It looks like just another office park. The low slung brick building, the beds of cheery pansies, the skinny sidewalks in streets meant for cars rather than pedestrians, the gently curving sculptured grassy beds. But this is 2003 and there are quite a few “For Lease” signs on the walls. But one of them is about to come down in Milpitas. d903b9df9ba1a97f66089582fb967fce-5
In another age it would be just another dot-com moving in. But though the setting seems very familiar, the new tenants of 555 Los Coches Boulevard, Milpitas are going to be a little different—the Indian community in the Bay Area is getting itself a spanking new community center. And with true Silicon Valley chutzpah, the India Community Center (ICC) is aiming big—at 20,000 sq. feet, it’s the largest in the nation.

“Our community needs 100,000 square feet really,” says Gautam Godhwani pointing to figures that show in Sunnyvale alone the Indian community increased 500 percent in a decade. Gautam and his brother Anil are the moving forces behind the center and along with executive director Ritee Chaddha, are marshalling a troop of volunteers and staff through a morass of plans, permits, and Powerpoint presentations with the missionary zeal of young CEOs.

Which, in a way, they are. But instead of buzzwords like “e-commerce” and “B2B,” the whiteboards in their office say “Summer Camp,” “Yoga,” and “kids.”

In a past avatar, the brothers were the Silicon Valley dream story. After stints at giants like AT&T, Hewlett Packard, and IBM, they formed their own company, AtWeb, which specialized in Web Site maintenance tools for small businesses. AtWeb was snapped up by Netscape, allowing them to do some traveling and thinking. “We wanted to do something different,” says Gautam.

Anil Godhwani remembers watching his mother teach Indian classical music and Hindi in Houston, where the family moved to from India, when he was 17 and Gautam was 9. “I would see people bring their kids for years to her classes and they would sit outside and wait,” says Anil. “I always wondered why there was no place where the parents could do something productive while the kids had their lessons.”
d903b9df9ba1a97f66089582fb967fce-2ow they can. As the kids learn their bharata natyam, the parents can catch up on their India Today at the library or maybe take that yoga class they have been putting off for years. “What’s important is this is a place for our entire community to come together,” says Gautam. “We need this. Today, where can you go at 8 p.m. with four friends to have a cup of chai and play a game of carrom?”

The Roots

It’s a need that others have seen as well. The first Indian community center in the country opened in Cleveland, Ohio in 1976. Naren Bakshi, a member of the board of directors of ICC, helped get that center on its feet. “Cleveland was a tremendous success,” he recalls. “We were very proud when we were able to buy the building for the Center.” When it started, the Indian community there was only 500-600 strong. Paramjit Singh, who moved to Ohio as a trainee in 1962 is still involved with the Cleveland center. “Young parents wanted a place where they could help their kids learn their language and dance,” says Singh. It’s the same in 2003 Milpitas, says Godhwani.

One by one other centers started popping up in the country. The Bay Area made the first steps towards one in 1988 when a group of professionals in the area realized that their parents, handicapped by not being able to drive, had nowhere to go while their children worked all hours. Matra Majmundar, who worked in the geriatric field at Stanford Hospital, thought it would be a good idea to establish an immigrant senior network. “Initially we had to work hard just to get people out of their homes. Volunteers would go pick them up,” remembers Majmundar. They went on outings, learned about Medicare, how to use public transport.

As the number of seniors grew, they decided to formalize the structure. In May 1992, the Indo-American Community Service Center (ICSC) was incorporated—the first of its kind for the community in the area. After a few years at the Hindu Temple in Sunnyvale, the center moved into a 1,200 sq feet facility subleased from TiE (The IndUS Entrepreneurs). It also became a member agency of United Way and expanded its programs to youth and the larger community.

Sam Rao, life member and former executive director, remembers how ICSC tried to include all segments of the community. Groups like NETIP, Asha, ILP would meet there. Some volunteers organized the annual Gandhi Camp. It would co-sponsor student functions like INDUS and Indtandesh and bring role models like astronaut Kalpana Chawla and musician L. Shankar. At the same time ICSC would present youth forums with cops from the Fremont gang task force. “We called it a family forum and got parents, grandparents to come and talk about gangs,” laughs Rao.

“It was very successful but limited by space,” says Mangala Kumar, a board member of ICSC who was also its last executive director. “A hundred seniors show up for our Wednesday creative writing program. The Fire Department won’t allow us to have so many in there. So when ICC approached ICSC, it made logical sense to join hands and do it together.” In May 2002, in a Silicon Valley style merger, ICSC and ICC announced they were fusing.

Just Do It?

