A mission to mentor a new generation of immigrant changemakers

An integral part of India Currents’ mission is to cultivate a new generation of storytellers and changemakers. Our recent initiatives underscore our commitment to nurturing emerging talent in an approach rooted in mentorship, diversity, and inclusivity. For some years now, India Currents has actively promoted the Santa Clara County – Office of Immigration Relations (SCC OIR’s) New Americans Fellowships program, which offers valuable opportunities for immigrants in the county to enhance their leadership and professional skills.

In June 2023, we were invited to mentor interns from the Santa Clara County New American Fellowship program. This 10-week program, tailored for immigrant students, focuses on leadership and professional skills development. The Fellows’ research into low civic engagement and voter turnout in immigrant communities resonates with our mission. As leaders, advocates, and cultural custodians, we provided insights into civic engagement within the Indian American community, fostering a rich exchange of knowledge.

An online setting served as a space to exchange information and ideas for the SCC fellows along with their mentors and India Currents publisher Vandana Kumar.

The interns at Santa Clara County Office of Immigrant Relations

The interns are qualified immigrant students from very specific kinds of backgrounds such as DACA, asylum seekers or refugees, or students on specific visas. SCCOIR gives them an opportunity to develop skills that will prepare them to be active advocates in their own spheres of immigration and immigrant rights. They receive training and the cohort members work on a project of interest that aligns with the mission of the program.

The cohort covers issues related to immigration or movements that have furthered the immigrant cause, interviews people, collects oral histories, and at the end of a 10-week period, they present their learnings and recommendations to the board of supervisors.

Indian American hesitancy with civic engagement

This year the group project focused on a specific theme – understanding the factors that have contributed to low civic engagement and voter turnout among Latino and Asian American communities in Santa Clara County. According to SCCOIR, during the midterms last year, voter turnout among registered voters in the Latino community was 27%, while the Asian American community as a whole was 33%. The aim of the discussion was to build a profile of the Indian American community in terms of their level of civic engagement and what factors impact voter turnout. The students wanted to understand if engagement levels varied by generation or level of education, by when they immigrated, or by other regional factors. They also wanted to identify any barriers to the community serving on citizen boards and commissions.

Vandana Kumar advised the cohort that there were no easy solutions, but often, taking tiny steps helps communities actually get to where it’s important eventually.

Creating a picture of the community

The interns are also working with Mosaic on their project to develop the Atlas Project – an attempt to map and understand the culturally distinct communities of Santa Clara County with an app. Their goal is to understand communities at a deeper level rather than just at the racial level.

Malika, an intern who works with OSHA leads the research team that gets the information for the mosaic app. Brenda, a master’s student at Columbia University is working on human rights within the immigrant community and has been guiding the research and skills development of the Fellows in their project.

The interns had questions about initiatives, or lack thereof regarding Santa Clara County voter turnout, to find out more about civic engagement to create a larger picture of culturally distinct communities.

The Role of India Currents

Vandana Kumar described the founding of India Currents as a platform where the community gathered every month, sharing events that they were attending or organizing things that were happening in the community in one place. Over three decades she described how it evolved to meet the needs of a changing diaspora – encouraging the community to participate in civic engagement because their voices need to be heard.

“Our company has an important role to play in the community, which is one of educating people about their rights and responsibilities,” said Kumar. She pointed out that the bulk of India Currents readers are first-generation immigrants who come from countries where citizens are skeptical about government.”That’s part of the reason why they don’t engage in local, anything government, whether it’s local, state, or federal. They don’t want to because they come with a distrust of government. And to counter that, I think it requires the work of a lot of people to help educate the community.”

People are stepping up

In response to a query about equitable civic engagement opportunities, such as serving on citizen boards and commissions for Indian community members in Santa Clara County and the City of San Jose, Kumar explained that there is a definite shift in all organizations to make sure that there is representation of the communities that they serve. Leadership wants to ensure diversity of representation, especially with DEI mandates in place.

“People are stepping up,” said Kumar, whether it’s serving on the San Jose City Council or city boards. The initial hesitancy happens because immigrants first need to assimilate into their new culture. Once they feel that once they have taken care of their needs they can look out for the needs of others.

“We are not alone in that every immigrant community that has come before us has gone through the exact same thing, what they call a sense of belonging, and finding, making roots in their new home.”

Immigration Roadblocks

Another roadblock is immigration status. When immigrants are on precarious ground holding green cards, H-1B, and other temporary visas, they are less likely to participate in civic efforts like the Census, for example. The long road to citizenship means they also cannot participate in elections and the voting process.

Given that the wait for Indian-origin holders is more than 50 years, it may take a lifetime before these immigrants can vote.

“This immigration system is broken,” added Kumar. That means that even people who came to the U.S. on legal, legitimate visas, have children who age out of the legal visa process and become ‘Dreamers,’ through no fault of theirs. They cannot vote either.

Yet the next generation of Indian-origin immigrants are starting to make a difference. The feeling of belonging comes with the second and third generation, agreed Mallika. “My parents immigrated here in 1970. They were trying to establish themselves.”

However, the highly educated English-speaking H-1B visa holders do not fully represent many in the larger Indian American diaspora which includes older people or the almost half a million Indian Americans who are undocumented. This population may have limited English language proficiency and the language barrier, together with immigration status, becomes another impediment to voter registration and participation in civic activities.

“Not everybody is a Silicon Valley engineer,” added Kumar. “Beyond this model, minority myth, just like any other community, we have nurses, and teachers, taxi drivers, grocery store workers, and truck drivers.” So India Currents has to identify ways to reach them.

Making our voices heard

Yet, there are first-generation Indian Americans serving the state of California, the City of Santa Clara, and the San Jose City Council. She was referring to Congressman Ro Khanna (CA 17), San Jose Council Member Arjun Batra, and Murli Srinivasan an Indo-American engineer who was elected to Sunnyvale’s City Council.

“They are the ones that came to this country….and found their way to make our voices heard.”

If you don’t, warned Kumar, your concerns are never going to be addressed. “I think people are coming to that realization. I have just such tremendous faith in the second generation of Indian Americans because they are stepping up.”

She urges the community in every way possible, through public forums, cross-cultural initiatives, and content produced on the India Currents website, to advocate for their point of view or lose out. “Some services are going to be cut, it’s going to be something that affects you. Your vote matters, you know, and it’s only over time that we can drill that point home for the community at large.”

” You know, they have the saying ‘if you don’t have a seat at the table, then you’re on the menu.'”

This resource is supported in whole or in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.