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India Currents gave me a voice in days I was very lost. Having my articles selected for publishing was very validating – Shailaja Dixit, Executive Director, Narika, Fremont
“No taxation without representation,” “one person, one vote,” “the right to self-determination” are all phrases right out of a history textbook. Taken out of historical and geographical context, these phrases can be applicable to any country, any era, and are the founding principles of any legislative process. These phrases embody the fundamental right of a free people to exercise their option in determining the future of their social, economical, and political well-being. So how do these phrases end up remaining just phrases, especially in the largest and most technologically powerful economy in the world and more surprisingly, in a country that enjoys almost a 100 percent literacy rate? Numerous studies, polls, and surveys indicate that different factors come into play in citizens feeling a sense of detachment from their local governmental bodies. Disillusionment with past governments, inaccessibility of governing bodies, and sometimes even a lack of understanding of the legislative process are cited as reasons for the lack of involvement.
I don’t understand why Americans of Indian origin, are hesitant to get involved in local governments and school boards,” says Pragati Grover, vice president of fund raising on the Saratoga Education Foundation. “We can talk the talk and have a vested interest in our communities where our children go to school. The government is not some nameless body far away. Once we start getting involved, the entire process gets demystified. It’s just people working with similar people, trying to make our community a better place for everyone.” Diversity and cultural integration are this country’s core strengths. Then why is it that South Asian Americans find it so hard to participate and empower their communities? Group meetings to discuss common community issues, working with the city library boards, inviting city mayors to explain local legislations, and getting local business leaders to address schools and community colleges are some of the ways to get citizens involved. Councilmember Anu Natarajan, who is up for re-election to the seat in the City Council of Fremont cites the recent 50th anniversary of the City of Fremont as one of the success stories of community participation.
“Our communities sense the latent potential and celebrate the diversity of Fremont. The celebrations required tremendous will and determination on the residents’ part. But the collective pride in being one of the largest and vibrant cities has helped us work together to make it happen,” says Natarajan. Does a citizen’s duty end at registering to vote and exercising the right at the polls? Doesn’t it extend beyond that? What about providing leadership to the community instead of expecting others to provide direction? Why do Americans of South Asian origin, extolled for their hard work, tenacity, brain power, and deep pockets, hesitate to get involved in the socio-political sphere? “Studies have shown that Indians perceive greater race and accent discrimination in educational services rather than in tech services. One reason could be the diversity that is present in tech industries but absent in government or the local school boards and city councils that have a predominant Caucasian population,” says Guhapriya Margam, a graduate student of industrial and organizational psychology at the San Jose State University. “We the immigrants hold this country together,” says V.J. Pradhan, legislator of Rockland County and a 10-year veteran local politician from the state of New York. “Asian Americans, and more importantly, Americans of Indian origin, need to move out of their complacency and participate actively in their respective communities. Language is not a barrier and education is certainly not a barrier. So why do we hesitate?” Deepka Lalwani, member of the Santa Clara Democratic Party and political activist from Milpitas advises budding politicians to start small. “Get involved in your children’s school boards, PTAs, local water council, and soccer leagues. There are so many opportunities to participate locally. Once you get your voice heard and gain recognition for your hard work you can start moving towards the next rung in your political career,” says Lalwani. Grover got involved as the PTA president for Argonaut Elementary School. She then became the vice president of fund raising on Saratoga Education Foundation (SEF) Board and helped organize fund-raising activities. She took her organizing skills to work on the Saratoga Library Commission. “After the library opened its doors, there were many issues that had to be looked into and building projects completed, which is very typical to any newly constructed building. Having internet access in the library, introducing new library programs for the kid and adults, and to work with budget cutbacks was a challenge. But getting the job done is a skill that every mother learns early on. It was only a question of putting these skills to use in the right places,” says Grover about some of the projects and challenges she has experienced while working in her community.
Kalwant Sandhu, candidate for the Mountain View City Council started local too. He began by coaching the local soccer team where he helped empower children to believe in their game and learn valuable life skills. After gaining recognition among parents of his soccer league, he was prompted by local residents to apply for the city council post. Sandhu decided to put his business and leadership skills to work for the Mountain View community. With endorsements from the mayor of East Palo Alto, an economically challenged community, as well as the mayor of Los Altos, one of the more affluent communities, Sandhu has quickly earned himself the reputation of being a catalyst in bringing disparate parties to the negotiation table and getting the work done. With a sobriquet of “Sandhu: Can Do” he has a plan for Mountain View called Vision 2020 that gives direction to the fiscal and social landscape of the city such as improvements in water resources, transportation systems, and general administrative issues. When asked to provide insight to budding politicians and the necessity to participate in local government, Sandhu states, “It is essential to give back to the community we live in. Empower yourself and your communities and don’t look elsewhere to seek help and guidance. Our Indian roots give us an added edge of tolerance and sensitivity towards our friends and neighbors. Harness these skills and realize that the roadblocks you will encounter are the same as you will find anywhere else in the world. Follow through with your promises, practice accountability and an open government system, listen to your constituents, and you will find that working with and for the government is the same as any other job.” Running an election campaign requires early preparation, strong strategy and a willingness to be open to public scrutiny.
“Be straight and stand by your word. You have nothing to fear if you do no wrong. Demonstrate sincerity in your work, and your efforts will be recognized. There is no better executive package than seeing your vision for your communities come to fruition,” says Pradhan. Another common mental roadblock that hampers governmental participation is the perceived stigma associated with becoming “too Americanized.” Integration into the American hubris does not mean having to give up your Indian roots. It’s more an acceptance of the two different cultures and the understanding that one need not go without the other. “Am I any less Indian? Of course not. But am I more American? Possibly,” says Grover, who was elected unopposed, will be sworn into the Saratoga School Board in December. “After living in America for more than 18 years, I’m quite comfortable moving in and out of PTA meetings, soccer practices, and preparing for the children’s school prom. I don’t know how to make samosas. But should that detract from my Indian roots?” asks Grover. When asked if her Indian roots played any role in her current campaign, Natarajan admits, “I am first a representative of the people of the City of Fremont, a citizen of United States, and of course am of Indian origin. I don’t downplay my Indianness. But I would like to be known, recognized, and elected for the job that I do and the vision for Fremont that I bring to the table. I am excited with the growth prospects for Fremont and confident in seeing it come through.” And Natarajan has been recognized for her capabilities. After successfully completing her first term, she is now gearing up for re-election to the Fremont City Council in November. Her background in architecture and urban design has helped her develop a vision for the city of Fremont. Part of this vision is a plan to to drive economic development, create a downtown area, and encourage local, regional, and national businesses to invest in helping Fremont go from being one of the richest suburban cities to becoming one of the richest suburban and urban cities in America. “Fremont has a very large, diverse community with a unique identity. Businesses are recognizing the potential and are as excited as we are to determine different methods to utilize this potential. We are speaking with our communities. Polls, surveys, focus groups, and informal discussions have helped us develop a multi-pronged approach to make this vision for Fremont a reality.” We need to wake up to the realization that no matter what country or century we live in, unless we have a voice at the table, we will have to make do with the decisions made for us. We have to participate in the political arena as much as we do in the economic arena to ensure equal representation. Why wait for another 9/11 or another immigration crisis before wanting to be heard? Start early. Develop relationships. Foster these relationships and ensure a position at the decision table. It is prudent to get involved in communities where you live, pay your taxes, build homes and gardens, and ultimately nurture the future of your children. If Sandhu can do, so can you. Ramya Kumaraswamy has a master’s degree in corporate communications from Boston University and works as a public relations account executive in the technology space.