I have spent the bulk of the new year visiting with memories and moments from the past. You see, I’m in the course of packing, filing, and organizing nearly a decade’s worth of information, notes, correspondence, pictures, fliers, reports and lists as I prepare to leave my position as director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). I have been rifling through business cards collected over the years reminding me of how I met so many people who have since become mentors and friends. I have listened again to voicemail messages I saved from South Asians around the country who reached out for assistance from SAALT, people without immigration status, in abusive relationships, with children being bullied. I have been reading again messages of kindness and support from folks we have touched over the years through our work.
And then I came upon two yellowing and creased editions of the Washington Post that I had saved over the years. They were strikingly apt bookends of my own journey, one that catalyzed my sense of purpose and the other that reminded me that it was time to pause. One is the front page of the September 12, 2001 Washington Post, recounting the unimaginable horror of what had happened just the day before. The second is the front page of the August 5, 2012 edition, recounting the hate crime in a Sikh place of worship in Wisconsin, which killed six and wounded many others.
These two events are related. The attack on the Sikh gurdwara a year and a half ago was a visceral reminder of the backlash that continues to target Americans of certain religions and nationalities today, nearly 15 years after 9/11. And in between these two bookends, there is a litany of other such reminders: the Boston bombings, NYPD surveillance, the Muslim hearings on Capitol Hill, the Park 51 community center controversy, incidents of discrimination in public places and workplaces, profiling at airports, detentions and deportations, unprecedented xenophobia in political discourse.
Over this very intense time period, I have been part of a small field of organizations and closely-knit group of advocates shaped by the 9/11 crisis and subsequent events. Many of us who were in our late twenties and early thirties when the 9/11 attacks occurred came of age then, as we simultaneously shared in the national experience of grief and realized that our communities would be the “other” in the new world order post 9/11. A number of us turned our full attention to building community institutions that would provide services, organize, represent and amplify the voices of community members who were being targeted, scrutinized, or marginalized in the backlash that was to follow the 9/11 moment.
Between 9/11 and the Sikh gurdwara attack, much has changed in our communities. In the days and months after 9/11, we lacked strong community infrastructure, alliances with larger and more seasoned organizations, policy expertise, and media know-how. Now, we know to expect particular narratives in the media when certain types of events occur– and more importantly, we know how to preempt or address them. We have influence within the Administration and Congress to request hearings, taskforces, policy changes. We participate in the day-to-day experiment of building the kind of America in which all of us can feel welcome, safe, and able to contribute at our fullest potential.
Despite these remarkable changes, we still confront significant challenges from external crisis moments to internal infrastructural and resource gaps. The questions before us, for those of us in this field as well as those who support us, who volunteer, who are thinking of working with and at our organizations, are many:
Where are we now, nearly 15 years after the national crisis that defined and shaped many of our organizational strategic plans and visions? How do we ensure that institution building does not happen at the expense of community building? How do we guard against becoming professional activists, and ensure that we are making space and voice to people most affected by the issues we address?
How must we support organizing and community building beyond and outside the confines of a 501c3 institution? How can we move beyond the pressures of being constantly innovative, demonstrating short-term impact, and measuring our work in ways that seem removed from the lived experiences of community members? How can we help to build power that changes the realities of the everyday lives of people, and not only at electoral or policy levels? How can we provide opportunities for leaders within our organizations to rest, reflect, and re-engage with the values and experiences that motivated their leadership in the first place, while making room for new leaders to shape their vision?
In short, how do we – as individual advocates and leaders, as organizations, as a field, as a community even- move beyond a sense of ongoing crisis and lack of resources, and a feeling that we are pushing a rock up a very steep mountain daily?
Yes, I know that this list of questions is long (and probably not fully exhaustive even), and I hope to explore them more deeply in this space over the months to come. This is a lab of sorts to experiment with ideas, and I welcome and value your feedback. Please feel free to share this piece, to comment below, and to look for another post soon. Thank you for reading.