Young Leaders Institute 2018–2019

Meet the 2018–2019 YLI cohort!
“Build­ing Com­mu­ni­ty Defense”

The 2018–2019 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI) theme was Com­mu­ni­ty Defense, and projects will take on anti-immi­grant poli­cies and hate vio­lence. Shared below are project descrip­tions from this year’s cohort.

Apoorva Handigol: My project will stem from my senior the­sis research on how antiblack­ness and Black-Brown sol­i­dar­i­ty have man­i­fest­ed over gen­er­a­tions of South Asian Amer­i­cans in Chica­go. I will start with orga­niz­ing a col­lab­o­ra­tive event at my school focus­ing on nar­ra­tives of pain and love among South Asian and Black Amer­i­cans. After this, I will take the project to my com­mu­ni­ty in the Bay Area and reframe this com­mu­ni­ty need as one of sup­port for a group of peo­ple who has gone through much the same as we have, plus oth­er injus­tices we have the priv­i­lege to for­get. I will trans­late what I learned from the event on cam­pus and my research into address­ing my South Asian community’s antiblack­ness, lack of aware­ness of our 150+ years of Black sol­i­dar­i­ty, and need to strength­en our com­mu­ni­ty defense.

Farishtay Yamin: My pro­pos­al cen­ters around cre­at­ing a rapid response sys­tem to ICE activ­i­ty and hate crimes using an app. I would like to use the exist­ing mem­ber base and net­work present in Athens, GA to dupli­cate the mod­el in Nashville, TN.

Hiba Ahmad: My project is to cre­ate a finan­cial lit­er­a­cy pro­gram for prison inmates in aims to reduce recidi­vism rates around the Unit­ed States, which is main­ly caused by lack of attain­able finan­cial edu­ca­tion and resources. US prisons
dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get peo­ple of col­or, so the successful
imple­men­ta­tion of this pro­gram will hope­ful­ly pro­tect our com­mu­ni­ties of col­or against fur­ther unjust detain­ment, and arm them with the edu­ca­tion nec­es­sary to com­bat the dif­fi­cul­ty of reen­ter­ing the workforce.

Mahi Senthikumar: I will explore the inter­sec­tions of rights and reli­gion through a series of pub­lic talks and YouTube videos. By cre­at­ing inter­faith forums to discuss
reli­gion along­side activism, I hope to break down social bar­ri­ers with­in our com­mu­ni­ty and uncov­er shared val­ues which com­pel us to stand togeth­er for justice.

Meghal Sheth: For my project I will be work­ing to co-pro­gram with oth­er cul­tur­al and iden­ti­ty- based groups on Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in St. Louis’ cam­pus to cre­ate a “Jus­tice Through Free­dom” Week. The week will include a vig­il, call-in, pan­el dis­cus­sion on com­mu­ni­ty defense, and a gala with oth­er var­i­ous stu­dent organizations.

Myra Khushbakht: For my project, I plan to cre­ate an open dis­cus­sion town hall event at Howard in the com­ing aca­d­e­m­ic year. I hope to ini­ti­ate a con­ver­sa­tion about col­orism with­in minori­ties on my campus.

Naisa Rahman: My com­mu­ni­ty defense project will focus on improv­ing my university’s report­ing and response sys­tem for bias, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and harass­ment. My goal is for our insti­tu­tion to respond time­ly to stu­dents and to bet­ter sup­port them dur­ing any crises.

Sarah Rozario: Sarah hopes to cre­ate a video com­posed of her cam­pus com­mu­ni­ty’s immi­grant and undoc­u­ment­ed voic­es address­ing anti-immi­gra­tion poli­cies. The project will pro­vide a space for stu­dents to voice their con­cerns as well as act as a dis­play of support.

Vrinda Trivedi: Com­ing from Ohio, I think sub­ur­ban and rur­al loca­tions are sore­ly over­looked in regards to being seen as spaces con­ducive to com­mu­ni­ty build­ing. There­fore, I would like to find a way to con­nect LGBTQIA+ South Asians, through host­ing a retreat sim­i­lar to YLI, but on a small­er scale, and geared towards address­ing the unique themes faced by LGBTQIA+ South Asians in sub­ur­ban and rur­al spaces.

Yasmine Jafery: My project is cre­at­ing an on cam­pus club that pro­vides a safe space for peers to talk to one anoth­er about dif­fi­cult things they are going through. This club would pro­vide strug­gling stu­dents a place to meet and learn from their peers that are fight­ing sim­i­lar obstacles.

Neha Valmiki: Neha will have a ses­sion on her cam­pus called Break­ing Bar­ri­ers, where will bring in speak­ers to talk about men­tal health in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty and the
neces­si­ty for civic engage­ment. The goal is to break the stig­ma of men­tal health and to break the idea that your vote does­n’t count. Her goal is it make sure each stu­dents knows that they have a voice and they are valid.

Rupkatha Banarjee: Sum­mits and con­fer­ences often attract large audi­ences and trans­mit mes­sages of sup­port and aware­ness through­out the com­mu­ni­ty. In lieu of stu­dent involve­ment and increased par­tic­i­pa­tion, I aim to orga­nize a TEDx type con­fer­ence with mul­ti­ple speak­ers to expli­cate sto­ries of immi­grants who’ve expe­ri­enced tar­get­ed racial violence.

Jaspreet Kaur: Brown Girl Joy [an IG plat­form] explores the inter­sec­tions of beau­ty one brown girl [includ­ing gen­der non con­form­ing + non­bi­na­ry per­son] at a time. We hope to recon­struct par­a­digms of beau­ty to be more inclu­sive and accept­ing for peo­ple of color.

Sana Hamed: I pro­pose to start SEMS (Shar­ing Every Mus­lims’ Sto­ry), an ini­tia­tive that would serve to unite Mus­lim orga­ni­za­tions on cam­pus through the com­mon thread of sto­ry­telling. The project would include var­i­ous ways to put a pos­i­tive spot­light on who Mus­lims are in Amer­i­ca and would include cre­at­ing short nar­ra­tive videos to be shared through social media, writ­ten fea­tures for an anthol­o­gy, and even a show­case fea­tur­ing Mus­lim cre­atives through which we could fur­ther engage the community.

YLI 2018–2019 FAQ

Fre­quent­ly Asked Ques­tions | Young Lead­ers Insti­tute 2018- 2019

What is 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. 

SAALT is the only nation­al, staffed South Asian orga­ni­za­tion that advo­cates around issues affect­ing South Asian com­mu­ni­ties through a social jus­tice frame­work. SAALT’s strate­gies include advo­cat­ing for just and equi­table pub­lic poli­cies at the nation­al and local lev­el; strength­en­ing grass­roots South Asian orga­ni­za­tions as cat­a­lysts for com­mu­ni­ty change; and inform­ing and influ­enc­ing the nation­al dia­logue on trends impact­ing our com­mu­ni­ties. To learn more about SAALT, please vis­it

What is the Young Lead­ers Institute?

SAALT’s Young Lead­ers Insti­tute is a unique oppor­tu­ni­ty for 15–20 young lead­ers in the US to explore issues that affect South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties; engage in peer exchange; hone lead­er­ship skills; and learn strate­gies and approach­es to social change. The 2017–2018 Insti­tute will be the sixth time this annu­al lead­er­ship devel­op­ment pro­gram will be host­ed by SAALT.

Who can apply for the Young Lead­ers Institute?

U.S. under­grad­u­ate stu­dents and oth­er young adults 17–22 years of age inter­est­ed in cre­at­ing change among South Asian Amer­i­cans on their cam­pus­es or in their com­mu­ni­ties. SAALT wel­comes appli­ca­tions from young lead­ers who are not enrolled in aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions. We also accept appli­cants from all types of aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions includ­ing uni­ver­si­ties, col­leges, com­mu­ni­ty col­leges, voca­tion­al train­ings, etc. Appli­ca­tions of young adults who are old­er and/or in grad­u­ate school will also be accept­ed and considered.

Why is the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute important?

