Letters to Congress from Community Members

From Atif Akhter

The tragedy of 9/11 and the fol­low­ing War on Ter­ror has deeply affect­ed South Asian, Arab, and Mus­lim Com­mu­ni­ties across the globe. Recent­ly, through explor­ing the work done by orga­ni­za­tions such as the Jus­tice for Mus­lims Col­lec­tive (JMC) as well as South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Togeth­er (SAALT), I can bet­ter vocal­ize the pain I have felt as a mem­ber of both of these com­mu­ni­ties. Their work encour­ages us, as young peo­ple who do not remem­ber a world before Mus­lims were con­sid­ered a per­ma­nent ene­my. State-spon­sored vio­lence has tak­en a toll on my peo­ple as we have been bru­tal­ized and vil­lainized over the course of 20 years due to poli­cies which sys­tem­at­i­cal­ly and explic­it­ly tar­get us. These decades have not slowed the onslaught of sur­veil­lance that is almost tan­gi­ble and this con­cur­rent demand that we prove that we are patri­ot­ic, even if we were born here and after the attack on the Twin Tow­ers. We desire not only safe spaces and heal­ing, but also to see such dis­crim­i­na­to­ry and racist poli­cies repealed and con­demned.

Islam­o­pho­bia is deeply ingrained into our cul­ture now. Even today on the streets of the most diverse city in the world, women who wear the hijab fear retal­i­a­tion from Islam­o­phobes. But beyond this vil­fi­ca­tion of our cus­toms and tra­di­tions has been an effort to spy on our fam­i­lies in an effort to val­i­date law enforce­ments’ pre-exist­ing igno­rant assump­tions. In the years imme­di­ate­ly fol­low­ing 9/11, with­out cause, author­i­ties came fre­quent­ly to our mosques and New York City uni­ver­si­ties’ Mus­lim Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tions. We real­ized intu­itive­ly that ally­ship could often be super­fi­cial, or more dan­ger­ous­ly, covert mon­i­tor­ing.

As a South Asian and Mus­lim stu­dent at Cor­nell Uni­ver­si­ty, it also became quick­ly clear that if there was any pos­i­tive out­come from these years of cen­sure, it has been that our sense of com­mu­ni­ty had expand­ed to oth­ers who are not Mus­lim or not South Asian, but have shared expe­ri­ences because of how Islam­o­pho­bia often affects peo­ple because of how they are per­ceived. In many ways, there is new sol­i­dar­i­ty amongst Sikh, Hin­du, and Jain youth as well as with Black and Arab Mus­lims.

We have lost too many peo­ple to sense­less attacks, endured too much scruti­ny and harass­ment, and had to tell our par­ents that in spite of their Amer­i­can Dreams, we still face chal­lenges that they nev­er could have imag­ined would affect us still. Not a sin­gle suc­ces­sive gen­er­a­tion should have to live under the War on Terror.

From Has­san Javed

I am a Mus­lim Pak­istani-Amer­i­can. To present myself in this iden­ti­ty is a tes­ta­ment to the strength I’ve build over the years. Ever since I was a child, my peers tried to teach me the hard way that this soci­ety war­rants your Amer­i­can iden­ti­ty to be a com­plete recluse from your iden­ti­ties. Mus­lim-Amer­i­can, Pak­istani-Amer­i­can, or what­ev­er else was on the left side of your hyphen­at­ed iden­ti­ty, my peers told me that it was only the Amer­i­can that mat­tered and was wor­thy of their respect. I grew up hear­ing Amer­i­ca was a melt­ing pot — but what good was this melt­ing pot if a few ingre­di­ents dom­i­nat­ed all oth­ers?

Per­haps, it wasn’t even just the “Amer­i­can” that was wor­thy of their respect — it was the only iden­ti­ty safe from their hatred. Every oth­er iden­ti­ty was cause for my teacher to ask me incon­sid­er­ate ques­tions about my identities…my par­ents’ work­place to get its win­dows smashed in an act the police was adamant not to call a hate crime…the unhinged man with a knife on the sub­way to loop around me yelling slurs. Amer­i­ca had accept­ed that my oth­er iden­ti­ties could triv­i­al­ize my sur­vival. I had accept­ed that it could not have been any oth­er way.

And, who was pulling the strings if none oth­er than the Amer­i­can gov­ern­ments, both at the fed­er­al and state lev­els. From just 2010–2016, 194 anti-sharia bills were intro­duced in leg­is­la­tion, and they are a tes­ta­ment to how the gov­ern­ment views and por­trays Islam. As Pro­fes­sor Tisa Wenger of Yale Uni­ver­si­ty has said best, these leg­is­la­tions “rep­re­sent a demo­niza­tion of Islam” and invent “a spec­trum of dam­age that doesn’t actu­al­ly exist.” And this faux “spec­trum of dam­age” is all the gov­ern­ment needs to make Islam­o­pho­bic main­stream.

What my peers said to me at school and what I faced out­side of my home was just a micro­cosm of the racial pro­fil­ing the gov­ern­ment made com­mon­place. My peo­ple were sub­ject to sur­veil­lance, deten­tion, and depor­ta­tion sole­ly on the basis of their reli­gious iden­ti­ty. The Mus­lim Stu­dents Asso­ci­a­tion I am involved in here at Colum­bia was sur­veilled exten­sive­ly; what was it about us pray­ing and open­ing our fasts togeth­er that threat­ened Amer­i­ca… that caused Amer­i­ca to look at us under a micro­scope? How do I, along with every Mus­lim-Amer­i­can youth, reel from our gov­ern­ment treat­ing us as if we’re bac­te­ria in their pond­wa­ter?

