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We saw important social activism last year. Here’s how to maintain it in 2021.

We saw important social activism last year. Here’s how to maintain it in 2021.

January 4, 2021

When protests began in the wake of the deaths of George FloydAhmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor, Daniela Bayon was ready to take action both on the streets and at her workplace. As a marketing manager for a global tech company,Bayon wanted to support her Black colleagues and organize companywide conversations about racism. “There was a mass awakening everywhere, including at work,” she said. “People kept asking: What can I do?”

Read the full essay at The Lily.

Safe Passage, dearest Allison

Safe Passage, dearest Allison

This is how I choose to remember you, Allison.

On December 31st, 2019, we went to a tribute concert for Aretha Franklin at the Kennedy Center. It was New Year’s Eve. You dressed for it. You arrived; heads turned. There you were in a stunning multi-colored dress made by a designer you loved.  You were regal and glamorous. Just look at the photos.

During the performance, we sang along to the songs we knew by heart, and of course, we made our usual snarky talk. Your easy, ready laugh rang out. And then, a taste of bitter reality. The band played “A Change is Gonna Come” – and we instinctively reached for each other’s hands. Both of us felt the weight of that song, and what it signified about having faith in the eventual triumph of justice despite the odds.

But the lyrics had a deeply sad resonance that night, given your own personal journey:

It’s been too hard living, but I’m afraid to die
‘Cause I don’t know what’s up there above the sky
It’s been a long, a long time coming
But I know a change’s gonna come, oh, yes, it will

We held hands tightly and cried together.

You knew that a change was on its way. In May 2019, you began to write about your journey with cancer. You transformed words that we are afraid of into figures with ages, genders, feelings, and textures. You named them: Death, Vulnerable, Freedom. You wrote about how the journey you were on was propelling you towards self-forgiveness, a deeper understanding of legacy and sacrifice, and freedom. A passage of yours that moves me is this one (there are many more here):

I understand now that freedom is real. Freedom is here. Cancer showed it to me. It was there all along and was simply for me to choose. My own fears, corrupted beliefs about who I should be, and insecurities about who I wasn’t, are a form of bondage and self-flagellation. They were habitual, and they were fueled by a society that was comfortable with me in that state. There is no manual for how to be free. There are abundant resources for how to remain enslaved. I cannot look to anyone else to understand how to do freedom. I have to define my own freedom and live it intentionally each day.

Allison: a change has indeed come. A light has gone out in my life, and in the lives of so many who hold you dear.  May you be free in your fullest power, grace, and dignity.

——–                          ————                                 ————–                   ————

A friend noted, as I was remembering you, that it seemed like we have known each other for decades. It’s true. Even though we met only six years ago, it seems like you have been in my life for much longer because of the depth of connection we shared. Our paths crossed at a gathering of racial justice leaders called the Solidarity Summit. I remember wanting to hear as much from you as possible because when you spoke, wisdom, strength, and fierceness exuded from you. When you spoke, everyone in our circle leaned forward and listened intently. You had already inhabited the seat of our loving and discerning elder.

We formed a close friendship in the ensuing months. You loved to do podcasts; you had started podcasting at your kitchen table years ago and you encouraged me to start one of my own, introducing me to your producer. You wanted to write a book, and I suggested tips and ideas. You were there when I navigated life’s valleys, providing sound advice and your perfectly-timed sarcasm. I met your mother and daughter; you met my brother and son. We shared spiritual and physical healers. And we laughed, full-throated and uninhibited belly laughs, every time we connected.

As your life so irrevocably changed, you remained constant in so many ways. Despite the pain, the hospital stays, and the uncertainty, you were strong, calm, and anchored. You were so clear about yourself: where you came from, what values you embodied, what your purpose was, who formed your community, and where we are all heading (liberation). You continued to give to everyone around you. Your love for your children – all children – knew no bounds. Not a single conversation between us would pass without you inquiring about my son by name and asking what was hurting in my life, and how you could tend to it (“what can I do to help?”). Your work remained your north star. From law to nonprofits to philanthropy, you connected people and ideas and resources to change the lives of Black babies and children and reshape the education system. The discomfort and pain you felt didn’t dampen your full-on smile, your easy laugh, your empathetic questions, and your raised-eyebrow-don’t-give-me-that-BS look (which invariably got the truth out of me). That is why our friendship felt like it spanned decades; it was life-affirming, giving, enriching, motivating, all-encompassing.

Last month, on one of our video chats, we discussed rage: the rage inside us, how society shuns women of color, particularly Black women, when they express their anger and fierceness, and how rage can be clearing and cleansing. I mentioned that I had given a name to the rage inside me, in order to speak to her, learn from her, and guide her. A few days later, you texted me: “Meet Oya. She’s ready.”

