Tag Archives: #equity

Bay Area Affordable Housing Isn’t a Panacea. I Know, I Went Through the System.

“If you sought to advantage one group of Americans and disadvantage another, you could scarcely choose a more graceful method than housing discrimination …housing discrimination is as quiet as it is deadly,” writes Ta-Nehisi Coates for The Atlantic in 2014. 

Knock. Knock. Knock.

“Hello, Srishti. You have time to help me?” I know who it is. Like clockwork, she came to my office every day. 

Judy, a resident at Tyrella Gardens
Judy, a resident at Tyrella Gardens.

Judy (56) was a Korean American resident in the Mountain View low-income/affordable housing building, Tyrella Gardens, where I was working as a MidPen Family Services Coordinator. 

A divorced, immigrant, single mother, and a Section 8 recipient, Judy had to navigate the bureaucratic Santa Clara County Social Services system alone. She often reached out to me for rental assistance, legal advice, tax education, resume building, or job search help, and to decipher the English legalese on official documents. 

In August of 2019, armed with Coates’ wisdom and a naive passion for justice, I ventured into a career in affordable housing. Little did I know, my clients and I were ill-equipped and set up for failure. I was just another added number to a high rate of attrition of Resource Coordinators at affordable housing facilities, and Judy’s loss of housing was collateral damage.  

When Judy tried to access resources in Santa Clara County, it often resulted in confusion, frustration, and even aggression from county employees. Judy, lost in the labyrinth of an unfamiliar language, would repeat herself and struggle to answer the litany of personal questions asked. The county employees, overwhelmed with the number of calls received, tried to get through each client quickly. 

English language fluency, dedicated time, and deference dictate the probability of a positive result.

Case Study 1: Judy frantically calls various organizations for a government-issued cell phone plan. They tell her she is ineligible. I call a few hours later and she has a phone in her hand within the week.

Case Study 2: Judy reaches out to the local church for rental assistance. They tell her she isn’t the right fit for their donation program. I reach out to the same church on her behalf and a few weeks later, after some paperwork and interviews, Judy receives rent relief. 

Affordable housing corporations build a niche market of jobs for Resource Coordinators, capitalizing on their empathy and desire for equity, to meet the demands of their municipalities. Housing instability positions 40% of Californian renters with the invariable choice of having to allocate half of their income for rent. These renters become financially vulnerable and are increasingly reliant on government-funded resources. Lip service and self-congratulatory behavior about housing policy by notable leaders calls for media attention, instead, left in the wake are the underpaid, understaffed Resource Coordinators with the onus of uplifting the disenfranchised.

“I can’t imagine you not here, Srishti. You help me so much,” Judy said to me one afternoon after searching for jobs.

Those words echoed, heavy but hollow. 

It was a laborious job. I serviced the residents at two different housing locations, independently taught and developed the after-school program for kids (many of whom had learning disabilities), created the high school program for teens, ran the farmer’s market, conducted countless engagement events, and more. To top it all off, a lot of my time was spent tediously cataloging my work on Salesforce for upper management, who seemed more concerned with the data-tracking tool than with their employees on the ground. 

Internally struggling, I went back and forth between these questions: How would my absence make Judy feel? How would my coworkers fare without my help? Was the pay worth the hours I put in? Did I feel valued by MidPen Housing? Did I feel supported by MidPen Housing? Was the job sustainable?

For many months, I was at an impasse. I couldn’t decide if I should leave Tyrella Gardens. I didn’t feel valued, I didn’t feel supported, I wasn’t paid well, and I was perpetually ill. 

The pandemic was a chaotic trigger in my life and Judy’s. I quit my job at Midpen Housing in February of 2020 and the lockdown began soon after. My immediate worry was — how would Judy fare?

Perhaps, I should have been apprehensive of my own housing situation. I was living with three roommates and three out of the four of us were without consistent sources of income. We concluded that the responsible thing would be to break the lease. 

Our property management company made it an arduous and expensive ordeal — it would cost me more to break the lease than it would be to stay. Either way, I didn’t have the funds. I never thought that I, an educated and resourceful Indian American from the Bay Area, would be caught up in what felt like housing injustice.

Ping! 

I receive a Facebook message from Judy, who continues to reach out to me for help.

April 12, 2020: “Hello. I will stay home April & May. Coronavirus. Do I need time off? Could you call me?”

Judy was concerned about her job as an Amazon shopper at Whole Foods, which I had helped her attain.

Unclear of what to do about my housing, I search “tenant rights for San Jose residents” on my phone as I log on to Judy’s work portal on my computer to figure out how she could take time off and pay her bills. 

Judy, a proactive woman, is a byproduct of circumstance. I know this because I know Judy — why she needs help, her backstory, how to communicate with her to get an informative response. But most importantly, our shared history as Asian immigrants help us have productive, respectful conversations.

“You are so nice, Srishti. You always help,” she said once as she handed me fruits. She was grateful to be shown kindness, but I was only doing my job.