You stereo­typed me. Your media mis­portrayed me. You taught against me in your schools. You jailed me over unjus­ti­fied sus­pi­cion. You treat­ed me as a less­er. So, the teenage me replied with faux patri­o­tism. If what it took for you to stop treat­ing me like an out­sider was to be patri­ot­ic, or rather, accept your Amer­i­can igno­rance and hatred with­out a word,teenage me did it. But I am no longer my teenage self. I am no longer afraid of your hatred. I am no longer faux patri­ot­ic.

If all you ever want­ed was to make me feel like an out­sider, then let me reclaim being an Amer­i­can. Let me take pride in being Mus­lim-Amer­i­can. Let me take pride in being Pak­istani-Amer­i­can. Let me col­or Amer­i­ca with the iden­ti­ties you can’t stand the exis­tence of. I am reflec­tive of the pow­er in my com­mu­ni­ties. I am reflec­tive of the strength of my peo­ple. Use sur­veil­lance, deten­tion, or what­ev­er you can to make us feel like we do not belong, we will orga­nize and rise against your de fac­to and de jure injus­tice. My ances­tors over­came your impe­ri­al­ism and colo­nial­ism; now, their child will over­come your Islam­o­pho­bia and racism.

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.

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.

YLI Reflections: Combating Islamophobia with Rupa Palanki

My high school his­to­ry teacher, quot­ing Mark Twain, often said, “His­to­ry doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” For cen­turies in the Unit­ed States, minor­i­ty groups, rang­ing from East­ern Euro­pean immi­grants to Japan­ese Amer­i­cans, have faced dis­crim­i­na­tion from more estab­lished pop­u­la­tions due to a sense of “oth­er­ness” that they are invari­ably per­ceived to dis­sem­i­nate. This has result­ed in dark chap­ters of his­to­ry in a nation that prides itself as “the home of the free and the brave.” The recent rise in hatred against Mus­lims is just anoth­er iter­a­tion of the same story.

With the 9/11 attacks hap­pen­ing only three years after I was born, life, as I know it, has includ­ed a con­stant under­cur­rent of back­lash in the Unit­ed States against Mus­lims. At present, the cur­rent admin­is­tra­tion con­tin­ues to relent­less­ly engage in anti-Mus­lim rhetoric and news head­lines con­tin­ue to blame Islam for select acts of vio­lence per­pet­u­at­ing false, neg­a­tive per­cep­tions of the Mus­lim com­mu­ni­ty. At school and in my city, I have per­son­al­ly wit­nessed how lack of a nuanced under­stand­ing breeds big­otry and dis­crim­i­na­tion. Many peo­ple in my home­town in Alaba­ma have nev­er left the state or inter­act­ed with Mus­lims before, and their bias towards Mus­lims stems from stereo­types that have been per­pe­trat­ed over gen­er­a­tions. And often at col­lege, I am the first South Asian Amer­i­can that my peers have con­versed with for an extend­ed peri­od of time, lead­ing them to ask ques­tions about my cul­ture, reli­gion, and lan­guage or mis­tak­en­ly iden­ti­fy­ing me as Mus­lim instead of Hindu.

Because of this per­son­al expo­sure to islam­o­pho­bia, I devel­oped a desire to bet­ter under­stand the phe­nom­e­non and to equip myself to com­bat it with­in my com­mu­ni­ty. This, in part, was what moti­vat­ed me to apply for SAALT’s Young Lead­ers’ Insti­tute last sum­mer. Dur­ing the train­ing in Wash­ing­ton D.C., I devel­oped the orga­ni­za­tion­al and lead­er­ship tools nec­es­sary to car­ry out effec­tive change. Speak­ers like Noor Mir and Deepa Iyer shared fas­ci­nat­ing insights on dif­fer­ent aspects of islam­o­pho­bia that rein­forced the impor­tance of under­stand­ing it in the con­text of insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism like anti-black­ness and colo­nial­ism, as well as pro­vid­ed mean­ing­ful insights on the resilience and sol­i­dar­i­ty nec­es­sary to work in the social jus­tice field. I appre­ci­at­ed the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet activists and stu­dent lead­ers from oth­er col­leges and the oppor­tu­ni­ty to dis­cuss the speci­fici­ty of our expe­ri­ences as South Asian Amer­i­cans. I had nev­er real­ly had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to explore my iden­ti­ty as a South Asian Amer­i­can so exten­sive­ly before.

This pro­pelled me to begin to shape my own project that I car­ried out over the course of the aca­d­e­m­ic year to work against bias­es with­in my col­lege com­mu­ni­ty. This spring, I worked in con­junc­tion with oth­er South Asia Soci­ety mem­bers at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia to plan a Sym­po­sium for Aware­ness of South Asian Issues (SASAI), a week-long inter­col­le­giate con­fer­ence to cre­ate aware­ness for social jus­tice issues and to encour­age activism in its many facets. The week’s events includ­ed a keynote address from 2014 Miss Amer­i­ca Nina Davu­luri, a fundrais­er for a non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion fight­ing mal­nu­tri­tion in South Asia, and a series of dis­cus­sions cov­er­ing social issues like islam­o­pho­bia. With a mix of both fun cul­tur­al pro­gram­ming and deep polit­i­cal con­ver­sa­tions, SASAI encour­aged par­tic­i­pa­tion not only from a diverse range of South Asians but through­out the minor­i­ty com­mu­ni­ty at Penn. By the end of the week, we found it inspir­ing to see that our efforts to make our cam­pus a more inclu­sive space for all were rewarded.

Pho­tos from the aware­ness sym­po­sium Rupa helped orga­nize in the Uni­ver­si­ty of Pennsylvania.

