Anil Godhwani stared down at the round crispy golgappa pinched between his two fingers. As he awaited the delicious spicy, sweet and sour burst of liquid in his mouth, a puff of an idea blew across his mind. The year long vacation in India was nearing its end and soon they would be back home in California. He looked up and saw his extended family seated around him at the dinner table. They were laughing, the young sharing their day’s escapades, the old experiencing them vicariously through the young. He would miss this bonhomie. He would miss this gathering place where several generations came together to celebrate festivals, events, wins and losses. An idea flashed through his mind.
He wondered if he could carry this inter-generational experience back with him to California.
Godhwani mentioned his idea to his brother. A gathering place where multiple generations could mingle, where the whole family could experience facets of the Indian culture. Gautam Godhwani was used to his brother’s flashes of brilliance. They had worked together to create the startup AtWeb, which they had sold two years ago to Netscape. He mulled over the idea as Anil continued, “Do you remember, in Houston, when those students came to learn music from mom? The mothers of the students would wait in cars. If there had been a community center they could have worked out, done yoga, taken a cooking class, met for a book club perhaps while they waited. What do you think?” Anil’s eyes were brimming with excitement.
It was a logical time to invest in infrastructure because the community had come into real wealth in the last decade. Gautam’s thoughts whirled to other community centers in the Bay Area. There was the Jewish Community Center (JCC) v that was quite effective at doing what Anil was thinking of. Jewish and Indian cultures both valued reverence for family and the desire to preserve their traditions. They could look at the JCC as a case study.
The year was 2001 when the brothers started working on their “for profit, non-profit.” When the India Community Centre opened its doors in February 2003 in the heart of one of the largest, most educated and primarily young Indian community in the United States 800 people rushed through the door. The center was off to a running start. Just as JCC does, India Community Center (ICC) would offer programs for different age groups, a fitness center and activities ranging from yoga and meditation to Hindi language classes and aerobics, classical Indian music, pop Indian music and sports like ping pong, chess, bridge, book clubs as well as discussion forums.
The Inter-generational Experience
Whole families became members. Three, and in some cases, four generations jostled each other in hallways, attending classes, eating lunch, attending talks, dancing at fundraisers, singing at Friday night karaoke and gracing banquets. The energy of the center took on the tone of a village. Children, who had no grandparents at home got used to seeing seniors who might look like their grandparents.
According to Wikipedia, an inter-generational contract is “a dependency between different generations based on the assumption that future generations, in honoring the contract, will provide a service to a generation that has previously done the same service to an older generation.”
In the increasingly nuclear experience of the Bay Area family, parents are stretched. The pressure of being new immigrants adjusting to the values and culture of the adopted country affecst pockets, time and patience. Unexpected challenges lurk around every growth spurt corner. Parents have to deal with unfamiliar scenarios like sleepovers, dating, proms, nights out, drug abuse, bullying and a content rich environments.
Despite struggling to cope with the constantly evolving work and home place, parents have found it important to impart culture and values of their heritage to their children growing up in America. The absence of a support community or village means that there is no buffer between kids and their parents. There is no aunt, uncle or neighbor who can step in. There is no grandmother who allows a little bit of TV indulgence after school.
In cases where the older generation have migrated to the United States, the natural generation gap gets accentuated among immigrants. “In India when children live with parents, the father’s mother is in-charge, the father’s father is the lord. In America relocating parents live with their children reversing the order and power in the relationships,” explained Vishnu Sharma, an early supporter of ICC.
Financial dependence also limited exposure to the new country. Older grandparents were reluctant to leave the home, hesitant to spend their children’s money. This self-imposed home imprisonment and the resultant depression and loss of self-esteem added to the burdens of both generations. “I often walk around meeting seniors sharing my ten commandments. Treat your children as grownups, educated adults and not as children any more. Never give advice unless asked for; Never ask them about their financial status …,” said senior Mani Iyer as he handed me a sheet of his commandments. “Yes, in India the grandparent can tell the parent where he is going wrong but not here.”
Both generations agree on one thing: grandchildren must be given a strong value system.
In the last decade, ICC has become a central hub where the grandparent-less and grandparent-surplus Bay Area families can meet and share resources towards fulfilling this inter-generational contract.
One senior, Kanu Bhai, a member of ICC, takes it upon himself to cheer the little preschoolers as they roll into ICC, carried in by harried parents on their way to work.
Every morning he greets the little ones at the door just as a grandparent would, placing a smile on the faces of terrified first time pre-schoolers. To my thinking, the parent probably drives off wearing a half smile feeling as though the kids have been dropped off at grandma’s house.
Dr. Harleen Sahni who is finishing her fellowship at Stanford University and has a two-month-old at home is given a pat on her back by her three-year-old daughter, Asees.
“Good job mom, she says when I turn the corner into the school.” Sahni chose to drive all the way to ICC when it was time for her to pick a preschool for her daughter hoping for an easier transition, “less anxiety and crying.” The “A” grade her three-year-old gave her was pure bonus.
“There is always a high five or a smile and a laugh exchanged as grandparents and children roam the hallways moving from one classroom, restroom or lunchroom to another” said Tanuja Bahal, Executive Director of ICC. “We provide a safe, welcoming environment where relationships grow organically.”
Gateway to India in America
India Community Center is in the unique position of being a window to Indian culture. Much like JCC, half of whose membership is non-Jewish, ICC too reached out to embrace the culture curious.
