SAALT ChangeMaker Award Recipient Shares What Inspires Her

SAALT ChangeMaker Award Recipient Sonia Sarkar

SAALT ChangeMaker Award Recipient Sonia Sarkar

Sonia Sarkar, one of the recipients of the inaugural SAALT ChangeMaker Awards joined Project HEALTH during her (ongoing) undergraduate career at Johns Hopkins University. She shares what inspires her to be a change maker:

When I first joined Project HEALTH as a sophomore in college, I had no idea what being a ‘change agent’ entailed. More than anything, I was curious- having just moved to Baltimore, I wanted to know more about the community in which I lived but hardly ever explored. I still remember the strangeness of riding into East Baltimore in an air-conditioned luxury coach with ‘Johns Hopkins’ imprinted on the side in huge block letters. Why, I wondered, were there so many boarded up houses? So few grocery stores but an abundance of liquor stores? No recreation centers or free community health clinics? In a city that was host to one of the best health care institutions in the world, families were still suffering from the poor health outcomes that are linked inextricably with poverty. As part of a corps of volunteers who were dedicated to breaking this link, I hoped to uncover some answers.

I remember one of my very first encounters at the Family Resource Desk, where Project HEALTH volunteers work with families on a variety of issues related to health: employment, housing, food security, utilities assistance, adult education. Having just been through an intensive 13-hour training, I felt confident that I could offer at least something. A young mother came by the desk, with her three young children in tow. She looked exhausted, and explained that she had just spent a night in the ER with her youngest child, who had tested with extremely high blood lead levels. There was never enough food at the end of the month to feed her whole family, and she had been unemployed for some time. As I sorted through in my head the ways in which I might be able to help, I landed on the idea that applying for food stamps might be a good idea. I printed the application and handed it over to my client with great optimism. She looked at me wearily and asked me if I had ever actually filled out a public benefits application. When I shook my head no, she suggested I try it and then call her the next day. Four frustrating hours later, I was back on the phone with her- completely humbled by my attempt to muddle through the 12-page form. Despite my fancy education, despite my grounding in public health theory, I was the one who needed to learn.

Looking back at the experience I’ve had over these past three years, it continues to be the families and the students I work with who are a constant inspiration. Changemakers, social entrepreneurs, community advocates- they are the core of Project HEALTH’s work. As a society, we have come to accept as fact that a family in Mumbai or Dhaka needs access to basic food, shelter, and electricity if they are to live healthily. Yet when it comes to looking at our own inner cities- the very neighborhoods where we go to work and study- these basic tenets are easily forgotten. SAALT’s motto- “Strengthening South Asian Communities in the United States” is a piece of a much larger puzzle: regardless of location or heritage, strong communities are essential everywhere. The same values I grew up with in my strong Indian community- an emphasis on family, generational knowledge and support, vibrant storytelling- are present within the Baltimore communities I work with. It is an honor to receive the SAALT Changemaker Award, and I have been incredibly lucky to work with students and families who are breaking barriers everyday. They are a true inspiration to all of us who strive for change.

May Day Rally for Immigration Reform in Washington DC

On May 1st, people from communities all over the country commemorated International Workers’ Day to call for fair and equitable reform to the immigration system. There were rallies in many major cities, including Washington DC. I went down to the rally with Poonam, our intern. Being at the march was an amazing experience. Walking down 14th Street, where mounted police shut down one direction of traffic to accommodate the crowd, surrounded by community members and advocates, was a singular experience. I didn’t participate in the immigration reform rallies in 2006 and 2007 so this was my first time getting the May Day experience. The mood was overwhelmingly positive with the speakers at Lafayette Park acknowledging the difficulties that community members encounter as part of the broken immigration system but ultimately focusing on how communities-of-color can work together to push for reform. I used one of our nifty new Flips to capture some of the sights and sounds of the rally, below you can check out a quick video featuring some inspiring words from Rev. Hagler of the Plymouth Congregational United Church of Christ:

SAALT ChangeMaker Award Recipient, Asm Rahman, Profiled in Detroit Free Press

SAALT ChangeMaker Award recipient, Asm Rahman

SAALT ChangeMaker Award recipient, Asm Rahman

Asm Rahman, one of the recipients of the inaugural SAALT ChangeMaker Awards, is profiled in the Detroit Free Press. Elected the President of the Hamtramck NAACP, Rahman is a lifelong supporter of civil rights and education. Check out the article here <>. I had a chance to talk with Mr. Rahman about what motivated him to take a leadership role in the NAACP as well as what he envisions for the South Asian community nationally and in the Detroit area.