Where the Godhwanis were different from their predecessors was they wanted to build ICC just as if it was another start-up company, not a weekend hobby. They wanted staff, so it didn’t have to rely on just volunteers. Naren Bakshi believes that relying solely on volunteers was what kept the center in Cleveland from really taking off.

“I was so impressed when I met Anil and Gautam for the first time,” says Asha Chandra who was volunteer No. 1. Now there are 150. “At that time this was just a vision they had, but they still had put together a PowerPoint presentation!”

As the daughter of Naren Bakshi from Cleveland, Chandra had seen the sweat and tears that went into building a center first hand. She remembers the long meetings, the rented space in an old church, and the excitement when they finally got their own building with its own kitchen and classroom. The difference this time around, she says, is the Godhwanis “were dedicated to the project full time and made full use of all the different tools we now have.”

Like focus groups. Chandra, who has a degree in pyschology and market research, helped facilitate a series of focus groups that tried to pinpoint the community’s needs.

d903b9df9ba1a97f66089582fb967fce-4Seniors needed a place to go to. “There is a park in Fremont that everyone calls Indian Park because so many parents go there in the summer because they don’t have too many places to go to,” says Chandra.

Families were running ragged taking their children to Jainism class on Tuesday and then dance class in someone’s garage on Saturday and then Hindi class in the next town three hours later. “People wanted one place where they could do all this under one roof,” says Gautam Godhwani.

Teens needed a place to call their own where they could hang with their friends.

Blue collar immigrants were worried about what would happen if they lost their jobs since they felt they didn’t have the skills to easily get new ones. “They were concerned that their kids might get involved with gangs or drugs and worried about them at school,” says Anil Godhwani.

Before translating their findings into brick and mortar, ICC decided to look at some successful role models. “The Jewish community had many lessons to teach us,” says Gautam. He rattles off numbers. There are 225,000 Jews in the Bay Area as compared to 150,000 Indians. But there are 7 Jewish centers, with a combined square footage of 500,000 sq. feet and 10,000 visitors daily. Before ICC opened its doors, the Indian community had one center, 1,200 sq. feet and 50 visitors daily.

“One-hundred and forty years ago there were two types of Jewish centers,” says Nate Levine, the executive director of the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco who is on the advisory board of ICC. “Settlement houses, which mainly took immigrants from Eastern Europe and helped make them American. And cultural societies, that fostered bonds of culture and tradition.” Over time the two merged. Levine sees parallels between the Jewish diaspora and the Indian diaspora which are both diverse but with common cultural bonds.

Jewish centers had another important role. Anti-Semitism ensured that they really needed their own spaces since they were often not welcome in other community spaces. For the Godhwanis, the impetus was not discrimination. “This was a logical time for the community to invest in infrastructure and start giving back because it had come into real wealth in the last decades,” says Gautam.

The other thing that had happened was the community was finally making America its home. “A shift has taken place,” says Purnima Mankekar, associate professor of cultural and social anthropology at Stanford University. “I hear less and less people saying they will go back after five years. Instead more and more people are saying they will bring their parents here.”

Challenges and Roadblocks

Though the ICSC board initially unanimously approved the ICSC-ICC merger, a couple of board members are now having second thoughts. They worry that some of the ideals of service or seva that drove ICSC might get lost in its shiny new incarnation that is more concerned with the bottomline. “It was like marrying my daughter, ICSC, to a young man with no track record,” says Bhupen Mehta, one of the two board members, out of 11, who now thinks ICSC should have waited to see where ICC was headed. They are concerned that the membership had been kept in the dark about the merger and “less profitable” programs would be dropped in favor of music and dance classes. d903b9df9ba1a97f66089582fb967fce-3

The Godhwanis insist that all members of ICSC were informed immediately after the board agreed on the merger and largely support it. The Santa Clara center will be kept open as well. “And we have no plans to discontinue any of the services currently provided by ICSC,” says Gautam ticking off programs like free legal and medical clinics. Or the émigré packet that would tell new immigrants how to do simple things like get a social security card or rent an apartment. Though they hope the center will eventually cover its operating costs, the Godhwanis are puzzled why some worry that it will be more corporation than non-profit.

But optimistic pie-charts notwithstanding they are still going against some tough stereotypes. The Indian community has been known to give but more often to NGOs in India where they can get more bang for the buck. “I thought I would get much more support than we did,” reflects Matra Majmundar about ICSC. She thinks a young community found it hard to worry about their seniors.