As the incred­i­bly pas­sion­ate, intel­li­gent, and social­ly con­scious indi­vid­u­als that made up my Young Lead­ers’ Insti­tute cohort car­ry out their projects over the course of this year, I hope to see vis­i­ble change with­in the com­mu­ni­ties that they tar­get, just as I hope that my actions have spurred. How­ev­er, our work can­not be done alone. As Pres­i­dent Oba­ma notably wrote in his final mes­sage to the Amer­i­can peo­ple as Com­man­der in Chief, “Amer­i­ca is not the project of any one per­son. The sin­gle most pow­er­ful word in our democ­ra­cy is the word ‘We.’ ‘We the Peo­ple.’ ‘We shall over­come.’” Together, we must push forward the fight against islamophobia, for this is not a matter of one culture or religion or language or social class; it is a struggle for achieving equality for all people.


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.




Gender and Reproductive Health Justice for South Asian Immigrant Communities

Reflection from SAALT’s 2016–2017 Young Leaders Institute


Gen­der jus­tice has always been a deep pas­sion of mine, espe­cial­ly as a South Asian woman who grew up in the South.  It was while I was in high school in Atlanta, Geor­gia that I real­ized I was not receiv­ing com­pre­hen­sive infor­ma­tion regard­ing repro­duc­tive health such as con­tra­cep­tion and con­sent.  My school offered absti­nence-only edu­ca­tion.  This has clear short­com­ings, which in tan­dem with the taboo nature of repro­duc­tive health con­ver­sa­tions with­in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty cre­at­ed a cul­ture of igno­rance, fear, and avoid­ance sur­round­ing this very impor­tant topic.

While I strength­ened my under­stand­ing of repro­duc­tive health in col­lege and beyond, I under­stood that I was par­tic­u­lar­ly priv­i­leged to have this option.  So many mem­bers of my com­mu­ni­ty did not have this access, and I was not sure how to cre­ate path­ways to this infor­ma­tion strate­gi­cal­ly or effec­tive­ly.  When I learned of SAALT’s Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI), I thought this would be an impor­tant oppor­tu­ni­ty for me to learn the tools and strate­gies to cre­ate the change I want­ed to see.

An impor­tant aspect that I explored through YLI was the fact that South Asians are often mis­un­der­stood in Amer­i­ca to be exclu­sive­ly upper or mid­dle-class “mod­el minori­ties.” How­ev­er this nar­ra­tive eras­es South Asians that do not fit into this stereo­type, includ­ing immi­grant women who often lack access to edu­ca­tion, lan­guage acqui­si­tion, a career, finan­cial secu­ri­ty, and health­care, result­ing in bar­ri­ers to access­ing repro­duc­tive choice. Addi­tion­al­ly, neg­a­tive stereo­types about South Asians con­tribute toward racial pro­fil­ing and even vio­lence against South Asian women. For exam­ple, in Indi­ana, only two women to date have been pros­e­cut­ed under the statewide feti­cide bill — and both were Asian women, even though Asian women make up less than one per­cent of Indi­ana’s pop­u­la­tion. While a gen­er­al lack of knowl­edge about South Asian women’s access to repro­duc­tive health and rights may seem like a harm­less issue, there are indeed actu­al vic­tims and consequences.

As part of the YLI 2016 cohort, I attend­ed a two-day con­ven­ing in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land in July. The week­end includ­ed sev­er­al guest speak­ers, work­shops, and activ­i­ties relat­ed to orga­niz­ing with­in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty.  In these work­shops, we learned about the his­to­ry of South Asian immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States, the laws and poli­cies that stim­u­lat­ed waves of immi­gra­tion into the U.S., the ways that South Asians have expe­ri­enced increased hate vio­lence after Sep­tem­ber 11, 2001, and about orga­nized move­ments against immi­grants, South Asians, and Mus­lims. The ses­sion that I enjoyed the most was facil­i­tat­ed by Lak­sh­mi Sri­daran, Pol­i­cy Direc­tor at SAALT, and con­cerned the his­to­ry of South Asian immi­gra­tion into the Unit­ed States. Before her pre­sen­ta­tion, we placed the year in which our own fam­i­lies immi­grat­ed to the Unit­ed States on a makeshift time­line, which cen­tered all of us in U.S. immi­gra­tion history.

For my project in YLI specif­i­cal­ly, I am work­ing to inter­view sev­er­al South Asian women with immi­grant back­grounds about their expe­ri­ences with repro­duc­tive health­care. SAALT’s Young Lead­ers Insti­tute helped me under­stand how diverse the South Asian pop­u­la­tion is in the Unit­ed States, and how impor­tant it is to draw from a diverse range of indi­vid­u­als, by pay­ing atten­tion to sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, socio-eco­nom­ic sta­tus, and immi­gra­tion sta­tus when choos­ing peo­ple to inter­view. While it will be a chal­leng­ing task for me giv­en the lim­i­ta­tions of my own com­mu­ni­ty and who I know, branch­ing out beyond inter­view­ing upper mid­dle-class Indi­an women will be cru­cial for my project.

YLI also pro­vid­ed me with incred­i­ble insight, strate­gic guid­ance and help­ful tech­niques to start con­duct­ing my project. Although I have always con­sid­ered myself a fem­i­nist and intend­ed to cen­ter my project on women, one of the activ­i­ties dur­ing the SAALT con­ven­ing forced me to real­ize that I often think about immi­grant sto­ries from a male per­spec­tive. When prompt­ed to reflect on my mother’s expe­ri­ences emi­grat­ing to Amer­i­ca, I real­ized that I knew far more about my father’s expe­ri­ence than my mother’s. This was an impor­tant moment mov­ing for­ward – I learned that I need to make a con­scious effort to cen­ter women’s sto­ries in my work.

By open­ing up this con­ver­sa­tion at least on a per­son­al lev­el, I hope to enhance my own under­stand­ing of repro­duc­tive health with­in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty, as well as expand the con­ver­sa­tion into the com­mu­ni­ty with­in a cul­tur­al­ly com­pe­tent frame­work.  South Asians are the most rapid­ly grow­ing facet of the Amer­i­can pop­u­la­tion, and the opac­i­ty sur­round­ing sex­u­al­i­ty and repro­duc­tive health issues can neg­a­tive­ly impact fam­i­lies with­in the com­mu­ni­ty for decades to come.

