Indian-Americans in the tri-state area can take pride in a number of firsts in 2018. Beginning with the first Indian-Americans taking over as Attorney General and State Senator in New Jersey and ending the year with the first person from the community to be elected to the New York State Senate.
Through his first year as Attorney General of New Jersey, Gurbir Grewal made his presence felt on issues of hate crime, national immigration policy, and a host of state-level initiatives. The following tweet from Grewal on Nov. 29, aptly describes his effort at carving an independent path for his state, issuing new rules to prevent profiling to catch undocumented immigrants, through his “Immigrant Trust Directive.”.
“For too long, the federal government has tried to drive a wedge between NJ law enforcement & our state’s immigrant communities. We won’t let that happen. Today, we’re issuing new rules to NJ’s 36,000+ officers to strengthen community trust.”
In fact, all the Indian-Americans in public office, including Hoboken, N.J.’s first Indian-American Mayor Ravinder Bhalla, and N.J. State Senator Vin Gopal, showed remarkable grassroots connections with their daily work obvious from their social media presence and evidence of contact with the pulse of their constituents.
Mayor Bhalla was there if a fire broke out in a building, if traffic problems arose, for waterfront issues, police welfare, the volunteer ambulance corps, parking, food drives, schools, celebrations, you name it and he was there.
This Dec. 27, Mayor Bhalla tweeted photos of himself with a student in Hoboken — “Nice speaking to Xan, a Hoboken resident who interviewed me for his high school senior video project. Spoke about priorities including preserving our waterfront at UDD, my heroes including MLK Jr. & my parents, importance of my Sikh faith & more. Looking forward to the final cut!”
New Jersey State Senator Vin Gopal, led the effort to lower property taxes with his bill, S3266; protecting non-profits against crimes, supporting local breweries, to name a few of his initiatives.
New York State Senator-elect Kevin Thomas, in a surprise upset victory, became the first Indian-American to be elected to the upper house in Albany. “Despite little money or staff, the Levittown Democrat upset veteran Republican State Sen. Kemp Hannon by getting out minority and ethnic South Asian voters,” proclaimed Newsday, in a Nov. 13 article following the Nov. 6 elections that put Thomas at the helm in the 6th Senate District in Long Island. The 34-year old “knocked on thousands of doors” in Nassau County, and “strategically wooed” minority voters, the paper noted, leading to a “surge” in turnout. Thomas is also the first Asian-American elected to the state senate.
The Indian-American community will get to witness his progress when he comes into the Senate Jan. 5, at the swearing-in scheduled at Hempstead High School Auditorium. Thomas’s issues during the campaign included the opioid epidemic, and consumer protection. On Dec. 18, he invited his supporters to witness his swearing-in, saying on Twitter, “Dear Friends, I hope this election cycle inspired you to dream more, learn more and do more. My election was hard fought and I couldn’t have done without the help and support of so many.”
Needless to note, New Jersey State Assemblyman Raj Mukherji, is continuing in the state House as the only Indian-American, after veteran former State Rep. Upendra Chivukula.
The increasingly high profile activities of Indian-American-led non-profits and businesses in the Tri-state area continued with Chhaya Community Development Corporation of Jackson Heights, N.Y., the South Asian Youth Action of Elmhurst, N.Y., South Asian Council for Social Services in Flushing, N.Y., making a significant difference in the quality of life of South Asian immigrants to this country.
Entrepreneurs and former public officials like Reshma Saujani, continued to expand their influence. Saujani’s TED talks, as well as her work as founder of Girls Who Code, plus her initiative “Brave Not Perfect” has caught on nationally. Melinda Gates of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, tweeted Dec. 20, about her future reading list — “Here are five of the books I’m looking forward to reading in 2019 — including ones from @Malala, @ReshmaSaujani, and @AngieCThomas.”
Jenifer Rajkumar, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s director of immigration affairs and special counsel, and since August, in the Department of State, has been actively promoting the Governor’s agenda. The former Democratic District Leader in Lower Manhattan’s 65th assembly district. She is constantly aiming to break glass ceilings for Indian-American women.
Sayu Bhojwani, founder of New American Leaders, and former New York City Commissioner for Immigrant Affairs, and founder of South Asian Youth Action, widened and deepened her outreach within and outside the community, as she worked to enroll more voters. One of her Twitter handles best describes her — “Sayu I VOTED Bhojwani”
Bhairavi Desai, founder of New York Taxi Workers Alliance, fought year long with members of her organization, to bring in favorable terms for Yellow Cabbies against the onslaught of newcomers like Uber. The NYTWA, which has a significant South Asian-origin membership, saw an spate of suicides, and struggled to enable drivers make a living wage for their families.
This non-exhaustive list at capturing the growing influence of Indian-Americans in the tri-state area, is just an indicator of the grassroots-level changes ongoing with this immigrant community whose second generation has put its roots down and is rising up in multiple fields of endeavor.