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


Rabhi Bisla
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2013

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/

Reflections on Oak Creek: America the Beautiful

This week we commemorate the one year anniversary of the hate violence that gripped the community of Oak Creek, Wisconsin, when a gunman stormed into the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin on the morning of August 5, 2012. Our hearts are with the families and loved ones of Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ranjit Singh, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh who lost their lives in the massacre. As we reflect on this day one year later, it is important to place the Oak Creek tragedy in a broader history and context of racial and religious injustice in our country. To help us understand, reflect and move forward, SAALT is featuring a blog series featuring a range of diverse voices.

The views and opinions expressed in this blog post do not reflect the positions or opinions of SAALT. They should be understood solely as the personal opinion of the author.

Gowri K_photo by Les Talusan_1

Gowri K.
Poet & Lawyer
Photo Credit: Les Talusan

When my parents moved to this country
They knew the warmth of melting pot
But not the burn of Go HOME n—–
Spray painted across first bought house
They thought was theirs now

As a child I stood beside my mother
Holding up grocery store checkout line
Because the cashier didn’t want to
Understand her foreign-tongued English

Just as she didn’t want to understand
When I shamefully descended kindergarten bus
Asking why do they call me the color of ketchup
After all, I was born speaking American

Just like I didn’t want to understand
When my grandmother told me
Be careful in the city—there are black people
Demanding my mother explain how
Prejudice could exist between brown people
Being told she only knows anyone besides our people
Through the tv and you see
How racist the news can be

Just like I didn’t want to understand
When I stood behind my father in a
Crowd of strangers in Sri Lanka
Beaming at his ease conversing in Sinhala
After decades away before realizing
Memory can function as survival skill

Just like my parents didn’t want to understand
When my brother and I flew home to visit
In the year after 9/11 and told them about the
Airport security agent conducting
“Random” checks who
Looked at the two of us and said
I have to pull one of you out of line for questioning—
You can decide which one

Like my three-year old niece
Didn’t understand when I told her
Your mom is Indian and
Your dad is Sri Lankan
So you’re both
Replying that she was
Born in Minneapolis

I’m from this is America
From this is our home
From we have been here for decades
From we can’t go back now

I’m from still feeling like a foreigner
In certain places in this country where
I would blame myself for being there
If something were to happen to me

I’m from politics being something to
Discuss at dinner parties but keep
Behind learned vocabularies of
American assimilation in public

Fifty years ago
Four black children in Alabama were
Murdered at their church
Because they were proof of
What America could be

One year ago
Six Sikh adults in Wisconsin were
Murdered at their gurdwara
Because they were proof of
What America still is

A country
Whose fingerprints are
Caked with the blood of
Those it calls other

As it claims to crown thy good
With brotherhood

White hood
Cowboy hat
Baseball cap

None of these things is
More American
Than the others

Gowri K.
Poet and Lawyer

Gowri K. is a Sri Lankan Tamil American poet and lawyer. Her advocacy has addressed animal welfare, the environment, and the rights of prisoners and the criminally accused. She has co-authored two peer-reviewed scientific journal articles and her poetry has been published in Beltway Poetry Quarterly, Bourgeon, and Lantern Review. Gowri was a member of the 2010 DC Southern Fried Slam team and has performed at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage, and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. She hosts open mics at Busboys and Poets and BloomBars, where she serves as poetry coordinator. Gowri is also the senior poetry editor at Jaggery: A DesiLit Arts and Literature Journal. She tweets on-the-spot haiku @gowricurry.