I am incred­i­bly grate­ful to SAALT and the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute for empow­er­ing me with tools to begin this exploration.

Anusha Ravi
Cen­ter for Amer­i­can Progress

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

I Can, We Can Speak

There is a beau­ti­ful shift in com­mu­ni­ties when one is able to open the door for oth­ers to join heav­i­ly taboo con­ver­sa­tions such as domes­tic vio­lence and bul­ly­ing. It is not com­mon­ly known that when women enter col­lege, one in four women are raped or sex­u­al­ly assault­ed on cam­pus. This is such a cru­cial sta­tis­tic, as the cycle of vio­lence must end through edu­ca­tion. Atten­tion needs to be drawn to this severe form of bias-based vio­lence and abuse. 54% of stu­dents report­ed that wit­ness­ing phys­i­cal abuse at home leads to vio­lence in school.
10 mil­lion chil­dren wit­ness domes­tic vio­lence each year in the U.S. Stud­ies have shown that “wit­ness­ing vio­lence by parents/caregivers is the strongest risk fac­tor of chil­dren being vio­lent. All it takes is for one per­son to bring up the con­ver­sa­tion of domes­tic vio­lence to nor­mal­ize the feel­ings and bring in oth­ers to join. Vio­lence at home caus­es vio­lence and bul­ly­ing with oth­ers. One per­son can stop the cycle. With a cam­pus as busy as UCLA, I felt there was no bet­ter way to engage and advo­cate bet­ter than using art.

In July 2013, I was one of 15 South Asian uni­ver­si­ty advo­cates and allies from across the coun­try to attend SAALT’s 2013 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute in Wash­ing­ton, DC. The Young Lead­ers Insti­tute gives stu­dents the oppor­tu­ni­ty to come togeth­er to dis­cuss and explore issues affect­ing the South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty; engage in peer exchange; hone lead­er­ship skills; and learn strate­gies and approach­es to social change. The 2013 Insti­tute focused on bias-based bul­ly­ing as a time­ly and extreme­ly crit­i­cal issue based on doc­u­ment­ed inci­dents in the com­mu­ni­ty, as well as an iden­ti­fied need to build and strength­en bridges across com­mu­ni­ties. With the inten­sive train­ing that YLI provided—including col­lab­o­ra­tive part­ner­ships and ally­ship tools; the sto­ry of self, sto­ry of us, and sto­ry of now as  forms of empow­er­ment and advo­ca­cy; and project plan­ning— I was able to devel­op my project to achieve sig­nif­i­cant aware­ness around domes­tic vio­lence and bul­ly­ing on my campus.

My 2013 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute project was enti­tled, I CAN Speak UCLA Octo­ber 16th Day of Action. The goal of this project was to engage col­lege stu­dents in an inter­ac­tive art exhib­it encour­ag­ing them to pledge against vio­lence. On Octo­ber 16th, 2013, the col­lab­o­ra­tive clubs joined me through the men­tor­ship and sup­port of A Win­dow Between rabhi 1World’s I CAN WE CAN cam­paign to take over the cam­pus in the largest art-as-activism cam­paign to ever take place against bias-based bul­ly­ing and abuse. Our engage­ment cam­paign con­sist­ed of a mas­sive 8 ft. x 8 ft mur­al that was paint­ed by the tal­ent­ed Bru­in alum Sami­ra Mohammed with empow­er­ing “I CAN” state­ments such as “I CAN Un-learn,” “I CAN Sur­vive,” and “I CAN Speak,” all vis­i­ble from a mile and a half away. On their way to class, stu­dents were able to pause and take a pic­ture pledg­ing against domes­tic vio­lence with a white­board. They were able to take the pic­ture with a pre-select­ed prompt or were wel­come to cre­ate their own state­ment. We had mark­ers avail­able for peo­ple to also sign the board in sol­i­dar­i­ty against abuse. Three pho­tog­ra­phers were present cap­tur­ing these moments. Bru FEM Mag­a­zine, a lead­ing cam­pus women’s rights orga­ni­za­tion, and Dai­ly Bru­in, the main cam­pus news­pa­per, cov­ered the events of the day. I led indi­vid­ual empow­er­ment work­shops with many of the col­lab­o­rat­ing orga­ni­za­tions to con­nect them to the I CAN WE CAN move­ment of empow­er­ment and advo­ca­cy before the event. In these work­shops they wrote let­ters to their abusers, say­ing every­thing they wished they could have said before but had found them­selves unable to do. By releas­ing all those demons onto a blank can­vas, they could final­ly exhale the trau­ma. Many peo­ple came for­ward about being sur­vivors of sex­u­al assault, incest, and rape in this inti­mate set­ting. Tran­si­tion­ing from the weighty feel­ings of “speak­ing” to an abuser, I had them write a let­ter to a sur­vivor, with words they wished some­one would have said to them to help sup­port them in that hard time. These pieces are now dis­played on the I CAN Speak UCLA Day of Action Face­book Page as an online gallery to give sup­port to oth­ers as they real­ize they are not alone and they CAN thrive.

In order to lead a suc­cess­ful event, I need­ed sup­port­ive col­lab­o­ra­tion from the Domes­tic Vio­lence Project of the Amer­i­can Med­ical Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion, Indus, Bru FEM Mag­a­zine, Dai­ly Bru­in, Social Aware­ness Net­work Activism through Art, and Bru­in Con­fi­den­tial on the UCLA Cam­pus. Sup­port­ing orga­ni­za­tions includ­ed mem­bers of the Pak­istani Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion and Mus­lim Stu­dent Asso­ci­a­tion. Thou­sands of UCLA stu­dents inter­act­ed with infor­ma­tion around bias-based bul­ly­ing through the lens of domes­tic vio­lence and sex­u­al assault on Bru­in Walk, the main walk­way lead­ing to all cam­pus classes.