“As a community we are ready to shell out big bucks for an event with a Miss Universe,” says Sam Rao. “But we have a harder time donating 50 dollars for services for our parents and children.” He thinks the Jewish community has more of a one point program—preservation of cultural identity. “The Indian community has wealth but is fragmented,” says Rao “We think of ourselves as Telegu or South Indian first.”

“For sustainability we must turn needs into revenue generators,” says Mangala Kumar. Anil Godhwani hopes that mainstream America will add to the revenue stream by coming to yoga classes or learning Bollywood dancing. It’s a model that works, says Nate Levine at the Jewish Community Center. “The interest in things Jewish has grown so much in the past 25 years that of the 3,000 people who visit everyday, half are non-Jewish,” says Levine.

But another challenge is to keep the center going when the initial novelty has worn off. “We raise the money to buy a building, but not the money to maintain it,” laments Paramjit Singh of the Indian Community Center in Cleveland. That center is in a flux. The pioneers who set it up are at retirement age. The younger generations have moved to the suburbs and they want classes there closer to home. Singh hopes no one will look at the center one day and say “Khandarein batate hain, imarat buland thi” (The ruins tell us the edifice was spectacular.)

Other challenges go beyond dollars and programs to the philosophical core. After tussling with the issue, ICC decided to be an Indian center, not a South Asian one, because they felt cultural identity was most typically represented at a country level. “But everyone is welcome,” asserts Gautam.

Like TiE, which both brothers are charter members of and credit as their role model, ICC wants to be non-political and non-religious. But that is easier said than done. After 9/11 when South Asians became targets of hate crimes, TiE was criticized by activists for refusing to speak out. “Should ICC be that voice of the community or not?” asks Gautam and then sidesteps the question. “That is a privilege that has to be earned.”

Purnima Mankekar hopes ICC will be able to provide that voice “because we now really need to protect ourselves and preserve our sense of integrity as we are faced with racial violence.” She says that whether we call it political or not, “thinking about what serves a community’s interest is inherently a political activity.” She just advises against partisan politics—Democrats vs. Republicans, the Congress vs. the BJP.

Anil Godhwani admits it’s also tricky to separate religion and culture. “Is a story from the Ramayana told to kids at the center religious or are they just inspiring stories?” he wonders. Mankekar thinks the way out here would be to honor all faiths. “Spiritual sustenance is a very important service to the diaspora,” she says. “We can’t leave that out in order to be non-religious.”

But for now, Anil and Gautam are looking for the things that unite the community rather than divide them. “The 3 Cs,” says Anil, “Cricket, curry, and cinema.” But just taking care of the 3C’s would make it the Indian Gymkhana Club not the Indian Community Center. “The difference is service, rather than just a place for leisure,” says Mankekar.

Matra Majmundar wholeheartedly agrees. “Any community has cultural needs, religious needs, and service needs,” she explains. “We have excellent dance and music programs and temples. What we need more emphasis on is service.” She hopes that the young community center will not just be looking at what the community wants, whether that’s Bollywood dancing or film clubs, but also at what its most vulnerable members need.

Back to the Core

Tejas Saraiya feels he needs the center. Growing up in San Diego he was one of three Indians in his high school. His only real exposure to other Indians were occasional weekend trips to Gujarati Association functions. “I knew the dandiya but not bhangra,” he laughs. Volunteering at ICC, where he heads the library program, has been eye-opening. “It never occurred to me that I could volunteer and help the Indian community at the same time.”

What attracted a computer science graduate like Saraiya to ICC was its spirit. “It’s like a start-up—and that’s something that we in the Silicon Valley are comfortable with. Here we take ownership of our projects and do the best job possible.” That, he believes, is the real soul of a start-up rather than the get-rich-quick-by-IPO image the world outside saw.

It’s something Gautam and Anil Godhwani can obviously identify with. Gautam talks excitedly about “producing a range of service offerings that are unique and of high degree of need,” as if he is talking to a roomful of venture capitalists. But then he admits there are fundamental differences. Fundraising for a cause during an economic downturn was, “a humbling experience.” Managing volunteers rather than employees required special sensitivities.

But the main difference was a fundamental one. “At the core of every company there is one objective—profit. At the core of a non-profit is—a cause. That simple distinction makes all the difference.” He goes on to explain, “Our return on investment will not be on a spreadsheet. It will be in how we can enrich our community. And it will have to be measured not in years but decades.”

India Community Center, 555 Los Coches St., Milpitas, CA 95035. Open house Feb 8-9, 14-16, 10am-6pm. www.IndiaCC.org (408) 934-1130

 

Sandip Roy-Chowdhury is on the editorial board of India Currents and host of UpFront, a news-magazine show on KALW 91.7 produced by New America Media. 
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