I knew the residents disliked the turnover of people in my position. They told me stories of all the other Coordinators that had come before me. Those in my position felt like bad actors in a mythical story. I didn’t want to be another in a series of transient people in their lives that seemed to care momentarily. I lugged this weight around with me.  

I kept promising them I would stay, but I had noticed a trend. Our group of around fifty Family Service Coordinators would meet once a month and one by one, I saw older coworkers exit the organization and new faces replace them. After 8 months, I was a replaced face too. At least 10 out of 50 employees were gone within the year — a 20% loss and a turnover rate that is high for any organization.

In June of 2021, I contacted the cohort of coworkers I worked with at MidPen: Jennifer Villasano (23), Kristi Seymour (24), Diana Lumbreras (25). We had started our time at MidPen together in August of 2019 and they were still there when I left in February of 2020. 

Were they able to debunk my theory that the Coordinator position in affordable housing is an unsustainable job?

Villasano laughs and thinks back to when she first joined MidPen, “It was my first job out of college…At first I thought, I get to give back to my community” and then she notes it became “hard to give more” partially because of the organization she was working for. 

She continued to work during the pandemic and was appalled by how MidPen did not value her safety. “Residents and co-workers wouldn’t wear masks during the pandemic and I didn’t want to be exposed [to COVID],” she continues, “One of the residents got COVID and because of some Act, management wouldn’t tell us who.” She felt this was a breach of her well-being since she had to continue to “flyer” at the housing facility and interact with all the residents. 

“No one was checking in on the coordinators. It was exhausting.”

Jennifer Villasano quit in July of 2020.

As to why she left, she decisively states, “Instead of speaking up for us, [management] would ask us to do more. They wouldn’t support us….They need to do better.”

Kristi Seymour, a Guyanese-American woman, corroborates that, “Management wasn’t the best. Expectations weren’t met. That could also tie into the high turnover rate. If you don’t feel like your managers care about you … you’re not going to tell them anything and leave at the first chance.” Seymour felt slighted by the inconsistent nature of support provided and emphatically asserts, “I think its pay. I think it’s management. As the people actually delivering the services, you’re not getting paid enough for what you do…They expect a lot out of you — running after-school programs and delivering services to 40-50 units.”

Kristi Seymour quit in June of 2020.

Diana Lumbreras, a Mexican-American woman, shares a similar narrative to mine: “MidPen was my first job where I was working with housing, it was interesting to see how it worked. It was about numbers. We didn’t have time to build relationships because we had to get stuff in.”

Lumbreras forged on during the pandemic. The lockdown exacerbated the pre-existing concerns that she had with MidPen. 

“Something that happened during the pandemic that actually bugged me was that, of course, mostly everyone at my [housing site] lost their jobs. I was going door to door ‘flyering’ with resources for food banks, assistance for rent, anything and everything that I could find to help [the residents]. When it came to documentation…[management] said that there was no way of documenting my work because it wasn’t something [they] had asked for.”

Diana Lumbreras quit in August of 2020.

“What am I doing here?” She asked herself before leaving her job. “I was told that even if I did more, that there was no way of getting credit for that work … essentially saying, don’t even do [the work] if you can’t document it. That was the part that got me so upset because I was doing so much. I was printing out flyers in English, Spanish, Vietnamese and going door to door.”

The stories relayed to me by the Ghosts of Coordinators Past held a valuable nugget. The Family Services Coordinator position entrenched within the affordable housing complex is integral to the health of the community it serves. Lumbreras poignantly reminds me of this when she tells me, “As an essential worker during the pandemic, I felt important because people were coming to me when they actually needed help.” That weight I was lugging around was part of Diana’s story too. In reality, this burden wasn’t ours to bear. The responsibility to the community of clients and employees should be accounted for in the system attempting to address the housing crisis in the Bay Area. 

Family Service Coordinators are servicing low-income to median-income residents and, yet, they are well below the low-income threshold of $58,00 for housing in Santa Clara County themselves. Hourly pay at between $19-$20/hour, the average person working in affordable housing is making a yearly salary of a whopping $38,400 before taxes, and are most likely people of color. How can those tasked to elevate the marginalized put their best foot forward when they are being marginalized themselves? 

California housing prices have been on the rise. In May of 2021, the median home price in California was $818,260 with the SF Bay Area region clocking in at a 38.9% increase in the median home price since 2020 — the highest increase in the state. The nuclear family home, which was more attainable for the Baby Boomer generation, is a far-fetched dream for 44% of California residents. Despite the eviction moratorium being extended for another three months with the offer of all low-income past-due back rent being paid by the state, renters have been in a precarious situation for the last year, their benefits and interests at the whims of their landlords.

California housing policy is trending toward investment in affordable housing communities. Tina Rosales, a Policy Advocate at Western Center on Law & Poverty (WCLP) based in Sacramento is pushing for equitable and fair housing. In a concerted effort with WCLP, Francisco Dueñas, Executive Director of Housing Now, advocates for the divestment of government resources from private construction and into affordable housing and Land Trusts. 

