So what did you tell your family?

IMG_0015Within minutes of entering the hotel, the question came up: “So what did you tell your family?” We had only just met, but we didn’t need to know each other to know that family was a tender topic. We had come together for SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute (YLI), but our connections ran deeper than a passion for engaging South Asian communities in justice and activism. This was a connection that many LGBQ and transgender South Asians experience when we come together—a shared ache to reconcile what we knew about ourselves and what those around us have been taught. Especially achy is reconciling what our  families have been taught about who they think we are. My roommate and I, exhausted from our travels but exhilarated by this rare opportunity to swap stories of family experiences with another queer desi, stayed up late the night before the first day of YLI sharing stories about what brought us here.

LGBQ and transgender South Asians are taught that our families will never accept or acknowledge us in our entirety. While some of our experiences affirm this, these scare tactics leave us stuck and unable to hope for or envision a different family experience. The idea that we have no future as our whole selves is not only harmful to us, but also to our families. These fears fuel their anxieties and, in turn, widen the gap we feel between us and our families. How do we move toward a future where families have room to grow, learn, and accept us? How do we move toward a reality where being an LGBQ and/or transgender South Asian is not synonymous with a familial disconnect? How do we move toward a truth where we give our families the care we hope they can give us?

One exercise we did during our YLI training really hit home for me. We were asked to make a “queer family tree” tracing the people in our lives who have made room for us to be who we are more freely. At first, this felt impossible—the stereotype of South Asians being homophobic and transphobic runs deep enough to cloud what I know to be true. I remembered confiding in a cousin of mine about my queerness and the lightness I felt when she responded with such kind words. Were there more experiences with family that made me feel free? Maybe if I looked at this another way, I would find more. I thought about all the people in my family who might share my feelings about family—stress, sadness, frustration disappointment, shame, a sense of stuckness. Though they may not be queer, there were others in my family who are negotiating the idea of “family,” family IMG_0042expectations, and family realities in a complex way. And there were those few who supported them. Just by being who they are, these folks are making space for me to be me. They endure gossip, shame, fear, just because they don’t meet an expectation. Our seeming imperfections give hope to others who are also told they are imperfect. Thinking about family in this way really affirmed my shifting approach to family; it reminds me to be gentler and more compassionate. It also reminded me that these stories don’t come to mind easily, that these folks are often written out of family histories. In turn, I wondered where I stood in the future of my family history.

We are all storytellers, from the fictions we devise that allow us to access queer and transgender community, to the way we share the fine balance of our lives—storytelling is inherent to how we live and survive. My YLI project, an anthology entitled “Moving Truth(s): Queer and Transgender Desi Writings on Family,” captures a snapshot of how LGBQ and transgender South Asians relate to family through storytelling and explores how we get to a point where we can move forward. In honor of the vision for building allyship among each other and our families, my team and I developed a community-based publishing plan. Instead of expecting our contributors to write in isolation, we accepted applications of interest rather than submissions. Knowing how complex the topic of family would be, we created a guided writing process, a 10-week online writing workshop that would support writers in focusing which story to write about, to help in providing context, to work on editing and grammar, and, most importantly, to provide emotional support as we processed our experiences with family. Our goal during the writing and drafting process was to create something that felt true to us and our experiences, and to create something we are proud of. Some of our included stories deal with conflicts of belief and action, reconciling identities, and learning more graceful, generous, and gentle ways to relate to ourselves, our families, and our communities.

Our labor of love will be published Spring 2015. To learn more about and support this project, please:

Sasha Duttchoudhury
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014

LGBT Health Meets Public Health

I decided to explore more of my racial and ethnic identity in my first year of college when the term “South Asian” was still relatively new. By reading anything I could find and observing race and ethnicity in my surroundings, I grew more interested in the role of race and ethnicity in health and health care. I learned of “public health” and other terms used to describe health conditions I witnessed my whole life, such as health disparities and negative health outcomes. Based on my personal interests and experiences, I decided that I wanted to focus on reproductive and sexual health care for South Asians and other people of color. For the past two years, I have approached this work with a reproductive justice framework and have seen how mainstream reproductive and sexual health organizations have often neglected marginalized populations, such as women of color, queer communities, people with disabilities, and all their intersections.

