Tag Archives: representation

Key South Asian Players in the New Administration

South Asians in the house! — my cousin cheers between mouthfuls of samosa and peanut chutney as Kamala Harris is sworn in as Vice President of the United States on screen. It’s a day as celebratory as it is surreal — especially for the ‘South Asians in the house’, who are scattered across the country watching one of the most unprecedented inaugurations in history. I knew I was going to see a female president or vice-president hold that Bible on camera during my lifetime. The world has seen female presidents and Prime Ministers from Golda Meir to Indira Gandhi to Angela Merkel; the world is growing up, and growing out of the trappings of a patriarchal society. Although we’re late, I knew I would have the honor of watching America catch up. 

But watching a South Asian-American woman help shatter America’s legislative glass ceiling was a wholly different honor altogether. 

According to the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Indian-Americans make up less than 1 percent of the United States’ registered voter base. It’s a fact that’s difficult to forget, considering how under-studied and under-appreciated South Asian Americans are as a voter demographic. Civic engagement organizations have a history of not visiting South Asian American neighborhoods out of fear of ‘mispronouncing their names’. In the past, South Asian-American politicians at the local level have been questioned for their religious or ethnic identities, rather than their qualifications or political stances. Although the 2020 elections have marked a tremendous increase in political participation among our community, historically South Asian Americans have often been under-represented and overlooked at the polls. 

The new administration is a game-changer for our community — and not simply because of Kamala Harris. Here are some members of the wave of South Asian Americans introduced by the Biden-Harris administration. 

Garima Verma 

Formerly a content strategist for the Biden-Harris campaign, Garima Verma was named by First Lady Jill Biden as the Digital Director for the Office of the First Lady at the White House. Born in India, Garima grew up in Ohio and the Central Valley of California. Her journey in marketing and brand strategy shows her passion for both civic engagement and digital storytelling, as Garima has worked for major corporations like Universal Pictures Home Entertainment and nonprofits like the St. Joseph Center alike. Hopefully, Garima will bring her unique talent of telling compelling stories through the digital medium to the First Lady’s team. 

“While in the entertainment space at both Paramount Pictures and ABC, my passion has always been working on diverse and boundary-pushing content that allows more people to feel seen and heard, and to authentically engage and empower those communities through marketing campaigns,” Garima says. “My ultimate goal is to combine my love of marketing and storytelling with my passion for social impact and advocacy in a meaningful and impactful way.” 

Neera Tanden 

Massachusetts-native Neera Tanden has contributed to America’s political landscape for years, from advising Hillary Clinton’s 2016 primary campaign to drafting the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration. For her work in founding the Center of American Progress (CAP), Tanden was named one of the 25 “Most Influential Women In Washington” by the National Journal in 2012. She has used her platforms to advocate for universal, multi-payer healthcare, and cites her childhood experiences living on welfare as a reason behind her passion for healthcare reform and economic empowerment. As Biden’s pick for budget chief, Tanden hopes to bring her years of political experience to the US Office of Management and Budget.

After my parents were divorced when I was young, my mother relied on public food and housing programs to get by,” Tanden said in a 2020 tweet. “Now, I’m being nominated to help ensure those programs are secure and ensure families like mine can live with dignity. I am beyond honored.”

Her nomination, however, did not come without controversy. Tanden has been often criticized by her Republican counterparts for her outspoken nature on Twitter, where she fired back at Lindsey Graham for calling her a ‘nut job’ and referred to Mitch McConnell as ‘Moscow Mitch’. Many Republicans criticize Tanden for her ‘partisan’ approach to politics — an ironic appraisal, considering how nearly every politician has contributed to the radioactive battlefield that is Twitter in recent years. 