I looked up the meaning of Oya after you passed. It is the name of a female spirit in Yoruba, a West African language. Oya is a warrior who has power over the storms and the winds – from a gentle breeze to a hurricane. She is also a protector of women, and a catalyst for rebirth and new life.

It’s not surprising, Allison, that you would choose Oya as the moniker for the fiery goddess in you. Not one bit. The night you transitioned, a storm outside awakened me. “It’s Oya,” I thought. You’re free.

Safe passage, dearest friend. I know that you will continue to protect the people whom you love, encourage us to live into our fullness, and channel the winds of justice and liberation, just as you did every day while you were on this realm. I love you. Till we meet again.

If you are reading this and knew and loved Allison too, I’m sending love and care your way. If you didn’t know Allison, please get to know her powerful work. You can find Allison’s writing here. You can find her podcast, Schoolhouse: Equity in Education, here. And you can find information about the organization she led, the Communities for Just Schools Fund, here.

In ‘Blinded By The Light,’ A Brown Immigrant Finds Himself in the Music of the Boss

In ‘Blinded By The Light,’ A Brown Immigrant Finds Himself in the Music of the Boss

Published in Colorlines.

When I first heard about the film “Blinded By The Light,” which pays homage to Bruce Springsteen through the experiences of a Pakistani teenager in Great Britain, I was beside myself with excitement. Finally, here was big-screen affirmation that people of color are part of Springsteen’s fan base (yes, we exist).

Directed by Gurinder Chadha (“Bend It Like Beckham”) and based on a memoir by Sarfraz Manzoor, “Blinded By The Light” delivers on its key message with earnestness: Springsteen’s music is universal. Javed (Viveik Kalra) is a teenager struggling with family expectations and racism during the 1980s in Luton, a predominantly White town northwest of London with a growing Pakistani community. Javed’s life changes when his Sikh friend, Roops, introduces him to the Boss via a pair of well-worn cassette tapes. As Javed struggles to connect with his immigrant father and find his own voice as a budding writer, Springsteen’s music becomes the soundtrack to his dreams and disappointments.

I recognized my own Springsteen journey in parts of Javed’s life. In 1984, the year Springsteen’s “Born in The USA” was released, my family moved from Kerala, India, to Louisville, Kentucky. All of a sudden, I became a 12-year-old outsider looking into a world that I couldn’t penetrate because of my accent, brown skin and immigration status. Music became my refuge, and I found a home in Springsteen’s lyrics.

Like Javed in “Blinded By The Light,” I survived my immigrant adolescence in Kentucky on my Walkman, listening to songs like “The Promised Land” and “Growin’ Up.” They provided a window of hope that a different world existed beyond the badlands of bullying and isolation I navigated daily. And just like Javed’s parents, my immigrant parents didn’t understand my connection to Springsteen’s music. Over time though, Javed’s father, Malik (Kulvinder Ghir), has an epiphany: “Springsteen is Pakistani!”

Of course he is. Though Springsteen is held up as the poet of White working class America, his music transcends borders and identities and explores how people on the margins can belong in a world hell-bent on denying their humanity. Springsteen undoubtedly speaks to White people who lose their factory jobs or return home from fighting abroad only to find their government has forgotten them. But his music is also for and about people like Malik and Noor, Javed’s parents in the film.

Malik and Noor are not so different from characters like Mary and Johnny who figure prominently in Springsteen’s songs. Malik loses his job at a local car factory while Noor (Meera Ganatra) sews clothes for White women and pawns her gold jewelry to make ends meet. Meanwhile, the National Front organizes a White supremacist march through town and the local mosque is vandalized with a pig’s head. Javed watches with shame and shock as a group of White children urinate into the mailbox of a family friend’s house. “Pakis, go home!” is a constant refrain, spraypainted on walls and garages throughout Luton’s neighborhoods. “I wish I’d never come to this country,” Malik says, giving voice to the lie of the immigrant dream.

On its own, “Blinded By The Light” is a moving film about the British Pakistani immigrant experience and the universality of Springsteen’s music. But it has particular resonance given what is happening today in America, where hate violence is rising, the Muslim ban is in place and immigrants live in fear. The scenes of exclusion and racism depicted in the film could easily be taking place in America’s neighborhoods, schools and public places right now.

Since Donald Trump took office, the assaults on the rights and bodies of people who look like Javed and me have intensified. I often return to Springsteen’s music about immigration and race to find meaning and possibility. “American Skin (41 Shots)” speaks about the violence that Black people routinely face at the hands of law enforcement; “Matamoros Banks” recounts how migrants face immense danger as they cross the southern border; and “Long Walk Home” reminds us of the challenging journey ahead to reclaim and redeem a nation that’s taken one too many wrong turns.