A year ago, I took an LGBT health course, where I learned about LGBTQ health disparities, such as the high rates of breast cancer among lesbians and increasing rates of depression among transgender people. This course served as my first academic exposure to LGBTQ health from a public health perspective. Quickly, I realized that there is still much research to be done on LGBTQ health, that there is even less research on LGBTQ and people of color health, and that most people did not even know words like “queer,” “cisgender,” and “transmisogyny” exist. Knowing this, I still had reproductive and sexual health as my primary areas of interest, but could not fail to include LGBTQ health in my scope of public health. As my actions became more LGBTQ inclusive, I noticed that other students and public health professionals wondered why I used gender-neutral language, discussed health disparities at any given moment, and “brought up race and sexuality too much.” Despite the comments and stares, I still maintained my LGBTQ (and other demographic factors and identities) inclusive stance and continued my work.

IMG_0057I heard about SAALT back when I was researching South Asian community engagement, and I heard about the Young Leadership Institute from a former participant. This past summer, I was fortunate enough to attend SAALT’s annual Young Leaders Institute (YLI), which, in 2014, focused on LGBTQ justice and allyship. While attending YLI, I learned about South Asian queer history, queer people of color histories, and the trajectory of South Asian, LGBTQ, and South Asian LGBTQ communities.

Based on my work and the trainings at YLI, I started to critically think about integrating dominant public health practices and LGBTQ health. Though I am limited in my capacity to enact significant changes in public health practice, I wanted to start engaging more intersections of sexuality and race into public health discussions and in the scope of public health. My YLI project is to incorporate LGBT health in medical and public health discussions. I plan on hosting a panel of health professionals to discuss the necessity of LGBTQ competency with current medical and public health students. An example of LGBTQ competency among health professionals is not assuming someone’s sexuality when screening for past sexual history.

In addition, I plan to integrate LGBTQ health and use LGBTQ inclusive language in my current practices in reproductive and sexual health. For instance, when I conduct workshops or community discussions on these topics, I explain LGBTQ inclusive language to participants and my rationale for doing so, especially in regards to the specific community to which I am addressing (such as the South Asian community, graduate students, a collective community of color, etc.). Incorporating LGBTQ inclusive language is needed in order to reduce the marginalization of LGBTQ people and promote accessibility of LGBTQ-friendly services. I plan on implementing this project this semester and want to continue integrating LGBTQ health and LGBTQ inclusive language in my work as a public health practitioner.

Sadia Arshad
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014

Bridging Divides Through Education

As someone who holds queer, gender deviating, Muslim, and first generation Bangladeshi-American identities (among others), being considered unusual is common. Having conversations that include the statements, “Yes, a person can be Muslim and queer at the same time,” or “Of course, South Asian transgender people exist,” are a regular part of my life. Though these exchanges can be trying at times, I have come to realize that they are a huge necessity. Only by connecting with one another through understanding of each other’s truths can solidarity between individuals be forged. Only by educating one another can community be built.

Thus, education is often on my mind, though not in the most obvious sense. I think not of the institutions typically associated with education, not the schools or universities, but the idea of spreading knowledge and understanding through populations in less structured environments. I wonder how stories can be shared and community built without the support of larger systems to create channels of communication. As referenced above, individual conversations can be powerful tools for community building, but as someone who is a both part of and works within South Asian LGBTQ communities, I am often searching for ways of reaching more people, more efficiently.

Enter the Young Leader’s Institute (YLI), hosted by South Asians Leading Together (SAALT), which I attended in 2014. The opportunity is one that that I don’t often come across; I was able not only to gain practical knowledge on doing advocacy work in marginalized communities, but was also connected with professionals involved in justice work and given space to share experiences with peers. It was deeDSC_0035ply fulfilling to be in an intentional space with a clear focus on LGBTQ justice and allyship. After various trainings on issues ranging from the effect of colonialism on gender norms in South Asia to methods for completing projects, the importance of particular issues became clear to me.

Sharing truths, creating understanding, and reaching across difference were themes that came up again and again over the three days of the Institute. Here, it seemed, was the issue with which I had been grappling: how to spread awareness and better serve communities by understanding their specific needs. With the guidance of SAALT staff and in partnership with Satrang, a South Asian nonprofit that serves LGBTQ communities based in Southern California, I decided to focus my efforts on building allyship trainings focused on the needs of South Asian LGBTQ-identified people.