Shanthi Kalathil 

Formerly a senior democracy fellow at the US Agency for International Development, Shanthi Kalathil has been named as the White House’s Coordinator for Democracy and Human Rights in the National Security Council. Kalathil’s years of dedication towards advocating for human rights and worldwide democracy demonstrate her preparedness for this role. She is known for her commitment towards addressing techno-authoritarians, or the role that modern technology plays in reinforcing the rigidity of authoritarianism. In fact, she addresses this phenomenon in her 2003 book, Open Networks, Closed Regimes: The Impact of the Internet on Authoritarian Rule. Within an increasingly digitized society, Kalathil’s careful attention towards the Internet in relation to human rights is certainly a step forward for the White House. She also carefully avoids implicit biases while addressing human rights abuses in other countries, discussing the importance of separating “the Chinese people from the Chinese party-state” in a podcast published by the National Democratic Institute. 

“You know one area where I think all democracies have to be careful is in making sure that there is a clear distinction between referring to the Chinese party-state and the Chinese people. Whether it’s the Chinese people within China or people of ethnic Chinese descent all around the world, that would be one area in which I think there does need to be great care”, Kalathil said. “I think in all policy discussions, it’s important to use a scalpel rather than a sledgehammer, to really deal with very specific problems and specific issues that pose a challenge to democracy, but that we shouldn’t conflate broad-based backlash.” 

The United States government has a history of intervening in the human rights abuses committed by the other regimes of the world as an effort to maintain peace and justice. Kalathil’s balanced, nuanced approach towards democracy and human rights will certainly enrich her platform. 


Uzra Zeya 

American diplomat Uzra Zeya has been nominated by the Biden-Harris Administration to serve as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights. Like Tanden, Zeya has years of political experience under her belt, as she was the acting assistant Secretary and Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary in the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor during the Obama Administration. Before that, she worked in Paris’s Embassy of the United States. Her work in diplomacy has taken her all over the world, from New Delhi, Muscat, Damascus, Cairo, and Kingston. Similar to Tanden’s experience, Zeya is also a contentious choice for this position. In 2018, Zeya quit her job in the state department, owing her resignation to the racism and gender bias promoted by the Trump administration. Calling the administration a ‘pale male’ club, Zeya advocated for the diversification of her department. 

“In the first five months of the Trump administration, the department’s three most senior African-American career officials and the top-ranking Latino career officer were removed or resigned abruptly from their positions, with white successors named in their place,” Zeya wrote in an article for Politico. “In the months that followed, I observed top-performing minority diplomats be disinvited from the secretary’s senior staff meeting, relegated to FOIA duty (well below their abilities), and passed over for bureau leadership roles and key ambassadorships.” 

If chosen as the Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights, Zeya hopes to use her prior political experience to address key global issues such as peace in the Middle East, Russia’s increasing aggression in Europe, and climate change. 

In my 25+years as a diplomat, I learned that America’s greatest strength is the power of our example, diversity & democratic ideals,” Zeya said in a 2021 tweet. “I will uphold & defend these values, if confirmed, as Under Secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights.

Vidur Sharma

A former health policy advisor on the Domestic Policy Council, Vidur Sharma has been named by Biden as a testing advisor for the White House’s COVID-19 Response Team. Sharma played a key role in shaping health policy during the Obama administration, where he advocated for the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. A Harvard graduate, he also has years of experience working in the medical industry, as he has worked for Avalere Health, CareMore Health, and the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in the past. As a testing advisor at the White House, Sharma will promote equity in the healthcare space, as he was a Deputy Research Director for Protect Our Care, an organization dedicated to “increasing coverage, lowering health care costs, and addressing racial inequities in our..system.” 

Amid a global pandemic, equity will play a major role in the distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine. As the coronavirus is reportedly 2.8 times more likely to kill people of color, implicit biases in our healthcare system can have potentially fatal consequences. The Biden-Harris administration, in fact, recently established a COVID-19 Health Equity Task Force to aid “medically and socially vulnerable communities.” Sharma’s emphasis on inclusivity and equity certainly fits the values of the administration and will help ensure that the vaccine and coronavirus treatment plans reach all Americans.