Perhaps this is why Springsteen’s music resonates so deeply with some people of color like me. In his lyrics, we find a familiar yearning for belonging and liberation, and a recognition that the system—whether it is an uncaring veterans’ affairs office, an arbitrary geographic border or a racist cop—is often working against us. How we overcome and transform these realities depends on how we come together across class, race and faith lines to lift up each other’s stories, hopes and dreams, and change the systems that weigh us down. In “Blinded By The Light,” these interventions often happen through transformations in the film’s White characters. Javed’s literature teacher enters his writing into a competition that takes him to the Boss’ home of New Jersey, and his stoic neighbor speaks up and reminds Javed and his family that they are a vital part of the Luton community despite the racism they endure.

In the midst of these daily struggles, Springsteen’s music offers the possibility of escape, community and joy, and in the film, we see these moments come to life. South Asian kids like Javed’s sister, Shazia (Nikita Mehta) cut school to take part in daytimers, club events where they freely dance to bhangra music. Javed and Roops take over their school’s radio station to play Springsteen’s famous escape song, “Born To Run,” and frolic through the streets of Luton with their friends while belting out its lyrics: “Together, we could break this trap. We’ll run ’til we drop, baby we’ll never go back.”

“Blinded By The Light” is heartwarming and real at once, and doesn’t sugarcoat the realities of working class British Pakistani communities. And it just might catalyze an exploration of Bruce Springsteen’s oeuvre for a new generation of South Asians. The film reaffirms Springsteen, who turns 70 this year, as a community storyteller, bridge builder, cultural interlocutor and guide to the doors of the promised land. But as Javed realizes, escape and liberation don’t come easily, whether in the context of family or community. It’s on each of us to recognize that the ties that bind us together are greater than the divides that threaten to tear us apart.

Deepa Iyer is a writer, lawyer, community activist and senior fellow at Race Forward, Colorlines’ publisher. Iyer writes about her Springsteen journey in the forthcoming anthology, “Long Walk Home” (Rutgers University Press). She is also the author of “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future.” Follow her at @dviyer.

Dear Indian Americans: Our voices matter during Prime Minister Modi’s visit

Dear Indian Americans: Our voices matter during Prime Minister Modi’s visit

Published in India Abroad. Written with Saira Rao.

Narendra Modi, the Prime Minister of India, is visiting the United States this week. As Modi makes his way from Houston to New York City for a series of events, Indian Americans must be vocal about the human rights violations occurring in Jammu and Kashmir, Assam, and other parts of India under his leadership. And we certainly should not be rolling out the red carpet for him.

Modi is visiting the United States during a time of turmoil both in India and here at home. We all know the phrase – “India and the United States are the world’s largest democracies” – that is often used to emphasize the connections between the two countries. Now, it seems that India and the United States have something more in common: their leaders and governments are human rights violators. 

Here in America, many Indian Americans are understandably concerned about the political climate and believe that the Trump Administration’s immigration policies are hurting Indian immigrants. We are worried that our relatives will not secure H1B visas to work here, that our spouses and children on H4 visas will not obtain green cards, or that we may be seen as second class citizens even though we have American citizenship. We are aware that there has been an uptick in hate crimes and discrimination targeting communities of color and immigrants. The name of Srinivas Kuchibotla, killed by a bigot in Kansas in 2017, is one that many Indian Americans know. 

If you are disturbed by any of these situations, then the following facts should bother you as well. 

Since August 5, Jammu and Kashmir has been essentially cut off from the world through communications blockades, and the Indian government has stationed thousands of soldiers in the region. Residents are being denied basic benefits, and children are being detained by the Indian military. Meanwhile, in Assam, millions of people, primarily Muslims, are being told that they aren’t Indian citizens. Across India, minority populations- Sikhs, Muslims, Dalits, Christians- are facing high levels of discrimination, violence, and exclusion. This isn’t fake news. Human rights organizations in India and the United States, journalists, and elected leaders have all raised concerns about the dire situation in Kashmir.

Indian Americans can’t shake our heads in dismay at what is happening in America while at the same time, simply close our eyes to what is happening in India. After all, the discriminatory tactics and policies happening in America and India are rooted in the same belief system: that a particular race, culture, or faith is superior to others. Here in the United States, we have become familiar with white supremacy, the notion that America must return to being a country for white people only (completely erasing the histories of Native Americans and African Americans on this land). White supremacists perceive Black and brown people – including Indian Americans – as threats, outsiders, and undesirables who should be removed from America, whether it’s by closing the border or marching through their neighborhoods.