The allyship trainings are a series of six to eight workshops that will be held over a six month period, and will target professionals and other groups that work with South Asian LGBTQ communities, such as immigration lawyers, social workers, journalists, medical professionals, and possibly student groups. The trainings consist of an overview of South Asian LGBTQ history and relevant current issues within these communities and a more general section on LGBTQ-related terminology and concepts. The idea is to give people working with Desi LGBTQ-identified people the tools to better understand their needs and ultimately better serve these communities. In conjunction with the trainings, I am working to develop a resource toolkit. Resources, such as literature on gender identity and needs assessment research on South Asian LGBTQ communities, will be both handed out at trainings and available on Satrang’s website so they are accessible to those who are unable to attend trainings.

Thus far, the project has proven both challenging and rewarding as I focus on developing the training curriculum. Reaching out to individuals and organizations involved in LGBTQ justice work has proven very helpful, not just in completing the project but in helping to develop my own approach to allyship. Often, when one thinks of allyship, the gist is to support individuals with different identities than your own. However, I have come to realize that it is important to be an ally to one’s own community. For me, that means educating myself on the needs of folks in my personal and professional life and using whatever skills I possess to improve conditions for others. Though I can’t work in immigration and the media and the medical field, I can give the people who do work in those fields and those who regularly work with South Asian LGBTQ communities a better understanding of how to do so. And that, I believe, can ultimately make a real impact.


Pia Ahmed
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014


Where on the Web are the Queerious Kapoors?

This past summer was the most enlightening learning period in my life. Not only did I learn that cats have 32 muscles in each ear, but I also learned that LGBQ & T* issues today, especially in the South Asian context, have common threads that make individual stories relatable to the broader community. Through SAALT’s Young Leaders Institute, I was able to spend three days with twelve brilliant people from across the United States learning about LGBTQ issues and allyship. Throughout the weekend, we participated in many workshops, trainings, and discussions all focused on making individual voices heard and recognizing each story’s importance. One session that still stands out in my mind was on the second day of training, when we all sat around a table and told stories that deeply impacted the way we approached our LGBTQ identities. Through each story, there was a reoccurring red flag: when trying to explain a queer identity to family (especially in a different language), there were often no specific words or phrases available in that language to describe the identity and experience. Also, many stated that it may have helped their coming out process had they been able to see and hear positive portrayals of LGBTQ South Asian Americans in the media and in their communities.

IMG_0088This session further inspired my Institute project and confirmed for me its critical need. In order to provide tech savvy and modern LGBTQ youth a place to see South Asian queers and allies on screen, fellow YLI participant Sumon Ray and I decided to create a web-series about LGBTQ South Asian siblings living in the United States called “The Queerious Kapoors.” The story revolves around a brother and sister who are both queer and live with their parents. One of them is out of the closet while the other isn’t…yet. We hope to provide a place where queer and questioning South Asians can see themselves in this story, a situation they may one day face, if they are not facing it already. Mainstream media already does a poor job of displaying queer people in a non-stereotypical light, and, even then, the actors are mainly Caucasian. In theory, this web series will be a “day in the life” portrayal of a pair of siblings who are born and raised in the U.S., are queer, and are trying to live life like everyone else. It is my hope that we are able to reach parents as well because, as I mentioned earlier, some South Asian parents who already don’t like to talk about culturally taboo subjects with their children also don’t know the necessary language to understand that their child is queer. Through acting, I think there is a lot that can be said about attraction, love, and the pain it creates when those closest to you don’t understand what you are going through.

We hope to build bridges between generations and make communicating about LGBTQ issues easier for those in the future.

My YLI peers and SAALT staff taught me so much in those three days. Their journeys serve as a daily reminder of how much work there is to be done in this world. *****************

Lalita Balakrishnan
Georgia State University

Perks of Being an Awkward Desi Queer

This summer, I had the pleasure of participating in the Young Leaders Institute (YLI) hosted by SAALT in Washington D.C., where the focus of the Institute was to engage around LGBTQ justice and allyship. My entry point into this activist-based leadership training program was a culmination of numerous factors, but mainly due to the intersection of several of my identities: queer, Muslim, and Bangladeshi. In addition, I don’t view my gender as falling within the binary gender spectrum. Growing up in Bangladesh for 19 years in a predominantly conservative Islamic society and then attending a feminist liberal arts women’s college paved the way for my ultimate entry into a social justice arena where I can consistently immerse myself in gender and sexuality topics from an intersectional perspective.

