My name is Shamala. My mother is a Kannada-, Marathi-, Hindi- and English-speaking South Indian engineer who grew up in Dharwar and Bombay and has lived in California for more than 30 years, and my father is an Irish-American engineer. I grew up in San Jose and am not an engineer; I currently work with homeless women and families in a nonprofit in the Tenderloin. I am light-skinned, “white-looking” to many, I don’t know any Indian languages, and I don’t have the kind of job that other Indians and Indian Americans have.
Or do I?
When telling my story, I have always felt that I am telling the story of an outsider, that my experiences exist in the no-man’s land between inside and outside of the community. How many other Indian Americans feel the same way? What does it mean to be Indian American and socially engaged, and how do we relate to the communities around us?
Pushing the Boundaries
I meet Sapna Mysoor and Saurabh Bajaj together, in the maze of cubicles and meeting rooms that makes up the Asian and Pacific Islander (API) Wellness Center, an HIV/AIDS service organization in San Francisco’s Civic Center. Bajaj works as Development Manager and Mysoor works as Project Coordinator for FLARE, a capacity-building and community research project that provides technical assistance to other nonprofit agencies. Both hail from the Los Angeles area, both went to UC Berkeley, and both began as premed students before shifting toward public service.
Mysoor, who now wields a Masters in Public Health from Emory University, became trained through observing the South Asian students and community members at Berkeley. “People were out drinking, partying, and having sex, engaging in all kinds of high-risk behavior—yes, there is sex in the Indian community, it’s obvious, and no one talks about it—and they had the attitude, ‘I could never get an STD.’” Now Mysoor has worked in the HIV arena for five years.
“I like to talk about my work,” Mysoor says, her voice hemming in a measured, capable fashion. “I don’t get to talk about it often with my friends,” most of whom, she says, work in finance or engineering.
Mysoor describes a recent moment when she felt that her family and friends were not listening with interest when she talked about her work, so she called them out on it. Since then, Mysoor says, her family has called her several times about topics related to her work.
“My mother called me to say, ‘Hey, I learned that gay people can marry now,’” Mysoor laughs. “She said, ‘That’s so nice they get to be together.’”
She grins. “Maybe I just hadn’t given them a chance.”
Mysoor praises her family, saying that they have never encouraged her to do anything other than what she wants to do. However, working with HIV+ communities, Mysoor says, “I have continued to push the boundaries. I bring up things they would never hear about otherwise, like Folsom Street Fair.”
Bajaj explains that he switched to an English major in college around the same time he came out as gay. His commitment to nonprofit work started then as well; he began volunteering at LYRIC, a resource center for LGBTQ youth, and at SHANTI, an HIV/AIDS resource center where he witnessed poverty for the first time. His first job was in the Tenderloin at an HIV care organization called Continuum.
“But I started this job [at API Wellness Center] because I knew I wanted to do something that used my writing skills,” he says, “and I wanted to do something that was LGBT friendly.”
Why did Bajaj choose nonprofit work? “Part of me wanted to do something different,” he says, “Part of me wanted to find my own path.” Bajaj has also served as co-chair of Trikone, an LGBT South Asian organization in the Bay Area.
Bajaj explains that while his commitment to his LGBT community has caused him to feel a distance from mainstream Indian communities, his work at API Wellness Center has caused him to view culture and sexuality differently: “A lot of the people who work here are Asian and LGBT, and a lot of them are out to their families. More often than not, their families are really accepting.”
“Working here,” he continues, “among the diverse spectrum of Asians and Pacific Islanders, has also helped me break the stereotype that Asians are one big group of ‘model minorities.’”
An Affinity for the Poor and Disadvantaged
Aurjoon “Rai” Ghosh has worked for over 40 years as a therapist and social worker in the United States. Bengali by descent, Ghosh was born in Rangoon, Burma; he lived there until he was eight, when he was bombed out and forced to move to Calcutta, where he witnessed the Calcutta famine and the Hindu-Muslim riots. In a light, matter-of-fact tone he informs me that during his childhood he saw people killed on the streets. When he was 11 and 14, Ghosh twice went to the door to receive telegrams, and each time learned that a different older brother had been killed in the war.
“I spent my childhood in the poor quarter of Rangoon,” Ghosh says. “And I think it was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
He continues, “It was a poor area, but not a slum. There wasn’t the kind of violence you associate with poverty. Everyone was very warm, they took care of each other.” He was the youngest child in a family of six, the next youngest seven years his senior.
Ghosh speaks highly of his upbringing—especially his mother, who married at 15 but was a free thinker, and who taught him to think: “With hardly any education, she taught herself English. She read Shakespeare, War and Peace, Gallsworthy. If she had had more opportunity, she would have been famous.”
Ghosh graduated from college in Calcutta at 20 and was sponsored by Bates College to come to the United States. He spent a few semesters at Bates in Lewiston, Maine, “to see what it was like,” and then volunteered for the draft in the segregated South, the dynamic between blacks and whites there constituting his “first experience of racial injustice in America.”
