The founder of a New York-based national non-profit that trains new immigrants for political leadership says the current public ambivalence toward inside-the-beltway politicians provides a window of opportunity for Indian-Americans, South Asians, and other new immigrants to engage the system.
Sayu Bhojwani, founder and president of the New American Leaders Project, also said 2017 could be the year when Indian-Americans shine in Tri-state politics, especially in the greater New York area. Bhojwani also founded South Asian Youth Action (SAYA!) in 1996, to develop the leadership potential of immigrant youth in Queens, and today SAYA! works with more than 500 youth each year.
The New American Leaders Project recently released a report “States of Inclusion: New American Journeys To Elected Office” for which it surveyed 7,382 state legislators to determine the number of Asian American and Latino elected officials in office at state governments nationwide. It found only 377 legislature seats are held by Asian American and Latino representatives, and across the board, no state legislature accurately reflects the number of Asian Americans and Latinos residents. This March 3-4, it held a Ready To Lead workshop in New York City, to train select activists from among new immigrants, in the skills of running for office. Bhojwani pointed to the Big Apple’s City Council as a prime example of elected body that did not represent South Asians.
Since 2010, when she started NALP, Bhojwani told Desi Talk, she has seen a cycle of anti-immigrant legislation, citing Colorado and Arizona as prime examples. The difference between now and then (2010) is a lot of new immigrants used to vote for people who promised but did not bring in change. “Now people are more interested in taking matters into their own hands.”
Her organization has trained more than 400 leaders, 10 percent of them of South Asian. It has a pan-ethnic approach because Bhojwani says, “We don’t think it’s politically viable for people to run based on their ethnicity. Immigrants have a number of things in common.”
Many Indian-Americans have a track record of civic engagement, she notes, both in the tri-state area and beyond. “The question is how to do get them to translate this into the political arena to make an impact.” Indian-Americans are still trying to find their way to elected office, but they are very “policy savvy” and know how to navigate the system to get favorable results. “That’s where even if there are few Indian-American elected officials, we know and are certainly being invited to the table.” However, being an affluent community for the most part, some Indian-Americans may equate raising money with winning. “But the ‘dollars and doors’ formula is important,” which means building a base.
In New York, she noted, there were 51 City Councillors, only 13 of whom are women and none of them Indian-American despite a significant number of Indians and South Asians living in the metropolis and outlying areas. By next year the lack of this minority and of women on the City Council would become even more stark because of term limits ending the careers of several of the 13 women councillors. “This is an opportunity for Indian-Americans to try,” to run for elected office, Bhojwani said. Several alumni from her training program may leap into the fray.
Nationally, Bhojwani sees a strong message emanating from American voters on both sides of the ideological divide.
“They are interested in non-traditional candidates, a desire to see something different,” she contends, evident from the high turnout rates in some demographics.
Yet some issues go unaddressed. “The rhetoric on the Republican side is so xenophobic and racist, and, on both sides there is no real solution or plan for immigration,” for instance, Bhojwani says. She is hoping “New Americans” can enter the political arena when voters are looking for something different.
Some of the South Asian alumni of NALP running for office in 2016 and earlier are Farrah Khan for Irvine, California City Council; Chaumtoli Huq, appointed general counsel of New York City Public Advocate; Sonia Kotecha, appointed to Austin, Texas’ Asian American Quality of Life Advisory Commission; Hira Singh Bhullar who ran for Kent City Council in Washington state; and Sameena Karmally, former candidate for Texas state Representative.
Bhojwani previously served as New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, from 2002 to 2004. During her tenure as Commissioner, New York City established Immigrant Heritage Week to honor the contributions and cultures of immigrant communities in the City. Her office facilitated the passage of the earliest laws to increase immigrants’ access to translation and interpretation (Local Law 73) and spearheaded the writing and Mayor’s signing of Executive Order 41, the policy to protect the confidentiality of immigration status for those seeking City services.
Raised in Belize, Central America, by Indian parents, Bhojwani has a Ph.D. in politics and education and an M.Ed. in comparative education from Teachers’ College, Columbia University.
She has received several awards for community leadership and is on the boards of the National Immigration Forum and The AfterSchool Corporation (TASC).