The preliminary idea for my YLI project, Project Bandhan, came about through my conversations that were generated via a South Asian caucus at the 2013 National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) conference. Project Bandhan is a video campaign that will consist of a series of 2-5 minute videos or photovoice interviews showcasing various desi queer and gender nonconforming folks and their relationships with their respective parents or parental figures.  I reviewed several of the videos that were being generated through the It Gets Better Project and I was struck by the daily raw life struggles and barriers that queer, trans*, and gender self-identifying people of color continuously face within the United States—an underserved and often invisible community within the larger LGBTQ movement whose priority focus may not be marriage equality as an end in itself in the larger fight for queer liberation. The LGBTQ community in America is diverse in its population demographics and needs, where the primary episodes of violence originate from a lack of access to health care and housing, alongside constant incidents of police brutality, prison lockups, and homelessness. The root issues that the larger LGBTQ population needs to address immediately lies within an economic, gender, and racial justice framework, and not within the institution of marriage, which is in fact, a tool for a social and colonial control. Throughout the history of the United States, the alignment of privilege and white heteropatriarchy has always propagated the struggles endured by queer and similarly marginalized populations. The legacy of these struggles tends to get dismissed in a majority of mainstream media portrayals around sexuality and gender presentation. I essentially wanted to create a video-based platform for my people (queer South Asians) to informally discuss their non-heteronormative desires andCapture tribulations within the context of their parental upbringing. Through this platform, interviewees can engage and converse with the camera apparatus without the constant need to envision a ‘better’ future or to find an immediate solution for their hardships.

This brings me to the reason of why I chose to undertake this somewhat ambitious project, a project that wishes to go against the documentation of the single-issue LGBTQ lives that tend to pervade our news and media outlets. For me, my awkwardness and shyness are characteristics I’ve struggled with for a significant period of time.  My sense of proprietorship and humanity originates from the ways my desi and Islamic upbringings have caused me to downplay my introvertedness, especially in a culture where introverts are, to a certain degree, seen as disposable. I felt my anxiety around outlining the mission statement of Project Bandhan was a hurdle in itself, where I would, at times, feel that I don’t possess the confidence or intellectual acumen to bring such a unique project to a successful completion. However, I wanted to own my awkwardness and other internalized self-deprecating feelings that I’ve been told to harbor for a large portion of my life.

Through the exploration and ownership of my emotions, I am able to communicate my lived reality in order to seek out commonalities and solidarity with the interviewees’ lived experiences. Our experiences as queer South Asians provide us with a unique angle of vision. As members of an oppressed group, each of us possesses critical insights into the conditions of our specific oppression. Through my 3-day interaction with my fellow peers at YLI who are all working to challenge oppressive structures, I realized the immense value of holding our emotions as a collective, rather than as an individual. Being introverted and awkward and making those qualities work for, rather than against, one’s social justice and future goals are elements that were embraced within the YLI space. As a result, the values that were imparted to me through the Institute will also be deeply entrenched within Project Bandhan’s final product where queer and gender self-identifying South Asians will be able to explore the shifting terrain of parent-child interactions. YLI was indeed one of the most fulfilling training seminars that I’ve attended so far, and the friendships and education that I’ve gained through the Institute will stay with me throughout this lifetime.

Farhat Rahman
Bryn Mawr College

Queer, Asian and Proud

YLI_VictoriaThis summer I attended the 2014 Young Leaders Institute (YLI), a leadership development program hosted by South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). The Young Leaders Institute is an opportunity for undergraduate university students to build leadership skills, connect with fellow activists and advocates, and explore social change strategies around issues that affect South Asian and immigrant communities in the US. This year, YLI focused on LGBTQ justice and allyship. The theme of this year’s Institute perfectly coincided with an intersectional LGBTQ and Asian student group that I founded a few months prior, Penn Queer & Asian (Penn Q&A).

The Young Leaders Institute taught me about LGBTQ issues in some communities that tend to be overlooked and underserved in the broader Asian and Pacific Islander American (API) movement. For example, I learned about the roles that different genders, sexes, and sexualities played throughout the course of South Asian history. At the end of the leadership training, YLI student leaders had to create projects to enact social change in their communities. For me, it only seemed natural to develop and expand the role of Penn Q&A.