Q: How did you get involved with the NAACP?

A: After 9/11, I realized that many people in my community were unaware of their civil rights. They did not know why they should become citizens or that many were confronting post-9/11 racism. While Detroit was not affected like some areas with open harassment, they did go after many people, especially Middle Easterners, in a way that seemed related to race. When I first came to this country, I had learned about Martin Luther King, Jr and Frederick Douglas and such during February, Black History Month, at Hamtramck High School. I realized that after 9/11, we, as a community, need to learn about and join this movement for civil rights. For our community, we need to see that freedom did not come cheap and we have to respect the African American community’s contribution to our freedom.

Q: What do you hope for your community, in Detroit and around the country?

A: I hope that the community can come together and get involved about the issues that we face. That’s why we formed BAPAC (Bangladeshi American Public Affairs Council). We saw that there were smaller organizations providing social services, but in terms of political engagement or civil rights, we were behind. Voting and politics are different in South Asia and it is important to educate our community about how the system works here. We run workshops like how to vote where we use a sample ballot to help Limited English Proficient or older voters navigate the process. The excitement that we saw during the Presidential elections must be maintained. This election was the first time I saw the Bangladeshi community getting involved in national politics. There was this sense that even if our votes did not count before, this time it will matter. My mother was watching the election like her son was running.

Q: What do you think the community needs in order to become engaged?

A: Firstly, I would say we need education and I do not mean just academics. We need to become familiar with the power structure. Knowing that can help us be prepared for emergencies, when people really need help. For instance, in terms of education, many immigrant parents do not know how they should get involved. By knowing what is already in place, community members can make a bigger impact on the issues that matter to them. Second, I would say it is leadership. This community needs leaders who really know what the problems are and how to address them. Ultimately, our numbers do not matter unless the numbers are doing something.

Deepa Iyer, Executive Director on Apr 28 Applied Research Conference Call “Race in Review: The First 100 Days”

Check out Deepa Iyer, SAALT’s Executive Director on Tuesday’s ARC call “Race in Review: The First 100 Days”. The call is at 4pm EST/3pm CST/1 pm PST. Learn more (and RSVP!) here <>

Undocumented Immigrants, Children and CCPA

Check out this piece from Lavanya Sithanandam, pediatrician and travel doctor in Takoma Park and SAALT Board member about undocumented immigrants, citizen children and the Child Citizen Protection Act:

The non-partisan Pew Hispanic Center released a report yesterday entitled ‘A Portrait of Unauthorized Immigrants in the United States’ .  The report reveals that 4 million American children in the United States have at least one undocumented parent, which is up dramatically from 2.7 million children in 2003.   Children of unauthorized immigrants now account for about one in 15 elementary and secondary school students nationwide.  One third of these children live in poverty and close to half (45%) of these children are without health insurance.

As a practicing pediatrician in Takoma Park, MD, these statistics are more than numbers to me.   Some of my patients that I treat in my own office are included in this data.  What these percentages and statistics do not convey is how deeply entrenched these children and their families have become in this country.  Despite this, I have noticed a disturbing trend over the past two years, with a growing number of my patients having to deal with the detention and possible deportation of a parent, friend, or neighbor.  This is a nightmare scenario for anyone to have to cope with, let alone a young child.

