Politics & Women : In Depth Interview with Melody Shekari

Ongeleigh Underwood

Over the past 6 months, I have had the pleasure of getting to know current Tennessee House of Representative candidate Melody Shekari. We share a lot of the same interests and passions, and our discussions have grown to include some depth that I am please to share in a formal interview. She has overcome many challenges in this campaign race, and with sheer determination and grace she heads into the November 7th race from a grounded place. 

Q: We met at the screening of the True Cost, a documentary that faces the enormous inequities within the global fashion industry and how that directly effects so many lives and livelihoods. What is your view on the global marketplace, and where it is going

I think we have a lot of issues in the global marketplace. Although we have better ways of getting information (internet, documentaries), there is a lot of ‘noise’, and labor and environmental issues often get forgotten when the next issue comes along. Hopefully, with the rise in interest for local products and sustainable sourcing, we will get more responsible practices and purchasing. No matter what, it is important for us to continue to strive for a more ethical global marketplace, especially one where a company’s track record will affect their bottom line. Supporting businesses like Temperance (local) and Everlane (national, responsible sourcing) help us improve the marketplace. At the end of the day, it goes back to individual purchasing practices, which is why it is important for folks to think about what they are buying and what is represents. Most purchases are local, but they have global impact.

Q: How do you link the global economy with the local economy, and what are the benefits of doing so? 

Economically, linking the global economy with the local economy increases resilience and diversification in an area. Accessibility through the internet helps connect the global economy with local companies (and improve their viability), and we know that local businesses source through global markets as well. The challenge is building up the local economy and leveling the playing field by developing supportive investment and purchasing environments as well as a friendlier regulatory framework for small and middle-sized local companies.

Q: What is the biggest challenge this region is facing at the moment? 

This region is really grappling with transition. Our markets, ways of doing business, and population are all changing. More people are moving here from other places and a generation that grew up in a global, accessible world is making more and more of the workforce. I’m confident that we will find common ground and a path forward as long as we stay grounded in our community and relationships and stay open-minded.

Q: As a US representative, you will be faced with many different issues, all with varying degrees of effectiveness (i.e. ability to actuate change). In what issue do you have the most hope in making an impact? 

We need to have an impact on climate change. My opponent and a few other elected officials in this country have taken a head-in-the-sand approach and have attacked the global scientific consensus on climate change instead of taking action to invest in our collective future. This has been a dangerous approach and may soon be irreversible if we don’t have our policy makers focusing on solutions to the problem instead of attacking the validity of the problem despite multiple confirmations.

Q: After acquiring your Master in Public Administration from the University of Washington where you took a number of environmental policy classes, which environmental issues do you hope to effect through policy? 

We need policies that will help mitigate climate change and reduce pollution in our communities. This will come through a number of different methods, including lowering regulatory barriers for investment in alternative energy sources, investing in infrastructure (including water), and providing incentives for communities to prepare for extreme weather. This will literally save lives and prepare us for impending challenges. This will also save us money- it is less expensive to do the right thing now than correct a wrong later.

Q: What is our biggest asset in our race to fix global climate change? 

Our flexibility to change and innovative our approach to challenges. The world has changed a lot in the last few years alone, and our country and region have excelled in developing communities that support new companies, approaches, and ideas. We know we don’t have the answers to climate change (or the multiple approaches that we need to take) but we have a culture ready to take on major challenges. As long as we don’t succumb to our biggest danger, denial, we have the ability to tackle the challenge head-on. 

Q: Are you experiencing gender bias in this campaign? 

Occasionally- we had one volunteer report that a man on the phone wasn’t voting for me because I was a woman, and sometimes I receive questionable comments on appearance. Other forms are more subtle- like an opponent undermining my ability by saying that I got a newspaper endorsement because I was from here instead of because of my qualities as a candidate (education, policy knowledge, vision for the future of the district). I still maintain that 2016 may be the first year in which there is a competitive advantage to being a woman on the ballot, and I am proud to be one of the women that represent a real choice for voters in November.

Q: What can we do to affect that bias, or is an issue for the ages? (i.e. only generational shifts can truly make the change)

I don’t think that a generational shift is the only way to affect that bias. Awareness goes a long way, and I am grateful for the outcry by women and men who support women in this election season. It isn’t only national- I have been to different counties in the 3rd district and have had men tell me that they are happy to have a woman to vote for in my race. The challenge is ensuring that we don’t get complacent if we have a woman elected to be President of the United States. As Malcolm Gladwell has pointed out, many countries have only elected a woman to be the leader of the country once- the second time can be harder than the first. We’ve also seen a decline in African-American representation in leadership positions in Chattanooga after President Obama was elected, so there is always the potential to regress if folks think that there isn’t a problem anymore. And until we are much closer to equal representation- in public service as well as business and non-profits, then there are barriers that are preventing women from succeeding.

Policy is a tool to a) learn more information about what those barriers are and b) speed up the advancement of women. We need policy makers that are willing to commission research into equal pay, etc. We need policy makers that are willing to support women through the Violence Against Women Act to punish behavior that holds women back and support women regaining independence from dangerous situations. We need policy makers that will take action because women are a disempowered majority in this country.  

Q: What has been your favorite thing about running this campaign so far?

I have gotten to meet really great folks from all walks of life during this campaign- our district really is diverse and unique.