It took many meet­ings with my think tanks from the dif­fer­ent orga­ni­za­tions to allow for us to rabhi 2fine tune all details and ensure that the project ran smooth­ly. This project was cru­cial to me, as being in the domes­tic and sex­u­al vio­lence move­ment for many years has taught me that bul­ly­ing comes in many dif­fer­ent forms. It can be as small as bump­ing into some­one on pur­pose, or back­hand­ed com­pli­ments, or even as severe as cyber harass­ing. Per­pe­tra­tors can cause seri­ous phys­i­cal harm, not to men­tion the psy­cho­log­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions and fatal­i­ties. Those who hurt, hurt oth­ers and this cam­paign was essen­tial to encour­age hands-on par­tic­i­pa­tion and pledges against sex­u­al vio­lence and bul­ly­ing, but more so aware­ness to per­pe­tra­tors out there that they can stop the cycle of vio­lence and they can heal them­selves too.

I knew that some peo­ple would be uncom­fort­able being so vis­i­ble if they were to join the con­ver­sa­tion about such a taboo top­ic, and would have alter­na­tive meth­ods of inter­ac­tion on the Day of Action. We had a stand­ing chalk­board with two prompts to encour­age peo­ple to write about their expe­ri­ence with bul­ly­ing and abuse and how they could make the world a bet­ter place. It was impor­tant to not only have indi­vid­u­als enter the con­ver­sa­tion about their expe­ri­ences, but to empow­er them to see that oth­ers can gain sup­port, even if they are also going through the same trau­ma. There was also a type­writer placed in a loca­tion where they could unan­i­mous­ly write their respons­es to our prompt, “What has been your expe­ri­ence with domes­tic vio­lence and bul­ly­ing?”  To make this event even more vis­i­ble, we also had the­atri­cal nar­ra­tives where there were three per­for­mances of white-masked indi­vid­u­als show­cas­ing that bul­ly­ing and abuse affects all demo­graph­ics. The indi­vid­u­als per­formed in three high-traf­fic loca­tions on cam­pus, and one male UCLA stu­dent named Zain saw them twice. He emailed me on the Face­book page lat­er than day and said:

rabhi 3“I could­n’t stay away from the per­for­mances. I was just so mes­mer­ized. My dad beat my mom when I was younger, I got into a bad group of friends and resent­ed my mom because he would beat me too. I used to beat on every kid in school and hat­ed their per­fect lives. I nev­er thought I would make it into UCLA and I see your sta­tis­tic on the ground that 60% of all males who com­mit mur­der killed the man abus­ing their moth­er and I am remind­ed of how there were so many times, so many times that I was so close…but I didn’t. I always walk away when I hear about bul­ly­ing and now I can’t allow myself to walk any­more. I need to hear these sto­ries, I need to hear that I’m not alone. I am no longer a vic­tim, I CAN be an advocate.”

We lat­er found out that two males and three females came out about being rape sur­vivors by their abu­sive boyfriends and had the strength to speak out because they saw so many fra­ter­ni­ties and soror­i­ties engaged in our pho­to sta­tion, because those that spoke out are in fra­ter­ni­ties and soror­i­ties as well.

It is tru­ly remark­able that the tools that SAALT gave me in just a few days allowed me to sup­port even one per­son, but affect­ed sig­nif­i­cant­ly more. The foot traf­fic of tens of thou­sands of UCLA stu­dents that saw the mas­sive art as activism cam­paign all over cam­pus and to be able to get pow­er­ful respons­es and sup­port for this event was phe­nom­e­nal. Gain­ing the col­lab­o­ra­tion of key med­ical orga­ni­za­tions on cam­pus as well as the Indi­an-Pak­istani orga­ni­za­tions in such a taboo top­ic as domes­tic vio­lence and bul­ly­ing is a rar­i­ty. I would nev­er have been able to accom­plish such a mas­sive art as activism com­mu­ni­ty engage­ment cam­paign if it were not for the sup­port of A Win­dow Between Worlds, the local donors in the com­mu­ni­ty espe­cial­ly Anza True Val­ue Hard­ware, and the thor­ough men­tor­ship and plan­ning sup­port of SAALT. The abil­i­ty to see that any grandiose idea has extreme fea­si­bil­i­ty once details are bro­ken up and del­e­gat­ed, in turn cre­at­ing a large net­work of sup­port, was a cru­cial part of my SAALT fel­low­ship train­ing. It has been an hon­or to be a part of the SAALT Young Lead­ers Insti­tute. I hon­est­ly feel like I have changed so much as a per­son since this sum­mer and I owe it all to the amaz­ing lead­er­ship of my SAALT family.

Rabhi Bisla
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2013

Domestic Workers and Diplomats: Struggle for Justice Continues

Photo credit: Adhikaar for Human Rights & Social Justice

Pho­to by Adhikaar for Human Rights & Social Justice

By Elizabeth Keyes

When I heard the sto­ry about Sangee­ta Richard, the remark­ably coura­geous domes­tic work­er demand­ing her just due from a sys­tem set up to fail her, I could­n’t help think­ing of “Mary.” Mary, too, worked for a diplo­mat, and she was one of my first clients when I grad­u­at­ed from law school a decade ago. Among the oth­er hor­ri­fy­ing details I learned about Mary’s sto­ry, I learned that the diplo­mat’s wife told Mary, while beat­ing her with a shoe, “go ahead and call the police. I am a diplomat.”

