Creating Space For Desi Women

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Inside-the-Beltway women leaders of the Indian-American community share lessons, celebrate achievements

From left, Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington; Sen. Kamala Harris, D-California; and Mina Harris, founder of Phenomenal Women Action Campaign, at the Oct. 2 “Women Who Impact” conference held in Washington, D.C. organized by the Indian American Impact Project. (Photo: Impact)

Indian-American women leaders who have made their mark in the nation’s capital, gathered to share experiences and encourage a new generation of political aspirants Oct. 2. Organizers also told News India Times they hope traditional Desi organizations make space for substantive leadership roles for women in the community.

The women leaders at the meeting were primarily Democrats, but organizers contended that was more incidental than intentional.

Regardless of party affiliation, the women featured at the meeting are the vanguard of an increasing number of Indian-American women taking up the challenge of winning seats up and down the ballot around the country this November, and also occupying leadership positions in several other areas of endeavor. Of the more than 100 Indian-American candidates who vied for political office over the year, 40 percent were women, more than any previous year, according to the non-profit Indian  American Impact Project which organized the Oct. 2 event. Nationally, according to a CNN report, 239 women are running for the U.S. House of Representatives, 23 for the U.S. Senate, and another 16 for Governor.

Particularly, the appointments of Republican Nikki Randhawa Haley as U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, Republican Seema Verma as head of the Center for Medicare and Medicaid, and most recently, Seema Nanda as chair of the Democratic National Committee, drives home the notion that Indian-American women are carving out their space in the mainstream in a big way.

The Oct. 2 event, entitled “Women Who Impact” was attended by a capacity crowd of more than 200 guests who crowded the Washington offices of Covington & Burling LLP, a leading law firm in the city.

Speakers included U.S. Senator Kamala D. Harris of California; U.S. Representative Pramila Jayapal of Washington state; Nisha Desai Biswal, president, U.S.- India Business Council; Vanita Gupta, president and CEO, The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, considered the largest human rights organization in the country; Meena Harris, founder, Phenomenal Women Action Campaign, and sister of Sen. Harris; Samhita Mukhopadhyay, executive editor, Teen Vogue; Seema Nanda, CEO, Democratic National Committee; and Neera Tanden, president and CEO of the think tank, Center for American Progress.

Republican Desi women leaders like Haley, and California Republican Party leader Harmeet Dhillon, and Verma were absent. Mini Timmaraju, a board member of Impact, told News India Times that Impact was a bipartisan organization and that “we are looking forward to reaching out to Nikki Haley and Seema Verma in the future.” The fact that mainly Democrats were speakers was more incidental than a planned outcome. “There was no intentional oversight,” Timmaraju told News India Times.

“For the first time in history, we have an amazing cohort of Indian American women who are shaping, and leading, our political and policy landscape. These women are power brokers, influencers, and thought leaders — and we are very proud of them,” Priya Dayananda, another board member of the organization, was quoted saying in the press release.

There were no male speakers and a majority of the audience was also made up of women.

“The energy was electric. There was a hunger for women, particularly Desi women, to have a space of their own,” said Timmaraju.

A section of the audience at the Oct. 2 Indian-American conference on, ‘Women Who Impact’ in Washington, D.C., listening to Rep. Pramila Jayapal, D-Washington.(Photo: Indian American Impact Project)

“Desi organizations have traditionally been male dominated, let’s be honest,” Timmaraju said. For this conference, Impact founders like Deepak Raj, Raj Goyle, and Gautam Raghavan, “created that space for us and we ran with it,” Timmaraju asserted. Raj, chairman of Impact, is a New Jersey investor and also chairman of the leading non-profit Pratham; Goyle is a former Kansas State Representative who envisioned Impact in 2016, and launched it in January this year with Raj; Raghavan was in the Obama administration as liaison to the Pentagon on LGBTQ issues, and in other capacities. He is also editor of a recently published book, “West Wingers.”

Generational Difference

A cursory glance at the helm of one of the oldest Indian-American organizations, the American Association of Physicians of Indian Origin, considered the largest ethnic physicians organizations – it has had 3 women as president among 34 shown on its website. The Asian American Hotel Owners Association, dominated almost entirely by Indian-Americans, has a woman Vice Chair, as well as two major committees headed by women today. But historically, no woman has held he position of Chair of AAHOA, its website shows.