Ghosh got his first social work job working with alcoholics on Skid Row. Afterward, he became involved in the University of Chicago Midway Research project, focusing on work with mothers on Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC). “I really liked the women I worked with,” Ghosh says. “I realized they were victims of circumstance; I saw them as strong.”
Ghosh talks about one of the mothers he worked with when he was in his mid-20s, a 19 year old, not much younger than himself, who had had four children in a row. She was very depressed; her house was a mess. Ghosh grew so frustrated with how her living space was keeping her mired in depression that one day he showed up in workman’s clothes and enlisted the entire community living in the nearby flats to help him clean her apartment.
“My supervisor told me that was absolutely the wrong thing to do,” laughs Ghosh. “It’s true—you’re supposed to empower people to help themselves, not to do things for them. But in that case I think it worked.”
Ghosh’s next move was to San Francisco, where he worked for San Francisco General Hospital and San Francisco Social Services—he was a caseworker there for three years and a supervisor for 20, working in children’s and family services. He has also worked for several years in the East Bay as a clinical supervisor and counselor for disturbed adolescents, substance abusers, and federal parolees.
“Some of the most difficult people to work with?” I ask. But Ghosh finds that he has an easy time getting along with people. “I say to my clients: okay. Let’s work together to figure out how to make your life better.”
Ghosh’s laid-back and people-oriented style serves him well, especially when he is working with children. He once overheard a coworker talking about him when she thought he wasn’t listening: “Mr. Ghosh isn’t very clinical,” she said, “But the kids love him!”
“My coworker was very embarrassed,” says Ghosh, “But I took it as a compliment. It’s not about being clinical; the most important thing is to create a bond with the clients.”
Ghosh is also the author of Carma, a novel published in 2007—he began writing it as therapy, and then it took off. He is licensed as a Qigong instructor and speaks Spanish, French, Italian, some Japanese, Bengali, Hindi, and Urdu. But among his interests, social work remains foremost.
“It was really karma that led me to this path,” he said. “Karma meaning: follow where the path leads you. I have always had an affinity for the poor and disadvantaged. And there were times when I tried to do other jobs”—among his many degrees, Ghosh boasts a law degree and two semesters of journalism at Northwestern—“but after a while I just gave up and stopped trying to stray. I was destined to work with the poor.”
Problems in Every Community
Praveen Basaviah, who grew up in a suburb of New Jersey, was part of a close Tamilian community growing up. It wasn’t until he went to college at Brown University that he became “politicized” and part of a progressive South Asian community.
At the start of his freshman year, Basaviah attended a pre-orientation program for students of color called the Third World Transition Program, focusing on racism, homophobia, sexism, classism, and heterosexism.
“That four-day program was the catalyst that helped me become who I am today,” he says. Basaviah also came out as queer during his freshman year. For his entire time at Brown, Basaviah served in the Minority Peer Counseling Program, which provides support to students around issues of oppression.
Since graduating, Basaviah has worked with marginalized communities: first co-managing a program that trains and educates low-income youth in Providence to have a voice in urban politics, then at a non-profit consulting firm in San Francisco, and finally moving onto his most recent job at the National Centers on Sexuality (NCS), which he held for over two years. As of this summer, Basaviah has moved to Tamil Nadu on the prestigious American India Foundation Fellowship to do HIV/AIDS work with men who have sex with men and other marginalized populations.
In describing his work at the Centers—where he directed a program focusing on research, education, training, and advocacy around sexuality issues—Basaviah reflects upon his status as the sole person of Indian descent, and one of the few people of color, in his organization: “The vast majority of people at my work were white, and that’s sadly common at most non-profits. They were willing to talk about and acknowledge their white privilege, which was great, but it didn’t change the fact that we lacked diversity and pluralism. How can we effectively address people’s needs if our organizations’ make-up doesn’t reflect the communities we aim to serve?”
Basaviah was also Co-President of the Board of Youth in Focus, a non-profit which trains in youth-led action research, as well as the Speakers Bureau of Communities United Against Violence, with which he visited San Francisco elementary, middle, and high schools to give talks on LGBTQ issues and his experiences as a gay South Asian.
“I wish our community would encourage more of its young people to take an interest in socially conscious work. I yearn to work at organizations that focus on South Asian communities,” he says. He relished his experiences at two convenings—the South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow(SAALT) in D.C. and Youth Solidarity Summer (YSS) in New York—where the progressive South Asian community is visibly organized.
“Our South Asian communities often feel as though various forms of oppression and discrimination don’t affect us,” says Basaviah. “But we, too, have needs in our community that aren’t being addressed, problems that are being ignored, voices that are being silenced. There are those in our communities who are being treated unjustly: working-class folks, undocumented immigrants, domestic violence survivors, gay and lesbian and transgender youth, Sikh children who have had their turbans pulled off their heads in this post-9/11 era. I want us to come together and collectively address those needs of our sons and daughters. As a community.”