India immersion sessions are offered to local schools to parallel the school syllabus, which teaches Indian history and culture to fourth graders. “Schools as far away as Marin and Gilroy have taken up the offer. A school in Los Gatos has been sending their fourth graders regularly for the last three to four years now,” says Bahal. “ICC teaches them about Indian history and geography through very interesting exercises making the country come alive. Girl Scouts groups are given beads, that represent population per square mile, to string into country lanyards. Comparing the United States with India in this way the students realize the difference in density between the two countries and the resulting impact on resources.”
Visual representation also helps students gain an understanding of India when they work side by side with ICC members in art classes. The question: “What does India mean to you” brought out an interesting collage of answers; pictures from grandparents to peacocks.
High schools like Castilleja and Crystal Springs have taken students to India as part of their ethics or business curriculum. Before the students leave for India they visit ICC to familiarize themselves with the country and prepare for their trip. “The sari is a difficult dress for them to walk or dance in. We then show them pictures of women in saris working in the fields and construction sites placing the garment in its cultural context,” Bahal said.
Spring and harvest festivals, Makarsakranti, Bhiu and Baisakhi are celebrated where families enjoy crafts, dance, art, clothes and food together.
Non-Indians enrolled at ICC as life members. “They enjoy Yoga and light food”, said Vimala Balan the manager of the Cupertino center. The fitness center became a huge draw with its Bollywood aerobics class. The all-senior Jollywood dance group saw a parallel Chinese line dancing group practicing in the adjacent room. Ethiopian weddings, quinceañeras and Caucasian weddings are celebrated in the banquet hall as frequently as Indian weddings and functions are.
The prize winning ping-pong team reflects this diversity. Three out of four teams that the United States fielded at the London Olympics had been trained at ICC. The U.S. national men’s champion, Timothy Wang and national women’s champion Lily Zhang are ICC trained. The ping-pong center is recognized as the top 20 in the world and the best in America, thanks to the coaches who are originally from India, Italy and China.
Self-Sustaining At Last
Anil and Gautam Godhwani stood in front of their mother, Gopi. They had in their hands the financial report of the community center. Over the last decade, through trial and error the brothers had created what they had aspired to, a self-sustaining unit for Indians in America.
Annual fundraising had touched a million dollars in the past two years. The fitness center had 1500 members, 800 summer campers participated—five to fourteen year olds and 80 teenagers earned community service awards as counselors. The banquet hall rental income was substantial. On all counts ICC was catching up to other community centers like JCC and YMCA who had been around for 100 years. Its earnings from donations formed 10 to 30% of the total collection while services and programs contributed 70 to 90% of the bottom line. It was pretty close to the industry standard.
While ICC never raised the kind of money that JCC has, the center, by careful allocation, good management and prioritization, has become self-sustainable in the last two years.
Besides becoming self-sustainable, Godhwani explained that they now have a scalable model.
In a place like Southern California with its dense concentrations of Indian Americans in regions like Artesia and Orange County, an ICC branch would be a welcome addition besides being quick to deploy, but why stop at Southern California, how about Washington DC and New York next?
The Godhwani brothers have cut their coat according to their cloth. With a grand vision and a collective leadership plan, that includes the likes of Talat Hasan, Kumar Kumar Malavalli, A.G. Karunakaran and Naren Bakshi, ICC is now our profitable, diverse neighborhood hub.
Ritu Marwah is a resident of the Bay Area where she has pursued theater, writing, non-profit marketing, high-tech marketing, startup management, raising children, coaching debate and hiking. Ritu graduated from Delhi with masters in business, joined the Tata Administrative Service and worked in London for ten years before moving to the Bay Area.
What Board Members Say
I grew up in America without an ICC. It is a handicap I don’t want my children to have. We must teach our children that their individuality is their strength. Otherwise they will grow up trying to hide from it or dilute it.
Immanuel Thangaraj, member ICC board of directors and chair of the September 2013 Gala.
ICC provides the infrastructural springboard for other non-profits. For instance at the last Sevathon one non-profit organization raised $30,000. By the way since its inception Sevathon participation has increased from 300 to near 4000 participants.”
Venky Ganesan, Co-President of ICC
My impression of the Indo American community is that many of the people are recent immigrants and they have strong identity ties with India. Flash forward four generations then will that be true?
It would probably be very difficult for my grandparents to imagine their identity separate from being Jewish. For their great-great-grandchildren that are now in this world it is not an obvious matter. For many Jewish people their Jewish identity is not first and foremost on their self-identity list. Republican or Democrat, Gemini or Sagittarian there are many other affiliations.
Culture and heritage have to be nurtured, celebrated and cultivated. The preservation of a culture has to be done in a way that it does not isolate one from the rest of the community but is something that is shared freely with the entire community while celebrating it internally.
When we built the JCC in San Francisco we felt that one of our tests would be that it should be considered a great place by the larger community. If it didn’t pass that test the Jewish community wouldn’t want it either.
I remember at JCC we had a teen center. There were these two teens in line, one was Jewish and the other was non-Jewish. The non-Jewish kid turned to his friend and said, “Man this place is so cool. You are so lucky to have it.” And the Jewish kid who was probably ambivalent about it to begin with, felt this great sense of pride and ownership. “It is my place and you are welcome,” he responded.
Nate Levine, founder BuildingBlox Consulting; ex-Executive Director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco; ex-board member of ICC.