Since 2016, Santa Clara County has been on track to exponentially increase accessible housing when residents voted for Measure A in an effort to alleviate housing injustice. Measure A approved $950 million to build 4,800 affordable housing units in the county. Since then, the county has dedicated more funds to affordable housing while overlooking their commitment to the communities they serve. 

Affordable housing is the future of Bay Area housing. Thus, forthcoming policy must account for evidence-based case studies. Narratives of employee loss and its subsequent adverse effect on residents are an emerging barrier to housing equity. 

Ultimately, the residents suffer. 

I keep reaching out to Judy but hear from her less and less. Embroiled in my own housing fiasco, the upkeep of our relationship recedes to the backburner.

On May 25, 2021, I finally receive a message from Judy: “I stay in Korea. I can call around this time tomorrow.”

When we speak, she informs me that in September of 2020, her Section 8 rent had increased from approximately $120 to approximately $600. Unable to afford rent and scared of resuming work, Judy moved back home with her parents in Korea. She decided to wait out the pandemic in Korea but was hopeful she could come back to the US after the pandemic. With no address on hand and no paperwork filed, Santa Clara Housing Authority (SCCHA) revokes Judy’s Section 8 housing when MidPen marks her an absentee renter. 

Since May of 2021, Judy and I have been trying to access her SCCHA specialist to figure out how to move forward. Judy wants to resume residence in America but cannot do so without Section 8 housing. The SCCHA offices are closed (in a time when their services are most necessary) and the operators manning the phone lines have not given any clear answers — we are stuck in cyclical redirection.

Affordable housing was effective for Judy when someone could guide her through the government regulations. Diana Lumbreras similarly posited, “I would put the resources out there, but the same people that lived in the housing were limited in the knowledge that they had to get the resources.” Judy’s back-rent can be paid by the state, but that decision came too late in this particular case. The system failed Judy.

Though I was edged out of the apartment I was living in at the beginning of the pandemic, I finagle my way into a Below-Market-Rate apartment that was listed as an affordable housing unit in San Jose. I manage to pay off the previous landlord and save money at my new complex. Affordable housing isn’t perfect, however, it did lend itself perfectly to me. 

Judy and I had inequitable outcomes. 

Creating resources and delivering resources seem to be at odds with one another. What they require is synergy.

Here are the asks:

  1. The base pay for Resource Coordinators needs to increase to a number that reflects their invaluable service to the community.
  2. There should be an increase in employee retention rates at affordable housing sites.
  3. There should be more on-site staff for support.
  4. There should be more focus on relationship-building and less on the number of initiatives implemented.
  5. There should be a symbiotic relationship between resource coordinators and the county services staff.
  6. There should be a creation of a Union for workers in social services in the state.

 

“Housing discrimination is hard to detect, hard to prove, and hard to prosecute,” proffers Ta-Nehisi Coates

No home. No country to call her own. Judy embodies the silent way in which housing inequity diminishes a person’s agency and identity. 

We need to do better. We have to do better — Not just by creating accessible housing, but by creating sustainable networks of people that can ensure our community’s diverse and equitable growth in the Bay Area. 

*We reached out to MidPen Housing for comment. They did not respond to our request.


Srishti Prabha is the Managing Editor at India Currents and has worked in low-income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.


 

Dr. Maya Nambisan providing Telehealth services to patients in India.

I’m Treating COVID Patients in India From California, But It’s Not Enough…

“Everyone in my family is sick, madam, our father has been having high fevers for several days. My wife sickened 5 days ago. She was pregnant and had to have an emergency c-section delivery…baby is in the NICU…now my brother has developed a cough. They were unable to be vaccinated ma’am, they went to the center but by the time they got there, all vaccines were gone…”

On the monitor, the man gulped visibly, obviously distraught. He was the first of several patients whom I would triage remotely – a volunteer effort led by non-resident Indian physicians to help with the COVID-19 surge currently ravaging India. I had already seen many patients with similar stories: recently symptomatic, terrified of having to seek care in overburdened hospitals, and frustrated with the inability to access the life-saving vaccines being administered in other countries.

As the newspaper headlines report on a daily basis, the toll of COVID-19 IS skyrocketing in India. Patients must “hospital shop” to find beds and oxygen. The situation is dire and could have been mitigated if the population had better access to vaccines. It is imperative to promote resource equity: pandemics cannot be managed by political agendas and microbes disregard both party lines and geographic boundaries. This is why I applaud the Biden administration’s decision to support a waiver on intellectual property (IP) rights for COVID-19 vaccines.  It is a critical first step towards ensuring sustainable access to vaccines, particularly in hard-hit countries like India and Brazil.

