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Using South Asian History, This Organisation Aims To Bring Indian Diaspora In US Closer

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Without Knowing Our Past, We Cannot Create Our Future

For most Indian immigrants, the stories of their family coming to America start after the 1960’s when the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was passed, opening up access for international migrants to move into the United States. The tales of newly-married couples, family members reuniting with siblings overseas, and wanderers from the Indian diaspora in search of a better life seem endless. They have been recited in intimate family settings, on Thanksgiving tables and at Diwali puja, time and again reminding first-generation children that the challenges that come with “making it” are sometimes as daunting as they might seem. For other South Asian immigrants, the “Model Minority” narrative does not hold true. Families of few of these immigrants are still struggling financially in America or are among the half a million undocumented Indian migrants in the country.

Samip Mallick, one of the co-founders and the current executive director of a Philadelphia-based organisation South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA), wants to bring the diversity of the South Asian American experience to modern community members. His organisation digitally catalogues pieces of South Asian American history such as newspaper clippings of events of discrimination against South Asians and immigrant profiles dating back to early 1940s. Mallick’s drive to put together the archive stems not only from his fear that the important stories of South Asian history in the US might get lost, but also because without knowing one’s roots moving forward as a community becomes even more challenging. SAADA’s work seeks to bridge the gap between the past and present, allowing diasporic Indians and others to form a cohesive identity with the knowledge of the many challenges their ancestors had to overcome to “make it” in the US.

The Historic Challenges Of Being Brown In America

Access to SAADA’s archived newspaper clippings from the 1900’s is not only informative, but also healing for those who have felt more isolated than before in the United States as a result of the current political climate. The “Trump Effect,” which many blame was partially the cause for the 2017 death of Srinivas Kuchibotla, a Garmin employee who was shot dead at a bar in Kansas, is more understandable when stories from the “Early Immigration” page of the archive are ingested. An eerily similar story is that of the 1908 shooting of Harnam Singh in the Pacific-Northwest. Singh’s identity as an immigrant and the fact that he had been hired in a white-majority setting were both motivations for his murder.

The derogatory language that was used against Kuchibotla asserted the fact that he was an immigrant, with his assailant asking him to show his papers and eventually demanding him to “Get out of my country!” Similarly, Singh’s murderers hoped that his death would prove as a cautionary tale for other “East Indians” hoping to migrate to the United States. Further, Kuchibotla’s status as an H1-B visa holder made him an automatic target of politics of fear, which has risen significantly under Trump regime. The tactics of oppression against Indian and South Asian communities have hardly changed since they first began arriving in the United States. However, the lack of connectivity to such issues prove that socio-economic status and geographic location can insulate South Asians with greater privilege. Mallick reflected on Kuchibotla’s death as almost a shock for some members of the larger Indian community who felt perplexed by how something like this could happen to one of “them.”

But even in 1908, South Asians in the Pacific Northwest lived and breathed as “thems.” As Indian immigrants became more prominent in Washington, the Asiatic Exclusion League was formed in response to the rising number of brown faces that occupied their workspaces. The League’s principles were rooted in racism and xenophobia and is a predecessor to today’s Neo-Nazi groups that have been emboldened enough to march in Washington as recently as this summer. The League was responsible for the 1908 Bellingham Riots which injured six people. Their driving belief that America is a “White Man’s Country” still has listeners who welcome the idea even today. The Sikh Americans who were the targets of this act of hatred were coined as “Hindus,” proving that there is a historic thread connecting South Asian liberation. Likewise, to use an umbrella term such as “Hindu” to describe South Asian identity is to assert that it is singular and without variance, which is a factor that contributes further to the Model Minority myth. Despite these clues from history and their parallels in modern times, many Indian and South Asian immigrants think that their skin colour does not make them “others” in the US.

