Nilmini’s public policy work has increased access to electricity in Africa, limited the spread of weapons of mass destruction, and raised billions for HIV/AIDS. She recently authored a coloring book with her daughter to help kids (and adults) learn about congressional districts.
A: When I was seven, I visited the birthplace of my parents for the first time – Sri Lanka. I was startled to see girls who looked just like me not attending school because they were working as house servants. I remember thinking it wasn’t fair that our lives were so different. Since then, I’ve come to embrace two ideas: 1) talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not; and 2) the future is here, but not evenly distributed. I’d like to be able to look back at my life and feel that I helped increase both opportunity and distribution.
One of the projects I am most proud of is drafting the Electrify Africa Act for Chairman Ed Royce at the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Over a billion people lack access to electricity and even more people don’t have reliable access. Electricity is needed to be a part of modern life – it powers our lights, our heat, our refrigerators, our computers, our hospitals and even some of our cars. Having been to hospitals where obstetricians perform C-sections without light, and visiting the homes of women who spend hours collecting items to burn for cooking and heating, I’ve seen how inadequate electricity provision particularly impacts women’s lives.Wanting to delve deeper, I joined Tetra Tech where I am currently leading the operating unit that implements electricity projects in Africa Central America, Eastern Europe, South and Southeast Asia.
The future is here, but not evenly distributed. I’d like to be able to look back at my life and feel that I helped increase both opportunity and distribution.
A: Whether they do work closer to home or in outer space (!), I hope my daughters (ages 7, 9, and 11) choose to live with meaning. If they decide to focus on what they can do rather than what they can own, I will be delighted.
A: My husband, Joel, ran for Congress in 2016. We spent a lot of time as a family traversing our oddly shaped district in Maryland during his campaign and my daughters were curious about it. I went online to search for a coloring book of U.S. congressional districts and couldn’t find one.
My 9-year old daughter, Araliya, suggested that we make our own. I’d previously written an illustrated historical fiction book with her older sister, Renuka, called How Carrots Became Orange and Araliya felt it was her turn for a book. We ended up having a lot of fun researching gerrymandering, the census, and facts about the states for The United Shapes of America. We’ll see what my youngest daughter, Bhavana, comes up with!
My hope for the book is that both children and grown-ups will get a feel for the political landscape of the United States and what they might like to change. I think it’s a great primer on the issue of gerrymandering – where congressional districts are drawn to benefit one political party over another. When you flip through the book it’s pretty easy to see how many different states have gerrymandered districts. It comes as a surprise to some, but gerrymandering is actually a bipartisan issue. I’m delighted that both Republican and Democratic luminaries like former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former Attorney General Eric Holder have praised the book.
A: Araliya is proud of herself because she had an idea and she made it a reality. I’m proud of her because she was persistent. The entire process, from concept to publication, took about a year and a half. That’s a long time for a little kid.
A: Pick an issue that feels important to you. Trace back what you see as the root causes of that issue and think of many different ways those root causes could be addressed. Then bite off just one way to fix the problem. Consider joining groups that are also tackling the challenge you identified in the same manner. And don't get discouraged. Improvements take a long time but they are possible. Global life expectancy has more than doubled in the last 150 years and many of the intersecting changes that led to this massive improvement were led by everyday people.
Know a pants-wearing woman who deserves to be celebrated?
Tell us (and the world!) about her on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram using the hashtag #wearthepants.