Just a matter of weeks ago, the University of Pennsylvania welcomed its students, staff, and faculty back to campus for the start of the 2014 fall semester. For Penn Q&A, the start of the school year meant getting down to business and publicizing our student group to the greater Penn community. Penn Q&A aims to provide a safe space for the support and empowerment of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, questioning, and allied individuals interested in addressing issues surrounding the queer Asian community. As one of the co-founders of Penn Q&A last spring, I attended multiple student activities fairs with my Q&A peers, providing informational flyers, sign-up sheets, and snacks to Penn undergraduate, graduate, and transfer students. We networked at orientation events sponsored by various queer student groups and Asian student groups in order to increase the overall awareness of our organization. By the end of the first week, Penn Q&A had accomplished its outreach goals—I was pleasantly surprised when our listserv expanded to include over fifty queer and Asian-identified members, considering Q&A’s relatively recent establishment and rather niche target population!

As the hectic ‘“welcome” and “welcome back” events began to wind down, I realized that Penn Q&A needed to jump through a number of bureaucratic hoops before the student group could properly serve its expanded constituency. As a result, Q&A board members convened early on a Saturday morning to hammer out, scour, and polish our Constitution. Once completed, we submitted our application for official University student group recognition. Just last week, the Office of Student Affairs granted us an official status on the Penn student group roster! Even the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s student-run daily newspaper, recently featured Q&A as one of the campus’ new intersectional organizations.

Now a University-certified student group with a website, various social media accounts, and a formidable physical presence, Penn Q&A looks forward to joining student umbrella groups on campus. These umbrella groups provide funding, outreach, and political power for many minority organizations on campus. In the near future, we hope to apply for membership to the Asian Pacific Student Coalition, which oversees Penn’s Asian-interest organizations, and Lambda Alliance, which oversees Penn’s LGBTQ+ organizations, amongst others. Penn Q&A can more readily achieve its mission of supporting queer Asian students by joining these larger student group alliances.

Penn Q&A also has a few things planned for this academic year. Internally, we look forward to holding informal mixers for our members, many of whom wish to maintain confidentiality outside of Penn Q&A. In line with what I learned at YLI, Penn Q&A may host workshops to address the intersectionality of South Asian and LGBTQ identities. Externally, we would like to invite speakers and media icons to campus. Penn Q&A has currently planned a collaboration with the Penn Philippine Association to bring Jose Antonio Vargas, a gay, undocumented immigrant, to speak about his intersectional experience of coming to and coming out in America. We also hope to invite Staceyann Chin, a spoken word artist and political activist, and AJ O’Day, a popular YouTube entertainer, to perform and speak to the Penn and greater Philadelphia communities sometime in the future. On a more regional level, I hope to see Penn Q&A holding get-togethers with queer Asian student groups on other campuses and community organizations in the area.

Fundamentally, Penn Q&A exists so that queer-identified and Asian-identified individuals know that they are not alone, whether they are in the closet, in the process of coming out, or have already come out. We want to offer our members the opportunity to chat with others about how to deal with sticky situations regarding family expectations, religious tensions, and any other obstacles that arise. At the end of the day, I co-founded Penn Queer and Asian because a handful of queer Asians at Penn wanted to create a safe space for others to feel comfortable in embracing their identities.

University of Pennsylvania


I can see queerly now, the rain is gone

During the Young Leaders Institute 2014, my world drastically changed. People shared stories that captivated, touched, and slightly even hurt me, because of the gruesome reality of some of my peers’ experiences. Entering the training room that day about five minutes late, as I usually do, I had no idea what to expect. I looked around at my twelve other peers and realized that each and every single one had a story that I desperately wanted to learn. Some of them were dressed in a way that I had never seen, while some of them gave off an eclectic vibe, and some matched my eagerness with wide eyes and tender smiles. As the days of training went on, I learned more and more about the struggles my LGBTQ–identified peers faced on a daily basis.