SAALT is com­mit­ted to the lead­er­ship devel­op­ment and sup­port of young adults as agents of pro­gres­sive change among South Asians in the US. The Insti­tute encour­ages par­tic­i­pants to explore their cur­rent lead­er­ship qual­i­ties, chal­lenge them­selves to evolve their lead­er­ship skills, learn from fel­low young lead­ers, and com­mit to advanc­ing social jus­tice in real ways on their cam­pus and in their community.

What is the 2018–2019 theme?

The 2018–2019 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute theme is “Com­mu­ni­ty Defense.” Since our last elec­tion cycle, com­mu­ni­ties of col­or across the U.S. have expe­ri­enced an increase in anti-immi­grant and racial vio­lence. Poli­cies have been enact­ed that remove Tem­po­rary Pro­tect­ed Sta­tus (TPS) for over 300,000 indi­vid­u­als, includ­ing Nepal; end the Deferred Action for Child­hood Arrivals (DACA) pro­gram plac­ing 800,000 young immi­grants, includ­ing at least 23,000 Indi­an and Pak­istani youth, in uncer­tain sta­tus; increased “silent raids” against immi­grants; and ban immi­gra­tion from sev­er­al Mus­lim major­i­ty coun­tries. The poli­cies are fueled by as well as encour­age vio­lence against those most vul­ner­a­ble to their impact, par­tic­u­lar­ly South Asians. 

As we enter the midterm elec­tion cycle, our com­mu­ni­ties are expect­ed to expe­ri­ence a surge in anti-immi­grant poli­cies and hate vio­lence. Those most vul­ner­a­ble with­in the South Asian com­mu­ni­ty include work­ing class, undoc­u­ment­ed, Mus­lim, Sikh, and caste oppressed groups. It is imper­a­tive to learn from our expe­ri­ences of not just the past elec­tion cycle but the long stand­ing his­to­ry of racism and xeno­pho­bia in the U.S. We must cre­ate com­mu­ni­ty defense sys­tems through civic engage­ment that at the heart pro­tect our com­mu­ni­ty from harm and depor­ta­tion from this coun­try. It must antic­i­pate needs as well as incor­po­rate long term and short term offen­sive strategies. 

The 2018–2019 cohort will iden­ti­fy strate­gies and craft projects to sup­port those high­ly impact­ed at their aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tions and/or local South Asian com­mu­ni­ties. We encour­age projects that cen­ter and uplift undoc­u­ment­ed, work­ing class and poor, Mus­lim, Sikh, and caste oppressed groups. All projects should also incor­po­rate a civic engage­ment and social media cam­paign component. 

What is civic engagement?

The Insti­tute theme folds in a crit­i­cal civic engage­ment com­po­nent. Civic engage­ment is defined for the cur­rent pur­pos­es by an inter­est and will­ing­ness by indi­vid­u­als, res­i­dents, and con­stituents to engage with deci­sion-mak­ers, stake­hold­ers, and peers (appoint­ed and elect­ed, cam­pus-based and exter­nal) as well as deci­sion-mak­ing process­es to make their voic­es, opin­ions, and pri­or­i­ties heard. Civic engage­ment is not lim­it­ed to or pred­i­cat­ed upon activ­i­ties or efforts that involve vot­ing or the vot­ing process, or U.S. cit­i­zens (who are gen­er­al­ly, apart from some excep­tions, the only indi­vid­u­als who can vote in the U.S.). At its essence, civic engage­ment is defined as indi­vid­u­als who choose to orga­nize them­selves and oth­ers toward col­lec­tive action to weigh in, engage, and voice their opin­ions on how to address press­ing issues that need to be improved, repli­cat­ed, or addressed in their community. 

For the pur­pos­es of cam­pus-based projects around address­ing and build­ing com­mu­ni­ty defense sys­tems in South Asian and cam­pus com­mu­ni­ties, civic engage­ment can involve a vari­ety of actions. Please note, the fol­low­ing are exam­ples only. Appli­cants are encour­aged to sub­mit their own inno­v­a­tive and cre­ative project ideas, includ­ing but not lim­it­ed to projects that pro­mote civic engage­ment through art!

  • Orga­niz­ing stu­dents to part­ner with local com­mu­ni­ty-based orga­ni­za­tions on prob­lem­at­ic local, state, or nation­al poli­cies crim­i­nal­iz­ing immi­grants and peo­ple who are undocumented.
  • Build­ing coali­tion with stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions of col­or to estab­lish an Equi­ty Advi­sor posi­tion in stu­dent gov­ern­ment that works with the admin­is­tra­tion to cre­ate and imple­ment equi­table poli­cies and prac­tices on campus.
  • Rais­ing con­cerns with the cam­pus admin­is­tra­tion and shift­ing insti­tu­tion­al prac­tices and cam­pus police com­pli­ance with poli­cies that dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly tar­get immi­grants and peo­ple who are undocumented.
  • Train stu­dent orga­ni­za­tions to sup­port immi­grant and undoc­u­ment­ed peers in cri­sis and build cam­pus coali­tions to sup­port insti­tu­tion­al cul­ture change.
  • Orga­niz­ing a speak-out for stu­dents to voice how they see anti-immi­grant and xeno­pho­bic prac­tices & sen­ti­ment man­i­fest on their cam­pus­es and in the actions of administrators.
  • Orga­niz­ing let­ter-writ­ing or post­card cam­paigns in sup­port of incar­cer­at­ed immi­grants, par­tic­u­lar­ly those detained by Immi­gra­tion and Cus­toms Enforce­ment (ICE).
  • Host­ing forums/ town halls for cam­pus com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers to share their expe­ri­ences of aca­d­e­m­ic insti­tu­tion poli­cies that are anti-immi­grant and dis­cuss how to advo­cate for change.
  • Advo­cate for and estab­lish a sup­port cen­ter for immi­grant and undoc­u­ment­ed students.
  • Sup­port­ing local orga­niz­ing efforts to insti­tute leg­is­la­tion that advances immi­grant jus­tice such as hate-free zones, anti-racist train­ing for law enforce­ment, and pro­hi­bi­tions on racial pro­fil­ing. A strong exam­ple from with­in our NCSO is DRUM (Desis Ris­ing Up and Mov­ing) sup­port­ing the cre­ation of Hate Free Zones, build­ing rela­tion­ships between indi­vid­u­als, orga­ni­za­tions, and busi­ness­es to “defend com­mu­ni­ties from work­place raids, depor­ta­tions, mass crim­i­nal­iza­tion, vio­lence, and sys­temic vio­la­tion of [their] rights and dignity.”
  • Cre­ate a cam­pus wide artis­tic dis­play that address­es an anti-immi­grant pol­i­cy spe­cif­ic to your institution. 

Note: Com­pet­i­tive appli­ca­tions will reflect detailed project pro­pos­als that include iden­ti­fy­ing cam­pus or com­mu­ni­ty groups that work with South Asian and/or oth­er mar­gin­al­ized immi­grant pop­u­la­tions and devel­op a strat­e­gy for a civic engage­ment project in col­lab­o­ra­tion with that group. 

How does the Insti­tute work?

The Young Lead­ers Insti­tute requires full par­tic­i­pa­tion in the fol­low­ing commitments:

  • On-site 3‑day inten­sive train­ing in the Wash­ing­ton, DC metro area on July 25–27, 2018
  • Cre­ation of a project address­ing com­mu­ni­ty defense through civic engage­ment on your cam­pus or in your com­mu­ni­ty that meet spe­cif­ic education/awareness and social change objectives
  • Com­ple­tion of cam­pus or com­mu­ni­ty projects by April 30, 2019
  • Month­ly group report-back, peer exchange, and sup­port calls (August–November; February–April)
  • Com­ple­tion of writ­ten report-back, pro­gram eval­u­a­tion, and addi­tion­al request­ed materials

What is your grad­u­a­tion policy?

Par­tic­i­pants must be able to com­mit to and ful­fill all above require­ments in order to grad­u­ate from the Insti­tute. Par­tic­i­pants who com­plete all require­ments will be con­sid­ered 2018–2019 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­lows and have the oppor­tu­ni­ty to fur­ther engage with SAALT’s work.