Over 80% of the more than 1 billion COVID-19 vaccine doses distributed globally have gone to high-income countries, while low-income countries have received a paltry 0.3% of the supply.  Pharmaceutical companies, profiting from filling orders of wealthy countries first, have not made countries like Brazil and India a priority until now when their monopoly control on the vaccine was threatened by the possibility of an IP waiver. Yet, these are the countries where a resurgence could cause incredible upheaval and are the most vulnerable to the sequelae of this pandemic.

Moreover, there is a growing risk of prolonging the pandemic as the virus rages on unchecked. Science confirms that fact: the longer the virus is allowed to replicate in a population, the greater the possibility of mutation, which ultimately jeopardizes the health of every nation, resource-rich, or poor. History has also shown that since the original SARS epidemic in 2003, there have been dramatic leaps in the genetic variation of these viruses, which have increased transmissibility and virulence. The likelihood is that this pattern will continue into the next decade, creating more rapidly mutating and perhaps more lethal viruses, which is a threat to all humanity.  Expanding vaccine equity now will help to combat our current crisis and may even quell the incidence of new mutations in the future.

The U.S. announcement is a humanitarian, practical response to the global phenomenon of a rapidly mutating pandemic. It is a great first step. The hard work is yet to be done. The World Trade Organization must meet to hash out the specifics of the policy. Other nations will need to commit to the waiver in order to for the policy to be actionable. Simultaneously, there must be commitments to compel technology transfer and resource allocation to the countries that are suffering the most.  

My hope is that eventually these life-saving health care innovations will not be treated as the spoils of free-market competition and will be available to patients like my own without negotiation, wherever they are most needed.


Maya Nambisan is a physician in San Joaquin County. She is of Indian ancestry and still has many family members there.  She has an M.D. from the University of Illinois and an MPH from Yale School of Epidemiology & Public Health. She is currently volunteering her time with eglobaldoctors.com, an effort by nonresident physicians of Indian origin to help with the covid surge in India.


 

Kala Bagai Way: The First Street In the US Named After a Historic Indian American Woman

When Kalai Bagai first arrived in San Francisco on September 6th, 1915 with her husband Vaishno and three sons, local newspapers flocked to cover the story of the first Indian-American woman to enter the Bay Area. Fleeing British imperialism in her homeland, Bagai was exposed to the very casual racism and persecution she thought she had escaped. When her family purchased their first home, she remembered her neighbors attempting to stop them from moving in. 

Newspaper article from September 1915 issue of San Francisco Call & Post describing Kala Bagai’s arrival in the United States with her family. (South Asian American Digital Archive)

“All of our luggage and everything was loaded on the trucks,’ she said. “I told Mr. Bagai I don’t want to live in this neighborhood. I don’t want to live in this house, because they might hurt my children, and I don’t want it. We paid for the house and they locked the doors? No!'”

Although one in the hundreds of immigrants searching for new lives in the United States, Kala Bagai was singled out for her Indian heritage by the masses — ridiculed for her nose ring and skin color. Bagai, like so many other activists of color, was stenciled into America’s history for her “otherness”, and for her struggle to take ownership of her cultural identity. 

The story of Kala Bagai is defined by risk — the risk to emigrate to the nascent United States with precarious citizenship laws, the risk to leave India without knowing a word of English, the risk to challenge this sense of “otherness” that permeated the public consciousness.

Though one of the first South Asians to find a home in the San Francisco Bay Area, Kala Bagai was aware that she would not be the last. As new Indian American families emigrated to her area, they were welcomed with a smile and a warm meal prepared by Bagai. She was endearingly named “Mother India” by Indian locals. By blurring the boundaries between California Americanisms and Desi customs, Bagai redefined this sense of “otherness” — she created a community out of the ambiguous and alienating identity that was given to her. 

Then the United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind case defined Indians as citizens of color, ineligible for U.S. citizenship. Still, in shock over his sudden denaturalization, Vaishno Bagai took his own life. The Bagais were left without citizenship, livelihood, or home. And it was at their lowest that Kala Bagai began to fight back. Despite the loss of her husband, she advocated fiercely for Indian American rights and found ways to support anti-colonialism movements in India. Kala Bagai put all three of her sons through college, taking great pride in supporting their higher education. Before passing away at 90 years in 1983, Bagai had hosted a number of Indian festivals, community halls, and theatres — events continued in her honor to this day.

Kala Bagai was ostracized for her “otherness”. Today, the Berkeley community is ready to celebrate her for it. With a thriving South Asian American community, Berkeley has spent the past couple of months trying to find a name for a 2-block stretch of Shattuck Avenue East. In the heart of Berkeley downtown, this street has the potential to recognize and uplift America’s rich South Asian American cultural community. Because in an unexpected, yet beautiful turn of events, the Bay Area community is ready to name this street Kala Bagai Way. Anirvan Chatterjee, a San Francisco Bay Area activist who helped organize community support for the name, discusses the implications of this historic naming process in an exclusive interview with India Currents. 

