From Barely Relevant to Key Voting Bloc

I remember waking up on November 5, 2008, and coming to the realization that the United States had its first African-American President. The entire country was in awe of this moment and rightfully so. However, for the South Asian community of New York City, a smaller and less noticed but critical set of events had also changed history the night before. Voters in the hotly contested New York State Senatorial District 15, which includes the dense South Asian and West Indian enclaves of Richmond Hill and Ozone Park, had helped hand the majority to the Democrats in the New York State Senate after nearly 70 years of Republican control. The contest was between a 20-year Republican incumbent, Serf Maltese, and a young Democratic challenger, Joe Addabbo, and the unprecedented increase in participation in local elections by the South Asian and West Indian communities in the Richmond Hill and Ozone Park neighborhoods of Queens made all the difference. This fact, in all likelihood, will have long-lasting significance in both the local communities and for state politics.

This turn of events has been inspiring because it challenges the unfortunate reality of the South Asian community in New York City. Our community, like many other immigrant neighborhoods in the city, is generally plagued by a lack of local political participation and an acceptance of the social inequity that follows such apathy. If I had to grade South Asian electoral participation, I would have had no choice but to give our community a C minus. This poor grade for presidential election participation is still more acceptable than the bleaker grade that South Asians would receive for participation in local city and state elections--the elections that are ironically fundamentally critical for immigrant communities.

The real consequences to this lackluster involvement in the electoral process is the loss of public resources that local elected officials channel into neighborhoods in order to prescribe projects that are meant to better the lives of their constituents. No one can blame a politician for investing in communities that participate aggressively in the democratic process and demand public investment in return--it is the American way. Public resources and tax dollars are not distributed on the basis of need. What we have in the United States, especially in New York, is an advocacy-based disbursement model where those who are most organized and vocal, whether it's industry or community, receive a greater return. Everything from zoning laws, tax abatements, agency regulations, and social services are channeled towards groups and entities that participate more aggressively and that have invested in and secured representation for themselves.

I remember my own uneasy feeling growing up in my neighborhood of Richmond Hill, Queens. Shortly after emigrating from Punjab, India, my family moved here and my parents bought their first house. Our family was typical for the neighborhood: recent immigrants with very little education and skills who worked for low wages at the Eagle Electric plant in Long Island City. Our neighborhood felt like a surrogate community, one where immigrants arrived but never fully unpacked their suitcases. It was no-frills, speckled with store-front churches and temples, and basement apartments; not like the proper communities we saw growing up on TV.

My call to action came while I was still living in Richmond Hill. More than a decade ago, as a college student, I answered an ad in a local paper for community organizing work by ACORN, (Association for Community Organizations for Reform Now), the largest non-profit community organization in the country. Working as a community organizer with ACORN taught me what community empowerment means. Knocking on doors and talking to people in their homes and on the streets of Bedford Stuyvesant, East New York, Far Rockaway, and other New York City neighborhoods, heightened my sensitivity to the effects that varying social forces can have on individuals. I began to understand that the difference between immigrant neighborhoods and more affluent neighborhoods was not just a matter of high median household incomes but active engagement by community members in the welfare of the community.

Eager to apply some of the organizing models I had learned through the years, I co-founded a community-based non-profit organization, SEVA Immigrant Community Advocacy Project, in Richmond Hill in the summer of 2006. I understood that the only solution to a community's lack of self-empowerment is long-term organizing from within the community. I wanted to give my local immigrant-populated community an opportunity to transform itself into a powerful constituent community. Along with my colleagues, I grabbed the opportunity to launch an extensive organizing and voter registration campaign, Desis Vote, in February of 2008--one that would help the community get itself on the map and force local representatives to pay attention to them.

Since our resources were very limited, we had to focus on one community at a time. For the 2008 elections we naturally chose Richmond Hill, where SEVA is headquartered and where a majority of our community organizing is conducted. Another important factor in our decision to launch the Desis Vote project in South Queens was that we were aware that a contentious State Senate election was going to be fought in District 15. As a result of gerrymandering, the district only encompasses about the half of the South Asian and West Indian community in the Richmond Hill and Ozone Park areas. But, the South Asian community which comprised a large portion of Richmond Hill and Ozone Park was about to become fiercely sought-after as a constituency for the first time by local politicians whose election results now depended on leveraging this neglected community.

The race was further complicated by the macro politics at play; the New York State Senate had been in the hands of the Republican party for nearly 70 years and the fall of even one Republican seat would result in a 31 seat to 31 seat tie. Furthermore, there was the risk that the state government could end up in constitutional chaos as the tie-breaker in a vote in the state senate is the lieutenant governor; this position was vacant because former Lieutenant Governor David Paterson had taken over as governor after Eliot Spitzer resigned in 2007 following a controversial sex scandal. The state constitution does not have a provision to fill a vacancy in the lieutenant governor's position so it would mean waiting until the next election for state governor--2010. With New York State politics being what they are (read: highly partisan), ties were virtually guaranteed. Thus, both parties were preparing to launch unprecedented campaigns to control the upper house of state government.