SAALT rec­og­nizes that many young lead­ers have work, fam­i­ly, and oth­er impor­tant oblig­a­tions that may be con­nect­ed to income, health, and so forth. SAALT is com­mit­ted to work­ing with each young leader accept­ed into the pro­gram to sup­port their ful­fill­ment of com­mit­ments or to work togeth­er on alter­na­tives in the event of exten­u­at­ing circumstances.

Why do I want to be a 2018–2019 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fellow?

Par­tic­i­pants will devel­op lead­er­ship skills; under­stand key issues affect­ing South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties in a social change con­text; and con­nect their cam­pus and com­mu­ni­ty with South Asian orga­ni­za­tions and lead­ers. A few exam­ples of the work of fel­lows after grad­u­at­ing from the Institute:

  • Served as an Ameri­Corps Pub­lic Allies pro­gram at the Flori­da Immi­grant Coalition
  • Served as a sum­mer intern at SAALT and var­i­ous South Asian organizations
  • Orga­nized cam­pus work­ers to fight for liv­ing wages
  • Orga­nized a mul­ti-lin­gual health resource fair for  immi­grant com­mu­ni­ty members
  • Host­ed an arts show­case uplift­ing immi­grant narratives 
  • Com­plet­ed an anthol­o­gy high­light­ing the expe­ri­ences of queer Desis in the US

How does the Insti­tute sup­port diversity?

The 2018 Insti­tute encour­ages appli­cants diverse in eth­nic­i­ty, coun­try of ori­gin, immi­gra­tion sta­tus, socioe­co­nom­ic sta­tus, caste, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, gen­der iden­ti­ty, abil­i­ty, and religion.

How much does this cost? What does SAALT provide?

SAALT will pro­vide the fol­low­ing to accept­ed candidates:

  • Round trip air, train, or bus fare to the July 25–27 on-site train­ing. Mode of trans­porta­tion will depend on your depar­ture point and will be cho­sen by SAALT (round-trip fare is restrict­ed to trav­el­ing from a city to DC and return­ing to the same city).
  • Hotel accom­mo­da­tion (shared room) for the nights of July 25, 26, and 27
  • On-site train­ing from July 25–27
  • Break­fast, lunch, and din­ner on July 25 and 26; break­fast and lunch on July 27
  • Month­ly group calls for report backs, peer exchange, and support
  • All oth­er expens­es, such as pub­lic trans­porta­tion and taxi fares, addi­tion­al meals or activ­i­ties, and extend­ed hotel stay are the participant’s responsibility

How do I apply? What is the appli­ca­tion deadline?

Inter­est­ed appli­cants should review infor­ma­tion about SAALT, the Insti­tute, and com­plete an application. 

All appli­ca­tions should:

  • Record respons­es direct­ly into the Word doc­u­ment application
  • Be sub­mit­ted as one PDF document
  • Saved as “Name of Applicant_2018YLIApplication”

Sub­mit com­plet­ed appli­ca­tions to Almas Haider at by May 29th, 2018.

Only final can­di­dates will be con­tact­ed direct­ly. If you have any ques­tions regard­ing YLI or your appli­ca­tion before May 25th, 2018, con­tact or 301.270.1855.

What does a com­pet­i­tive appli­ca­tion look like?

A com­pet­i­tive appli­ca­tion will demonstrate:

  • An inter­est in effect­ing pro­gres­sive change on a col­lege cam­pus or community. 
  • Reflect a com­mit­ment to build­ing com­mu­ni­ty defense sys­tems through civic engage­ment in the South Asian Amer­i­can and ally community. 
  • Include ideas about real­is­tic, scaled projects to enact this change and have the ini­tia­tive, com­mit­ment, and resource­ful­ness to imple­ment those ideas. 
  • Include a social media cam­paign and/or com­po­nent in their project plan.
  • A will­ing­ness to share expe­ri­ences and learn­ing from train­ers and peers. 
  • Seek to con­nect their projects with a mem­ber orga­ni­za­tion of the Nation­al Coali­tion of South Asian Orga­ni­za­tions (NCSO) wher­ev­er pos­si­ble. SAALT does real­ize that because capac­i­ty and South Asian pop­u­la­tions vary great­ly across the coun­try, an NCSO orga­ni­za­tion may not be in or near an applicant’s city of res­i­dence and will take this into account. 

Appli­ca­tion for the 2018–19 Young Lead­ers Insti­tute is now closed. Check back for more updates soon.

Combating Islamophobia — SAALT welcomes the 2017–2018 Young Leaders Institute cohort

From July 19–21, SAALT wel­comed the 2017–2018 class of the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI) at a con­ven­ing in Sil­ver Spring, Mary­land. This year marks the sixth cohort of young adults SAALT has trained in lead­er­ship skills for social change on cam­pus and in our com­mu­ni­ties. The 2017–2018 cohort includes 16 out­stand­ing, diverse youth who have devel­oped cre­ative and thought­ful projects focused on this year’s theme of Com­bat­ing Islam­o­pho­bia in South Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties and broad­ly through civic engagement.

Fol­low­ing a com­pet­i­tive appli­ca­tion process, YLI Fel­lows took part in a three-day train­ing work­shop where they learned the his­to­ry of immi­gra­tion and Islam­o­pho­bia in Amer­i­ca, built orga­niz­ing and direct action skills, con­nect­ed with activists and men­tors, and explored social change strate­gies around issues that affect South Asian and immi­grant com­mu­ni­ties in the Unit­ed States. Learn more about each Fel­low’s respec­tive YLI project here. See pic­tures from the con­ven­ing here.

SAALT is thank­ful to the train­ers who pro­vid­ed vital insights at the YLI con­ven­ing, includ­ing Dr. Maha Hilal (Insti­tute for Pol­i­cy Stud­ies); Ter­ri John­son (Cen­ter for New Com­mu­ni­ty); Noor Mir (D.C. Jus­tice for Mus­lims Coali­tion); and Darak­shan Raja (Wash­ing­ton Peace Center).

“I had an amaz­ing expe­ri­ence at YLI,” stat­ed Shilpa, one of SAALT’s YLI Fel­lows. “I met a great com­mu­ni­ty of South Asians com­mit­ted to social jus­tice and com­bat­ing var­i­ous forms of oppres­sion in the com­mu­ni­ty.  I also heard from amaz­ing orga­niz­ers who taught us about direct action, the his­to­ry of the war on ter­ror, and how we can move for­ward with­in our com­mu­ni­ties.  Going for­ward I want to car­ry all that knowl­edge with me back to George­town and build com­mu­ni­ties of South Asians com­mit­ted to social jus­tice on my campus.”

Check out this video on Islam­o­pho­bia and how the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute empow­ers young peo­ple to com­bat it on cam­pus and in their communities.

Sania, anoth­er YLI Fel­low, not­ed, “The rea­son I took part in the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute is because when I’m old­er I want to be involved in com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing. YLI was the per­fect first step in find­ing my way there.”

Rakin, a YLI Fel­low who will work to repeal House Bill 522, an anti-Sharia leg­is­la­tion in North Car­oli­na, stat­ed, “Through YLI, I was able to gain access to edu­ca­tion­al resources that helped con­tex­tu­al­ize what it means to be a South Asian in Amer­i­ca. YLI helped me under­stand the broad­er his­to­ry and dynam­ics of the South Asian Amer­i­can identity.”

SAALT would like to thank our sup­port­ers and donors who make the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute pos­si­ble, and to our YLI Fel­lows, who are the lead­ers of tomor­rowand who inspire us with their com­mit­ment to tak­ing on Islam­o­pho­bia on cam­pus­es and in communities.

Please con­sid­er mak­ing a gen­er­ous dona­tion to SAALT. Your help will ensure that the Young Lead­ers Insti­tute con­tin­ues to train tomor­row’s lead­ers today, for a more jus­tice and inclu­sive soci­ety for all Americans.