Closing Thoughts 

There are so many threads of commonality among the South Asian Americans introduced to the White House — all passionate about government reform, all aware of our nation’s existing inequalities, all incredibly qualified for their positions. As a South Asian American hoping to enter America’s legislative process later in life, our community’s representation at the national level is both empowering and inspiring — a fond reminder that America, after years of underrepresentation for minority groups — is finally catching up.

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 summer edition of Stanford’s Newsroom by the Bay publication. 

An Inauguration That Awoke My Ancestors

(Featured Image: Screenshot from CNBC coverage of the 2021 Inauguration)

I was pouring my coffee and almost spilled it when I heard Senator Amy Klobuchar’s words, “Our first African American, our first Asian American, our first woman Vice President, Kamala Harris” waft from my TV. As nonchalantly as I had been watching the inauguration, that moment – those words violently ran through my body, as though all my ancestors were asking me to listen. 

Kamala Devi Harris.

I was happy to hear of the Democratic shift in our Executive and Legislative branches of government and had voted accordingly, yet I remained skeptical. Skeptical if the words matched the vision. 

I accepted Vice President Kamala Harris as a person of color, but I’m not sure why, I hadn’t rationalized the identities she presented. Her Indian-American identity was one she had disengaged from early in her career, rightfully so, only to reach out conveniently when she needed votes. I still voted for her, advocated for her. Not because of her Indian heritage but because of her qualifications, her recent policies, her passion, her willingness to adapt, change, and grow. She was a powerhouse and deserved a position that matched her abilities. This was the narrative I spun for myself and others. 

But…it wasn’t until those words were uttered at the inauguration that I felt myself shudder. Shudder in disbelief. Shudder at the significance. Shudder at the thought of my connection to her.

A Lotus Goddess. 

And there she was…like Lakshmi Devi, ready to sit upon her throne. Her purple garments, vibrant like the purple lotus. Rooted in America in the most American way – a child of immigrants from two spaces and places. I could not will that away and neither could she. 

For so long, I denied seeing myself in Kamala in the interest of seeming impartial; to not be criticized for voting based on resemblance. I cannot deny it any longer. Our Vice President, Kamala Devi Harris is an Indian-American and I love her for it. I love myself for it. She will be a part of my history and I, hers.


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.


 

Have Our Votes Ever Reflected Our Population?

Humans are pattern-seeking – something that doesn’t agree with the nature of reality since it is inherently uncertain and unpredictable. Anything can happen. There is a perfect blend of beauty and terror in the ambiguity, but it’s the reality we live with and keep tucked away in the backs of our minds every day. 

This year has been one of pure uncertainty (in case the advertisements haven’t told you that “these are uncertain times” enough). We joke that 2020 can’t get any worse, so go ahead and add another disaster to the pile forming in the corner in the same way national debt does. It’s not normal to be as numb as we are to the concept of uncertainty. Global pandemic? Economic recession? Protestors getting shot down? The election of a decade? At this point, I could’ve added alien invasion to the list and no one would be phased. 

In the year 2020, the only certainty is uncertainty itself. This year has been a breath we’ve been waiting to let out. When will it be okay to breathe? When will it be okay to feel like the crisis is over? When will we be okay? 

Until then, we hold our breaths, twiddle our thumbs, and try not to hope too much in fear that something worse will roll along in response.

And here it is: this year (of all years this could possibly happen) incidentally is the year of the general elections.

Red vs. Blue

Elephant vs. Donkey

Democrat vs. Republican

We make decisions on who makes decisions for us. One of the cornerstones of democracy is free and fair elections. Take your ballot and drop it in the box as all votes are counted accurately

But not this year. No. Like everything else this year, voting is a bit different. Mail-in ballot voting. The concept itself is not all that foreign and has worked on a smaller scale in the past. But this year (to use an overused phrase) there seems to be some controversy surrounding this. Mail-in ballots are voter fraud. We might not know the results until later. The post office sucks. You’ve heard almost everything on this by now if you’ve tuned into even half an hour of news a week.