If more community members had access to stories like those of the Bellingham Riots there would be more context to prove how deeply entrenched certain belief systems are in countries where White supremacy is a driving force. Over a hundred years later, the 2012 Oak Creek Gurdwara Massacre, which was carried out by a man who had ties to Neo-Nazi groups in the United States, claimed six lives. The attack proved that how cycles of violence can continue due to the ignorance by the oppressors. During the Bellingham Riots in 1908, Sikh Americans were intimidated and harassed into taking off their turbans. And, even over a century later, this article of religious faith and tradition is still clouded in misconception and triggers many Americans to commit hate crimes.

According to Mallick, the tool of self-education can also be a great elixir against oppression and learning one’s own history is a huge part in achieving racial justice. “For South Asians as a community, our future lies in our ability to create a better life for ourselves by knowing our past to be able to advocate for generations to come,” he noted.

For that reason, sharing stories about our families with other members of our diaspora becomes an integral way to push ahead into the future. While the more glamorous stories of wealthy South Asian doctors, businessmen, journalists, and celebrities are easy to focus on, becoming a connected community with a strong future means including labourers who are making their living in grocery stores and gas stations while dealing with everyday racial oppression in our narrative.

The Model Minority Myth

The future of the South Asian “model minority” is important to consider, because research shows that the number of Asian-Americans is expected to double to 14% of the total US population by 2065. Despite the growth of the community, wealth inequality is worse amongst Asian-Americans as compared to any other group, including White Americans. Asian-Americans who earn the least within their ethnic group are amongst the most impoverished individuals in the United States, but according to Mallick, many of their more successful counterparts are sometimes hesitant to admit this reality. “There are plenty of Indian Americans who don’t have PhDs who are struggling financially, who need services they’re not getting access to because the community is not willing to acknowledge the struggle of those people,” he pointed out.

For many South Asian immigrants, flying under the radar and not “rocking the boat” are the goals. The community prefers blending in with the majority of Americans. However, maintaining a voice as a group can allow South Asians to take a stand when it comes to issues that strike through the centre of our communities such as unfair housing policies, wage battles, and immigration issues.

SAADA seeks to showcase the multitudes of life within the South Asian community through initiatives such as the “First Days Project” which allows immigrants to the United States to have a digital platform when talking about their first days in the country. There are stories about a young Bangladeshi immigrant working in a food service setting and one about how an older Indian migrant could not afford to make calls home to speak to his family, both realities are common for anyone beginning life in a new place. The glamour of many upper-class Indian immigrants moving to the United States and continuing on a path of wealth are easy to embrace, but adopting a culture of openness and transparency about all experiences are critical to the future success for South Asians in America.

The Community Organisations and Organising page provided by SAADA allows members of the diaspora to actively engage with groups who seek to shift narratives and provide aid in the form of worker advocacy, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance. The site has catalogued photographs of a 2001 committee self-advocating for many of the initiatives they have historically taken on, including the protections of their full-time jobs. With roughly 40% of all New York City yellow cab drivers being South Asian, it is imperative that more economically privileged community members provide financial support to such causes. A study conducted by Indiaspora on poverty specifically in the Indian Community asserted, “[The] community will have to significantly step up its philanthropic support for nonprofits serving these vulnerable groups.” This was with reference to the concentration of South Asians in poor neighbourhoods with developing educational infrastructures. Most of the poorest members of the Indian-American community are those who are taxicab drivers, and they are heavily concentrated in Queens, New York. While these men are hard-pressed to advocate for themselves, the leap in their ability to make progress in their individual fights would be significantly bolstered by the integration of their stories into the collective South Asian conscious.

Through the ownership of one’s struggles, giving up a perception of pure structural privilege seems like a short-term loss for South Asian Americans who are seeking to create a better life for themselves in the United States. However, in long-term, the realities of one’s identity always seem to play a role in one’s everyday experience. For many first-generation South Americans, continuing on their parents’ path of “blending in” will not reap many benefits as their offsprings will have to fend for themselves when it comes to their identities. The Deepak and Priyanka Chopra effect of South Asian-ness in America might provide a temporary halt in the processing of one’s complicated self-image. However, the emptiness that will come as a lack of this critical work is an eventual reality.

 

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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