In part­ner­ship,
The SAALT Team

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

The Unforeseen Impacts of Activism

Reflection from SAALT’s 2016–2017

Young Leaders Institute

YLI 2016-2017

Sit­ting in my university’s library last spring, I was pro­cras­ti­nat­ing on study­ing for finals by brows­ing Facebook—something any col­lege stu­dent can relate to. In between the end­less feed of news arti­cles and pho­tos, one event caught my eye: a three-part dis­cus­sion series, “South Asians for Black Lives.” The Face­book event list­ed some incred­i­ble speak­ers and activists who would be talk­ing about impor­tant issues such as the mod­el minor­i­ty myth and col­orism in South Asian com­mu­ni­ties, which both affect whether and how South Asians choose to stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty with Black com­mu­ni­ties (or not).

Although we had real­ly want­ed to attend the dis­cus­sion series, logis­ti­cal­ly it wasn’t very fea­si­ble to do so. Talk­ing with my friends who expressed an inter­est in the event, we decid­ed if we couldn’t go to “South Asians for Black Lives”, we would bring “South Asians for Black Lives” to us. That is, we would basi­cal­ly copy that event and hold it on UChicago’s cam­pus instead.

There were some impor­tant dif­fer­ences, though. Our university’s South Asian Stu­dents Asso­ci­a­tion was robust, but focused more on cul­tur­al and social events, like the annu­al spring show and chai socials. When it came to pro­gram­ming relat­ed to social and polit­i­cal issues, there wasn’t a whole lot. My friends and I weren’t sure what kind of response we’d get from our cam­pus community—would any­one even show up?—so we decid­ed to make our event a one-day affair, instead of Northwestern’s three-part series. We reached out to pro­fes­sors, activists, and fel­low stu­dents from the UChica­go com­mu­ni­ty and the greater Chica­go area as well, and invit­ed some real­ly incred­i­ble, pas­sion­ate speakers.

Final­ly, it was the day of the event. Although there were some minor hic­cups, every­thing went quite smooth­ly. After a pan­el dis­cus­sion with two activists and allies of the Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment, we moved into small group dis­cus­sions led by mem­bers of UChicago’s Orga­ni­za­tion of Black Stu­dents and oth­er stu­dent activists. Although the theme of our event was geared towards South Asian stu­dents, quite a few stu­dents from dif­fer­ent Asian back­grounds attend­ed, as well as stu­dents of oth­er eth­nic­i­ties. After­wards, my friends and I were frankly sur­prised by the over­whelm­ing­ly pos­i­tive response we got from those who attend­ed! Many of them expressed that they would love to see more events focus­ing on social and polit­i­cal issues relat­ing to Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties on campus.

The suc­cess of our “South Asians for Black Lives” event inspired me to find out whether oth­er South Asian stu­dents across the coun­try had also been try­ing to hold social jus­tice-relat­ed events, and what kind of suc­cess they were hav­ing. While look­ing online, I stum­bled on SAALT’s Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI) web­page. YLI seemed like exact­ly what I was look­ing for: a group of young South Asian Amer­i­cans who were pas­sion­ate about social change. By the time I found out about YLI, it was just a day before the appli­ca­tion dead­line, but I man­aged to send my appli­ca­tion in any­way (a cou­ple hours late). Thank­ful­ly, I got in!

The YLI train­ing in DC was eye-open­ing in a vari­ety of ways. It seemed like every mem­ber of the cohort felt like their col­leges’ South Asian stu­dent groups also didn’t focus that much on social and polit­i­cal issues as much as cul­tur­al events. The theme of this year’s YLI was Immi­grant Jus­tice, and after hear­ing about the dif­fer­ent projects we were hop­ing to exe­cute on our cam­pus­es, I was hon­est­ly in awe of every­one else. We learned about the cur­rent immi­grant right issues fac­ing our com­mu­ni­ties, we heard from activists and orga­niz­ers, and we had some very hon­est and impor­tant conversations.

For me, one of the most mean­ing­ful moments of the YLI train­ing was find­ing out that the project that orig­i­nal­ly inspired my friends and I—the “South Asians for Black Lives” event at Northwestern—was actu­al­ly orga­nized by a mem­ber of the 2015 YLI cohort, San­jana Lak­sh­mi! One could say this was just a coin­ci­dence; Sanjana’s event just hap­pened to show up on my Face­book feed one after­noon. How­ev­er, I think it was more than just a coin­ci­dence. It was proof that our efforts to have these impor­tant con­ver­sa­tions in our com­mu­ni­ties can have a much greater impact than we could ever imag­ine. I’m sure that in the com­ing years, as each YLI cohort works to tack­le a vari­ety of social and polit­i­cal issues in their cam­pus com­mu­ni­ties, their work will serve as inspi­ra­tion to many more young South Asian Amer­i­cans, just as it did for me.

Nikhil Mandalaparthy
The Uni­ver­si­ty of Chicago

Organizing for Black Lives Matter

In the wake of the deci­sion of non indict­ment of Tamir Rice’s mur­der­ers, advo­ca­cy and social jus­tice have become even more impor­tant. The Black Lives Mat­ter move­ment (BLM) has been doing a great job pro­mot­ing equal­i­ty for Black lives through­out the nation yet, as South Asians it is our civ­il oblig­a­tion to sup­port and fur­ther that move­ment. Stu­dents have the advan­tage of being able to reach out to their peers on cam­pus to make them see why their cause is impor­tant and here to stay. Because of this, cam­pus orga­niz­ing has become even more necessary.

Per­son­al­ly, return­ing from SAALT’s annu­al Young Lead­ers Insti­tute, I felt empow­ered to cre­ate change. New ideas were form­ing in my mind on how to involve my cam­pus in the rev­o­lu­tion- I want­ed bring the move­ment to my uni­ver­si­ty and have every­one know of its impor­tance. I imag­ined protests to the Alachua Coun­ty Office to remove the con­fed­er­ate stat­ue, and sit-ins with my fel­low stu­dents to show how we were against vio­lence and insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism, and work­shops with the cen­ter of Mul­ti­cul­tur­al and Diver­si­ty Affairs on how to encom­pass every­one on cam­pus in this move­ment. My vision was to see minor­i­ty groups raise their voice in sup­port for the BLM move­ment and bring aware­ness to stu­dents who had no idea what we were fight­ing for. To say the least, this all did not hap­pen. Instead, what hap­pened was my real­iza­tion of the folks around me and their priorities.

I was begin­ning to see where I was and who I was around. My South Asian friends start­ed to seem unin­ter­est­ed in my ideas and what I sup­port­ed. They ques­tioned my frus­tra­tion with the gov­ern­ment and my fear of the police. They didn’t under­stand why I refused to spell my name out to the white barista at Star­bucks. They were con­fused when I start­ed to call out all the South Asians I saw per­pet­u­at­ing the mod­el minor­i­ty myth. They didn’t like me get­ting angry at the Taco Bell employ­ee for assum­ing I am a veg­e­tar­i­an. They were annoyed I stopped eat­ing Krish­na lunch with them because of the cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion of my food. YLI lib­er­at­ed my mind. Now, I had to bring this same light to my peers.

To make my fel­low South Asians on cam­pus feel the impor­tance of the BLM move­ment, orga­niz­ing events and meet­ings was a must. This task was near impos­si­ble because of stu­pid dance groups. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for show­ing ded­i­ca­tion to our South Asian her­itage and exer­cis­ing in a fun way. But all I can hear on cam­pus between South Asian folks is about Gator Adaa, Gator Bhangra, and Gator Gar­ba. The focus is on how hard they work, how they need a place to prac­tice, and how they need­ed to pass their premed class­es. In this envi­ron­ment, it is dif­fi­cult to bring social advo­ca­cy into the mix even when it is so much more important.