This idea of supremacy is also found in Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, which is defined by the International Commission on Religious Freedom as a “national narrative with a singular focus on the rights of Hindus.” In India, Hindutva principles have become part of several political parties, including the one that PM Modi is affiliated with, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).  Hindu nationalists believe that India should be a land for Hindus. 

The white bigot who shot and killed Srinivas Kuchibotla in Kansas in 2017 looked down upon brown immigrants in the same manner that a Hindu nationalist discriminates against Dalits or Christians in India. But Indian Americans must not loudly condemn white supremacy and Islamophobia in America just because we are potential targets – and then shrug our shoulders about similar discrimination and exclusion in India.

You might still be wondering: Why should I care? I don’t live in India, and it doesn’t matter what I say anyway. 

We should care because we are Indian Americans, ambassadors of our country of origin in the United States. Our use of the hyphenated identity should not be reserved exclusively for showcasing our culture, customs, art, and heritage in America. It should empower us to speak up about any violations of human rights and dignity. We should care because we are part of a globally connected world, where it is impossible to create silos and boundaries. And, we should care because there are organizations here in America that are speaking for Hindus and Indian Americans through the language of Hindutva, and not the vernacular of human rights. If we don’t speak up, then others will carve out the narrative to benefit their own goals.

This is why Indian Americans must raise our voices as PM Modi makes his way from Texas to New York for various events. PM Modi’s visit starts in Houston at the “Howdy Modi” summit hosted by the Texas India Forum. It is unfortunate to see groups such as the Hindu American Foundation and Indiaspora as well as student associations support this event. PM Modi then moves onto New York City where he is expected to receive an award from the Gates Foundation. He is scheduled to speak at the United Nations General Assembly and to inaugurate a Gandhi peace garden at SUNY-Westboro.

Already, different sectors of American society are raising concerns. South Asian philanthropists, civil rights organizations, and three Nobel laureates have asked the Gates Foundation to rescind its award to Modi and redirect it to a community-based group in India. Actors Riz Ahmed and Jameela Jamil who were scheduled to speak at the Gates Foundation event have removed themselves from the lineup amidst pressure from community groups and activists. And, representatives Pramila Jayapal (WA), Rep. Rashida Tlaib (MI), Rep. Ilhan Omar (MN), Rep. Ted Lieu (CA), Senator Bernie Sanders (VT) and many other elected leaders have condemned the actions of the Indian government in Kashmir and have called for self-determination there. 

The rest of us must do the same in our own communities and in our own way. Here are three steps to becoming a human rights defender:

Raise awareness in your community. Talk to your friends and family in the United States and India. We Indians are taught at birth not to “talk politics,” especially when there are disagreements. Human rights violations aren’t politics. Hate and violence aren’t political. These are humanitarian issues and we need to be on the right side of history. Check out resources developed by Stand With Kashmir, Human Rights Watch (India), and the Polis Project. 

Speak Up. Tell Bill and Melinda Gates that their foundation must not honor Modi with an award. Share your concerns with the groups and elected officials who are sharing a stage with PM Modi in Houston.

Organize a teach-in on your campus, place of worship, or community center. Put together a reading list, invite local academics and activists to speak, and engage in a learning conversation to understand what is occurring in India right now. Build links between the policies of exclusion in India and those in the United States such as immigration restrictions, the Muslim ban, and the uptick in hate violence. What is similar and what isn’t? How can we respond to the strands of nationalism and exclusion by standing in solidarity with vulnerable communities?

Most importantly, please do not turn away. We need every single Indian American human rights defender to speak up for equality, liberation, and justice about what’s happening in the United States and in India. 


Deepa Iyer is a civil rights lawyer and the author of We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future. Saira Rao is a former congressional candidate and co-founder of In This Together Media & Race2Dinner. You can find them on Twitter @dviyer and @sairasameerarao.

Is Your Social Change Organization a Pressure Cooker?

Is Your Social Change Organization a Pressure Cooker?

Published on Medium.

The non-profit sector is my home. I remember walking into my first non-profit organization in 1998 and knowing instinctively that I belonged there. Non-profit culture is imbued with a sense of freedom and flexibility, with hope and possibility that we can create social change through our efforts. But, non-profit and movement spaces can also be extremely frustrating and challenging.

“Welcome to the non-profit industrial complex”: many people commonly use this phrase to critique the ways in which corporate practices have influenced movement spaces. Indeed, when I was an executive director of a small non-profit, I regrettably engaged in many of those practices — sometimes unknowingly, and sometimes with full awareness and agency. Aspects of white dominant culture that emphasize the transactional and the individual over the transformative and collective have permeated our non-profit and movement spaces to the point that staff turnover, burnout, and non-profit PTSD have become significant challenges that threaten the long-term sustainability of the sector and our movements as a whole.