In response to this situation, I have been working with SAALT and several other non-profit organizations such as Families For Freedom to shed light on the plight of such children and to help them stay united with their families.   This week is a ‘Week of Action’ in support of HR 182 or the Child Citizen Protection Act, which will give immigration judges discretion in deportation cases involving the separation of families with children who are U.S. citizens.    Currently, judges have their hands tied and are forced to deport many parents unless they meet an ‘extreme hardship’ standard-  a difficult standard for most to meet.  I ask that you call your local congressmen and ask them to sign on to this bill.  Also please try to document any experiences that you may be facing with the detention and/or deportation of a loved one.  In my own practice I am asking my patients to draw pictures of broken hearts (like the one above) to represent the pain and suffering these families endure when one or both parents are deported.   I hope to show these drawings and letters that I collect to my local representatives as part of SAALT’s annual advocacy day next week.

Takoma Park Pediatrics Patient, Age 7

Also, check out Dr. Sithanandam’s excellent Op-Ed published in the Baltimore Sun.

JACL/OCA Leadership Conference: An Intern’s Eye View

Another post from our intern, Poonam Patel, about the JACL/OCA Leadership Conference that took place in Washington, DC two weeks ago:

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to participate in the Japanese American Citizens League /Organization of Chinese Americans Leadership Conference held in Washington DC. It was a unique opportunity to meet with other Asian Americans who had a vested interest in learning about political and civic issues facing the Asian community as well as developing innovative ideas to address them.

Most of our time during the conference was spent listening to a wide variety of speakers that included WWII veterans, professors, community advocates, Congressional members and staffers, as well as ethnic and mainstream journalists. Although each of the speakers came from different backgrounds and fields of work, their message was harmonious to some extent. Almost each member of every panel spoke about the importance of our community’s members representing our community’s issues.

Deepa Iyer, SAALT’s Executive Director spoke on the panel titled “Biased Based Incidents in the Minority Communities: History to Today” during which she went through a brief history of South Asians in the United States followed by a discussion related to bias incidents within the South Asian population, especially following the 9/11 backlash.

In addition to these panels, we were given the opportunity to discuss with each other development and outreach ideas in an attempt to build closer ties with local OCA and JACL chapters as well as other Asian American organizations. Each evening we spent visiting a local landmark such as the Smithsonian Museum and National Japanese American Memorial to Patriotism During World War II after which we had dinner at a local restaurant.

The DC Leadership Conference was an ideal forum to continue building coalitions amongst organizations working with the Asian American community by fostering relationships between the leaders within them.

Model Minority? No Thanks!

Asian Americans broadly and South Asians have long confronted mainstream labeling as model minorities. Here at SAALT, we have a few problems with that. The latest example is a commentary posted on by Jason Richwine. Check out SAALT’s written response below (it’s also been posted on RaceWire):

Model Minority? No, Thanks!

A Response to February 24th Commentary on Indian Americans: The New Model Minority

Deepa Iyer

In his February 24th commentary, Jason Richwine presents the “revelation” that Indian American immigrants are the “new model minority” (see “Indian Americans: The New Model Minority”).  Using this flawed frame, he then proposes unworkable and divisive immigration policy changes.  As a national non-profit organization that works to foster the full civic and political participation of the South Asian community, we find these characterizations to be quite troubling.

Richwine points to the educational and income levels of many Indian Americans (as well as their flair for winning spelling bees) as signs that this ethnic group has reached the highest echelons of success.  Such benchmarks belie the truth about the challenges that many Indian Americans face, and create a wedge between Indian Americans and minority communities.

In reality, Indian Americans, much like other immigrants, have diverse experiences and backgrounds. Indian Americans are doctors, engineers and lawyers, as well as small business owners, domestic workers, taxi drivers and convenience store employees. Community members hold a range of immigration statuses and include naturalized citizens and H-1B visaholders, guestworkers and students, undocumented workers and green card holders.  Some have access to higher education while others struggle to learn English in a new country.  As with all communities, Indian Americans do not come in the same shape and form, and cannot be treated as a monolith.

Another danger with the model minority label is that it creates divisions between Indian Americans and other immigrant communities.  Beneath the seemingly positive use of the “model minority” label is a pernicious racist undertone: the purpose, after all, is to compare one set of people with another, and the result is to pit minorities against one another.