As stu­dents we are all liv­ing hec­tic lives. Being guilty of this myself, I am often pre­oc­cu­pied in my own mess and too busy to wor­ry about what is going on around the nation. Nev­er­the­less, I want to change that. I want to tell my fel­low peers to rise up and stand up against anti-Black racism. We need to start the con­ver­sa­tions about insti­tu­tion­al­ized racism, white suprema­cy, and cul­tur­al appro­pri­a­tion. Along with orga­niz­ing, we need to hold our­selves to a high­er stan­dard. We are held account­able every time a Black life is lost and we did noth­ing stop it. With more Black lives at risk each day, now in par­tic­u­lar we must start prac­tic­ing social jus­tice and activism. I will con­tin­ue to try and cre­ate a safe space on my cam­pus for South Asians so we can start the con­ver­sa­tion and show sup­port to the BLM move­ment. I encour­age you all to orga­nize as well in sup­port of the rev­o­lu­tion, in any way possible.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Socialist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out— 

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemöller


Priya Sabharwal

Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:


Double Consciousness of the South Asian Identity

Every time I am asked “what are you” or “where are you from” I don’t real­ly put much thought into it any­more. I have come to real­ize that my answer does­n’t real­ly mat­ter because regard­less of what I tell you, I will con­tin­ue to be what you want me to be—a man­i­fes­ta­tion of the image that you have been fed of my peo­ple, my cul­ture, my his­to­ry, no mat­ter how twist­ed that image may be.

When I came across the con­cept of “dou­ble con­scious­ness” coined by W.E.B. Du Bois, I found a con­nec­tion in the way that I felt I was  per­ceived by oth­ers and the way that Du Bois explained this idea. In his 1903 work “The Souls of Black Folk” Du Bois defined his dou­ble con­scious­ness as “sense of always look­ing at one’s self through the eyes of oth­ers, of mea­sur­ing one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused con­tempt and pity.” He goes on fur­ther to apply this con­cept to what it meant to be Black in Amer­i­ca by saying:

“The his­to­ry of the Amer­i­can Negro is the his­to­ry of this strife–this long­ing to attain self-con­scious man­hood, to merge his dou­ble self into a bet­ter and truer self. In this merg­ing he wish­es nei­ther of the old­er selves to be lost. He does not wish to African­ize Amer­i­ca, for Amer­i­ca has too much to teach the world and Africa. He would­n’t bleach his Negro blood in a flood of white Amer­i­can­ism, for he knows that Negro blood has a mes­sage for the world. He sim­ply wish­es to make it pos­si­ble for a man to be both a Negro and an American.”

Dou­ble con­scious­ness is the con­stant feel­ing of in between-ness and it is the feel­ing of strad­dling mul­ti­ple bor­ders at once. It is not know­ing where your body fits in either place that you call home and not know­ing how to respond to the way these homes will exploit you. Du Bois pre­sent­ed this term orig­i­nal­ly in the realm of being African Amer­i­can dur­ing the ear­ly 1900s, and the idea has grown into some­thing that is applied to the expe­ri­ence of liv­ing in dias­poric spaces as a whole, as well as the feel­ing of oth­er­ness. How can one be mul­ti­ple iden­ti­ties at once? And how can one do so authen­ti­cal­ly when they are con­stant­ly see­ing them­selves through the eyes of those who exploit them?

White suprema­cy is the idea that white­ness is supe­ri­or to oth­er attrib­ut­es and char­ac­ter­is­tics of a person’s iden­ti­ty. It serves as a con­struct that per­pet­u­ates the social, polit­i­cal, and eco­nom­ic oppres­sion of all those who are not white. White­ness has its own view of the oth­er; as the glob­al west has its own view of the glob­al south and east. When I tell white­ness that my fam­i­ly is Indi­an, white­ness projects it’s own view of India onto me. When white­ness thinks of India, it sees col­ors thrown in the air, ele­phant gods, cows being wor­shipped on the street, Bol­ly­wood dances, and impov­er­ished chil­dren liv­ing on the streets. When white­ness thinks of India, it thinks of “Eat, Pray, Love” and soul search­ing in the nos­tal­gic back­ward­ness of a third world coun­try while try­ing to avoid food poi­son­ing. When white­ness thinks of India, it dehu­man­izes Indi­ans. Exam­ples of these pro­ject­ed views can be found eas­i­ly in pop­u­lar culture—Major Laz­er’s music video for “Lean On,” Iggy Aza­lea’s music video for “Bounce,” the entire­ty of the short-lived NBC sit­com “Out­sourced,” and Cold­play’s music video for “Hymn for a Week­end.” When I see all of these mod­ern rep­re­sen­ta­tions of South Asia in the media I find myself won­der­ing: how this is still the nar­ra­tive? How is it that South Asia con­tin­ues to be bas­tardized and depict­ed as a mys­ti­cal dream­land sprin­kled with slum­dogs cov­ered in col­ored pow­der that are exist­ing only to be con­sumed by white­ness? The dis­cus­sion sur­round­ing these exam­ples is often one of appro­pri­a­tion but it is impor­tant to go beyond that—this is an issue of col­o­niza­tion, Ori­en­tal­ism, and capitalism.

The rela­tion­ship that col­o­niz­ers had with­in South Asia can be seen as one that allowed them pow­er and hege­mo­ny over the region. The lega­cy that colo­nial­ism left in South Asia is rem­i­nis­cent of the way that the col­o­niz­ers worked to ensure that white­ness could con­tin­ue dom­i­nat­ing and restruc­ture the region in ways that ben­e­fit­ed white­ness most. This is how the col­o­niz­er ruled over “the Ori­ent,” a term often used in the con­text of Asia and the Mid­dle East, mean­ing the East in rela­tion to Europe. His­tor­i­cal­ly, west­ern dis­course sur­round­ing “the Ori­ent” could be seen as par­al­lel with the dis­course sur­round­ing the crim­i­nals, the “men­tal­ly insane,” and the impov­er­ished of Europe. Because of this, over time usage of the word “ori­en­tal” to describe a per­son or group of peo­ple has been chal­lenged great­ly by Asian Amer­i­cans due to it’s loaded his­to­ry. “The Ori­ent” has always been looked through instead of seen or under­stood and ana­lyzed as a prob­lem meant to be solved instead of as a region of diverse peo­ples. West­ern­ers could always go back home and tell every­one just how stereo­typ­i­cal­ly Ori­en­tal “the Ori­ent” real­ly was. Per­haps this his­to­ry of Ori­en­tal­ism lends to the con­tin­ued rep­re­sen­ta­tion of South Asia as exot­ic and mystical.

The colo­nial lega­cy per­pet­u­ates struc­tur­al vio­lence of pover­ty, caste, and hin­du suprema­cy that were cre­at­ed dur­ing British rule and these struc­tures can still be clear­ly seen in South Asia today. 2013 Cen­sus data from India showed that over 65 mil­lion peo­ple were liv­ing in slums, which are defined by the sur­vey as “res­i­den­tial areas where dwellings are unfit for human habi­ta­tion because they are dilap­i­dat­ed, cramped, poor­ly ven­ti­lat­ed, unclean, or any com­bi­na­tion of these fac­tors which are detri­men­tal to the safe­ty and health.” Many of the slums exist­ing in India today were cre­at­ed because of force­ful urban­iza­tion brought on by colo­nial­ism. The British colo­nial gov­ern­ment expelled poor natives of colo­nial set­tle­ments and when these natives built their own set­tle­ments, the gov­ern­ment invest­ed noth­ing to the san­i­ta­tion or infra­struc­ture of these areas. These slums con­tin­ue to exist because of the struc­tures of class and caste from which the col­o­niz­ers cap­i­tal­ized. Addi­tion­al­ly, tens of thou­sands have been killed in South Asia due to Hin­du-Mus­lim com­mu­nal vio­lence since the vio­lent par­ti­tion of India and Pak­istan on a reli­gious basis. This vio­lence exists in the way that it does today due to the vio­lent and polar­iz­ing poli­cies put in place by col­o­niz­ers. So when the west con­tin­ues to be fas­ci­nat­ed by India’s slums and pover­ty as well as Hin­du iconog­ra­phy and tra­di­tions, it dehu­man­izes Brown bod­ies while per­pet­u­at­ing the vio­lence that South Asia has faced for hun­dreds of years at the hand of Ori­en­tal­ists and colonizers.