Added to this cake was, of course, the thickest icing in modern political history, an African-American candidate was the possible nominee of the Democratic Party for president and an outgoing president was leaving with some of the lowest approval ratings ever, especially among immigrants. We knew all of the ingredients were in place to aggressively court South Asians immigrants into participating in the political process.

When SEVA's Desis Vote project first began gathering data on South Asian voter patterns we corroborated our sense of low community participation -- nearly 40 percent of South Asians who were registered to vote had never cast a vote in any election ever. Of the remaining voters, a vast majority only voted in presidential elections--once every four years. A small fraction participate in local elections and even fewer in primary elections. SEVA approaches this issue from more than just a spirited "civic participation" angle, although civic engagement is one of the signs of a healthy community. The community organizing work that was conducted during the Desis Vote campaign had commenced two years before the voter registration was even conceptualized. My colleagues and I understood that the desi community's needs and issues required a more tailored form of organizing that would be working to organize South Asians citywide in order to generate real political capital for the South Asian community; we needed to facilitate the community's upward mobility and allow the community to have a place in statewide issues that affect all New Yorkers.

Our strategy was threefold: first we had to raise awareness of political participation and the stakes in local elections (this phase runs throughout the entire process). Then, we had to identify key locations within the 15th Senate District, and conduct voter registration drives. Finally, we had to mobilize all registered voters to cast a vote on Election Day.

The uphill climb that exhausts the most resources is Phase One. How do you convince a generally insulated immigrant community to become politically active in a country where barely 50 percent of the eligible populace votes? Our response strategy was community organizing. The Desis Vote project leached from the organizing work SEVA had been engaged in during the few years before the 2008 elections. All of SEVA's contacts and networks were tapped by Desis Vote organizers, which allowed the project to be as successful as it was in a relatively short timeframe.

Political scientists have argued that two factors are key in determining electoral participation: "social connectedness" (the degree to which individuals are involved and integrated in their community) and "political connectedness" (the level of interest an individual has in politics and whether they feel government is responsive and concerned about them). In immigrant communities such as Richmond Hill, Queens both of these factors are lacking. Therefore, as organizers, working and living in these neighborhoods, we paralleled our social integration efforts within the larger ubiquitous context of developing political awareness by registering people to vote.

SEVA has perpetually been engaged in the "social connectedness" component. Our organizers are engaged in everything from working with temples to create and expand after school programs, organizing an inter-generational woman's "phulkari group," to assisting in organizing parades, and managing legal clinics. Obviously, this takes countless hours of dedication by organizers who are from and live in the communities they are working with. There are no shortcuts available in this line of work. It is, however, deeply rewarding.

The southwestern Queens neighborhoods are also heavily populated with West Indian immigrants from Guyana, Trinidad & Tobago, and Suriname. On any block where you find a South Asian, you will also find a West Indian if not two. West Indians naturally identify with South Asian culture since they are descendants of South Asian ancestors who migrated to the West Indies only two to three generations ago. Even with the ancestral link and communal proximity very little integration occurs between the communities other than general economic activity. We noticed that there were no formal organizations that brought together both West Indian and South Asian voices. As community organizers it would have been gross malpractice to not involve the West Indian community in SEVA and Desis Vote projects.

Recognizing that the West Indian community was an integral component in every aspect of our work, we organized another SEVA project dubbed the South Asian and West Indian Community Leadership Cabinet (SAWI) inaugurated by our first formal meeting, held in Makhan Shah Lubana Gurudwara in Richmond Hill. This meeting was attended by some of the most prominent community leaders in the South Asian (largely Punjabi, Sikh and Bangladeshi) and West Indian communities. What was designed to be a simple meet-and-greet with a casual discussion on community issues erupted into a passionate and emotional conversation about the lack of quality schools, mistreatment by the NYPD, post 9/11 incidents, and the lack of public investment in the community among other things. The intensity of emotions symbolized the underlying psychological consequences of immigration especially into communities with little to no social infrastructures that cushion the long transitional process. The most striking part of the first SAWI meeting was the change from a language based on powerlessness ("we don't have good schools" etc.) to one demanding change ("we must fight for quality schools"). We organizers noticed the groundswell and we all agreed that a nascent form of empowerment had sprung from a simple conversation between community members who had never sat in the same room to discuss community issues before.