It’s hilarious. I’m laughing right now as I write this because of the utter hypocrisy of it. I get it, the post system isn’t always perfect, but neither is our political system right now, and it seems the same people criticizing mail-in ballots seem to be glossing over the faults of our government. We keep talking about how fair it is to have mail-in ballots. Can we trust it? What if everyone’s votes don’t count? It’s not an accurate representation. It won’t make everyone’s voice heard.

Has it ever counted? Think about it. No really. Think. Way back in ye olden days, women couldn’t vote, people of color couldn’t vote, the impoverished found it difficult to vote. Was that accurate? The voice of the people was the voice of straight, rich, property-owning, white males. 

Oh, but we’ve evolved from that.

Have we though?

Remember: just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s acceptable. That’s the equivalent of saying that starting to think about giving rights to the LGBTQ community can fix homophobia. That’s not how that works. 

We’re not that much better today than we were centuries ago in terms of free and fair elections. Why? Voter suppression exists. Who are we suppressing?

Who are the people who are suppressed in all aspects of the American government? Minority groups.

Type of voter suppression at a polling station in New Hampshire, 2013. (Image by: Mark Buckawicki)

This administration is known to suppress minority groups. Throwing them in cages, threatening deportation, building a literal border wall, shooting protesters, and just sowing hatred. Not to mention how difficult it is to even be able to vote if you have a criminal record. The Shelby County vs. Holder trial didn’t help either. Democracy lost 5-4. 

There are tactics and chess pieces being moved to silence people that we aren’t even aware of. 

The worst kind of uncertainty is the uncertainty in whether or not your voice is heard. Am I represented? Am I equal? Am I cared for? This type of uncertainty is almost existential in nature and deserves a definitive yes. These shouldn’t be things we have to worry about, but such is the state of reality at this point. 

There is a way to change this. Vote. You’ve probably already heard this one, but I’m serious: if you can, then do it. I’m not saying vote for any particular candidate but just vote. The best way to predict the future and eliminate as much of this malicious uncertainty as possible is to vote.

Vote. You can be certain in your own opinions, actions, and decisions. Once you master that, the rest shouldn’t bother you much. You have to voice your opinions and speak out against injustice. It’s hard to pinpoint definitively what is wrong and right, but the important thing is to try. It’s all anyone can do. I can say with complete certainty that trying has more of a chance of succeeding than not trying at all.


Reema Kalidindi is a junior at Lower Bucks High School and a lead volunteer at Bharatiya Temple’s school for children. 

Remote: GUAA Winners Discuss Representation

The representation of the Asian American community is in a perpetual state of evolution — much like the community itself. Every age of immigrants must forge their own narrative, from leaving behind the securities of their motherland to confronting racial stereotypes. Read 11th grader Arya Das’s essay, Remote, where she discusses the generational ties between her father and herself amid a changing America. This essay won the ‘Best In Class’ award in the ‘Growing Up Asian In America’ contest. 

America Is Not Complete Without Us by sixth-grader An Ly

Remote

I pick up the remote control, flip through the channels, and count off the characters.

One geeky sidekick whose glasses lay atop his large, angled nose. Two simple-minded shop owners who speak with the same broken English that my grandparents have struggled to leave behind. Three caricatures. The comedic relief whose awkwardness is overlayed by laugh tracks. They all look like me, and they have never had a story of their own.

This must be why the people at school giggle amongst themselves with their hands together in prayer, nodding side to side and grinning like fools. I fail to see the humor in the familiar way they drum their d’s like a tabla, imitating Apu from the Simpsons but reflecting my relatives and loved ones. Flipping through the channels, these are the jokes that they see. Confusion bubbles up inside me, but all I can manage is a small laugh. This is what I have learned. When my father immigrated to America over 20 years ago, he counted. He counted down the days, working as a hotel dishwasher to pay for engineering school and dreaming of moving to the heart of innovation and technology. He left behind security for hope.