When I am asked “what are you” or “where are you from” I know that my answer does­n’t mat­ter and the rea­son for that is deeply root­ed in the his­to­ry of exploita­tion of Black and Brown bod­ies.  W.E.B. Du Bois explained through dou­ble con­scious­ness what it means to be looked at as an “oth­er” in your own home and be expect­ed to per­form the iden­ti­ty that is placed upon you by a white, west­ern gaze. For years my Brown­ness exist­ed in a way that was com­fort­able for those around me—it was an iden­ti­ty that I did­n’t speak of until it was spo­ken to. I danced along to the Pussy­cat Dolls’ ver­sion of the song Jai Ho when every­one around me was sud­den­ly into Bol­ly­wood. I chuck­led along with the snide com­ments from my peers about get­ting an arranged mar­riage after return­ing from a win­ter break spent in India. I’m sure many of my Black and Brown peers liv­ing in the dias­po­ra have felt forced to white­wash their own iden­ti­ties in sim­i­lar ways. Though at this point in my life I have embraced my eth­nic iden­ti­ty, I am still work­ing hard to learn how to nav­i­gate liv­ing authen­ti­cal­ly in this Brown body with­out hav­ing my var­i­ous iden­ti­ties work­ing against me. The long his­to­ry of exploita­tion makes it hard for me to believe that this space will become eas­i­er to nav­i­gate in the near future, but with gen­er­a­tional shifts and con­tin­ued per­son­al recla­ma­tion of Black and Brown bod­ies I am hope­ful that it will be one day. In the mean­time, to the Major Laz­ers, Iggy Aza­leas, and Cold­plays of the world—South Asia is not your mys­ti­cal dream­land. My peo­ple do not exist for your consumption.


Van­dana Pawa

Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2015

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:


Confronting Anti-Black Racism

Grow­ing up with white supremacy’s ide­ol­o­gy of beau­ty that brown was not beau­ti­ful- that brown need­ed to be light­ened- was a bur­den I car­ried for years. Although I was “light for a South Asian” I was nev­er light enough. I was told to stay away from the sun, avoid the beach, try prod­ucts like Fair and Love­ly, try any­thing that could make me lighter, do any­thing that could make me more beau­ti­ful. Beau­ty over intel­li­gence was empha­sized to me, as if all I could attain to as a South Asian woman was to be a good light skinned house wife.

Often mis­tak­en for not being ful­ly South Asian- I was told to take pride in this fea­ture. To be glad I could pass as bi-racial- to be hon­ored to be con­sid­ered even par­tial­ly white. When peo­ple called my house and heard my mother’s slight British accent they assumed she was white- as if a brown woman could not be edu­cat­ed in a for­eign coun­try- as if a Brown woman could not speak Eng­lish ‘prop­er­ly.’

This year I had the oppor­tu­ni­ty to attend South Asian Amer­i­cans Lead­ing Together’s (SAALT) Young Lead­ers Insti­tute (YLI) in Wash­ing­ton D.C., on address­ing and con­fronting anti-black racism with­in the South Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty. Say­ing the pro­gram changed my life is an under­state­ment. It changed me. YLI allowed me to meet and inter­act with fel­low South Asians, whom I could expand my under­stand­ing and knowl­edge of racial jus­tice. We spoke about struc­tur­al racism, how it affects our ide­ol­o­gy, the impact it still has on not only our cul­ture but our peo­ple and how we can go about com­bat­ing racism inter­nal­ly. Final­ly, being able to bring light to the colo­nial ide­ol­o­gy still present in our cul­ture and back­ground was refresh­ing.  Although I attend school in a diverse and South Asian com­mu­ni­ty, issues of South Asian col­orism and white suprema­cy were nev­er spo­ken about and YLI gave me courage to break this silence.

Par­tic­i­pat­ing in YLI’s work­shops allowed me to become more aware of issues faced by our com­mu­ni­ty. Learn­ing about the his­to­ry of oppres­sion and racism allowed me to step back from the strug­gles we faced as South Asians and acknowl­edge the ben­e­fits we had over oth­ers, specif­i­cal­ly the Black com­mu­ni­ty. I real­ized how anti-Black­ness took pres­ence in my life. How we as South Asians often ben­e­fit­ed from it. How we often add to the fuel by blam­ing one whole race for actions result­ing from hate and cru­el­ty by white supremacy.

Anti-Black­ness took place in my life as I grew up being told to stay away from those who were ‘Kala.’ It took place in my life as I became afraid see­ing a Black man walk­ing behind me dur­ing night fall. It took place in my life as I was com­pared to fam­i­ly mem­bers and con­grat­u­lat­ed for being fair skinned. I real­ized that I had often over­looked how rel­e­vant anti-Black­ness was in my life because it had become the norm. It was some­thing embed­ded in my cul­ture, his­to­ry and life and was unac­cept­able for me to ignore.

As South Asians we ben­e­fit from anti-Black­ness. The fault is often tak­en away from us and giv­en to those who are dark­er. We pride our­selves in being the ‘smarter’ race, the more ‘cul­tured’ race, the race clos­er to ‘beau­ty’. We often cat­e­go­rize a whole race for being vio­lent and devel­op fear instead of real­iz­ing that we too are often stereo­typed into one cat­e­go­ry from the actions of some. We fuel anti-Black­ness by depict­ing our­selves as the bet­ter race and tak­ing pride in our lighter skin. While accept­ing our col­or, our race, our cul­ture is empow­er­ment- it does not require us to look down on oth­ers because there are racist and oppres­sive forces impact­ing them in ways that it does not impact us. We embody the mod­el minor­i­ty myth that is built on the pil­lars of anti-Black­ness. We ben­e­fit from anti-Black­ness because it allows us to not be the tar­get. We par­tic­i­pate in it by con­demn­ing dark skin by allow­ing anti-Black­ness to con­tin­ue inter­nal­ly with­in our com­mu­ni­ties. We are not suc­ceed­ing by con­form­ing this way of think­ing but instead fail­ing our­selves by strength­en­ing and empow­er­ing white supremacy.

We are priv­i­leged because while we stand in sol­i­dar­i­ty, while we are out­raged from police bru­tal­i­ty against Black peo­ple we do not feel afraid. We are able to show our pres­ence, we are able to voice our­selves, con­demn racial injus­tice because we do not have to fear being the next vic­tim. We, as South Asians, need to real­ize we have both ben­e­fit­ed from anti-Black­ness and have gained from the strug­gles of Black people .

We fail to see this ide­ol­o­gy only hurts our youth, only weak­ens our peo­ple. Only caus­es us to hate our­selves for the qual­i­ties we should love- hate the skin col­or that defines us- the skin that makes us beau­ti­ful. Though we are no longer under rule of the British, while we now have our land, we still are under the influ­ence of white suprema­cy. That while they may no longer occu­py our land- they occu­py our minds.

Colo­nial ide­ol­o­gy still exists- the idea that white is bet­ter and that Brown is bet­ter than Black still haunts us years after our ‘inde­pen­dence’. The idea that Brown is beau­ti­ful is one unheard of to many. ‘How can Brown be beau­ti­ful if white has always ruled over Brown? How can Brown be beau­ti­ful if it is close to black?’ Anti-Black­ness lives in the roots of our cul­ture. It man­i­fests itself in our ide­olo­gies of beau­ty. With­out even real­iz­ing we as South Asians often con­tin­ue a cul­ture of anti-Black­ness through tra­di­tions like apply­ing Hal­di to our faces, pur­chas­ing prod­ucts with bleach­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics and thoughts like stay­ing away from the sun. The fear of becom­ing dark roots from a cul­ture of anti-Black­ness we too often fail to acknowledge.

As South Asians- specif­i­cal­ly as South Asian youth we have a duty. We have a duty to unpack and unlearn these ide­olo­gies and while it will not hap­pen overnight and will take time- it is pos­si­ble. YLI allowed me to gain the courage to speak up against issues I felt strong­ly about. It allowed me to under­stand the neg­a­tive impact white suprema­cy has on our cul­tur­al ide­ol­o­gy of beau­ty informed byan­ti-Black­ness. Through YLI I gained not only a fam­i­ly of sup­port but com­rades to empow­er me through my jour­ney of unlearn­ing the anti-Black­ness I grew up with.

