, rooted in equity and justice. That’s no mean feat, and I’ll bring to it my two decades of policy, leadership and organizational skills—along with a ton of grit and determination.   

Affirmative action supporters outside of the Supreme Court on June 29, 2023. In a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled that race-conscious admissions programs are unconstitutional. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Yes, this is an audacious goal. And the obstacles are equally big. Our country stands on a precipice. The armed mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021, made clear how quickly democratic foundations can be threatened even in countries like ours. While the effort to storm the U.S. Capitol was many weeks in the making and spurred by an embittered president, our democracy nearly crumbled in a single afternoon. We have all seen how quickly the fabric of social order can unravel.    

My long-time aim remains the same: to build the first truly multi-ethnic, multi-racial democracy, rooted in equity and justice.

As a young girl in Bangladesh, Pakistan and Iran, I never expected to be fighting for democracy in the United States. To that young girl, America seemed to that child like a stable and powerful country, however distant it might have been. I don’t think anyone could have imagined the massive and pervasive effects digital technologies have had on our lives in the years since, including on our elections. Propaganda and disinformation have reinforced political polarization and created alternate political realities.  

While the Biden administration has taken positive steps toward a shared prosperity agenda, our work is far from done. That agenda must be realized, through meaningful implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act, the infrastructure bill, and the CHIPS legislation that Congress approved in 2022. But we must also recommit, as a nation and as a people, to the promise of our country: one in which every person can contribute to our progress and share in our opportunity. 

So many of us carry another heritage, faith, race or ethnicity. As a first-generation Pakistani-born Muslim immigrant, with a Finnish husband with Protestant roots and a biracial daughter, I certainly do. We are linguistic and ethnic strangers, yet we are family and are at home in the United States. And we are one among many here. 

That spirit of welcome is the spirit that should propel us toward the new democracy we want—and need. It’s what should animate us as we build a new democracy that we can all call home.

It’s what I want to leave my own 16-year-old daughter. Because, more than anything, I want her to unapologetically have a say in her future. 

Up next:

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Laleh Ispahani is the executive director of Open Society-U.S., the U.S. component of the Open Society Foundations, a foundation dedicated to advancing justice, democratic governance, and human rights in the United States and globally. At Open Society, she oversees substantial investments aimed at advancing racial equality, inclusive democracy, and combatting hate in the U.S. She has special expertise in protecting and expanding the right to vote, ensuring that the internet remains an open and secure platform for free expression and civic participation, and democracy promotion. These days, she is heavily focused on work that protects the right to abortion and fights corporate consolidation of media and data. She lives in New York City with her delightful daughter.