The part of the training that impacted me most, as an ally, was when the group was split up and moved to two separate rooms. One group consisted of those that identify as gender IMG_0099non-conforming/trans*, and the other group consisted of allies. When the two groups came back together, we discussed important information concerning sexuality and gender identity that allies should know, as agreed upon by the group of gender nonconforming and trans* individuals. We discussed allyship and explored ways in which allies can offer support while keeping the focus on gender non-conforming/trans* individuals. We learned that the voices of allies should not detract from the stories and experiences of gender non-conforming and trans* communities.

I realized that the more I heard them speak, the more they were describing my very own campus project, which is to enable a safe space environment on the campus of Texas Tech University. The development of a safer campus environment will be achieved by forming bonds with faculty and LGBTQ-identified students and promoting events and awareness talks by the Gay Straight Alliance at Texas Tech. I had no idea that some of the approaches my project was using were exactly what my YLI peers were cautioning against! Over the next few days I mustered up the courage to be honest with myself and recognize that I really did not know anything about the way my project should be approached; I had been looking through the same narrow lens that my peers had said felt marginalizing.

During the 3-day Institute, I met with beautiful individuals, inside and out, who taught me what accepting oneself and the struggle-filled journey to achieve inner peace really means. I learned that I want to be an ally; my peers’ definition of ally, not society’s definition. I observed their humbleness their kindness and their strong-willed personalities; they taught me to embrace art, love, and good vibes. Overall I have learned that I am just an ally. These are their stories, their struggles, and their fights. I am simply here to support them. In a metaphorical sense, my rain shouldn’t cloud their skies.

YLI 2014 changed my views on so many things. I not only walked out more aware of my surroundings, but more aware of myself, my goals, and my aspirations. I gained a stronger understanding of the messages I want to make clear to those in my campus community about acceptance and support and knowing when to take a step back, because the voices that need to be heard are not those of the allies; they are those of the LGBTQ community.

Texas Tech University

Values, Goals of Freedom Riders Still Apply Today

Over the past two years, I have steeped myself in understanding the civil rights context for South Asian, Sikh, Muslim and Arab American communities as a Program Associate at SAALT.  My recent experience to join the original Freedom Riders from Freedom Summer on a bus ride from DC to Richmond helped me to realize how connected people of color are in terms of their experiences, hopes and dreams for the future.

On July 2, 2014, I received an opportunity to freedomrideparticipate in the 50th Anniversary commemorating the signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act with the office of Civil Rights at the Department of Education. The 1964 Civil Rights Act outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin. It ended racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public as well as promoting equality in voting. I joined 48 other student leaders across the country, along with many original Freedom Riders from Freedom Summer to the Virginia State Capitol in Richmond, Virginia. The Freedom Rides brought together civil rights activists who rode interstate buses from DC into the segregated South in 1961 to challenge the non-enforcement of the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. During the journey from DC to Richmond last week, I explored history firsthand from leaders who paved the way for all of us.

This experience allowed me to reflect on the difference the Freedom Riders made for Muslim, Arab, Sikh and South Asian communities as these communities are part of this long civil rights history. They were the same age as I when they left their homes and Universities and signed wills before embarking on a journey knowing they were risking their lives. As a Sikh American, the 1964 Civil Rights Act is of tremendous significance as it addressed religious discrimination.  Prior to 1964, employers could discriminate based on the applicant’s religion and for Sikhs, turbans or long beards represent articles of faith.  While today the law stands that racial discrimination is in violation of the Civil Rights Act, the backlash our communities face are still prevalent including at workplaces and schools. The Freedom Riders expressed that at the time that there was a sense of urgency for the climate to be changed. I think today the climate is thirsty for change again as America is becoming more diverse and there is a need for a society that respects people of various backgrounds and faiths.

The morning send-off was held at the Department of Education where Freedom Rider Hank Thomas spoke about his experience joining the movement. He reflected on his time serving in Vietnam and knowing that even if he came back with a Medal of Honor, he would not be able to sit in the front of the bus. Hank spoke on behalf of African American soldiers back then as he explained that, “We loved a country that did not love us.” Listening to his words, I found myself already strategizing with other student leaders on how to continue this fight that these leaders fought before us as how we could organize to make sure injustices were prevented for the future generation.