We need to encour­age one anoth­er to embrace our cul­ture, embrace our race and break the stereo­types in place for us. Break the ide­ol­o­gy that we are less than them. End the cul­ture of anti-Black­ness by no longer fear­ing the sun, no longer fear­ing a tan that brings us away from white­ness. We need to stop con­demn­ing those who are dark­er- we need to stop encour­ag­ing bleaching.

Over­all, we need to break the idea that we are not enough- that we must con­form to white ide­ol­o­gy to suc­ceed. Instead of embrac­ing white ide­olo­gies of beau­ty we need to take pride in our Black­ness. Only then when we change our mind­set and real­ize that we are not sole­ly the vic­tims that we are aid­ing the oppres­sor with anti-Black­ness will we be lib­er­at­ed- will we be able to succeed.


Aysha Qamar
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2015 

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:


One Brown Girl’s Perspective on What it Means to be Carefree

I was six years old when Baba and Mamma moved from India to America. When they arrived here, my mother realized that she was less restricted—she had no extended family to answer to, more control over her time, and the independence to focus on her career and kid.  

At the age of eight, Baba took me back to India as a way to get Mam­ma back to the coun­try, and per­haps as a way to revert to the unequal pow­er dynam­ics they shared. He took me back to our moth­er­land, India, but I was moth­er­less for a whole year.

Through the sheer will and cos­mic ener­gy that my moth­er is made up of, she got both of us back to our two-by-one apart­ment in Amer­i­ca. Once I was back, I was admit­ted into a pre­dom­i­nant­ly white ele­men­tary school where I would study for mere­ly two years. Through­out my time there, my accent, the way my food smelled, the cot­ton skirts I wore (which you can now find sell­ing at Urban Out­fit­ters, by the way), and my frizzy hair, were all made fun of by my white and non-Black peers.

I remem­ber feel­ing as if I was walk­ing back­ward, not real­ly part of this but not real­ly liv­ing there. My white peers’ teas­ing and taunt­ing served to draw the white cir­cle around me, divid­ing me from the rest—the ones whose tongues did not betray their eth­nic­i­ty, the ones whose food did not smell ‘eth­nic’ (and did not smell at all, in fact), the ones who had mold­ed into the per­fect preser­v­a­tive-filled Lunch­ables brown bag that would nei­ther draw atten­tion to, nor deny, the right­ful pres­ence of its consumer.

Although many of my fel­low immi­grant-born and immi­grant-descend­ed peers had shrugged off the iden­ti­ty their par­ents had come to Amer­i­ca with, I could not do the same. Per­haps I was dis­en­chant­ed with the idea of giv­ing into a col­or­less melt­ing pot that bub­bled hap­pi­ly when we crushed one anoth­er while we all sought the same things and strug­gled to reach for lib­er­ty, a chance at hap­pi­ness, a dig­ni­fied life.

Per­haps it was because I went to India look­ing for a sense of myself, and hav­ing not found it, I came back still seek­ing. Per­haps, I was clutch­ing onto some­thing, in the deep haze and lim­it­ed vision of ado­les­cence, that I yearned to unfold.

Per­haps I wished for some­one to read my secrets, my desires, and silences and nour­ish me with the warm space of pro­tec­tion and sta­bil­i­ty that so many immi­grant chil­dren often starve for.

Though this bul­ly­ing con­tin­ued through­out my sixth-grade edu­ca­tion, I nev­er allowed it to affect me. I was too busy with my silences, with what I had seen and want­ed to under­stand. There were so many faces that float­ed up, with­in my grasp, but nev­er stayed long enough to tell their sto­ries. There were so many ques­tions I want­ed to ask but had no words to cre­ate. My face was for­ev­er turned in the oth­er direc­tion, see­ing some­thing else, so that even when I came home, even after the worst days, I would not tell Mam­ma about the way the kids laughed and jeered at me.

Look­ing back to that time, I think I had a deep aware­ness of the way my life was shift­ing from one world into anoth­er, and how it would con­tin­ue mold­ing itself to the jolt­ing back and forth of a third space. I knew that my peers were only dis­trac­tions for the work I had to do in myself, and this work was nei­ther option­al nor sug­ges­tive. I knew this self-invest­ment would ensure my sur­vival in this world. I remem­ber think­ing that the mean­ness in my peers urged them to reflect that tox­i­c­i­ty towards me.

[Read Related: What it Means to be a First Generation Desi——From the Lens of a Half-Indian, Half-Irish Woman]

For­give­ness came eas­i­ly then because I knew that I was strong enough to deal with the bul­ly­ing on my own, and I hon­est­ly felt bad for the bul­lies, for they had to live with their atti­tudes, not me. Per­haps that’s why I nev­er allowed that bul­ly­ing to stick to me. I came home, untouched, not even giv­ing the day’s events a sec­ond thought, know­ing that my ener­gy had more impor­tant work to do.

Yet, as I grew up and dug more and more into my silences, the con­scious­ness in me bloomed with anger, pain, and sor­row. Per­haps, as a child, I was for­giv­ing because I did not know what it meant to be teased for the smell of my food or the frizz of my hair. I did not under­stand that my white peers were slow­ly ful­fill­ing the expec­ta­tions that white suprema­cy had of them. When I looked at them, I felt pity, because they spent so much of their ener­gy try­ing to make me feel bad and nev­er received the reac­tion they worked so hard for.

Now, when I see sim­i­lar mind­ed folks, such as peo­ple who spew hate, I feel fear because I see the more man­i­fest­ed, ugli­er insti­tu­tions that reward and encour­age them to con­tin­ue think­ing, act­ing, and behav­ing as they do. Yet, that lit­tle girl still exists in me today and is still hold­ing onto her secrets and inked words, not know­ing where to reach for safety.

Nowa­days, I come home so tired that I can­not even speak. Some­times it feels like I know too much about the world and where I stand with­in it. Oth­er days, I feel emp­ty, igno­rant of so much more, of so many oth­ers and their fold­ed up pages, their unsaid truths. I wish to be as untouched and care­free, deeply invest­ed in my truths rather than resist­ing the lies of anoth­er, as I once was.

In this time and age, when South Asian folks are learn­ing more and more about what their skin col­or, gen­der, sex­u­al ori­en­ta­tion, caste, and class means in rela­tion to this soci­ety, as well as how we ben­e­fit and suf­fer from ugly insti­tu­tions, it is increas­ing­ly dif­fi­cult to be carefree—or to even under­stand the mean­ing of ‘being carefree’—and actu­al­ly prac­tice it to sur­vive, thrive, and strength­en our, and oth­er, col­ored communities.

We are begin­ning to under­stand how rev­o­lu­tion­ary and pre­car­i­ous our exis­tence is, and how we were nev­er meant to sur­vive as we do. This is the time when the pres­sure against our lungs is mak­ing it hard to med­i­tate upon our imag­i­na­tions. Indeed, it is only through our imag­i­na­tions and through the expan­sion of our imag­i­na­tions that we can read the secrets and silences of our con­scious­ness. Indeed, it is only by invest­ing in our truths that we can take care of our blood and the blood of our loved ones.

Here is my [ever expand­ing] set of def­i­n­i­tions on what it means to be care­free, and I urge you—whomever you are, who has tak­en the minute to read this—to also come up with your set of Carefreeisms:

To be carefree…

….Means to not have to wor­ry about what caste, class, gen­der, reli­gion or race your lover is

Means to not think and rethink whether wear­ing a kur­ta will make oth­ers like you less

Means to be com­fort­able in a space you occupy

Means not hav­ing to won­der whether the bad cus­tomer ser­vice was because the staff was rude or rude because of your skin color

Means to sing in the rain after class­es, on your way back home

Means going out and allow­ing the sun to kiss you with­out the wor­ry of get­ting darker

Means to not spend the rest of your life edu­cat­ing your lover

Means singing and laugh­ing loud­ly with­out being told by your elders that only loose girls do so

Means not hav­ing uncles and aun­ties polic­ing your body & the ways you decide to dress it

Means not hav­ing to bar­gain your iden­ti­ty with Amer­i­can folks and your moth­er­land relatives

Means lov­ing and grow­ing with your brown, black, and white sis­ters rather than see­ing them as competition

Means what you want it to be, what makes you feel whole, more than a label, more than a sta­tis­tic, more than this world’s pol­i­tics, what makes you feel human and happy

Because to be care­free is to be revolutionary

To be care­free is resistance.

