Like most of us, Nithya Raman misses her pre-pandemic weekends. She misses the food court above Koreatown’s California Market, where she used to go for belly-warming udon bowls. She misses bike rides with her husband, a T.V. writer and producer, to the Silver Lake Reservoir. She loved hopping on the bus to get ice cream at Grand Central Market, or to Atwater Village’s India Sweets and Spices during mango season, when the store would have weekly batches of the ripe, sunkissed yellow fruit. Raman misses running for the bus in the morning with her four-year-old twins Karna and Kaveri in tow. The last one’s a maybe; she laughs through this memory while reminiscing on an erstwhile Los Angeles.
Raman didn’t know it would come in the form of a pandemic necessarily, but she’s long known that the city’s inaction toward its most vulnerable residents would reach a breaking point. Seven months into a state of emergency, City Council has failed to put an eviction moratorium or tenant protections in place, fulfill its Project Roomkey promise of placing 15,000 unhoused people in unoccupied hotel rooms, maintain reliable COVID-19 testing centers, or set up sufficient cooling centers during a series of record-breaking heat waves. To the 39-year-old urban planner turned community advocate, the dysfunctional local government has long prioritized profit over people. It’s why she entered the race last year to represent City Council District 4, running as a progressive candidate against Councilmember David Ryu.
Her race against the incumbent in the March primary resulted in a runoff when he failed to secure more than 50% of the vote. Now Raman and Ryu are neck-and-neck in a closely-watched race that could redefine the city, shifting its policies further to the left, even if Raman doesn’t ultimately win the seat. Her candidacy alone has seemingly already boosted voter turnout in a city where it’s notoriously difficult to get voters to the polls: With over 76,000 voters out of approximately 250,000 constituents, CD4 showed the greatest turnout of any district during the March primary. The next closest district was CD12, which had approximately 12,000 fewer voters.
This year’s general election is expected to yield the biggest turnout that the city has ever seen. Raman’s candidacy, which has garnered support from progressive groups including DSA L.A., Sunrise Movement L.A., and L.A. County Coordinating Council of the National Women’s Political Caucus, is no doubt a part of that equation. Since the start of her campaign, Raman says, she’s had over 600 unique volunteers knock on over 83,000 doors in the district, more than has been attempted before by any other city council campaign.
If she wins the City Council seat in November, she would represent one of the most dense, influential swaths of the city: parts of Hollywood, Koreatown, Hancock Park, Los Feliz, Van Nuys, Sherman Oaks, Toluca Lake, Silver Lake, Miracle Mile, Melrose, and other neighborhoods familiar to commuters who cut through surface streets to get to work across town. And while the area is home to some of the wealthiest residents in Los Angeles, it is also among the most in need of aid. CD4 saw a 53% increase in homelessness — the largest compared to any other district — in last year’s homeless count.
Raman, who was born in Kerala, India and moved to Lafayette, Louisiana when she was six, is uniquely suited to tackle L.A.’s homelessness crisis. In 2017 — a year before becoming the executive director of Time’s Up Entertainment — she co-founded SELAH Neighborhood Homeless Coalition. The community-run homelessness organization provides direct aid to unhoused neighbors in Silver Lake, Echo Park, Los Feliz, Atwater Village, East Hollywood, Glassell Park, and Cypress Park.
What began as outreach with water bottles, hygiene kits, and informational pamphlets has expanded into facilitating case management, monitoring aggressive encampment sweeps, and advocating for meaningful policy changes at City Hall. Prior to co-founding SELAH, Raman worked in the City Administrative Office, where she wrote a report on how the city was spending over $100 million on homelessness — mostly on incarcerating, rather than providing shelter for, our unhoused neighbors.
Her experience dates back to the years she spent working as a researcher for two different international human rights NGOs in Delhi, India after graduating from Harvard University with a degree in political science in 2003. Many of her values as a progressive candidate come from witnessing the inequality that ravaged India during this time, as the country was becoming a global economic power. In 2004, the slums along the Yamuna Pushta embankment were cleared to stage Delhi as a city of spectacle in advance of the 2010 Commonwealth Games, an international sporting event that drew tourists from all over the world. In just a few weeks, more than 100,000 residents were displaced.
“I was there during a time of real urban upheaval,” Raman says. “Urban areas were being seen as sites that were incredibly important for India’s understanding of itself.”
Reading about the devastation inspired Raman to leave her position in the Delhi office of Amnesty International and find work with The Hazards Center, an alliance of slum-based organizations fighting for land rights. The research she conducted within inspired her to pursue urban planning. After obtaining her Masters degree from MIT, Raman headed to India once more — this time south to Chennai — to work as a researcher for a federation of workers in unorganized workplaces. She identified gaps in knowledge that would inform how to help Chennai’s network of street vendors, fish sellers, flower dealers, and other day laborers.