During the ride on the way to Richmond, I was seated next to Freedom Rider Rev. Reginald Green. When he was a student at Virginia Union University, Rev. Green heard about the Freedom Rides and decided to join.  He did not tell his parents and was arrested and jailed in Mississippi. Rev. Green reflected on his reasons for joining the Freedom Rides and noted that it was time for the climate of our nation to change. Many of the Freedom Riders were in college and paused their own education to take part in activities that would ensure equal education for everyone one day. We arrived at the Virginia State Capitol where the Freedom Riders were welcomed by Governor Terry McAuliffe. He reflected on the great strides the Freedom Riders made and how, “They stood up when others failed to do so.” The Assistant Secretary of Civil Rights at the Department of Education, Catherine Lhamon, discussed the modern day cases her office faces and how she believes, “No student should have to choose between getting an education and being treated with dignity.” The reality is that bias based bullying and discrimination still happens in the classrooms whether it’s race, religion, sexual orientation or national origin. After 9/11, incidents of bias based bullying heightened for the South Asian communities and racial and religious profiling as a whole increased towards the community. While we commemorate the work that has already been done for by the Department of the Education to make sure our schools are safe, we need to make sure our classrooms allow for students to attend safely and with dignity.

Throughout this experience, it was difficult to imagine the hardships the Freedom Riders went through to fight for civil rights. Their tires were popped and the windows were broken but they continued to ride. They did not want to sit at the back of the bus, go to only a few restaurants, use separate bathrooms or not be able to vote. The progress that they made to move away from racial segregation is remarkable. They inspired me along with 48 other students to join the movement and make sure that during the next 50 years, we are actively engaged in the struggle for racial justice.

Manpreet Teji
Former SAALT Staff Member
Law Student, John Marshall Law School

Senate Discusses Protections for Minority Voters in Voting Rights Amendment Act Hearing

Last Wednesday, the Senate held a hearing on the Voting Rights Amendment Act of 2014 (VRAA), which could be instrumental to the rights of voters in upcoming elections.  Notably, this hearing was held on the one-year anniversary of Shelby County v. Holder, a Supreme Court decision which dramatically diminished voter protections for South Asian Americans as well as other minority communities. This court decision ruled Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 unconstitutional, a section that articulated a formula to determine which jurisdictions are required to have changes to their voting laws pre-cleared by the Department of Justice or a federal court (under Section 5). The purpose of this section was to ensure that minority voters were able to vote in areas with historical evidence of discriminatory voting practices, issues with language minority groups, and low minority voter turnout. As the Shelby decision rendered the Voting Rights Act of 1965 inadequate to protect minority communities from discriminatory election laws, this week’s Senate hearing was a welcome conversation to improve our laws and enhance protections for minority voters.

At the hearing, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) stressed the importance of keeping voting rights a nonpartisan issue, noting that recent state restrictions in high minority states continue to be a challenge. According to Senator Leahy, there is no doubt that voting discrimination still exists, and it is clear one year after Shelby that more protections are needed. Echoing these concerns, State Senator Sylvia Garcia (D-TX) remarked that as there are state laws that restrict voting, what remains of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 is not enough to protect minority voters, noting that Texas, in particular, outpaces other states in discriminatory policies. With over 300,000 South Asian Americans in Texas, further restrictions on the right to vote, such as requiring specific forms of photo identification be shown at polling sites and changing geographical districts, have serious impact on South Asian voters as well as electoral candidates.

Nationwide, the number of eligible South Asian voters in the U.S. has increased between 99% and 471% since 2000. A poll of approximately 9,000 Asian American voters interviewed after the 2012 elections reported a total of 1,360 voting problems. These problems included being required to prove citizenship, having their names missing or included with errors at the polling location, being required to vote by provisional ballot, experiencing hostility from poll workers, not having an interpreter or translation available when needed, and being directed to the wrong polling site or voting machine. These issues greatly impact the ability of minority voters to exercise their right to vote. For example, when a person’s name is misspelled or missing from the voter roll at the pollingvoting site—or if a person does not have the required identification, perhaps because of a new and confusing state voter ID law—the voter must vote by provisional ballot. In some jurisdictions, if a voter shows up to the wrong polling location, even due to a change or reduction in the number of polling locations, the voter will be required to vote by provisional ballot. Voting by provisional ballot is risky—poll workers are not always trained on how to properly handle provisional ballots, these ballots are only counted after the election, and it is nearly impossible to find out if your vote was actually counted. In 2010, the U.S. Election Assistance Commission reported that only 66.2% of provisional ballots were counted in full, and according to the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law, the highest rates of provisional ballot voting occur in communities with a high percentage of minority voters.  Still, this occurrence is only one of the many possible repercussions of problematic or discriminatory voting laws.

