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YLI Reflections: Shifting South Asian Spaces with Sahana

At this moment in the history of South Asians in the United States, we cannot afford to be complicit. We must mobilize in solidarity with other marginalized communities. The recent detainment of immigrant rights activist leader Ravi Ragbir demonstrates that those who stand up against injustice in our communities are the first to be targeted by this violent, xenophobic, racist administration. We can be reminded by Ravi’s release of the power of our communities, and the ways in which we can use our bodies, minds, and privilege to resist oppressive regimes like the Trump Administration.

At the Young Leaders Institute (YLI), I learned about the resilience of South Asian and Muslim communities. For over a century, Muslim and Sikh communities in the United States, as well as in South Asia, have been surveilled and targeted by Islamophobic and anti-Sikh institutions. South Asian feminist facilitators like Dr. Maha Hilal, Darakshan Raja, and Noor Mir reminded me of the importance of intersectional work that centers the community’s most marginalized groups and interrogates all systems of power.

Despite what misleading data on Asian & Pacific Islanders in the United States suggest, South Asians are an incredibly diverse group of people with a multitude of positionalities. South Asians need not be homogenous to stand, work, and fight in solidarity with one another. Rather, we must do the labor of listening and understanding each others’ unique experiences and histories in order to be a true community.

For my YLI project, I focused my energies on building South Asian spaces on my college campus, the Claremont Colleges, dedicated intersectional South Asian activism. Four years ago, there was no space on campus for South Asians to explore questions of identity and positionality in meaningful ways. Because of the tireless efforts of a single South Asian student, Jincy Varughese, a one-person committee called Desi Table was created just three years ago. Since then, SAMP, a mentorship program for South Asian first-years and transfers has launched, and the Committee for South Asian Voices (formerly Desi Table) has put on several events, now with 10 devoted members. Genealogies like this one inspired me to continue pushing this work forward for my YLI project.

This year, the Committee for South Asian Voices has put on events to explore queer South Asian stories, the caste system and the Indian state, NGOization and gender in India, the Rohingya refugee crisis, Indo-Caribbean histories, processing South Asians in media, diasporic histories, and interpersonal violence in South Asian communities. Alongside the department for Feminist Gender Sexuality Studies at Scripps College, Equality Labs, and several other campus groups and departments, Professor Piya Chatterjee and I were able to bring Dalit rights activist Cynthia Stephen to campus. Cynthia’s visit was an incredible intervention to push all of us to think more deeply about Brahmanical patriarchy, Dalit-Black solidarities, and the constant resistance of Dalit people. Cynthia’s visit was part of her Dalit History Month tour, coordinated in partnership with Thenmozhi Soundararajan of Equality Labs. For our final two workshops of the year, we partnered with South Asian Network (SAN), an organization committed to providing crucial services for South Asians in Southern California, and to creating community spaces.

Inspired by the work of Jahajee Sisters, the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, Desis Rising Up & Moving, and so many others, we are following in deep traditions of South Asian activism in the United States. Whenever I feel lost or wonder why I do this work, histories of South Asian resistance remind me that I am right where I belong, within and alongside community.

To learn more about Equality Labs, click here.
To learn more about South Asian Network, click here.
To learn more about ASATA, click here.
To learn more about DRUM, click here.

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The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) is a national, nonpartisan, non-profit organization that fights for racial justice and advocates for the civil rights of all South Asians in the United States. Our ultimate vision is dignity and full inclusion for all.

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