Eventually, she started a non-profit organization called Transparent Chennai to make maps and collect data on the magnitude of the issues facing the urban poor. Her mapping projects and studies were used to strengthen the coalition of the city’s organizations that were providing basic services for people in slums. For Raman, the most luminous discovery was the value of banding together to advocate for resources.
Much of what Raman observed and researched in India parallels what Angelenos are witnessing today. In the middle of our ghoulish, backbreaking summer, Mayor Eric Garcetti and the LA28 organizing committee ignited a marketing push for the Olympics, scheduled to crash land in eight years. Meanwhile, the rent burden –– which already impacted people prior to the pandemic –– has put many on the verge of losing their homes. Small businesses are struggling to stay open and street vendors are desperate for relief from an official moratorium on selling within city limits. At the same time, the Black Lives Matter movement has incited thousands of Angelenos to march daily for the countless lives murdered by one of the nation’s deadliest police forces. Whereas some policymakers might turn away from these constituents, Raman sees them as future policy makers — and she hopes to bring them into office with her, should she win the CD4 seat.
“We use a model called co-governance, which is building a relationship with frontline organizations of [impacted] communities,” says Meghan Choi, one of Raman’s campaign organizers and a co-founding member of Ground Game L.A., a multi-issue grassroots group founded in 2017 with the goal of building electoral power in the city. “Then we write policy around their priorities and their needs because they are closest to the issue and thus closest to the solution.”
Unlike many status quo politicians, Raman and her team surrounded themselves with a network of community organizations they trusted to inform their strategies for tackling L.A.’s most pressing issues.
“When we wanted to get a policy together, we would get in touch with… frontline organizers, partners, and allies,” Choi says. “We tried to have as many roundtable discussions as possible to get information directly from the advocates.”
The resulting policies on Raman’s platform feel, to many longtime residents, like warm commitments to healthier, more sustainable communities. They include plans to turn rent forgiveness into reality, and to build a public broadband infrastructure.
“One of the reasons we put such detailed policies out there was because we wanted people to get excited about it,” Raman explains. “The idea that policy proposals coming from a candidate — not even from an incumbent — can influence policy making in the City Hall…if that’s happening, that’s incredible.”
Raman also wants future local candidates to rethink fundraising for their campaigns. Observing how Ryu has solicited donations from large industries as a means to sell influence was a major impetus for her decision to enter the race. To date, she says, her campaign has not taken any donations from corporate entities, land developers, fossil fuel companies, or police unions. Doing so, Raman believes, would be dishonest to her constituents, who have helped her write substantial policies for people, not for profit.
Instead Raman wants her fundraising events — which have included trivia nights and comedy shows featuring the likes of Busy Phillips, Nick Offerman, Adam Scott, Adam Conover, and Joel Kim Booster — to enrich the public who may be learning about the ideals of a progressive candidate for the first time. It turns out that they are not apathetic; they are excited to discover how much electoral power they carry.
“We had to teach people why changing local government matters, so our fundraising was half about who I am and what I want to do, and half about what City Council looks like, what it’s responsible for, and what it could be doing,” she says.
Things look a little different now from when Raman’s team engaged with constituents ahead of the primaries, but Raman is inspired by the number of people she says continue to write her asking how they can volunteer for her campaign, even mid-pandemic. To her, a grassroots coalition like hers generates the volume needed to change who constitutes our municipal government.
“My goal is to get as many people on the phones as possible to text and call, or write postcards because that is the way to win,” she says. “We can only overwhelm a deeply entrenched system by amassing a huge amount of people power.”
Even in the scenario where she doesn’t win the CD4 seat, Raman says she would gladly let City Council copy her homework. In fact, much of her language around committing to public safety and renters’ protections has already been adopted by sitting members; CD6 Councilmember Nury Martinez updated her website on August 31 with a proposal of a rent forgiveness policy that appears to borrow directly from Raman’s platform. Even her opponent Ryu has followed in her footsteps, albeit with blowback. One night on Twitter, L.A. activists and neighborhood organizers challenged Ryu when he published a photo of himself making a pledge to never accept money or endorsements from police unions shortly after Raman published hers (his team since deleted his post, caving from pressure put by people seeking answers for the nearly $45,000 he has taken from the Los Angeles Police Protective League).
“No matter what happens, the movement is powerful enough and the awareness is widespread enough that whoever is in these offices are going to have to hold themselves accountable to the issues going forward,” Raman says. “Nothing that happens on November 3 will negate the incredible power and energy of what has already come.”
Lisa Kwon is a writer born and based in Koreatown, Los Angeles. She lives in City Council District 4 and is will be voting in-person at her local polling center.
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Raman founded SELAH while working for Time’s Up Entertainment; she began the executive position the following year.
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