“Berkeley is a roughly 20% Asian American city, but you wouldn’t be able to tell by looking at the street names”, Chatterjee said. “I think Kala Bagai was a good fit because she was Asian American, a woman, an immigrant, a member of a minority faith, a survivor of local and federal racism. But she was more than her identity, or what was done to her family. She persisted through heartbreak, emerging as a critical California immigrant community-builder well into her forties. She demonstrated a model of quiet activism that sometimes doesn’t get recognized, but is so critical in our movements and communities.

In terms of her connection to Berkeley, her story shed light on the city’s difficult history around race and housing. It’s easier to honor someone who is a long-term resident, but more challenging—and interesting—to name a street after somebody who wanted to be a neighbor, but was kept out by community racism.” 

Turning a downtown Berkeley street into Kala Bagai Way was certainly an uphill battle. Chatterjee and other local activists worked with descendants of Kala Bagai to tell her story to the media and represent her legacy. They even created a Wikipedia page dedicated to her, so that Berkeley locals could educate themselves on her role in Indian American activism. Chatterjee attended the final meeting of the Berkeley naming advisory committee and noted a discrepancy in Berkeley’s representation and the area itself. Only 2 of the 9 members of the committee were people of color. And while this committee wanted to honor the city’s rich history, they realized that naming the street after Kala Bagai was defined, much like Bagai herself, by risk. 

Kala Bagai (South Asian American Digital Archive)
Kala Bagai (South Asian American Digital Archive)

“She wasn’t the safest possible choice, because her most relevant connection to Berkeley was the way she and her family were kept out,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street after her also means naming an uncomfortable past, and also serves as a reminder to defend all of today’s Kala Bagais, by resisting displacement and welcoming newcomers.”

While Kala Bagai Way is a victory for the Asian American community, it’s hard to celebrate this achievement without recognizing the current backdrop of hate crimes against Asian Americans. Just three weeks ago, a man opened fire at three different massage parlors in Atlanta, Georgia, killing six Asian American women. This is not an isolated atrocity, but rather one in the many crimes which suggest that America’s terrifying history of prejudice and xenophobia is far from over. Chatterjee thinks that in the wake of these hate crimes, naming this street after a South Asian American activist only grows more necessary. 

“Anti-Asian racism is often rooted in the stereotype of Asian Americans as eternal foreigners, generation after generation,” Chatterjee said. “Naming a street isn’t just about community pride, but also about shifting that culture. Naming a downtown street after an Asian American activist who tried to move to Berkeley over a century ago is making a claim to belonging, and is a tiny part of much larger anti-racist movements.” 

While no one knows what the future holds in store for America’s immigrant communities, we hope that symbolic progress leads to constructive change. Indian Americans have played a major role in shaping today’s America, but they often don’t see themselves represented by the local or national leadership. Chatterjee believes that Kala Bagai Way is a foot in the door, and serves as a homage to the footsteps of Asian American activists before him. 

“Our histories are important, both because they’re ours, and also because they connect to larger stories,” Chatterjee says. “We’re walking a path paved by the activism of other communities, like Black activists taking on the honoring of the Confederacy, or Native American activists taking on racist sports teams. The point isn’t just to change the names, but to address what the names represent.”

This Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, we honor Kala Bagai for all her contributions to our Indian American communities in California.


Kanchan Naik is a senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin, California. She is the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton, as well as the Director of Media Outreach for youth nonprofit Break the Outbreak. She is the founder and editor-in-chief of her school newspaper, The Roar, as well as the Global Student Editor for the 2020 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 


 

What I Admire About RBG

Supreme Court justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg succumbed to complications of pancreatic cancer on September 18, 2020 but Justice Ginsburg will be alive in the annals of American law. She paved the way for American women, one case at a time.

Ginsberg co-founded the Women’s Right Law Reporter, a pioneering law journal at Rutgers where she taught. She advocated as a volunteer attorney at the American Civil Liberties Union’s Women’s Rights Union. In the mid 1970s she argued half a dozen gender discrimination cases before the high court winning all but one. Ginsberg was appointed as a judge in the U.S. Court of Appeals for District of Columbia by President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Her appointment as the second woman on the US Supreme court in 1993 (guided by Hilary Clinton) was one of the best undertakings by President Bill Clinton.  

The Supreme Court justice who gave an unbiased ear to every argument had a famous quote: Every now and then it helps to be a little deaf!

From the vast ocean of evidence, she created her life. She is a beacon of hope for every woman and is a true American hero. She changed history through her landmark cases and built precedence by methodically arguing for gender equality based on the Fourteenth Amendment. 

And now, every woman can claim equal access to education, equal pay, equal military allowance, access contraception, take maternity leave, cut a man’s hair, buy a drink, administer an estate, serve on the jury, and get equal social security benefits. The list is formidable and speaks of her equally intimidating stance on these issues! She wiped close to 200 laws that discriminated against women off the books. She believed that “women would have achieved true equality when men share with them the responsibility of bringing up the next generation.”

