Why do I feel a kinship with Ash Kalra, D-CA 27?
Maybe because we are both Indian, Canadian-born, Bay Area transplants? Though 20 years my senior, Ash Kalra speaks my language. He mirrors my experience, taking a non traditional path of social justice.
Not an engineer or a doctor? You are already a deviant. Let’s take it one step further, taking on career paths that are not lucrative or linear, that of community based work – perplexing, shameful. These pressures are not unbeknownst to Ash. A UCSB graduate in Communications, Public Defender turned Assemblyman, paying off his law degree takes a backseat to his passion for uplifting others.
“My whole career has been about reducing suffering” – a poignant sentiment. Kalra has settled on this theme for his life’s work. Serving California’s 27th assembly district, Ash Kalra is the first Indian American to serve in California’s state legislature.
In his three years in office, he has been prolific, having 27 bills signed. He has fought for affordable, low income housing and against homelessness as a co-author of SB 50 and AB 330. He is also the Chair of the Labor and Employment Committee for the State Assembly and has championed for Union rights. Kalra takes action to protect the environment, co-sponsoring bills such as the Clean Air Act, Coyote Valley Conservation Program, Deforestation-Free Procurement Act. He has been honored by the ACLU of California as a Civil Liberties Champion- one of five legislators in the Assembly who received a ‘perfect score’ on championing civil liberties issues.
But I wanted to know more than just his political platform. He is speaking for Indian Americans on a large scale, does he feel representative of who I am? A San Jose raised, Indian American, low income woman? My shoes are small and hard to fill. Is Ash Kalra ready for this responsibility?
After having met him, I would say yes. His work moves beyond just progressive bill measures; he educates Assembly Members and constituents on Indian heritage and history. What I’m finding is that Ash Kalra’s movements transcend just education and are his way of life.
Ash articulates that growing up Hindu, the very ideals and morals that his parents ingrained in him when he was young, were antithetical to their views about his career pursuits when he was older.
That hits home.
“Atithi Devo Bhava,” this translates to “Guest is God” and it is a phrase that is thrown around Indian households. Giving back to those around us and foregoing materialism is an inherent part of Hinduism. So why is this, that which becomes second nature, at odds with an inquiry for a career, lifelong happiness, and ultimately success?
Ash gets it. He gets the consistent struggle of being Indian AND American. He may be the role model I’ve been seeking for so long but had a lack of exposure to. He is genuine, well informed, engaged but most importantly, doesn’t shy away from his culture. He redefines the vision of an Indian American.
When I asked him about the political responsibility of the Indian American in the Bay Area, Ash emphasized that “our responsibility is to our community” and that we must remember that as Americans. It can be confusing for immigrants, split between two cultures. We will never feel connected to this country if we don’t become engaged community members, yet, at times we feel disconnected due to the lack of representation. Ash reminds us that civic duty goes beyond being Indian American. And if we never start, we will not conceive the reality we seek.
Being the first Indian American in California State Legislature, there are many antiquated archetypes that must be projected on him and people that look like him. When I ask him about this, he dispels the myths about Indian model minorities in one statement, “the myth erases those that are struggling”. Indians are working jobs in the labor sector and they are quickly becoming the highest growing undocumented population in the US. There are many Indians that need people that look like them, to give them a voice. To shed light on their misgivings. To create policy that is inclusive of them.
I asked him one last question before I left, and this one is for my SVC- Palo Alto Youth and Government kids who were in Sacramento just a few weeks before, taking over the Capitol building, sitting in the very seat that Ash Kalra was in a day before: is cereal a soup?
Kalra gives me a hard NO.
Though we align on almost all things, I guess even we can have our differences. A gentle reminder, and a sentiment Ash mentions earlier, we need to be inclusive of people that may seem unlike us.
Ash Kalra is the now, forging the path for people like me.
He keeps moving but not away from his community or upbringing. He can very easily be found eating at Loving Hut, listening to Iron Maiden, before heading to a walk for candidates supporting the Labor Council.
Ash Kalra is up for re-election this Presidential Primaries cycle on March 3, 2020. He represents California’s 27th State Assembly district which encompasses Downtown San Jose, East San Jose, and parts of Southeast San Jose. Kalra has served one term of his two term limit as State Assemblyman. To learn more about him and his platform, check out his site and his voting record.
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.