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Month: February 2014

The Courage to Think Radically and Be Inconvenient

The Courage to Think Radically and Be Inconvenient

It’s been about a month since I asked these questions in an earlier post:

Where are we [the field of South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh leaders and organizations working in a post 9/11 environment] now, nearly 15 years after the national crisis (9/11) 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?

I’ve been reflecting on these questions over the past few weeks. And as I do so, I keep returning to remarks I heard from artist and activist, Harry Belafonte, last summer when he spoke to a small group of non-profit leaders. Mr. Belafonte urged us to find our creativity, our commitment to engage in radical thinking, and our connections to struggle – to be inconvenient, as he put it.

What would the field of South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh groups and even the broader immigrant and racial justice sector look like if we followed Mr. Belafonte’s advice?

After all, being inconvenient when necessary is part of the history and culture of organizing that began to take shape in the years before and after the 9/11 moment in the broader South Asian community (and it’s even the case if we look back to the resistance efforts of the early South Asian immigrants in California and Washington who challenged racist naturalization laws and Asian Exclusion Leagues, or to working class taxi drivers in NYC in the 90s).  On the East Coast, many of us participated in the Desis Organizing convening in New York City in July of 2001, just months before 9/11, where we identified strategies to build community power. After 9/11, groups such as Desis Rising Up and Moving, the National Network on Arab American Communities, Muslim Advocates, the Sikh Coalition, SAALT and others started or reoriented themselves because of their deep connections with community members being targeted.

The individual and organizational leadership catalyzed by the post 9/11 backlash represents, in some small manner, acts of defiance and moments of resistance.  We could have stood by the sidelines and waited for the crisis moment to pass. We could have asked our allies in the racial justice world to speak for us and advocate on our behalf.  We could have waited for others to lead.

Instead, we made ourselves inconvenient, often without any funding, legitimacy, or branding. We did so in many different ways: organizing rallies outside detention facilities, developing documentaries revealing the impact of hate violence and deportation, listening to and understanding the stories of community members whose lives were being torn apart, gaining access to policy-making tables in Congress and federal agencies so that those stories could be told and heard, convening discussions on discrimination, profiling, and surveillance at college campuses and places of worship, and disrupting the “othering” narratives about our communities in the media.

It hasn’t been an easy road by any means, and we still have a long journey ahead of us. The path has been messy and exhausting at times, uncertain and scary at others. But it has been a transformative process, and one that will surely evolve and shift in the years to come.

DRUM YP Banner, Jksn Hts march 06

Photo Credit: Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM)

How can we infuse our own organizations, the field we work in, and even the entire non-profit sector with the sort of radical thinking that catalyzed and mobilized our creation and growth in the first place?  Below are some ideas, framed as questions, to guide this thinking.

  • How can we be more connected with our own communities and their everyday struggles, which extend well beyond the traditional immigrant gateway cities and the issues of 9/11?
  • How can we engage our communities and our work through an intersectional lens that reflects the realities of many community members who might be Sikh and undocumented, South Asian and working class, Hindu and gay, or Muslim and multi-racial?
  • How can we ensure that our organizations aren’t being managed and influenced solely by board members, staff, and volunteers who are professional activists, without the ideas and involvement of the constituencies whom we say that we represent?
  • How do we restructure our non-profit leadership to avoid burnout and complacency? How can we take the pressure off Executive Directors (many of them founders or the first directors) to be thought leaders, chief fundraisers and spokespersons, the-buck-stops-with-me-decisionmakers, and human resources specialists, all in one?
  • How do we build a new pipeline of leaders in our communities – and then, get out of the way and make room for them to lead?
  • How do we broaden our understanding of political power, and convey that it goes well beyond supporting people from our communities running for electoral office?
  • How can our friends outside the non-profit sector step up to help?  How can the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, the law firm partners, and the medical professionals who also were affected and shaped by the post 9/11 world – and presumably understand what it means to be “othered” – support our work? How can we work hand in hand with artists and writers who uniquely harness and reflect the voices of community dreams?
  • How do we adopt the struggles of other communities in a consistent way? How can our allies show support for our struggles meaningfully by valuing our community knowledge and issue expertise?
  • How can the entire system that supports non-profits – foundations and donors, networks and leadership experts – provide the resources, space, and time we need to have these critical conversations and change the usual way of doing things?
  • How can the non-profit ecosystem critique itself productively to address the increasing corporatization, the growth of professional activism, the influence of donors and foundations, and the emphasis on short-term outcomes for work that is about movement-building and long-term social and structural change?

Yes, these are hard questions, and it’s even harder to go through the process of answering them. I know that while I tried to engage with some of these questions during my tenure as Executive Director at SAALT, that I barely scratched the surface due to a lack of time and capacity, and as a result of being stuck in a cycle of reacting, positioning, and responding. But, when I could think about these questions – and especially do so with colleagues and community members – I know that I felt more anchored and grounded.

As many of the post 9/11 organizations turn 13 years old this year (and as many post 9/11 community leaders start another year’s worth of their life-work), perhaps we can transform our field if we think about these questions together, identify a process that we can return to time and again, find community in one another — and reconnect with our own history of inconvenient resistance.

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