Sir M. Visvesvaraya’s grandaughter Sheila Mohan never thought she would run for public office. After a lifetime of public service, Mohan was retired, busy with her volunteer activities, and enjoying her granddaughters.
But Mohan was always drawn to the inner workings of government. She had made a deliberate career choice to work in local and city government instead of the corporate sector. So when she felt the call to give back to her community there was no looking back.
It has started a whole new journey in her life, running for City Council in Cupertino, California.
Grandaughter of a Legend
Mohan is the grandaughter of legendary Indian civil engineer and statesman, Sir M. Visvesvaraya, who built the Krishna Raja Sagara dam in Mysore. He is known as the ‘Father of modern Mysore State,’ for his contributions to architecture and education. Visvesvaraya built Bangalore’s Government Engineering College which now bears his name, and Engineer’s Day in India is celebrated on his birthday.
Mohan’s daughter Aditi Goel says, “As Sir M. Visvesvaraya’s granddaughter, my mom has learned first-hand the values of hard work, honesty, and humility. She lives by her values and has not only carried Sir MV’s legacy with her, but has also forged her own path based on her interests and commitment to community.”
Family and Career
Sheila’s immigrant journey followed a familiar path. She grew up in Bangalore and joined her husband in California after their wedding. While Aditi was young, Mohan got her MBA from San Jose State. The family put their roots down in Cupertino.
“We’ve been in Cupertino for 30 plus years and lived in the same house for that long,” remarks Mohan.
She went on to have a successful career in finance, retiring as the Senior Finance Director for Santa Clara County. But Mohan was always committed to public service in her community. Alongside her career and family, she volunteered at the Chinmaya Mission, as a Fine Arts Commissioner, and as a Library Commisioner for Cupertino. She is a volunteer at RYDE, driving seniors in the community to doctor appointments or the India Community Center (ICC).
Deciding to Run for Mayor
So, when longterm city leaders asked her to run for office, Mohan polled her family. They were all in. Mohan says her 14 year old granddaughter supported her decision so she could “tell my friends that my grandmother is running for city council!”
The campaign is a family affair. Mohan’s daughter and grandchildren canvas Cupertino streets on weekends.
Aditi says, “I am so proud of my mom for putting herself out there in an effort to make her community better. If you know her, you know she does not seek attention and would any day prefer a good conversation, book, movie or a Warriors, Giants or 49ers game, to speaking in front of crowds of strangers about herself.”
“But that’s precisely what makes her so great for this role. She’s not in it for herself – she just truly wants to make an impact in Cupertino.”
Sheila Mohan on the Ballot
Mohan is running because she feels the current Cupertino city council is failing its residents.
“There’s a lot of questionable governance practices and that was the only reason I jumped into the fray.”
City council meetings, which are notorious for running late, were affecting important decisions for the community. “If you hold off till one o’clock to discuss items, where you are basically five people discussing it and making decisions, I feel that is really fundamentally disrespectful to the community,” says Mohan. She strongly believes that governance that works for constituents is a basic requirement for democracy to thrive.
The city is divided over issues that Mohan says need attention. This year, Cupertino closed two schools because enrollment dropped. Young families cannot afford to live in Cupertino because it has become unaffordable.
“When young families don’t move in, there’s no kids to go to our schools. Two schools have closed this year, which is shocking, because we all moved to Cupertino for the schools,” says Mohan.
Lack of Affordable Housing
The lack of affordable housing is another controversial issue. Cupertino, like other affluent neighborhoods, is pushing back against the state’s requirement to build more, Mohan adds. The city is turning down money from the state because they don’t want to comply with the affordable housing mandate.
“You know, there was money coming in from the federal government, which the city just decided they didn’t want because there were too many strings attached. And it was like a $400,000 grant. I said, for the city of our size, that’s a lot of money, we can’t afford to just turn it down. It goes to some other city, which is what happened,” says Mohan. “The cities say – no, this NIMBY attitude, you know, not in my backyard.”
Mohan says her plan would leave established neighborhoods alone, but look at building medium density housing – five or six floors high – in spaces along major thoroughfares like Stevens Creek Boulevard and de Anza Boulevard.
Cupertino needs reasonable housing, says Mohan, “so that our teachers can live here. Firefighters, the barista at Starbucks, retail workers – they should be able to afford to live here, not just people like us who have been living here for many years.”
Senior citizens in Cupertino
The potential benefit of medium density housing, adds Mohan, is that it offers opportunities for intergenerational living. Renters, young families, seniors, and the disabled could come together to create “a nice cohesive sort of community within a community.”
“In terms of housing, what seniors need is a place where they can maybe walk to or where they can get easy transportation to restaurants, or maybe the grocery store. So tucked away in neighborhoods, where they probably currently are with no bus routes,” makes it hard for them.
One of her goals, Mohan says, is to make Cupertino work for both seniors and young people.
Multigenerational Living Makes Communities Happier
Like many Indian families in the Bay area, Mohan lived in a multigenerational household. Her mother in law lived with her for many years, making friends in the neighborhood with other grandmothers of different ethnicities. She remembers her mother-in-law saying that the vibrant Indian community of the Bay Area made her feel at home, making her last decade, “the best years of her life.”
She sees a similar dynamic happening at the India Community Center (ICC) in Cupertino. Mohan meets many seniors who “are very interested in what’s going on, not just sort of completely enmeshed in things that are happening in India. They are quite open to political activities, and all that going on in America.”
Research shows that as seniors age, they become invisible in the community. This is especially true for seniors who immigrate to this country later in life to live with their children. Mohan believes that families which include seniors need to be aware of amenities that are available to them in the community.
Giving back to the Community
Mohan is quick to point out that she’s not much different from most immigrants who arrived in the U.S. in the late 70s.
“I think my life experience in the sense that I’m an older person and the obstacles I’ve overcome – all those challenges definitely allowed me to get a sense of what’s important in life.”
Her family believes that the softspoken but articulate Mohan has done an incredible job of blending her Indian roots with her American interests. Her grandaughters call her the best Avva (grandmother) who makes the best rasam. Mohan’s scalloped potatoes are the highlight of the Thanksgiving meal that she has hosted for friends and family for over 30 years.
Mohan believes that running for office and giving back to the community that’s been her home for 30 years is important to her right now. Instead of dreading retirement, seniors can seek opportunities to contribute to their community. Retirement is no excuse for inertia.
Aditi says, “I hope my mom’s campaign inspires all of us to find ways to contribute to our own communities, because we each have skills, talents and gifts that can really, truly make a difference.”
Images – courtesy: Sheila Mohan and Aditi Goel
This article was written as part of a series – the Desi Golden Years Project – on aging in the South Asian Community, made possible with funding from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation (SVCF). The views expressed on this website and other materials produced by India Currents do not necessarily reflect the official policies of SVCF.
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