Comparing Indian Americans with Mexican Americans, as Richwine does (“In sharp contrast to Indian Americans, most U.S. immigrants, especially Mexican, are much less wealthy and educated than U.S. natives, even after many years in the country) is an example of the sort of constructed division between immigrant communities that creates cultural and ethnic hierarchies.   The use of the model minority label results in placing Indian Americans “above” other communities based on certain factors such as educational aptitude or work ethic – which are clearly shared across ethnic and cultural lines.  It further isolates Indian Americans and makes it challenging to build solidarity that naturally arises among communities that share common experiences as immigrants and people of color in America.

Using the model minority myth to inform immigration policy can lead to unworkable solutions.  Richwine writes that “A new immigration policy that prioritizes skills over family reunification could bring more successful immigrants to the U.S.  By emphasizing education, work experience and IQ in our immigration policy, immigrant groups from other national backgrounds could join the list of model minorities” – one that seems to be headed up by Indian Americans.

But even for this so-called model minority, immigration policy reform must include family reunification (in fact, family members of green card holders from India have to wait up to 11 years to be reunited with family members); legalization (Indians ranked among the top ten undocumented populations in the country in 2008); and programs that enable workers – skilled and unskilled – to carry out their livelihoods with respect and dignity.   Viewing immigrants as commodities to be used purely for their economic value as a basis for immigration policy change denies immigrants the opportunities to establish roots, build meaningful futures, and contribute to the diversity and vibrancy of our country.

We reject attempts to create divisions, whether they be within our own community, or with other communities who share similar experiences, struggles, histories, and values.  We recognize that our success and our futures are tied closely with that of all immigrants and people of color.

Deepa Iyer is the Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), a national non-profit organization located in the Washington DC area. Ms. Iyer is an immigrant who moved to the United States from India when she was twelve years old.

Sudhir Venkatesh speaking at ChangeMakers Reception of the 2009 South Asian Summit

Sudhir Venkatesh's third book, Gang Leader for a Day

The 2009 South Asian Summit is fast approaching (register now!) and its shaping up to be an amazing experience. The latest development is the announcement of the speaker for the ChangeMakers Awards reception, Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia University professor and author of some very interesting books about the underground economy in inner city America (including one I am currently reading: Gang Leader for a Day). We are very excited to bring Venkatesh’s insight and perspective to the Summit. So don’t miss out on any of the exciting events and register for the Summit (Apr 24-26 in Washington, DC) today!

For more information about the Summit, visit <>

How the Economic Downturn is Affecting Nonprofits

In times of economic crisis, non-profit organizations often see an increase in the need for services. SAALT’s partners who provide services to South Asian community members are observing an increased need for housing, job training, and benefits due to layoffs, lack of jobs, and the downturn in the economy.  At the same time, non-profits too are facing the burden of the economic crisis and are having to lay off staff, reduce programming, and dip into reserve funds.

As Daniel Gross, a financial editor at Newsweek, pointed out as early as June of 2008, donations from individual donors are down from what they used to be. And with 80 percent of support to non-profits coming from 20 percent of the people in America, any reduction in giving can have a significant impact on non-profit groups.

How can South Asians who are able to give support the non-profits that are so critical in our local communities? Why give at all? Read an excerpt from a post from Sayu Bhojwani (former Executive Director of South Asian Youth Action and former Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs for New York City on the South Asian Philanthropy Project blog about the importance of strategic giving within the South Asian community:

South Asian philanthropy has until recently meant contributing to causes in the home country and to regional and religious associations here in the U.S. As the community matures, accumulates wealth, and increases in number, more South Asian Americans are contributing to institutions in the United States, targeting resources to issues of concern in the community. Strategically utilized, the “brown dollar” can boost the capacity of fledgling organizations that serve the needs of minority communities across the U.S. and can play a critical role in shaping perspectives about South Asians in the broader American community.

In the fifteen years or so that I have been working in the South Asian community and in philanthropy, I have been frustrated by the piecemeal approach that people often take to philanthropy. South Asians who give, whether they are wealthy or not, are like most others who give—responsive to a personalized request from a friend or colleague, drawn by a personal connection to an issue or organization, or motivated by the need to meet a certain end-of-year level of giving

Read more here <>