While social change work is more important than ever in dismantling systems of oppression, our organizations and movement spaces can often feel like pressure cookers, simmering, overheating, ready to explode. The pressure cooker’s ingredients are bubbling over, and the stove is too hot. Why is this happening and what can we do about it?

What’s inside your organization’s pressure cooker? That depends on your own unique organizational and movement culture although there are a few common ingredients that stem from the practices and beliefs of white dominant culture. (For a deeper understanding of white dominant culture, read Tema Okun’s powerful analysis of White Supremacy Culture here, and utilize Dismantling Racism’s resources here).

Patterns that are showing up frequently in non-profit organizations — especially those that are building movements — include:

• Performance: the over-emphasis on outcomes, deliverables, numbers, and quantitative evaluations to assess our work. Effects: burnout, inability to perform because of unsustainable and unrealistic goals, paralysis

Productivity: the feeling that we must keep producing reports, events, and actions because of the crises in our communities or expectations of stakeholders. Effects: culture of prizing over-work, burnout, staff turnover

Purity: the belief that if you aren’t fully “woke” and don’t have fully-formed theories of change and on-point political analyses, that you can’t be trusted or included in movement spaces. Effects: call-out culture, dismissal, unwillingness to teach or mentor, fear of messing up, no room for learning or change

Process: the belief that we have to be engaged in the actions of strategic planning, evaluations, and systems design to the point that we have no energy or capacity to innovate, dream, and envision. Effects: doubts about transformative change capacity of organization, staff turnover, incrementalism

Personality: the belief that we have to brand and market ourselves as charismatic thought leaders and woke activists on social media. Effects: distrust, competition, martyrdom, the individual is a stand-in for the cause/movement

We often internalize many of these beliefs and express them outwardly. For example, how many of us prize over-work, deliverables, and individual decision-making even though we actually believe in the importance of a collective process and intangible outcomes? (My hand is up). It’s not enough though to recognize and acknowledge that we are in an environment that enables beliefs and patterns of white dominant culture, and shrug off our own personal accountability.

Our individual work is to understand our own tendencies and the environment we are in so that we can disrupt them and replace them with values-based practices. My own personal journey tells me that this is iterative work, that it’s challenging, that it’s long-term, and that it helps when we have people around us to hold up a mirror. When our organizations and leaders do the same through practices of honest reflection and systems change, we can make even more progress.

But it’s not only what’s in our pressure cookers. Let’s look at what’s making the stove so hot.

Our organizations are contending with a constant environment of scarcity because we are under-funded and under-resourced to tackle the enormity of the problems before us. Addressing racism, climate change, and poverty while we are hustling to obtain one grant after the next to pay office rent and staff salaries seems absurd. Yet, this remains the situation that most non-profits continue to face. Instead, we should be able to receive abundant support and resources so that we can worry less about the day-to-day operations of keeping our organizations afloat, and more about the societal challenges in front of us (Resource: Edgar Villanueva’s “Decolonizing Wealth” here).

Others of us are often operating in constant rapid response mode. The heat gets turned down, and then it gets turned up very high over and over, with little time in between. For example, at the non-profit I led, we were moving from one community crisis to the next — acts of hate violence, raids, discriminatory policies — and barely had time to assess and evaluate our work before attending to the next crisis. We were in constant frontline responder mode. And this culture of urgency seeped into our organizational culture as well in terms of setting priorities and making decisions. I didn’t know it then, but I more clearly understand now that this is precisely how white supremacy culture is intended to operate: keeping us running from one crisis to the next means that we cannot build, disrupt, envision, or dream.

How do we turn down the heat? How do we move off the hot stove altogether? Below are a set of questions to guide conversations and self-reflection:

  • What beliefs and practices are inside your own organizational pressure cooker? How do they show up and how do they affect the organizational culture?
  • How embedded is white dominant culture in your organization? See this resource for a checklist to evaluate your own organization’s tendencies to adopt patterns of white dominant culture. How can you disrupt these patterns? What values can you articulate and express that provide a different vision?
  • If you are a stakeholder who is supporting non-profit and organizational spaces, what is your own role in turning up the heat — and in turning it down? For funders: how could funding rapid response efforts keep organizations in crises cycles? How could you turn down the heat by supporting sabbaticals, fellowships, and mental health care for staff? For board members: how could your expectations influence an organization to over-promise and over-perform?
  • What are alternative ways to lead and make decisions at your organization? Some organizations are turning to non-hierarchical, cooperative, and consensus models. In all of these efforts, it is important to develop a set of individual and community agreements that are rooted in self-awareness and self-accountability, and to forecast scenarios and identify possible solutions in advance. For example, what happens when someone isn’t meeting their work goals in a non-hierarchical organization? Who takes responsibility?
  • If your organization is in continual rapid response mode, assess the impact of this cycle on staff and community members. How can you incorporate practices, time, and models that can enable you to rest, to dream, to envision for the future? For example, can frontline staff receive sabbaticals for rest and reflection? Could others in your movement ecosystem play the role of frontline responder in certain situations (see this resource for more on a movement ecosystem)?
  • On an individual level, are we treating a non-profit or movement space as our home? In social change work, we often bring our whole selves because we care so deeply about communities and causes. As a result, many of the patterns that we haven’t worked out, that perhaps show up in our family or interpersonal dynamics, also show up in our workplaces. How can we observe our own behaviors and identify their root causes? How can we benefit from coaching, mentorship, and self-accountability?

