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A Unifying Force

By Poornima Apte Email By Poornima Apte
September 2018
A Unifying Force

Suman Raghunathan’s activism is rooted in the belief that, regardless of their background, all people should be treated fairly and with dignity. As Executive Director of South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT), her work is more necessary now than ever before. She speaks about her passion and what her organization does, and what we can do to help.

What has your journey looked like? What brought you to where you are today?
I was born in Santa Monica, Los Angeles, and I am so privileged to be raised by a set of parents and an extended family of aunties and uncles for whom a South Asian identity was a very core presence. Part of my journey also comes from being raised with really fundamental core values that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect regardless of religion, skin color, or socioeconomic class.

So how did you bring that with you when you went into college?
As an undergraduate I studied international relations at Brown. Coming together to advocate for change has continued to inform my career. Graduating from college, I was privileged to work for the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative. I was able to understand the broader movement and have direct connection and context.

It felt very logical to think about working with immigrant communities in the U.S. I have a really deep appreciation for all that it takes for immigrants to boost themselves up regardless of where they’re from originally, regardless of their level of access. That commitment and grit and need for inclusion is core to our values in our history as a nation.

I worked in New York with South Asian immigrants through a housing rights and community development group. I also ran a few different voter registration programs. And finally when the opportunity to become the executive director of SAALT presented itself, I took this position and in a lot of ways I came home.

So much of the exciting work that SAALT is doing right now is really about building and forging a whole new identity in the U.S. that is about and predicated on being South Asian, not just Indian.

We are seen as a monolithic community. We certainly have high incomes but for the most recently arrived South Asian immigrants, also have some of the highest poverty levels. A national organization like SAALT is really seeking to continue to hold up that big tent that includes all of those communities underneath it.

How do you cater to the needs of all South Asians under one umbrella, without one group feeling smothered by another?
Our message is that we as a national organization are fighting for racial justice for South Asians in the U.S. Our ultimate vision is dignity and full inclusion for all. So rather than fighting for one specific community, you know, the method to the madness is that we’re actually trying to level the playing field and sort of create a bigger pie of opportunity for everybody.

What would that look like? When you say for all, what does that mean? Give me an example.
We’re working on a response to action around two different proposals around immigration. In this context, dignity for all means that we do not support expanded immigration enforcement, which would not only impact certainly Latino communities on the border, but also continue to impact a huge number of South Asians who are increasingly being detained and deported within the U.S.

Dignity and full inclusion for all means making sure that we are not selling our communities a flawed bill of goods with respect to a political “compromise” that would only serve to further terrorize immigrant communities and make sure that we do nothing to address the root cause of what’s happening, which is a vastly outdated immigration system.

Why do you believe that the work you do is particularly relevant in the current political climate?
We’re at a really fraught moment right now [in] a nation that has historically been very clear that it is a nation of immigrants, but all of those core values are being brought into question. The federal government is lying left and right when it comes to positing immigrant communities in particular as being criminals, as perpetrating violence across the country, as draining our nation’s economy and resources, when in fact all those are the exact opposite.

So what can our readers do to help?
I appreciate that question. Check out our website. We’re plugged into our local community partners via the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO). They are doing incredible work every day, every moment, on the ground, to protect our community members and to make sure they are really treated with dignity. Sign up for our email list. It’s really about being informed on the issues and committing to showing up. Believe that we have power. Be willing to show up, be informed, and to speak out. You can’t afford to be silent.




Poornima Apte is a Boston-area freelance writer and editor. Learn more at WordCumulus.com.

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