I remember my first day at my Americorps program, Public Allies Silicon Valley – a program which recruits young people to engage in grassroots activism. I stood alone – the only Indian in the room of 40 people. Discomfort was the first emotion. Will anyone understand my SRK references? Soon after, I was perplexed. I live in the Bay Area, how could this be?
Growing up as a first generation Indian American, I would get frustrated with my parent’s generation. Though immigrants, like my parents, are integral members of their community, they sometimes lack awareness about the foreign land we are now structurally a part of and the diversity of the people around us.
Community engagement and interest in the space around them is what will make America feel like their own, but they forget to empower and uplift our colleagues and allies. Their pursuits don’t align with social justice.
I yearn for South Asian activism, which at times has felt nonexistent or ignorant.
I am always astounded by the inimitable perseverance I’ve seen from my immigrant parents, friends and their families. Caught in an unfamiliar culture, they stand focused, driven, patient, invested in their children and their future.
I have come to understand them better and I don’t blame them. They were preoccupied with survival. I am preoccupied with the future. A condition of privilege.
Truly a minority in the U.S., constituting 1.6% of the American population, South Asian Americans are left to their own devices–trying to string together a network of people with the limited resources they have. Since 2010, the South Asian population in America has increased by 40%. There is a growing need for community based activism.
Our culture is a non native seedling in a brush of old plants with deep roots. In order for the new roots to take, it must be given water and nutrition, nurture and care. Without it, it will be overtaken.
But it’s a new time. A new generation of South Asian immigrants. And someone needed to remind me.
Who better to introduce me to my changing landscape in Almaden, South San Jose, California, but my mother.
I walked into the Almaden Library and Community Center on October 19, 2019, my first time in 10 years, to attend a Diwali event. I was there in support of my mother’s dance group, as the duties of the devoted fangirl requires.
I scanned the room for a familiar face. To my surprise, I didn’t recognize a single person in the room. What’s more? There was a niche group of women, members of the Almaden South Asian Women’s Association (ASAWA), running the event.
ASAWA had put on a Diwali event with local artists, performers, and vendors, to fundraise for breast cancer. I immediately felt like my community had been revitalized. There was a fresh energy in this room of 275 people, more people than I’d ever seen at the community center. There were children dancing to ‘Coca Cola Tu’, parents running after their babies with a samosa in hand, high school students collecting event donations, performances ranging from poetry to singing and dancing. Every age group was engaged and the feeling was palpable. The town I had grown up in and felt I had known, had transformed.
ASAWA was founded by Suchitra Patri, a working mother of two, with no familial network in Almaden. When she fell sick six years ago, she had to rely on her husband to take her to doctor’s appointments. The implications of being an immigrant and the void of being without parents and siblings created the impetus to form ASAWA in March of 2019. They didn’t have financing or 501(c)(3) status but it was the non financial help from friends like Aruna Iyer, that gave AWAWA life. ASAWA could be the network that would support without the implied feeling of burden; an organization borne to nurture and shower the sapling roots that push through the dry dirt and established roots, to find some space for themselves.
Since then, ASAWA has opened its doors to a wide variety of people – Pakistani, Indian, Bangladeshi, Caribbean, and everything in between. It prides itself on inclusivity and ensuring that every South Asian demographic has a safe space– They have tackled youth, senior, health, and education initiatives and developed a community and an advocate base. ASAWA isn’t tied to political or religious views, rather, they extend a helping hand where they see disparity.
Their efforts are novel and forward-thinking, creating dialogue in the Almaden South Asian diaspora – and include inviting San Jose Mental Health Awareness Group to de-stigmatize mental health, leveraging social services programs to help visiting parents who may not have health insurance and advocating for children at their local schools against racism.
ASAWA is a model for what is and what can be; community specific work that addresses the needs of the community. ASAWA is one of the few South Asian organizations in the Bay Area trying to contribute back to its microcosm.
Numerous studies show how important representation can be for minorities and people of color. The next generation of minority children are more likely to pursue diverse career pathways if they see someone like themselves having done it before them. The next generation needs strong role models and activists; people that are fighting for them and their interests. If you are interested in getting involved with ASAWA or have ideas, check out their website here.
We are stronger together and we are here to stay.
Srishti Prabha is the current Assistant Editor at India Currents and has worked in low income/affordable housing as an advocate for women and people of color. She is passionate about diversifying spaces, preserving culture, and removing barriers to equity.