Developing a practice of checking in with ourselves, relying on coaches and mentors, and embedding organizational reflection, assessment, and change methods can move us off the hot stove and release the pressure. What are your practices to turn down the heat?

Ella Baker said: “One of the things that has to be faced is the process of waiting to change the system, how much we have got to do to find out who we are, where we have come from and where we are going.” Dismantling systems of oppression on the outside requires self-awareness and organizational assessments on the inside.

Thank you for reading. Please feel free to use and adapt the image (developed by my colleague, Shelby House) and questions at your own organization. And drop me a line at or @dviyer (twitter) with your ideas, questions, and best practices.

PS. Dropping a note of thanks here to the individuals who have shared their frustrations and hopes about non-profit and movement culture in workshops and trainings with me over the past 5 years and to the colleagues and comrades, coaches and mentors who continue to teach and guide me.

My Role in a Social Change Ecosystem: A Mid-Year Check-In

My Role in a Social Change Ecosystem: A Mid-Year Check-In

Published on Medium.

At the beginning of 2019, I shared a reflection about how to move off the seesaw of outrage and numbness that many of us find ourselves on these days. To my surprise, so many of you resonated with the image and guiding questions in that reflection, and used it in your own work and at your organizations. I’ve edited the image and guiding questions in light of conversations I have had and the helpful feedback I have received. I hope that this framework continues to be useful in your mid-year individual and organizational check-ins.

In our lives and as part of movements and organizations, many of us play different roles in pursuit of equity, liberation, inclusion, and justice.

Some of us are frontline responders who quickly and ably transition into rapid-response mode instinctively and organize resources, networks, and messages.

Some of us are healers who tend to the individual and intergenerational traumas of white supremacy, racism, colonialism, capitalism, patriarchy, and nativism.

Some of us are community storytellers and artists, binding the past and the present, channeling the histories and experiences of our ancestors to shed light on what is possible today.

Some of us are natural bridge builders who can work across divisions with patience and compassion.

Some of us are proud disruptors who speak up and take action — especially when it is uncomfortable and risky.

Some of us are caregivers who provide nourishment to organizers, exude concern and love, and create a community of care.

Some of us are visionaries, with the ability to find, articulate, and reconnect us to our north star, even when we cannot clearly see the sky.

And others of us are builders who are actively developing the ideas, the structures, and the scaffolding for our organizations and movements.

Not all of us can (or should) play each of these roles. We might also find ourselves falling into different roles depending on personal and external circumstances. Or, we might be observers and supporters from the side from time to time. An effective, healthy, and sustainable social change ecosystem requires different actors to play these roles, and often, at different times.

Here are some guiding questions to use along with the image above.

  • What role(s) do I feel comfortable and natural playing, and why? What role(s) make me come alive, and why? Are there any differences between these two responses for me to explore?
  • What role(s) am I often asked to step into by others? How do I feel about assuming those roles?
  • What is the impact of these roles on me physically, energetically, emotionally, and spiritually? Is there an impact on others as a result?
  • How can I stretch myself? Where can I take bolder risks, especially if I hold different forms of privilege? What do I need to learn more about before I do that, and who can teach me how to do that?
  • Am I visioning and dreaming in my role? Or am I caught in a cycle of repetition and redundancy, or compromise and sacrifice? How can I generate creativity and innovation?
  • How do I move through different roles without feeling like I have to pick just one in order to be effective? At the same time, how can I make sure that I’m not a wanderer or a short-term amateur? Or positioning myself as an expert within a silo?
  • If I work in or adjacent to the non-profit and movement ecosystem, how am I holding onto purpose especially given the pulls and contradictions of purity (proving “wokeness”), productivity (maintaining constant performance and output at the cost of overwork, replication, martyrdom, and low impact), personality (the over-emphasis on celebrity activism and social media relevancy), and perfectionism (expecting to get it right all the time and being afraid to own up to mistakes)?
  • When (and not if) I make mistakes, how do I acknowledge them and course correct without feeling like I’ve failed?
  • Who is my support system — the people who hold me accountable in a compassionate way? Write their names into the various roles if they play them, or on the sides. How can I widen this community? What have I asked of them in terms of support?