Even the slightest change in election laws can cause people to miss the opportunity to cast their vote or have it be counted, making it all the more important that states with a bad track record of voting violations be required to pre-clear new voting changes, such as laws restricting early voting and reducing the number of polling locations. Failure to protect voters from discriminatory laws prior to an election deprives a large number of Americans from their Constitutional right not only to vote for a candidate to represent their needs and values, but to vote for a candidate that will not continue to disenfranchise them.  The impact of these laws is much more severe on minority voters, particularly as many of these discriminatory laws are geared towards communities or polling sites with high numbers of minority voters.

The proposed VRAA seeks to protect voters by expanding the type of violations covered by the Act to not only violations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments, but also violations of the VRAA and federal laws that prohibit discrimination on the basis of race, color, or membership in a language minority group. States would also be required to pre-clear changes affecting elections if they accumulated five or more violations in the last fifteen years—including one violation by the state. SAALT looks forward to the development and implementation of legislation that enhances protections for minority voters, particularly as so many meaningful remedies that would further protect the right to vote were lost as a result of the Shelby decision.

To read the text of the proposed bill click here.

Christina Modi
Policy Intern
South Asian Americans Leading Together, SAALT

Take On Hate: “The Power of Change is Driven by Us”

On Monday, the National Network for Arab American Communities (NNAAC) launched their long-awaited Take On Hate campaign, which is aimed at addressing the pervasive prejudice and discrimination faced by Arab and Muslim Americans. Numerous organizations, including SAALT, supported the campaign’s official launch at the National Press Club in DC.

After opening remarks from Nadia Tonova, Executive Director of NNAAC, civil rights allies spoke about the patterns of discrimination across communities and the importance of this campaign’s goal to create real, long-term change. take on hateMee Moua, Executive Director of Asian Americans Advancing Justice (AAJC), reminded the audience of the importance of changing the narrative for all communities. “We need to change the conversation around Arab Americans from villains to everyday heroes,” she said, recalling the common theme that all communities of color have faced at some point in time. Hilary Shelton, Washington Bureau Director and Senior Vice President for Advocacy of the NAACP, connected this campaign to the civil rights movements in the 1960s and the need for collaboration between all communities of color. Deepa Iyer, current Strategic Advisor and former Executive Director of SAALT, described the South Asian and Arab communities as sister communities based on their similar experiences with post-9/11 backlash and discrimination. Iyer asserted that the current hate committed against both groups has developed into a way of life that allows for such actions and instills fear in our communities. She continued the thoughts of Moua and Shelton with an emphasis on coalition-building and collaboration: “We can use Take On Hate to help us talk about hate in all forms. The power of change is driven by us.”

Take on Hate is a much needed reminder that we do have the power to instill change. In the constant and overwhelming face of prejudice and discrimination against people of color, it is crucial that our voices are heard and uplifted to drive forward change. Whether it was Fred Korematsu with the support of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) in challenging the US government’s policy of internment during World War II, or Jose Antonio Vargas speaking out on behalf of undocumented immigrants throughout the US, we must play an active role in changing the dialogue and reactions of our society around those that are “othered,” so that society may finally begin to understand that we are Americans, we are human, and we all deserve dignity and respect. Skin color, religion, race, ethnicity, national origin, class, immigration status, gender, gender identity, sexual orientation, or any other “identifiers” do not define us as worthy of anything less.

This nationwide campaign will begin in four cities this year – Chicago, Detroit, New York, and San Francisco, and will gradually grow as it is mobilizes support in different areas of the country. Through public education, social media, and coalition building, Arab and Muslim Americans will ensure their voices are heard in order to confront discrimination and advocate for policy change that benefits numerous communities.  Once we all commit to “Take On Hate,” maybe we can begin to move towards a country where all people are treated equally.

In support of the Take On Hate campaign, SAALT and NNAAC hosted a briefing this morning at the Capitol on racial and religious profiling as it impacts Arab and South Asian communities. Join the Take On Hate campaign today!

Victoria Meaney
Program/Policy Fellow
South Asian Americans Leading Together