This is a heady time for Indian Americans. Our immigration story and our growing financial and political power are in the headlines every day, especially with the addition of Senator Kamala Harris to the Democratic Party ticket for President. So what can we do to capitalize on this unique moment in history?
Many of us want to do something but are not sure what. This is where The Indian American IMPACT Fund comes in. It’s a bold new initiative whose mission is “to help talented and patriotic Indian Americans who reflect our community’s values run, win, and lead.” Their goal is to build a pipeline for leadership and to provide a voice for the Indian American community in public affairs.
IMPACT will be raising $10 million to support candidates they endorse for this election cycle.
Just this week, the IMPACT Fund released their first round of endorsements for the 2020 General Election. Twenty four candidates have been selected from the 70 Indian Americans running for office up and down the ballot across the country. IMPACT will put their weight behind these candidates through contributions, volunteering and help with grass roots organization.
“We are going to do all these things to help elect these 24 candidates and really build an inclusive democracy.” says Neil Makhija, the new Executive Director of the organization. “When you have Donald Trump campaigning on building walls, that is the antithesis of our values and we don’t think about partisan lines. We value global partnerships to solve issues like climate change, we believe in facts, believe in science.”
The IMPACT Fund goes through an arduous process to assess the candidates and analyze the competitiveness of the races and where IMPACT can make the most difference.
What is incredible is that in 2012, there was only one Indian American member of Congress – Ami Bera of California. But by 2016, that number increased five fold. Joining Bera in Congress were Ro Khanna from California, Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois and Pramila Jayapal from Washington as well Kamala Harris in the Senate. IMPACT supports candidates for public office from Congress to state capitols, school boards and city councils, as well as public leaders like Ravi Sandill who became the first ever District Court Judge in Texas of South Asian descent and who is up for relection in the Texas 127th District Court. in November. The increasing numbers of candidates from the Indian American community running for local and state offices reflect our greater engagement in politics and public affairs.
One of the key endorsements this election cycle is Dr. Hiral Tipirneni, an ER physician who is running for Congress in Arizona in a district that has now become competitive but was unthinkable for a Democrat to win until recently. Makhija believes that scientists or doctors like Dr. Tipirneni will provide different perspectives that will be valuable in helping shape what Congress. “We are excited about building a new generation that is formidable in public service.”
Another pivotal IMPACT-endorsed Senate candidate is Sara Gideon, the speaker of the house in Maine, trying to oust their 4-term Senator Susan Collins. Maine is one of the key races on the 2020 Senate map that will decide which party will have the majority. This highly contested race is considered a “toss up” by the nonpartisan Cook Political Report and has become the most expensive in Maine history.
IMPACT has also endorsed Democratic VP nominee Kamala Harris because of her dual appeal to both the Black and Indian American communities. “I think Kamala Harris is able to tie together our American stories like no other candidate has before in public, “ says Makhija. “Her story in terms of growing up both Black and Indian and how she values both of those experiences in distinct ways but also in similar ways. – she can genuinely be a bridge and help us build a broad coalition that is needed to unite the country and get past this era of division with Donald Trump.”
IMPACT is working to make sure that the Indian American story is told. “We are seeing an immense desire to learn about (Kamala Harris) and that is not something that will disappear. People are going to learn and better understand our community, our issues, our contributions and that will help build this bridge that we are talking about. When a candidate is running in Texas or Arizona – because Kamala has run and been the first, it will be just a bit easier. Because people will be more familiar and understand what it means to be Indian American. So, I think that is one of the biggest impacts of the moment.”
Makhija’s own story represents how the Indian American community is coming into its own. “I am the first person in three generations who has had this chance to come home and build a life where I grew up.” he says. “My father was born a year and half after partition. My family were refugees from Sindh and then went to Ullas Nigar in Mumbai. My parents left everything and came to the United States. The joy that they feel when they go back and see their friends and family and connection is something I can appreciate. And it is easy to take for granted if you are in the town you grew up in and you have that. I have not left everything behind and gone across the world like many of them had to. It’s really special and this rootedness gives you the platform to get involved in public affairs.”
A common thread to the immigrant story is that the first generation works hard to build a new life and does not always engage in public life . But their commitment allows the second generation to step up and fully participate in the public and political sphere.
The opportunity to do that is what has Neil Makhija working around the clock at IMPACT.
Other groups like LatinX, LGBTQ, African American “all have a serious presence in terms of organization and you need that if you are going to bring a community that has not traditionally or historically been in power, “ says Makhija “It does not happen automatically.”
The IMPACT Fund will recruit, train, and then endorse and elect candidates who want to serve and fully represent diverse communities. “What we find is that Indian American as well as other immigrant communities are often welcomed when they play narrow roles but receive skepticism when they aspire to leadership. That’s what we are up against and so, we as a community and organization want to come together to help our candidates get beyond that.”
The Indian American IMPACT Project is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization which helps with building awareness about the political process while the Indian American IMPACT Fund is a political action committee (PAC) that helps candidates get elected to local, state and federal offices. The IMPACT Fund is committed to the core values of inclusion, civil rights and a belief in science, qualities they seek when vetting candidates they want to endorse.
Makhija explains that “anyone can give $20 to the presidential race and that is fine. But there are some races where you raise $1000 from a group of people and give it to a Presidential or Senate candidate who is raising multi million dollars, or you can actually help elect a State Senator and that could be the difference between them losing and winning. What our organization does is that it provides infrastructure to have a more sophisticated analysis and decision making process about where you would make a difference.”
The Indian American community can impact this election cycle by volunteering, contributing or even running for office. We have to come together to amplify our voices and represent our community.
Find out more about IMPACT at the Indian American Impact Fund,
And always, VOTE.
Anjana Nagarajan-Butaney is a Bay Area resident with experience in educational non-profits, community building, networking, and content development and was Community Director for an online platform. She is interested in how to strengthen communities by building connections to politics, science & technology, gender equality and public education.
Edited by Meera Kymal, contributing editor at India Currents