The sys­tem tru­ly is set up to fail work­ers like Mary and Sangee­ta. What I saw from han­dling many, many such cas­es between 2004 and 2011 were fail­ures at every lev­el. Diplo­mats entered into con­tracts that they had no inten­tion of hon­or­ing, con­tracts that almost uni­form­ly promised 40 hour work­weeks and com­pen­sa­tion at or above the U.S. fed­er­al min­i­mum wage. The U.S. con­sulates over­seas approved the visas dur­ing inter­views when some­times only the diplo­mat talked, or where the diplo­mat act­ed as the inter­preter for the work­er. With only one excep­tion, the for­eign embassies in the Unit­ed States sided with the diplo­mat, not the work­er, and did not even attempt to bro­ker solu­tions to resolve the con­flicts. And for far too long, the State Depart­ment sat idly by as com­plaints were filed by the rel­a­tive­ly small por­tion of work­ers who found their way out (an even small­er sec­tion of whom found legal counsel).

I have heard every excuse in the book about why exploit­ing them is “justified”–they are bet­ter off in Amer­i­ca, they are treat­ed “like fam­i­ly,” their wages are worth a lot back home, or the diplo­mat does not earn enough to pay the con­trac­tu­al wage. None of these excus­es in any way jus­ti­fies what hap­pens to the peo­ple, who come here hop­ing to work hard and earn mon­ey to help improve their lives and the lives of their fam­i­lies. And none of these excus­es in any way changes the way the diplo­mats are com­mit­ting fraud in issu­ing these con­tracts and secur­ing these visas.

  • Are work­ers “bet­ter off” in Amer­i­ca? Hard­ly. My clients were paid any­where from 35 cents an hour to zero cents an hour, while work­ing all hours of the day, and some­times well into the night. For exam­ple, on top of pro­vid­ing child­care, cook­ing and clean­ing dur­ing the day, Mary had to sleep with the fam­i­ly’s baby in the liv­ing room of the small Green­belt apart­ment, so she could tend to the baby at night when the child awoke. In return, the diplo­mats threat­ened them with depor­ta­tion if they com­plained, beat them, some­times sex­u­al­ly assault­ed them, and/or threat­ened the lives of fam­i­ly mem­bers back home. That is not what I call being “bet­ter off.”
  • Are work­ers “like fam­i­ly?” Maybe, but only because fam­i­ly, too, can be exploit­ed. In some of the coun­tries where my clients came from, elite families–the very kinds of fam­i­lies that might join the diplo­mat­ic corps at some point–had tra­di­tions of bring­ing dis­tant rel­a­tives in from the coun­try­side to work in the fam­i­ly home. Tech­ni­cal­ly, yes, this was fam­i­ly. But the pur­pose was to obtain cheap, com­pli­ant labor and exploit it for the fam­i­ly’s com­fort and pres­tige. The visa sys­tem for bring­ing work­ers here mere­ly mir­rors that prac­tice from the home country–but with the stamp of approval of our government.
  • Are the pal­try wages in the U.S. worth a lot back home? Yes, but utter­ly beside the point. If they want­ed to earn those wages, they could have stayed home, clos­er to fam­i­ly and friends who would have been a source of sup­port for them if the employ­ment turned abu­sive.  Work­ers incur a huge cost leav­ing home to do what will like­ly be long, hard, dif­fi­cult and pos­si­bly abu­sive labor. Earn­ing the promised wages would have made that cost worth­while. Every sin­gle client of mine expressed her feel­ing that if she had known what it would be like here, she would have stayed home to earn the same wage with­out los­ing their safe­ty net.
  • Diplo­mats do not earn enough to pay the con­trac­tu­al wage? The enti­tle­ment demon­strat­ed by this “excuse” is not so much buried as shin­ing bright­ly in tall neon let­ters. I, too, do not earn enough to pay a full-time domes­tic work­er the min­i­mum wage. But some­where along the way, prob­a­bly well before I was ten years old, I learned that if you can’t afford some­thing, you don’t get to have it. The diplo­mats talk them­selves into believ­ing that they can­not do their jobs with­out these work­ers tak­ing care of the home front, sit­ting for the chil­dren while they attend evening func­tions, cook­ing for lav­ish par­ties diplo­mats are expect­ed to host, and so forth. And I know these work­ers do make the diplo­mats’ jobs and lives eas­i­er. Of course they do. But there is sim­ply no way to jus­ti­fy leap­ing from that truth to the moral­ly bank­rupt propo­si­tion that “there­fore” work­ers do not deserve the full pay promised. My want­i­ng an eas­i­er life does not let me rob a work­er of her wages—it real­ly is just that simple.

Mary, like Sangee­ta, knew what was hap­pen­ing to her was wrong, and she fled. She fled with­out her belong­ings but with her sense of jus­tice and worth so ful­ly intact that one of the first places she went was a court; with only an out­raged clerk to steer her to the right forms, she sued to get her pass­port. She won, at which point the diplo­mat informed the court that he was immune to suit. Judg­ment dismissed.

But let us not dis­miss our own judg­ment of these diplo­mats who exploit their work­ers.  Groups like Mujeres Acti­vas y Unidas, Adhikaar, CASA de Mary­land, the Human Traf­fick­ing Pro Bono Legal Cen­ter, Domes­tic Work­ers Unit­ed, and the Nation­al Domes­tic Work­er Alliance are hold­ing diplo­mats’ feet to the fire in a vari­ety of ways: pub­licly sham­ing them, pri­vate­ly seek­ing resti­tu­tion, work­ing with the gov­ern­ment to find bet­ter ways to pre­vent abus­es. And occa­sion­al­ly find­ing a brave ally like the pros­e­cu­tor in Ms. Richard’s case, Preet Bharara, who (like Ms. Richard her­self) is with­stand­ing stri­dent crit­i­cism from many, includ­ing some of Ms. Richard’s com­pa­tri­ots in India and from the Indi­an dis­apo­ra. Hap­pi­ly, groups like SAALT, and the Nation­al Coali­tion of South Asian Orga­ni­za­tions, are stand­ing firm­ly in sup­port of Ms. Richard and Mr. Bharara.