Help is a Simple Thing
Palak Joshi coordinates the Economic Self-Sufficiency Project on Treasure Island. Treasure Island was once a naval base and is now a remote annex of San Francisco served by a single bus line, lacking its own bank or gas station. A good portion of the residents belong to transitional housing or subsidized housing, many of them struggling with mental illness and substance abuse or recovery.
“We started this program for those populations,” says Joshi. Noticing that the residents of Treasure Island lacked access to the tools to empower themselves economically, the Treasure Island Homeless Development Initiative (TIHDI)—pronounced “tie-dye”—developed a community business assistance center on the island, with free internet, printing, phone, and fax. At the center, Joshi provides free credit consultations as well as referrals to banks and credit unions, and coordinates business classes for Treasure Island’s residents.
Joshi also organizes markets and events on the island where local vendors can sell their wares. “Our goal is to motivate people,” says Joshi. “I just keep giving people information and trust and faith; whenever the time is right, they will come around.”
Joshi was raised in Ahmedabad, Gujarat,and received a Masters in Environmental Planning in Delhi. Before moving to the United States in 2006, Palak got involved with the Self-Employed Women’s Association (SEWA), focusing on women who work in Ahmedabad’s unorganized sector, selling incense and other wares. The work was life changing for Joshi. It gave her an opportunity to go into the poorest rural areas of her home state. Being brought up in the well-off urban sector had made it is easy to be cut off.
“While doing this work,” she says, “I met women who didn’t even consider themselves important enough to go to the doctor—they would always put their husbands and children first. It was a simple thing for me: being able to help people who are exploited because they do not have access to information.”
Joshi cites the support of her mother, a doctor and “a very strong and independent individual,” as instrumental in her career. Joshi’s father passed away when she was two years old, and Palak learned a lot from growing up with a single mother who progressed in her career in a male-dominated world by sticking to her beliefs. “We were a very academic family. My mother never suggested that I should work for money. She never pushed me to become anything I didn’t want to become. I had the freedom to think my thoughts and act on them and discuss any problems I had with her. I saw her kindness and I learned from it.”
Joshi says that she has encountered challenges working in the United States: “Knowing English is not enough, there are so many cultural subtexts. There are ways of talking and working.” However, she is quick to frame her experience as “very positive.”
“At first my clients wouldn’t completely understand what I was saying,” she admits, “and there was no way I would understand their slang. I wouldn’t be able to joke with them. But I am very focused on my task: I am here to get the information out there. I get the work done.”
“I feel that if we are given the right tools, right directions, and right suggestions, people can do anything,” she says.
The Ties that Bind
There was one subject that came up in every discussion of Indianness and social work, and I’ll admit it, it’s not because I didn’t steer the conversations that way. Talking to all these amazing companions-in-arms—Indians and Indian Americans throwing themselves wholeheartedly into work for those who are struggling—made me ask, why aren’t there more of us?
Ghosh posits that social work is not a traditional Indian value: “There is no welfare system in India. If you’re poor, you just die.”
“It’s a disgrace,” he adds, “just as it’s a disgrace that there’s no health care in the United States. Every country has its issues.”
“Every time I tell a new group of Indians what I do,” Joshi says, “they say, ‘Oh, that’s unique.’ Most every other Indian person I meet is into technology.”
Joshi continues: “I don’t blame anybody—parents grow up with certain dreams for their children, wanting them to be happy. And money is a way of making yourself happy. But a lot of my friends who work in the corporate sector are starting to devote their free time to nonprofits.”
Of course, she admits, she has been fortunate to be able to devote her career to the nonprofit sector: “You have to be happy in order to give good service.”
Basaviah summarizes the main objections to Indians entering social work: “not going to make any money” and “what will the community think?” But the problem is addressable only by wide-sweeping change in attitude.
“I have a hard time believing that all South Asians want to be doctors!” Bajaj exclaims. He locates his commitment to social work in his background: “My parents instilled in me a great sense of caring about people. I was raised Hindu, and reading the Gita taught me about helping people in need.”
“I come from a line of fighters, revolutionaries, crusaders of civil disobedience,” says Basaviah. “Gandhi, of course, but there are also so many others who no one mentions: unsung heroes who fought for independence, women warriors, marginalized castes who took a stand and said ‘no more.’ And my parents taught me to work hard and have compassion. So that’s what I’ll do. I will work hard to help our communities empower themselves and make the world around us a bit better to live in.”
My conversations with these incredible social workers have confirmed my belief in the unique and fruitful position that South Asians have in the tangled landscape of race and culture in the United States. Since the 1960s, when a shift in immigration policies encouraging skilled technical workers to enter the country, our community has been largely associated with high-paying professions such as technology and medicine. I believe that it is possible for all of us to respect and take pride in our community’s achievements while at the same time striving to expand the possibilities of our position. It is vital that we tell new stories about what it means to be South Asian in America—new stories about our relationship to the other immigrant communities, communities of color, and minority communities that can provide new and richer context for our lives.
Shamala Gallagher is a crisis intervention counselor at Connecting Point placement center in San Francisco, Calif. She graduated from Stanford University in 2007 with a degree in English and Feminist Studies.