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