Mr. Bharara sees through all these excus­es at least as clear­ly as I do, and had the courage to do some­thing about it. May we all be moved to see things as clearly.


Elizabeth Keyes
Uni­ver­si­ty of Bal­ti­more School of Law, Assis­tant Pro­fes­sor of Law Immi­grant Rights Clinic
Fol­low her on Twit­ter: @LizkeyesTkPk

Celebrating Deepa Iyer and SAALT


Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Com­pos­er, MacArthur Fel­low, and Har­vard Professor

The bio­graph­i­cal lan­guage about me con­tains some high­fa­lutin sig­ni­fiers: MacArthur, Har­vard, jazz. But to be hon­est I feel dwarfed by the pres­ence of all of you here today, the real activists and orga­niz­ers who bring your unique strengths to the trench­es, chang­ing Amer­i­ca for the bet­ter.  I’m thrilled to be invit­ed to your party.

Back in 2001 I released my third album, titled Panop­tic Modes. The CD began with an orig­i­nal com­po­si­tion called “Invo­ca­tion,” ded­i­cat­ed to Rishi Maharaj, a young Indo-Caribbean man who had been the vic­tim of a hate crime in Queens in the late 90s. He had been beat­en near­ly to death by a group of white men with base­ball bats chant­i­ng racist and xeno­pho­bic insults.

My intent with this piece of music was to sug­gest to our own com­mu­ni­ty, in case any­one was lis­ten­ing, that this young man was one of us; that we, as South Asian Amer­i­cans, should embrace all of our mas­sive dias­po­ra, regard­less of nation­al iden­ti­ty or his­tor­i­cal cir­cum­stance.  Because com­mu­ni­ty isn’t just about com­mon roots; it is about par­al­lel expe­ri­ences, a shared predica­ment, a com­mon cause. It is about the fact that what hap­pens to this young brown man could, and indeed often does, hap­pen to any or all of us.

Still I did­n’t have any idea that this lit­tle piece of instru­men­tal music might do any more than high­light the fact that “stuff hap­pens” in Amer­i­ca. So I was floored when some months lat­er I received an email from a young lawyer named Deepa Iyer, Esquire (no rela­tion), who had con­nect­ed with Rishi.

She put me in touch with Rishi, who sent me a heart­felt, frank and dev­as­tat­ing mes­sage about his life’s jour­ney after the attack. He had moved to Alas­ka, to put as much dis­tance as pos­si­ble between him­self and the expe­ri­ence. He thanked me for remem­ber­ing him and for shin­ing a light on his expe­ri­ence through music, and he con­fessed that he did­n’t know what he was going to do next. The hate crime had thor­ough­ly dis­rupt­ed the del­i­cate sense of root­ed­ness and belong­ing that he and his fam­i­ly, like all of our fam­i­lies, had begun to cul­ti­vate in this coun­try. But Deepa’s work helped rekin­dle a sense of con­nect­ed­ness for him and his family.

What is a com­mu­ni­ty?  A friend of mine, polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Cara Wong, in her book Bound­aries of Oblig­a­tion, defines com­mu­ni­ty as “an image in the mind of an indi­vid­ual, of a group toward whose mem­bers she feels a sense of sim­i­lar­i­ty, belong­ing, or fellowship.”

Com­mu­ni­ty, in oth­er words, is very much the work of our imag­i­na­tions. And exact­ly because of this, it has impor­tant real-world reper­cus­sions. As Pro­fes­sor Wong demon­strates in her book, “self-defined mem­ber­ship can lead to an inter­est in, and a com­mit­ment to, the well-being of all com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers… regard­less of one’s own inter­ests, val­ues, and ideology.”

In the years since 9/11, our com­mu­ni­ty has been chal­lenged repeat­ed­ly, and com­mon caus­es with oth­ers have led us to imag­ine our­selves big­ger.  As the African-Amer­i­can writer Greg Tate told me short­ly in fall 2001, “Wel­come to racial pro­fil­ing.”  We have had to embrace our own reli­gious and cul­tur­al diver­si­ty — Sikhs, Hin­dus, Mus­lims, Chris­tians, Jains; Pak­ista­nis, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans, Nepalis, Indi­ans, Afghans, Bhutanese — as well as oth­er com­mu­ni­ties of col­or — Arabs, Mid­dle East­ern­ers, north and east Africans, east and south­east Asians, all of their dias­po­ras, and yes, African Amer­i­cans and Lati­nos — because of a com­mon predica­ment, a com­mon cause, a com­mon atmos­phere of fear, sur­veil­lance, sus­pi­cion, and para­noia, and the per­sis­tence of inequality.

Also, as we have become one of the most afflu­ent and nom­i­nal­ly “suc­cess­ful” demo­graph­ics in post-1960s Amer­i­ca, we have had to devel­op new empathies to under­stand our place in the world. We have had to remind our­selves that Dr. Mar­tin Luther King adopt­ed the tac­tics of Mahat­ma Gand­hi, that our free­doms are spir­i­tu­al­ly yoked to the strug­gles for jus­tice for the African Amer­i­cans and oth­er minori­ties who built this country.

Last week­end I was in Atlanta with my fam­i­ly, and we vis­it­ed the Mar­tin Luther King Jr. His­tor­i­cal Site. There is a beau­ti­ful stat­ue of Gand­hi at this site. There is also a tren­chant quote from Dr. King on dis­play. It says, “Life’s most per­sis­tent and urgent ques­tion is, what are you doing for others?”

I want you to know that, all titles aside, I am first and fore­most an artist. As an artist I ask myself Dr. King’s ques­tion every day. What am I doing for oth­ers?  To this end I have pur­sued three main goals. First, I have strived to gen­er­ate a con­sis­tent, un-ignor­able, com­pli­cat­ing pres­ence in the land­scape of cul­ture.  As African Amer­i­can inno­va­tors like Paul Robe­son, Nina Simone, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hen­drix found, in the face of a cul­ture that would deny them, it becomes nec­es­sary for an artist of col­or in the west to defi­ant­ly announce to the world: I am a fact.