Organizations could answer the same questions with an eye towards understanding and assessing how they function as part of a campaign, coalition, network, or ecosystem, and how they can course correct or deepen their impact.

People and groups, from non-profits to teachers to students to “professional” activists, have used the image and guiding questions at staff meetings and retreats as well as to aid with your own personal reflections and check-ins. I hope you’ll do so as well! And, if you have feedback, I’d love to hear it. Please drop me a line at

What Will It Take?

What Will It Take?

Published on Medium.

UPDATE: Dhriti Narayan, a 13 year old student, was walking home from the library when a man plowed his car into a group of pedestrians in a hate crime. Friends of Dhriti Narayan’s family have started an online fundraiser to help cover her medical and rehab expenses. Please give and share.

UPDATE: Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice held a unity and solidarity vigil (May 2)

Does even a week go by without an incident of hate violence in this country? These days, we are barely finding out the names of the victims of one hate massacre when we hear of another attack. We are simultaneously processing outrage and sorrow, while fighting desensitization and numbness.

This weekend, as I heard about the news of the Poway synagogue shooting, I was also learning more about the April 24th car crash that happened in Sunnyvale, California. Eight people were injured when Isaiah Peoples deliberately crashed his car into a group of pedestrians at the busy intersection of El Camino Real and Sunnyvale Avenue.

One of those injured is Dhriti Narayan, a 13-year-old seventh-grader at Sunnyvale Middle School. Dhriti, her brother, and her father were all injured in the crash. Dhriti has fared the worst. She has life-threatening injuries including brain trauma and a fractured pelvis.

Police are treating the crash as a hate crime. At a recent press conference, Phan Ngo, chief of the Sunnyvale Department of Public Safety, revealed that the driver “intentionally targeted the victims based on their race and his belief that they were of the Muslim faith.”

Every act of hate is horrific for both the individuals targeted and for the communities to which they belong. As someone who has worked with hate crime survivors and on anti-hate violence initiatives for over two decades, I have developed over time a protective armor to keep myself focused in times of community crises. There is a familiar cycle that many of us have unfortunately become accustomed to: help survivors and families with legal and mental health needs; speak out in the media; press for hate crime investigations; hold vigils; ask for support from other communities. Repeat.

Yet what happened to Dhriti pierced through my defensive shield, and I find myself heartbroken. I have a child close to Dhriti’s age. She is part of an Indian immigrant family like mine. She was just taking a walk — returning from the library — with her loved ones.

It is also profoundly sad to realize that Dhriti and her family join a group of Indian Americans and South Asians who have long been targeted by hate violence on the basis of their faith, national origin, and race. Early immigrant workers faced anti-Asian exclusion leagues that drove them out of places like Bellingham, Washington. In the 1980s and 1990s, Rishi Maharaj, Navroze Mody, and Sandip Patel were targeted on streets and at workplaces. Vasudev Patel, Waqar Hasan, Rais Bhuiyan, Balbir Singh Sodhi, and Sunando Sen are among the many South Asians who have faced post 9/11 backlash. Paramjit Kaur, Suveg Singh Khattra, Satwant Singh Kaleka, Ranjit Singh, Sita Singh, and Prakash Singh lost their lives in 2012 when a white nationalist attacked a Sikh gurdwara in Wisconsin. Srinivas Kuchibotla, an Indian-American engineer, was murdered at a restaurant in Kansas City by a man spewing anti-immigrant slurs within the first 100 days after Trump took office.

This climate of hate is exacerbated by hostile government policies targeting immigrants, including South Asians. These policies intend to denaturalize us, strip us of our right to work, and place us in detention jails for seeking asylum. It is clear that no marker of success will immunize us from bigotry; we can fight hate only through a commitment to anti-racism and solidarity practices.

Words of Support for the Victims and Survivors of the Massacre at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, where a white nationalist killed 6 people and wounded several in August 2012.

Today, hate violence is occurring at a pace and with a frequency that is deeply jarring and unsettling. Already in 2019, just in the United States, we have witnessed hate violence, arson, and vandalism at a synagogue in San Diego, at Black churches in Louisiana, at a Hindu temple in Louisville, Kentucky, a mosque in Escondido (supposedly attacked by the same person accused in the Poway synagogue massacre), and at a hub for social justice learning, the Highlander Center.