However, “It’s not fair to say the first generation did not have women in positions of power, not in my experience,” says Anju Bhargava, an ordained Hindu priest, and former president of the Asian Indian Women in America, an independent organization started in the 1980s with the support of the Federation of Indian Associations back in the 1980s, but not as active now. “But then each generation feels that the previous one was less ‘liberated’ than theirs,” she laughed.  ”

The difference is the older generation had to learn the process as they adapted to the mainstream, she contends. “The newer generations already had an infrastructure to stand on our shoulders and leverage their positions, and rightfully so,” said Bhargava, who founded Hindu American Seva Communities, adding, “You first have to clear the path to build a road. Others will come and put the gravel on it, or tar it,” Bhargava added. “Men and women have both taken part in that.”

Padma Shri Dr. Sudhir Parikh, the first president of AAPI Federation of NY/NJ/PA, and publisher of News India Times, pointed to women leaders in various Indian-American organizations, but conceded there should be more of them. “So many other factors have impinged upon women in the past, fulfilling their family as well as professional obligations. Today, they are in a position to choose their priorities at an individual level,” Dr. Parikh said, adding, “Women have in fact, proved to be better organizers, better volunteers, more committed and sincere. We welcome them.”

Not Partisan

Explaining the absence of Republican Desi women leaders at the Oct. 2 event, Raghavan told News India Times, “We only invited individuals based in Washington D.C. for this event— quite frankly, I’m still stunned their schedules all aligned! We plan to do similar events in NYC, San Francisco, Chicago, and other cities to profile leaders in those cities as well.”

“This event was hosted by Impact Project, which is a 501(c)(3), so invitations were extended without regard to party identification; in essence, we invited Seema (Nanda) because she is the first Indian American (or Asian American) to helm a national party, not because of the party in question,” Raghavan added.

A live Twitter feed from the meetings revealed an upbeat but issue-oriented meeting that discussed not only women’s rights, but also immigration, healthcare and other matters.

“There’ll be many occasions where we are the only ones in the room who look like us,” Sen. Harris is quoted saying in a tweet from Impact. “When you’re in those rooms, don’t dare sit in that room & feel alone. Don’t let anyone let you feel small. Know we are in that room with you, cheering you on.” Harris concluded her speech with the thought that “years from now, people will ask where youwere at this important moment in history.”

Nanda, in her speech emphasized the importance of diversity pointing to the fact that 80 percent of Republican members of Congress were white men which 40 percent of Democrats on Capitol Hill are white males.

“Immigration is not about policy. It’s about who we are as a country.” said Rep. Jayapal who is one of 11 immigrant lawmakers, according to Impact. She had been an activist for immigrant rights for many years before being elected in 2016.
“So honored to join @SenKamalaHarris, @MeenaHarris, and Indian-American leaders and activists from around the country at #WomenWhoImpact!” tweeted Rep. Jayapal tweeted during the event, adding three muscular arm emojis.

“After a staffer’s mother passed away, @RepJayapal introduced the South Asian Heart Health Awareness and Research Act with (Republican) @RepJoeWilson to raise awareness of the alarming rate at which the South Asian community is developing heart disease,” Impact tweeted during the meeting. Jayapal was interviewed by Meena Harris.

Gupta, who was the Civil Rights Division chief at the Justice Department during the Obama administration, said while working on civil rights issues, it helped that she was neither black nor white, adding that the attacks that are happening, are not about one community or the other, but rather “attacks on who we are as a country and who we want to be,” Impact tweeted live.

One Twitter follower, Sahil, @sahilsc1, had this to say about the Impact meeting- “The name should be Indian American democrat impact fund. Coz the most successful Indian American women (sic) Nikki Hailey is not there nor are Indian American women working for current administration.”

The Indian American Impact Project says it is focused on expanding the ranks of Indian- Americans in government, politics, and public service. An affiliated organization, the Indian American Impact Fund, endorses and supports Indian American candidates running for office.

 

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