The personality traits I admire of hers:

  • A brilliant mind always at work
  • A rational minimalist
  • Her slow deliberate speech 
  • Measured sentences spoken with thought
  • Total dedication to work 
  • Her commitment to get the law right
  • Steel trap of a memory and ability to recall every word
  • Profound personal dignity 
  • An innate sense of justice
  • Her “ cool” connection with the Millenials as the “notorious” RBG”
  • Her crusade on gender equality
  • Her sense of humor “Ginsburned”!
  • Her warmth towards her staff, colleagues, friends
  • Her determination to remain healthy despite  multiple cancers
  • She showed up to work every day and handled her full load
  • She was a crusader for gender equality 
  • Her zeal to work with her trainer

When I look upon the black and white photo of Ruth Bader Ginsburg as a two-year-old, I can tell that she will be one of the most influential women of this century. I think the best costume for girls this Halloween and for years to come will be RGB in her black robes and white beaded collar!

The death of Justice Ginsburg at this tumultuous time is a phenomenal loss to America. There never will be another like her. Her death leaves a great political void. Chief Justice John Roberts no longer holds the controlling vote in cases cleaved right in the middle of liberal-conservative lines. RGB ruminated on this and her last fervent wish was, “not be replaced until a new president is installed.”

It behooves the people of the United States to make their views heard before the election and uphold her wish! There are too many transformative cases like Obamacare that lay precariously in the hands of the new Supreme Court. Our “notorious” RBG was curious, laborious, and glorious in her life. Let’s work hard to honor this courageous Supreme Court Judge.


Monita Soni grew up in Mumbai, India, and works as a pathologist in Decatur Alabama. She is well known for her creative nonfiction and poetry pieces inspired by family, faith, food, home, and art. She has written two books: My Light Reflections and Flow through my Heart. She is a regular contributor to NPR’s Sundial Writers Corner.

STEAMPower Bridges the Digital Divide

The coronavirus pandemic has penetrated nearly every sphere of public life, including our educational system. While many students can afford the work-from-home setup, young people in rural or marginalized communities are bearing the consequences of our current digital divide. To learn more about how to support equitable education, I had a chat with Avighna Suresh, founder, and president of nonprofit STEAMPower, which offers virtual tutoring sessions to students all over the world.

What prompted you to start STEAMPower? Why is equitable education important to you? 

Growing up in a family that has always provided me with educational opportunities and having always gone to private schools, I lived in my own little bubble of educational privilege for most of my life. The first time I was really faced with the reality of educational inequity was when I worked at an afterschool program in the Tenderloin district of San Francisco called Up on Top. Seeing the vastly different opportunities these children had in contrast with the opportunities I had at their age changed my perspective on the issue completely. I quickly realized that sitting around and being complacent was not an option; I had the privilege and resources to do something, and I felt the responsibility to do it. 

Equitable education is incredibly important to me because it’s such an important asset for success and really shapes your attitude towards the world in many ways. The fact is that it isn’t enough for simply education to be a right; everyone deserves the right to quality education, and we are seeing that now more than ever. 

What is your teaching philosophy? How do you structure tutoring sessions, workshops, and curriculum?

Our teaching philosophy is centered around the student. A typical first tutoring session is preceded by contacting the student about what previous experience they have in the subject matter they want help in, asking for any resources they would like us to use, and then using those resources to craft personalized learning plans. Our other programs like STEAMChangers, our curriculums, and our videos are structured around demand: how much do students and parents want to see the topic, and how will it change the landscape of STEAM? 

All of our work is done online through Google Meetings or Zoom, and we are always open to communicate through text or email. The beauty of technology is that it widens our reach in ways that just wouldn’t be possible physically. Tutors in Brazil are able to tutor students in California. It’s a really unique and wonderful way to experience understanding of universal concepts regardless of where in the world you are.

What challenges did you face in founding STEAMPower? Do you find it difficult to establish regular clientele because you’re a high school student? What resources did you tap into to form the robust nonprofit you have today? 

Founding STEAMPower was one of the most challenging things I have ever done: from finding people to help me run and advance the initiative to spreading our reach to impact as many people as possible, there were definitely many bumps in the road to get where we are now. The first biggest challenge was finding a leadership team and tutors who were really passionate about what they were doing.

After finding a lot of students, the next challenge became organizing and matching students and tutors. I was able to do this through email and Google Calendar, which is a great way to visualize how many tutoring sessions are happening in a day, and notify students and tutors that there is a session coming up soon. Our largest challenge was scaling our initiative, and broadcasting it worldwide.

As a high school student, it was initially difficult to pitch my idea to local leaders and adults. I knew that they were the best way to get the word out about STEAMPower to communities that needed us most. I sent around 70 emails, and only got responses and help from around 5, but that was more than enough to get the support I needed. 