That’s not all. In February, Mustafa Ayoubi was killed in Indianapolis after a driver followed him and yelled anti-Muslim slurs. In early April, a Hindu priest, Devendra Shukla, was punched in the face by a man who called him a “dirty Indian” while Shukla’s six-year-old daughter crouched in the backseat of their car. A few days after the car attack in Sunnyvale, four Sikh Americans were found murdered in their apartment in West Chester, Ohio; police are continuing to investigate. For months now, Congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib have been targeted with Islamophobic rhetoric and death threats.

While the list of indignities and injustices keeps getting longer and longer, little meaningful response has come from our civic and political leaders. The President is intent on building a wall to keep Brown and Black people out while diminishing the threat of white nationalism. Elected officials stymie opportunities to create meaningful change, as evidenced by the House Judiciary Committee’s recent ineffective and traumatizing hearing on white nationalism and the reactive “anti-hate” resolution passed by the House. And Democratic presidential candidates don’t have robust plans to address white nationalism, Islamophobia, and anti-Semitism either.

Every act of hate violence should prompt every single one of us to ask: are we doing all that is possible? Yes, we organize anti-hate initiatives and document acts of hate in reports. We track hate groups, hold vigils for victims, and comfort family members. We advocate for hate crimes laws and community-centered restorative justice. We create hate-free zones, teach others about the diversity and humanity of our communities, and foster bridge-building opportunities. We write books and issue press releases to center the needs of survivors. We protest bans, walls, and raids. We stand by each other’s communities, and refuse to be pitted against one another. We connect the dots to show how racist policies and institutions enable interpersonal bigotry and hate, and how white supremacy, anti-Blackness, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia threaten everyone’s safety and rights.

Cartoonist: Paul Kinsella

There are times when all of these efforts doesn’t seem quite enough. News of another place of worship or another family being attacked because of race, national origin, and faith prompts the same questions: Why hasn’t all of this been enough? What more needs to be done? What will it take to stop this?

For one thing, we can’t rely on a haphazard hodge podge of thoughts and prayers, weak legislation, hate crimes investigations and charges, the securitization of places of worship, and diversity trainings to fix the root causes that lead to hate violence. And we can’t expect that just a few segments of society — usually those most vulnerable — will deal with confronting hate violence, while others take the privilege of providing condemnation without action. Like gun violence and environmental disasters, hate violence is a public epidemic that requires large-scale and long-term interventions. There is so much more that we must do.

How can we protect our communities in this particular political context? What roles should government, the tech industry, the justice system, and elected leaders play? How can we create effective rapid response mechanisms and support systems for survivors in every state? How can we disrupt the industries that fan, fund, and fuel hate? How can we teach inclusive histories and cultivate true empathy from the earliest ages? How can we attend to the intergenerational trauma of enduring or bearing witness to hate violence? How can we shine a light on the root causes of hate violence? What role does each of us play in confronting hate?

These questions, and many others, are thick in the air around us, demanding to be heard and addressed, even as we move through the grief, sorrow, outrage, and numbness that we feel when someone is harmed in an act of hate.

Together, let’s send waves of energy, support, healing, and comfort to Dhriti and her family, and to all those who experience hate violence. And, let’s pledge to keep fighting for her — and for all our kindred — with everything we have. There is no other choice.

Solidarity: A New Vision of Safety

Solidarity: A New Vision of Safety

Dear WTSA Family,

Please listen to the March 2018 episode of Solidarity Is This, which features a conversation with Dante Barry, executive director of the​ ​Million Hoodies Movement for Justice​, about gun violence and mass criminalization. He poses an important question: How do we open up a new vision about what safety could look like?

Be sure to check out the accompanying syllabus for the newest episode.

For more, please visit:


We Too Sing America News (Fall 2016)

We Too Sing America News (Fall 2016)

It’s hard to believe that we are in September already! I’m writing with a quick update on We Too Sing America, and with an invitation to join a new effort to explore principles and practices of multiracial solidarity.

*I’m so excited to share that We Too Sing America has been selected for a 2016 American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation. It’s such an honor to be among this group of authors: check out the entire list here.

*I’m hoping to meet many of you at We Too Sing America events and speaking engagements during the fall. Check out the calendar of events here. And if you’d like me to come and speak or do a workshop at your conference, on your campus, or in a community space, please contact me at

*For the past month, I’ve been coordinating a new campaign called #SolidarityIs, which is an effort by national racial justice organizations to explore how we practice transformative solidarity. Check out our website at and join us on Twitter (@solidarity_is). Our website contains resources, sample language for solidarity statements, and best practices of solidarity in action.

*Be on the lookout for author Marina Budhos’ new young adult novel, Watched, which will be released this fall. It’s a must read for anyone who wants to know more about the impact of issues such as surveillance on the lives of South Asian, Muslim and Arab youth.


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