Although SEVA organizing is based on a grassroots model, we always begin by identifying indigenous community leaders. These "leaders" usually aren't even conscious of the fact that they are leaders and can take the form of anyone from local real estate agents, insurance brokers, and a seamstress, to the temple priest. We started our campaign by breaking down the political realities and the stakes for the community to convince these leaders to get aggressively involved in electoral politics and support Desis Vote. Our success rate was high simply because we were usually the first ones to approach these community members with a systematic plan for political empowerment.

The "roti and ghee" of SEVA organizing is based in the religious institutions of the community--the gurudwaras, mandirs, mosques, and churches. SEVA has developed extensive relationships in key religious institutions throughout New York City especially in the Richmond Hill communities. Naturally, the second phase of our plan, the identification of registration sites, involved the gurudwaras, West Indian Hindu mandirs and other religious institutions. We set up voter registration tables in the temples, or on the sidewalks in front, and asked that constant announcements be made to the congregations of the importance of registering to vote.

Our registration table was decorated with a large "DESIS VOTE!" banner and our very aggressive organizers confronted congregants and inquired about their citizenship status, pressuring those who qualified to register at that very moment. The registration process in New York has a deadline; a voter must register at least 30 days before the election in order to qualify to vote. In order for us to have an impact on the November 2008 elections we had to hustle to register as many people as we could by October. We registered hundreds of new voters directly and an equal amount indirectly from those that took home voter registration cards to register family members and friends.

Since much of our community organizing strategy involved engaging in dialogue with community members and conducting voter registration drives blessed by religious institutions, we were given the opportunity to interact with community members and hear their concerns and issues. Numerous new contacts were made that led to others. The "word of mouth" campaign became extensive and certainly helped with raising overall awareness of political engagement.

SEVA and the Desis Vote project helped organize numerous community meetings and Town Hall forums in Sikh, West Indian and Bangladeshi communities within the district. The pinnacle of the SAWI's organizing efforts was a debate between Democrat candidate Joe Addabbo and Republican incumbent Serf Maltese. This unprecedented event, mirroring the larger presidential debates, organized by a brand new group of immigrants with a combined political experience of a few months was awe-inspiring to watch. With the help of SEVA organizers, the SAWI Cabinet convinced both candidates to participate, researched and drafted questions, secured a location, and marketed the event. Nearly 300 people, mostly South Asian and West Indians, attended to watch the two candidates battle each other to win over what the Daily News called in its coverage of the debate a "key voting bloc." In a matter of months, what was considered a politically inactive community unable to leverage its political power was now being wooed by the rival parties for its attention. With just a few months of hardcore grassroots community organizing, the immigrant communities in Richmond Hill and Ozone Park went from barely relevant to a "key voting bloc."

Our excitement had to be tempered by patience because the final and most challenging component, voter turnout and mobilization, still had to play out. Many people will come to watch politicians debate each other in their own neighborhood but going out of your way before work hours or after a tiresome day of work to wait in line to cast a vote is different. It can be a lonely experience and intimidating. So, we continued full steam ahead in raising awareness, reaching out to South Asian and West Indian media, making new contacts in the community, attending barbecues and block parties, encouraging people to cast their vote.

In the few weeks before the election we began a door-to-door campaign. Identifying electoral districts (the smallest component of the political districting system) that were heavily South Asian and West Indian, we sent out volunteers to knock on doors and remind voters that the day of reckoning was approaching and that their votes would count. Volunteers came from throughout New York City to help, students from the City University of New York Law School, members of other organizations such as South Asian Bar Association of New York, and local activists spread the word.

The results were phenomenal. South Asian and West Indian voters in these communities came out to vote in record numbers--with some heavily South Asian electoral districts doubling in turnout. And we know how the story ends, the Democratic contender took a seat in the State Senate, which is now majority Democrat. However, that is not the end of the story. The work in Richmond Hill is nowhere near complete. Large percentages of qualified citizens remain unregistered. Richmond Hill High School is still failing and social services are not reaching the people who need them most. This will take work and time. The hope is that the communities have come to recognize the power of their vote in giving voice to their problems, and that they will continue to exercise this right to seek what they need to become whole.

Currently, SEVA is focused on addressing these concerns and continuing with its community organizing mission while working on increasing the response rates of immigrant communities for the 2010 Census. SEVA is also preparing to address the unnatural division of the South Asian and West Indian communities in Richmond Hill, South Richmond Hill, Ozone Park and South Ozone Park into multiple city council, state assembly, and state senate districts that have resulted in the dilution of the communities' political power. Meanwhile, the Desis Vote Project is gearing up for another major voter registration drive in immigrant communities throughout New York City this summer.

We invite others in the area that find our work and mission compelling to join us.

SEVA volunteers sorted through the public voter rolls and separated out South Asian voters creating a database of registered South Asian voters in NYC totaling 96,325 people.

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