The main resources that helped me the most in establishing STEAMPower were: 

  1. Local leaders who spread the word and enabled us to establish local presence.
  2. Social media and Instagram that allowed us to go worldwide and help students from around the globe.
  3. A nonprofit and startup accelerator called Hack+ that helped us achieve 501(c)(3) tax-exempt nonprofit status and secure funding and sponsorships.

How did the coronavirus change the scope and purpose of your nonprofit? 

With school closures came a lot less support and resources for those who need it. Many students need structure and guidance to effectively learn, and the compromised conditions of school during COVID-19 made it difficult for a lot of students to continue studying. Due to the coronavirus, STEAMPower’s purpose shifted completely to supporting students with remote learning through virtual tutoring and free educational videos to help some of those hardest hit by the pandemic. 

Currently, you’re developing curriculums for students in India, Madagascar, and Zimbabwe. How do the curriculums differ along geographical boundaries? 

The primary differentiator for curriculums in different countries is the variance in classroom resources available to them to complete experiments and demonstrations that we weave into our curriculums, though we try to keep demonstrations largely accessible to everyone.

What is teaching students from different countries like? Do you face any linguistic and cultural barriers while teaching?

Having students and teachers from different countries is a great experience as it allows for a peek into the ways others live their lives, learn, and experience education. So far, there have been no linguistic barriers in tutoring. However, there are certain cultural differences as some countries and school systems may teach a certain formula that another doesn’t, or may have a different name from a concept. These small peeks into these subtle differences don’t inhibit the quality of learning or instruction, but it is interesting to acknowledge those differences.

What policies and programs do you think governments need to initiate to provide equitable education? 

It’s important that schools start providing unique, personalized support to students to help them succeed. We need to understand that students are diverse, and as a result have diverse needs. It’s not practical to assume that every student starts off at an even playing field. 

Schools need to stretch possibilities and challenge status quos that prevent certain students from achieving to the utmost of their ability. This begins primarily with teachers and faculty who are well-trained to address these issues and approach these problems with the intent to achieve the end goal of equity. There should also be specialized college access programs in schools/communities where there may be no access to college and further education opportunities otherwise. In addition, having diverse faculty to reflect a diverse student body is important. There are many steps schools can take, and while they may not eradicate the problem of educational inequity completely, any progress is a stride in the right direction.

Do you have any advice for students who want to help bridge the gap that plagues our education system today?  

My advice for students who want to bridge gaps in education is to take matters into their own hands. Whether it’s tutoring your siblings or neighbors, donating your old textbooks to those who can’t afford them, joining and supporting nonprofits and initiatives like STEAMPower, or reaching out to local representatives to propose solutions to problems you see, it’s important to turn dissatisfaction into action and do what you can, no matter how big or small. Though you may feel like you’re too young to make a difference, your voice is incredibly powerful.

With the coming academic year, schools are considering many possibilities in terms of teaching styles, attendance, etc. What are your thoughts on another year of distance learning? Should schools in the Bay Area open their doors? 

It really depends on the state of the pandemic and whether or not it is safe for students, teachers, and families. While another year of distance learning is not ideal, it may be what is necessary to protect lives and lessen the impact of the virus. In the meanwhile, it is imperative that schools ensure quality learning experiences for their students, whether it is virtually or in a hybrid environment. To me, quality learning means interactive instruction where students can get one-on-one help and clarify questions. In the meanwhile, STEAMPower is here to support anyone who needs us!

Kanchan Naik is a rising senior at the Quarry Lane School in Dublin California. Aside from being the Youth Editor of India Currents, she is also the editor-in-chief of her school newspaper The Roar and the 2019-2020 Teen Poet Laureate for the City of Pleasanton.

Imperial County: Infecting the Hand That Feeds You

Shrouded by divisive thought and taunts, no issue remains non-partisan. Blame is placed on political parties, denying accountability on either end. 

“This entire country was not prepared to deal with a pandemic. The political divisions, the lack of political will to address and invest in the inequities that have been long characterized, for many years, by academics..and experts have gone ignored”

Community activist, Luis Olmedo of Comite Civico Del Valle, Inc., comes into the July 10th Ethnic Media Services briefing full throttle. His frustrations are apparent as he speaks about the disenfranchised Latinx population in Imperial County. 

Imperial County is currently the hot spot of COVID-19 in California. Imperial is 88% Latinx, many undocumented, with a heavy hand in California’s agricultural production. Imperial County is the 10th largest food producer in the state, with their yield being domestically exported to Hawaii and California and internationally exported to Japan, Mexico, South Korea, China and Canada

The county has 2,835 cases per 100,000 people versus 491 cases per 100,000 statewide and only two hospitals bearing the brunt of this massacre.

Yes, a massacre. Of the same people who are working to provide us food and other essential services. Latinx families are being confronted with the nightmare of the pandemic. The worst America has to offer – which is nothing at all. 