That kind of defi­ant pres­ence – the same kind you get from M.I.A., or Himan­shu Suri of Das Racist, the kind that cool­ly roars from the mar­gins — that kind of defi­ant pres­ence has the pow­er to dis­rupt and trans­form cul­ture, to hear­ken and inau­gu­rate a new Amer­i­ca.  That kind of defi­ant pres­ence also has the pow­er to acti­vate and mobi­lize the imag­i­na­tions of oth­ers like our­selves: young desis in our glob­al dias­po­ra final­ly see­ing them­selves rep­re­sent­ed pos­i­tive­ly in cul­ture, final­ly empow­ered to dream a lit­tle bigger.

My sec­ond main goal has been to ini­ti­ate and sus­tain alliances with oth­er artists of col­or, from Amiri Bara­ka and Haile Ger­i­ma to Teju Cole and Mike Ladd, so that we can imag­ine, build, and enact a con­cept of com­mu­ni­ty that tran­scends her­itage, nation, and creed — so that we can real­ly become an unde­ni­able force: a dis­rup­tive mul­ti­tude, imag­in­ing and bring­ing forth a new reality.

The third goal is to artic­u­late and demon­strate a com­mit­ment to social jus­tice.  As Yo-Yo Ma has said, and as I always remind my stu­dents, a life in the arts is a life of ser­vice.  I invite all of you who are polit­i­cal activists and com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ers to col­lab­o­rate with the artists in your midst, so that our mis­sions can serve your mis­sions — so that we can acti­vate rad­i­cal imag­i­na­tions in order to bring about nec­es­sary action.

On that note, today we’re here to cel­e­brate the work of SAALT, and to thank Deepa Iyer for all that she has done for oth­ers– strength­en­ing our com­mu­ni­ties; speak­ing truth to pow­er; advo­cat­ing and ini­ti­at­ing polit­i­cal change; empow­er­ing us to dream big.

Thank you, Deepa, for all that you’ve done, and for invit­ing me to the par­ty. It is an hon­or and a priv­i­lege to cel­e­brate with you.

Vijay Iyer
Jazz Pianist, Com­pos­er, MacArthur Fel­low, and Har­vard Pro­fes­sor
NYC, Decem­ber 3, 2013

For more infor­ma­tion on Vijay Iyer vis­it his web­site or fol­low him on Twit­ter @vijayiyer.


Festival of Lights: “A Flicker of Hope”

Pratishtha & Manar

As I entered the warm hall­ways last week at the White House Diwali, it dawned upon me that exact­ly a year ago, on Novem­ber 4th, 2012, the pos­si­bil­i­ties in my life had expand­ed – it was the day I received my approval for Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA). But I nev­er imag­ined a day when I would cel­e­brate Diwali at the White House.

I was hon­ored to step into such des­ig­nat­ed, renowned halls; halls that wit­nessed the proud­est and per­haps hard­est times in Amer­i­can his­to­ry. These halls were a tes­ta­ment to how acknowl­edg­ing the exis­tence and strug­gles of Amer­i­ca’s immi­grant youth build upon its hon­or. As I walked them, I remem­bered the morn­ing of June 15th, 2012 again, the day that Pres­i­dent Oba­ma announced his exec­u­tive order, “Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals.”  While it seemed such a small change, the result is that I and many like me are able to live with dig­ni­ty – to work, attend state uni­ver­si­ties, and freely be com­mu­ni­ty lead­ers with­out the fear of being pun­ished by the sys­tem. As I cel­e­brat­ed my own pos­si­bil­i­ties for the future how­ev­er, I could not for­get the mil­lions of undoc­u­ment­ed indi­vid­u­als – over 240,000 Indi­ans alone – who remain in the shad­ows.  I remem­bered the hard­ships of my par­ents who strug­gle to make ends meet: my father, a fifty-nine year old, dia­bet­ic who still works four­teen to six­teen hours a day and my moth­er, a long term min­i­mum wage work­er, who recent­ly suf­fered a brain hem­or­rhage. As I looked around the room, I real­ized that every­one in the room was prob­a­bly a first, sec­ond, third, or fourth gen­er­a­tion South Asian Amer­i­can. I was stand­ing amongst those who live their Amer­i­can DREAM every day. This was my flick­er of “hope and change.”

I could final­ly see myself liv­ing my Amer­i­can DREAM, going to med­ical school and one day, prac­tic­ing med­i­cine in dis­ad­van­taged areas around the world. My DREAM is one that fol­lows the core Amer­i­can ide­olo­gies, to help those who are less for­tu­nate, extend a hand in time of need, and be the hope and change for oth­ers. As an audi­ence to the First Lady’s Diwali wish­es, I was in the pres­ence of advo­cates and activists, Mem­bers of Con­gress, judges, offi­cers from the armed forces, busi­ness per­sons, and ambas­sadors from the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty. In this moment, I could not help but won­der about my future as a South Asian Amer­i­can and the future of all immi­grants.  And, I yearned for the cel­e­bra­to­ry day when the “land of the free and home of the brave” accepts all its immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties as Amer­i­cans. A day when those who long for their “flick­er of hope” have a chance at their AMERICAN DREAM.

Pratishtha Khan­na

Among the 11 mil­lion undoc­u­ment­ed peo­ple liv­ing in this coun­try are South Asians, includ­ing those from Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Pak­istan and Sri Lan­ka.  Many are stu­dents who seek to go to col­lege, spend time with friends and fam­i­ly, and pur­sue their pro­fes­sion­al inter­ests.  If you are undoc­u­ment­ed and South Asian, you might be eli­gi­ble for assis­tance under the Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals pol­i­cy.  Find out more at: http://saalt.org/south-asian-and-undocumented/