Last week, I spotted a cardinal sitting on a nest of twigs and branches on a tall shrub right outside my living room window. My son and I have been mesmerized by her as she makes her journey into motherhood. Cardi Bee, as we call her, has been teaching me a lot about maintaining a sense of purpose. She is very clear about hers. She’s single-mindedly focused on making sure that her eggs hatch, that they are protected, that they survive. She doesn’t seem deterred or distracted, not by spring storms or her own hunger, and not by the other birds, squirrels and occasional bunnies that criss-cross the yard. She doesn’t seem to receive support either; no other creature has come by, at least not during our waking hours.
When protests began in the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud 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?”
For South Asians committed to ending state violence against Black people, it has always been clear that our work goes further, that we must also work to undo anti-Blackness within our own communities. The hard conversations with our parents and our uncles and aunties about white supremacy, anti-Black racism, and solidarity are not usually easy or fruitful.
But there are moments of clarity and windows of possibility.
Hindutva nationalism, or Hindu nationalism, is a right-wing political ideology rooted in the beliefs of supremacy and superiority: “Hindus first” and “Hindus only.” It’s on the rise in India through discriminatory government policies and state-sanctioned violence targeting Muslims, Dalits, and religious minorities (read this and this). Its presence is also evident in the United States through academia, politics, and connections between the Trump and Modi Administrations (read this, this, this, this, this, and this).
Movement leaders often wonder: “How can I keep doing this work that I love and believe in — at the pace I’m going?”
Over the past three years, I have participated in the Solidarity Summit, a space for movement leaders working on racial justice issues. We meet regularly to build relationships, sharpen our political analysis, and learn about each other’s communities. Not surprisingly, our conversations often come back around to a similar question: How can I keep doing this work at the pace I’m going?
How often do you say, “I stand with …”, to show your support for communities and causes? We pledge to stand with people in Kashmir and New Zealand who are affected by human rights violations and hate violence. We pledge to support causes from Black Lives Matter to Abolish ICE to Repeal the Muslim Ban. Solidarity has become a buzz word to signal what our values are and how we plan to show up for people and causes.
How can solidarity be more than a word, a transaction, a state of mind? How can it be a practice that we engage in time and again, anchored by a values-based framework and political and historical analyses of oppression? How can transformative solidarity practice lead to mutual liberation and collective power?
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.
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?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org 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.