There are unfathomable sacrifices that every immigrant has made for the future of themselves and their children. These sacrifices cannot be brushed aside. My father’s story wasn’t written out for him, but he picked up a pen and set to work. I asked him one day, now that he has raised us in the Bay Area and works as an engineer, whether he feels prejudice. Whether he even has to think about his accent. I didn’t expect him to say yes. He recounted the investors, associates, and superiors who turned him down, seeing him primarily as his race, completely remote from his credentials. Does his accent make him stupid? Is he unintelligent for learning a new language by himself, for moving across the world and working as hard as he can? He told me it’s okay, that he just picks himself up and moves on to the next person. This is how he survives. This is what he has learned. Even when living in the Bay Area and knowing that TV portrayals are a stark contrast from the people in our lives, these stereotypes still sting us in a million little ways.

However, equality is no longer a remote dream. Acceptance must be the story we write every day, the narrative that drives our future. The next generation will see us when they flip through the channels. We can help them recognize that they span beyond the control of others’ expectations, into arts, innovation, and vivid colors. We count, and we need them to know that they count, too.


Image: The artwork, entitled, America Is Not Complete Without Us, was created by sixth-grader An Ly. 

Essay: Remote was written by eleventh grader Arya Das.

This American Snapshot Costs $1.5 Trillion Dollars a Year

Census Day, when the United States takes its once-every-decade collective selfie, is April 1.

Those who don’t include themselves in the decennial snapshot will cost themselves and their communities thousands of dollars’ worth of government tax spending — $1.5 trillion annually nationwide (https://tinyurl.com/Census-drivenSpending) for the next 10 years, and other benefits too, with no chance to get added to the picture until 2030.

But Census Day isn’t the actual deadline for being included. It’s just the day listed on the census questionnaires (https://tinyurl.com/2020censusquestionnaire): “How many people were living or staying in this house, apartment or mobile home on April 1, 2020?”

For this question, include yourself, all the kids, all the relatives or friends who live there, and roommates.  Information given to the census will never be shared with landlords.

Until the corona virus hit, the actual deadline for filling out the census was July 31.  Now the Census Bureau has extended the deadline to August 15.

The nine-question questionnaires themselves are already available for people to answer online,

At the website https://my2020census.gov, and will remain available in a dozen different languages until the Aug. 15 deadline.  Many people have already received “invitations” in the mail to answer the census online, with an ID number customized for their address.

Whether you have an invitation or not, you can still go to that https://my2020census.gov website and fill out the questionnaire. 

The Census Bureau has also begun sending out print copies of  the questionnaire through the mail. 

People can also be counted by making a telephone call, to (844) 330-2020 if they speak English, or to one of 13 numbers, listed below, for other languages.  The call centers, however, are not fully staffed due to stay-at-home orders for the corona virus, so this method could involve longer wait times on the phone.

You can also wait for an “enumerator,” a Census  Bureau employee who will be dispatched starting in May to visit addresses that have not yet responded online, or by mail, or by phone.

Although the Census Bureau says it has offered jobs to 600,000 people – 100,000 more than it anticipated hiring – it is also delaying the “onboarding” process, which includes fingerprinting and background checks, for at least a couple of weeks due to concerns surrounding COVID-19.

The census requirement is included in the U.S. Constitution, and a national census has been conducted every 10 years since 1790. Participation is required. 

From 1790 to 1820, Census Day was the first Monday of August. Then it was moved to early June until 1910, when it was moved to April 15.  In 1920, in an effort to avoid interfering with farm work, Census Day was Jan. 1.  But when that census showed how the country was becoming increasingly urbanized, Census Day was shifted to April 1, where it has remained ever since.

Census data is used to try to evenly distribute political representation in Congress.  Currently, every member of the 435-seat House of Representatives has about 750,000 constituents.

The data also helps businesses decide where to invest, helps state and local governments determine where new schools and roads are needed, and directs the federal government to where kids are living who qualify for Head Start, or need any of more than 100 other federally funded programs providing child care and development, education, nutrition, health care and much more.