Letters and calls to action were sent to growers, contractors, and packing facilities when the pandemic began. “All those letters and calls went unheeded,” says Armando Elenes of the United Farm Workers, “they continued their operations as normal.” 

Stock Photo (not representative of Imperial County)

Employers are not communicating with their predominantly Spanish speaking populations and choosing to forego the use of the Emergency Paid Sick Leave Act. H2A workers or temporary agricultural workers, are having to carpool together, work together, and live together and are unable to take sick leave when they develop symptoms. Inevitably, this leads to an increase in infection and mortality. 

Employers have absolved themselves of any responsibility, taking advantage of the desperate situation their low-wage workers are in and in poor taste, victim-blaming those that have contracted COVID. 

CDC has provided data that suggests cases of COVID increased in Latinx communities while all other demographics showed a decrease. Using this data, Edward Flores and Ana Padilla of the UC Merced’s Community and Labor Center have found positive links between low wage work and COVID positivity.

They further defined and found a positive link between a term called worker distress and COVID positivity. Worker distress is characterized by wage (above or below the state average) and the size of the household. In Imperial County, 38.5% of workers have high worker distress. Correlations between worker distress and industry were made. High worker distress was seen in food service, transportation, farm work, warehouse work, and retail. 

A matter far removed from political factions, we turn to inward reflection. It is our habits, practices, and behaviors that have led to the exploitation of an entire population.

Reduced food cost, low wage outsourced labor work, privatized healthcare, inaccessible housing, exported food for profit…

Luis Olmedo said it best at the beginning, we have ignored all the signs for our own convenience. But the turn around for a profit has come back to infect us all. As the infection spreads in Imperial County, the risk of infection domestically and globally increases. 

An advocate from IV Equity & Justice Coalition, Luis Flores, states that “county backing for accountability is needed.” As a resident of Imperial Valley, Flores is able to address the needs of the residents and convey them at the county-state level. He and his coalition are hoping for economic stability, public health structures, clear mechanisms for accountability, mitigating housing precarity (city-level eviction moratorium), accessibility to equity, and data to support the narrative they see. 

A huge thank you to all the activists that are on the ground advocating for minority rights and educating community journalists! Consider donating to United Farm Workers or Comite Civico Del Valle, Inc. and aid their efforts to gain traction for the marginalized Latinx communities in California.

Srishti Prabha is the Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for children, women, and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.

On Racial Tensions, From an African American Hindu

I grew up in the South during the 1950s and 60s. Those were troublesome times for the African American community. We were identified as Negroes and as an ethnic minority, it was very difficult to understand what our place in the world was. Honestly, there was an element of shame associated with being black.

During the late sixties, I became involved in the “Hippy culture” which exposed me to the concept of “Universal love.” I was not familiar with this Vedic concept of universal love, which is foundational to the true Hindu/Vedic culture. 

My first exposure to this culture was through my association in 1971, with Transcendental Meditation introduced by the late Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. I was a performing artist in Atlanta and the surrounding areas and heavily involved with the culture of “Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll.”

Eventually around 1972, I came in contact with disciples of His Divine Grace A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, the founder Acharya of the International Society of Krishna Consciousness. They introduced me to the Bhagavad Gita, which is the most well-known of all Vedic texts. This holy book is very dear and sacred to all Hindus and Westerners who have adopted these teachings and practices.

Central to the Hindu/Vedic philosophy is the concept that we are not these material bodies but that we are eternal spiritual beings, temporarily inhabiting these material bodies. So whether we identify as an African American, Hindu American, Asian American, White American, or an American of color, we are all spiritual beings equal in the eyes of the Supreme Lord. 

During the present time of racial tensions in America, I along with other Hindu/Vedic leaders are considering what we can do to impact and help change this painful and distressful situation.

One thing that I have learned during my several efforts to share Hindu/Vedic principles in the primarily African American community, is that these communities are not looking for a handout. They are desperately in need of help in building up their communities, especially in the areas of affordable housing not just gentrification. Jobs and other meaningful social activities for their youth and young adults are also a major concern along with educational help.

Some years ago, I partnered with a young African American community activist who was working in my hometown of East Point Georgia and during that time some local people who knew about my association with the Hindu community said to me, “Mr. Tillman, could you ask your Hindu friends to teach us how to do business like they are doing.” One reason for this question is that many of the small businesses in their communities are owned by Hindu community members.

I serve as the president of the Vedic Friends Association, an organization focused on preserving and presenting the various aspects of the Hindu/Vedic culture, in a manner suitable for the present environment which is plagued by such issues as racism. This is the first time to my knowledge that they have elected an African American as the president of a major Hindu based organization. I am honored to serve in this capacity and the support and encouragement have been tremendous. 

I am confident that with the vast resources of our Hindu/Vedic community, we can have a positive and powerful impact on developing our communities of color. 

Benny J Tillman (Balabhadra Bhattacarya Dasa) is the President Vedic Friends Association, a Leader in the Hindu Community, and a disciple of Rapanuga Dasa.