Writing our history… Digitally: 2021 was a banner year for Indian-Americans, others recording their immigrant journey

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Congressman Dalip Singh Saund being greeted at Palam Airport in New Delhi. Photo courtesy of Eric Saund and UC Santa Barbara Library.

During 2021, as the Covid-19 pandemic continued its rampage, Indian-Americans as well as immigrants hailing from countries in South Asia, marked a banner year for building on the digital archive of their history in this nation.

The South Asian American Digital Archives, or SAADA, founded in 2008, saw marked growth this year, as members of the community added their memories and the country recognized the importance of recording the histories of diverse and more recent immigrant communities to make them part of the American mainstream consciousness.

From pre-Independence to post-Independence of India and the formation of other countries in the region referred to as South Asia, immigrants have shared their memories, whether it be the Partition or the formation of Bangladesh, to day-to-day activities in the U.S. like managing convenience stores and going on road trips, the SAADA archives present a mine of information for researchers and youth born and brought up in this country.

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“For all of us it has been a difficult year with the pandemic,” acknowledged Samip Mallick, co-founder and executive director of SAADA in a year-end interview with News India Times. “But we have found ways for the community to come together –  we have been so fortunate to be able to continue building a space for our community to come together,” Mallick added.

A reader holds a copy of SAADA’s Our Stories book, published in August 2021. Photo courtesy SAADA

It was indeed a ‘momentous’ year for SAADA, which published a book Our Stories that brings into focus in tactile print form, some of the archived digital history of the Indian-American community, as well as that other countries from that region.

Our Stories is now in 1,721 schools, libraries, and homes across the country and SAADA’s goal is to get this book into the hands of as many young South Asian Americans as possible in the year ahead.

“If you’ve held this book, you know how life-changing it feels to hold a nearly 500-page testament to our community’s belonging in your hands,” Mallick says.

As one young reader, Alisha, wrote in her review of Our Stories on Goodreads: “It’s quite something to read about your own legacy as written by people who share it with you. I’d love to share it with you too!”

In addition, SAADA recently received a $1 million investment from the prestigious Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

“In SAADA’s early years, when traditional funding agencies declared our work “too niche,” it was our community that supported us and made our work possible,” notes Mallick.

Following are just a few of the many other SAADA highlights from 2021:

The organization added the 4,537th item to SAADA’s archive this year, including the enormously important photograph of Congressman Dalip Singh Saund, D-California, elected in 1957, being greeted at Palam Airport in New Delhi.

Containing rare and valuable photographs, letters, newspaper clippings, oral history interviews, digital materials, and other ephemera, SAADA’s archive enables artists, academics, filmmakers, journalists, students, and community members to write books, create new content, and shape public understanding about our community, the organization says.

This year the SAADA archive also received its 1,000,000th visitor! the organization announced.

SAADA’s 2019-20, 2020-21, and 2021-22 Archival Creators Fellows. Photo courtesy SAADA

Furthermore, the numerous Archival Creators Fellows continued their work through the pandemic to ensure that the archival record includes the stories and perspectives of marginalized groups within the South Asian American community.

Screenshot of an online event to celebrate the announcement of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation’s $1M investment in SAADA. Photo courtesy SAADA

“Certainly, it has been a time of reflection on what is important personally, but also a time of reflection on what kind of world to create,” Mallick reminisced, adding, “And fortunately, SAADA is part of that.”

The  six SAADA Fellows of 2020-21 wrapped up their projects and nine 2021-22 fellows started theirs, including three fellows specifically working to document South Asian American experiences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Over the past three years, this program has supported fellows sharing stories of Queer Bangladeshi asylum seekers, Indo-Guyanese immigrants, experiences of incarceration in America, Ambedkarite political organizing, “and so many more voices from our community that need to be heard,” Mallick says.

For the past thirteen years, a small, dedicated team has been working “toward a transformative vision” ensuring that South Asian Americans are included in the American story: past, present, and future, emphasizes SAADA.

Fazlur Rahman Khan watches the construction of the Sears Tower in Chicago. Photo courtesy SAADA

“Now, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation is demonstrating their belief in our vision by handing us a key to unlock the full potential of what we have built together,” says Mallick about the $1 million grant, which is both a validation of what SAADA has  achieved and an opportunity for it to build something bigger and even more impactful, the organization believes.

“SAADA’s appeal is to younger and older people. Certainly, many engaged with the work of SAADA come from different generations,” Mallick told News India Times. “We are trying to tell stories across the spectrum.”

As a non-profit, SAADA.org accepts and encourages donations from everyone who considers important the objective of adding to the American story.

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