The personal information the census collects – your name, address, age, race, the household phone number – is kept strictly confidential for 72 years.  The Census Bureau is forbidden to share that information with other government agencies, including police, the FBI, ICE, everybody.

California has invested more money than any other state in census outreach in an effort to ensure that all its people are counted this year.  The website CaliforniaCensus.gov can

Direct you to Questionnaire Assistance Centers and kiosks where you will be able to get some help filling out the forms if you need it.   

By May, if you haven’t filled out the census form, a census enumerator will come to your address.  There are several ways to make sure it’s really a census worker.  You can ask to see their official U.S. Census Bureau I.D. badge, which will have their name and photograph, along with an expiration date and a Department of Commerce watermark.

They will also be using a hand-held computer device and carrying a census bag. You can verify that they’re who they say they are by calling (800) 923-8282 to speak to a local representative.

Also, no census worker will ask about your citizenship status, or your social security number, or any banking information.  Nor will they ask for a payment or donation of any type. 

If you want help completing your census form, the Census Bureau has phone lines in 14 languages to provide that:

English (844) 330-2020

Spanish (844) 468-2020

Chinese (Mandarin) (844) 391-2020

Chinese (Cantonese)  (844) 398-2020

Vietnamese (844) 461-2020

Korean (844) 392-2020

Russian (844) 417-2020

Arabic (844) 416-2020

Tagalog (844) 478-2020

Polish (844) 479-2020

French (844) 494-2020

Haitian Creole (844) 477-2020

Portuguese (844) 474-2020

Japanese (844) 460-2020

The state of California is providing online assistance in the following languages: 

CQ Arabic: https://californiacensus.org/ar/

Armenian:  https://californiacensus.org/hy/

Khmer: https://californiacensusorg/km

Persian: https://californiacensus.org/fa/

Korean: https://californiacensus.org/ko/

Japanese: https://californiacensus.org/ja/

Punjabi: https://californiacensus.org/pa/

Russian: https://californiacensus.org/ru/

Chinese (simplified): https://californiacensus,org/zh-hans/

Chinese (traditional): https://californiacensus.org/zh-hant/

Tagalog: https://californiacensus.org/tg/

Vietnamese: https://californiacensus.org/vi/


Coverage for Census 2020 has been facilitated through a grant from the United Way Bay Area.

Mira Solves the Case on Desi Representation

Mira, Royal Detective production team has placed an emphasis on authenticity by hiring South Asians artists, designers, and cultural consultants. Some notable people recruited are Shagorika Ghosh as the series’ cultural consultant, Nakul Dev Mahajan (“So You Think You Can Dance”) as the Bollywood dancer and choreographer, and Deepak Ramapriyan (“Basmati Blues”) as the music producer. This will be the first animated show reflecting South Asians on Disney and attention to detail is necessary. Through this show, the next generation of desi children will get a chance to embrace their roots and culture.

As royal detectiveMira (Leela Ladnier) travels throughout the kingdom helping royals and commoners alike. Along with her friend Prince Neel (Kamran Lucas), a talented inventor, creative cousin Priya (Roshni Edwards), and comical mongoose sidekicks Mikku (Kal Penn) and Chikku (Utkarsh Ambudkar), she will stop at nothing to solve a case, taking young viewers on adventures and encourage deductive reasoning. Other characters to appear in the show include Queen Shanti (Freida Pinto), Pinky (Hannah Simone), Auntie Pushpa (Jameela Jamil), Mira‘s cousin Meena (Aparna Nancherla) and Mira’s father Sahil (Aasif Mandvi). Rooted in India’s vibrant heritage, each episode will weave authentic music, dance and customs into two 11-minutes stories.

Check out the India Currents exclusive behind the scenes video to see research being done for Mira, Royal Detective.

The all-star South Asian cast reiterates the sentiment – it is novel and refreshing to see representation in such a wholesome way. Here is a sneak peek into the cast and show, Mira, Royal Detective, airing tomorrow, March 20th on Disney Junior!

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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.