Ena Ganguly
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2015

This post was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Brown Girl Mag­a­zine, and being repub­lished with their permission.

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by:


How Anti-Blackness Affects my South Asian-American Identity

I recently attended a weekend-long conference, the South Asian Americans Leading Together’s Young Leaders Institute in Washington D.C., on addressing and confronting anti-black racism within the South Asian-American community.

The fol­low­ing week, I spent time with extend­ed fam­i­ly, and wit­nessed a group of young white adults chant­i­ng Hin­du bha­jans as a part of the clos­ing cer­e­mo­ny for the end of their yoga train­ing and lat­er went to a fusion wed­ding between a Pak­istani friend and her now white hus­band. I noticed so many things that I don’t know if I would have paid as much atten­tion to, had it not been for that week­end with SAALT in late-July.

And for that, I can­not be more grateful.

I’ve always gen­er­al­ly stayed away from the South Asian folks at my school, whether it was high school or col­lege. I don’t know if it is because of white America’s con­sis­tent mes­sage that being brown isn’t good enough, or if it’s because most of the South Asian folks I know seem to care more about Bol­ly­wood, bhangra, and med school (that they may not even want to attend) than about con­fronting the issues with­in our com­mu­ni­ty, or if it’s because I always thought I was so dif­fer­ent from them, or all of the above.

SAALT[Pho­to Cour­tesy: SAALT Young Lead­er­ship Insti­tute 2015]

SAALT’s pro­gram gave me the oppor­tu­ni­ty to meet South Asians with whom I could relate and form a con­nec­tion. More impor­tant­ly, it helped me see that the South Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty that I’ve been around all my life is only a frac­tion of the whole.

Noth­ing but white­ness is good enough for white Amer­i­ca, and no mat­ter how hard we try to assim­i­late, we brown folk are still, at the end of the day, brown.

It took me a long time (much longer than I would like to admit) to tru­ly real­ize how much South Asians ben­e­fit from—and active­ly take part in—anti-blackness in this coun­try. I think I liked to believe that I sym­pa­thized with and cared about the strug­gle of black folk so much that it didn’t mat­ter that I was a part of this (in some ways) priv­i­leged group of people.

I look at my fam­i­ly and see how well we’ve played into Sil­i­con Valley’s ver­sion of the mod­el minor­i­ty myth—my par­ents came from India with noth­ing and “made it” here, but what does that “mak­ing it” real­ly mean?

It means striv­ing to reach the ide­al of Amer­i­can life—that is, mid­dle-to-upper-class white­ness. White­ness is our mod­el, and we brown folk, once we reach the peak that we are allowed to reach, are to be the sub­se­quent mod­el for black folk.

We are not to stoop to their level—it is, after all, the oppo­site of any­thing white, and in white Amer­i­ca, that is a sin. White suprema­cy wants us to believe, like them, that we are bet­ter than blackness.

That we are bet­ter than black­ness, even though it is the slave labor of black folk that paved the way for our immi­gra­tion to the Unit­ed States.

SAALT[Pho­to Cour­tesy: SAALT Young Lead­er­ship Insti­tute 2015]

Brown and black peo­ple as a minor­i­ty race have a shared his­to­ry of resis­tance. We are also vic­tims of hate crimes, for instance, the Indi­an grand­fa­ther who was par­a­lyzed in Alaba­ma by the police in Feb­ru­ary. White Amer­i­ca con­stant­ly calls us “dot­heads,” “ter­ror­ists,” and tells us to “go back to where we came from.” But, still, we must be bet­ter than black Amer­i­ca, must we not?

[Read Related: Indian Grandfather Paralyzed by Police for Looking Like a ‘Skinny Black Guy’]

My fam­i­ly and I were tak­ing pic­tures a few days ago, and my aunt called me over and said, “We need some light­ness in the pho­tos!” It was all “in jest,” of course, but these jokes come from a place of anti-black­ness. This pass­ing state­ment man­i­fests itself in oth­er fam­i­lies as self-esteem dam­ag­ing com­ments dur­ing desi par­ties, as par­ents for­bid­ding their chil­dren from going out­side in case they become too dark or peo­ple bleach­ing children’s skin.

I didn’t know that South Car­oli­na Gov­er­nor Nik­ki Haley was desi until a few months ago when my mom told me. She and Louisiana Gov­er­nor and 2016 Repub­li­can Pres­i­den­tial Can­di­date Bob­by Jin­dal and peo­ple like them have done all they can to assim­i­late into white, cap­i­tal­ist Amer­i­ca, but it’s still not enough. They still face racist attacks that their white coun­ter­parts would nev­er receive. They will always be con­sid­ered the “oth­er.”

[Read Related: #BobbyJindalisSoWhite That He Is #Jindian]

As an exam­ple,  when I was younger and I used to write sto­ries, all of my char­ac­ters were white. I nev­er tried to write sto­ries about peo­ple like me because I nev­er read main­stream sto­ries about South Asians liv­ing in the Diaspora.

I still strug­gle with society’s need to con­form to the majority’s stan­dard. I didn’t know what to say when I spoke to the white yoga teach­ers, who were chant­i­ng Om Asato Ma Sadga­maya, com­plete with acoustic gui­tar, on the shore of a lake. I didn’t know how to tell them that their rela­tion­ship with these vers­es, with the very prac­tice of yoga, comes from a place of priv­i­lege. I didn’t even know how to con­front my own fam­i­ly when they were mak­ing what they thought were harm­less jokes about everybody’s skin color.

I’m con­stant­ly told that I shouldn’t make every­thing about race (or class, or gen­der), that I need to be able to have fun.

But it isn’t fun when I’m par­tic­i­pat­ing in a his­to­ry of oppres­sion and racism.

My boyfriend—before he was my boyfriend—and so many oth­er brown men use the n‑word with each oth­er all the time. When I first called him out on it, he told me it was “just a word, San­jana!” But it’s not, is it? It’s not just a word. It is a vio­lent word with a his­to­ry of sys­tem­at­ic degra­da­tion and oppres­sion and slav­ery and mur­der behind it, and it is not ours to use, let alone to try to reclaim.

Unlearn­ing is a process, of course, and I am still in the mid­dle of it. Our choic­es as South Asians need to be delib­er­ate. We need to pay atten­tion to the peo­ple we look up to and aspire to be, to the things we want to do, even to the words we use. We need to exam­ine why we choose to stand on the side that we stand on. Because right now, the Unit­ed States is at war, and there is no mid­dle ground. Silence is com­plic­i­ty; there is no neu­tral­i­ty. We either stand on the side of the oppres­sor or the oppressed, and every choice we make is a tes­ta­ment to that.

I was in the car with my Pak­istani friend before her wed­ding, going to get her hair done, and she told me that the oth­er day, when she went to a salon, they tried to bleach her skin to make her lighter. The scary thing is, it’s not uncom­mon. She was told to lose weight and become lighter for the wedding—essentially, she was told to con­form to white, colo­nial stan­dards of beau­ty on a day that was sup­posed to cel­e­brate her in all her beauty.

We are being used as pawns in white America’s war against black folk. When we play into the mod­el minor­i­ty myth, we are only help­ing white Amer­i­ca oppress a peo­ple who have been oppressed since they have been here. When we make com­ments about skin col­or, we are doing what white suprema­cy wants us to do.

They seem like harm­less choices—even ben­e­fi­cial choices—but they are, in fact, vio­lent. They harm not only black folk, but they harm our own com­mu­ni­ties as well.

And, most of all, they are unacceptable.

San­jana Lakshmi
Young Lead­ers Insti­tute Fel­low, 2015

This post was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished on Brown Girl Mag­a­zine, and being repub­lished with their permission.

The Young Leaders Institute 2015 is sponsored by: