Talking Strategy in San Francisco

When SAMAR put out a call for articles on progressive organizing in the South Asian community, it seemed the perfect opportunity to get a number of organizations in the Bay Area together, to talk to one another. While many groups showed interest in participating in this conversation, it was not easy to find a time when we could all meet. Thus this conversation between members of three organizations, is, we hope, the first of a series.

The participants in this discussion were: Rinku Sen, co-director of the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO), a racial justice organization for people of color in the U.S; Sandip Roy, board member and editor of Trikone, an organization for South Asian gays and lesbians; Dipti Ghosh, board member of Trikone; Jayanth Eranki, member of Coalition Against Communalism (CAC), an organization formed to combat communal ideas and actions. The discussion was moderated by Raka Ray (CAC).

Raka: Let's start with the question of what our organizations are trying to achieve.

Rinku: At the Center for Third World Organizing (CTWO) our long-term goal is to see the US take the leadership in building multi-racial communities with real equity and power within this country. The CTWO approaches that goal by organizing communities that might come from any number of cultural or even national identities and building an organization where they begin to see themselves as one people. These days, a large part of our work consists of direct organizing - as well as training community organizers - around economic issues, identifying gender bias within our society, figuring out the relationship between gender bias, racism and economic exploitation of poor people of color. The majority of the people who end up in our organization and who lead our organization are women, about 80%, many of them South Asian . When I started doing community and direct action organizing, I was a rare person, a South Asian woman in a mixed-race organization that was really for poor people. There are, however, more like me coming up over the last 5 years or so.

Sandip: Trikone is a support group for South Asian gays, lesbians and bisexuals. It was started in '86, primarily because gay South Asians here found that they could not fit into the mainstream gay culture and at the same time were not comfortable with the South Asian culture. It started as a newsletter and the people involved in the newsletter coalesced to form a group. So, today, it is a combination of a magazine and a support group, and is very diverse. There are people who come to the support group, people who come to the events, some who are South Asian, and some not, some who are queer and some who are not, and that has been the policy of Trikone. Just because we want to be South Asian and queer, we do not want to limit ourselves to being just South Asian and just Queer.

Jayanth: CAC was founded in '92 and started to coalesce after the destruction of the Babri Masjid. A few days after the destruction of the mosque there was a meeting at the Unitarian church with a whole bunch of people who came together because they were outraged. So we formed this organization because otherwise we come together whenever things like this happen, express our outrage and then dissipate. In the South Asian community the right-wing fundamentalists are amongst the most effective organizers. At the drop of a hat they can get 40 people into a room to sit writing letters expressing outrage about something or the other. So the idea was to form something to counter that. And to say that there is an alternative point of view. Our group has Indians and Bangladeshis and we have a couple of Pakistanis but the organization focused mainly on India because Indian communalism was, at that point, the problem that bothered us the most.

Raka: A key question for organizations is the target, who they are supposed to go out to recruit or convince. What are your thoughts about that for your particular organizations? Sandip: Recruit is a bad word for our organization, we try not to use that. In a way our target audience seems clear - Trikone is meant for South Asian gays and lesbians and bisexuals. But it is really much broader than that, because we are about South Asian people of alternative sexualities finding a comfortable place in both our cultures. In that sense our target is really the broad South Asian community and the mainstream gay community. Sometimes the South Asian community more than the mainstream gay because that's where we seem to have the most trouble.

Dipti: The board of Trikone has always been very conscious about being truly South Asian. We work across all the organizations, Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi. We put ads about Trikone in different newspapers even though many still reject us. We have been trying to get a booth at the Pakistan Day mela for 2 years now and somehow, mysteriously, we always seem to be missing that deadline. And when other people call on the same day, friends of ours, business people, the Pakistan Day organizers say "Oh, of course, plenty of booths, plenty of booths." We are a small group, our mailing list has 200 people, about 70% South Asian, in the Bay Area, and not all of them have activism in their belly. But there is a core group of about 20 or 30 people who will show up for things and take a stand.

Raka: Do you have programs specifically addressing the intolerance of the larger South Asian community?

Sandip: We've done it mostly through social events. A few years ago we organized Tamasha, a cultural event. Half the performers were South Asian gay but the others belonged to other South Asian groups. We try not to hammer people over the head with it, but we want to be there long enough that they get to see us regularly. That is why we march in the India Day parade even though sometimes it is acutely uncomfortable. Like last year, we were too small, we were pushed into being literally the last group in the parade, it felt unsafe. Just this ragtag group at the end, a target for hecklers.

Dipti: The good thing is, however, that we always get people because they saw us at the parade. There was this young woman who just moved here from Bangalore, 23 years old, saw us at the parade, got our number and called us. And that feels good, that there was at least one person who saw us, O.K., we did it for a reason.

Rinku: I tend to think of targets in terms of categories. There is the constituency of people you want to engage and build power with and recruit - we do recruit. And then there is the category of institutions you want to target. At CTWO we work with people of color, mostly families and mostly headed by women. There has been a sort of push and pull between who we want, which is everybody, men included of course, and who we attract and get. I think that women are attracted to community organizing because it replicates, in many ways, women's role in the larger society. For example in the poor communities in Oakland, women are often, by default, heads of their families, almost ambassadors between their families and the outside world. Then there are the other people in our communities who come along in their various ways. Like the men who might feel a little bit threatened or don't quite understand what the women are doing. We try to get them to leave us alone so that we can do the things that need to be done to improve the entire community.

With institutions we do an analysis and figure out who our friends are, who are the opponents we will never be able to change, and who are the people who could go any number of ways; and, who has enough power to bother with. So we discourage people from going into City Council and yelling at the clerk. The clerk has no power, can't do anything directly for you but can do a number of things indirectly and can be a great ally. We try to understand where people are coming from within those institutions, how they shape the institutions, and then how our constituency relates to that-do we need to persuade them, or to push them up against a wall, or to isolate them from their allies. A very military kind of notion, but it has worked for us.

Raka: Your organization targets people of color -what sorts of South Asians fall within that purview ?

Rinku: Well, it's interesting to me personally. My family immigrated in the second wave of the late '60s early '70s, the professional wave. The first wave was mostly peasants and farmers, and the third wave that started in the late '80s early '90s was also not professional. In the third wave you see a lot of people working in the service sector, in restaurants, in hotels, in cabs, in the sex industry, some of which is owned by wealthier South Asians. So there is an issue of class and you've got South Asian employers exploiting a much poorer group of South Asian immigrants.

I didn't grow up wealthy or in the U.S., we were poor most of the time-but the education and upper class background of my family gives me a line to those South Asian employers. And I do have the responsibility to use that line and to engage those people to the extent that is possible to go against their class interests in many cases, and at the same time I have the responsibility to identify with the poorest of the poor wherever I'm at. So in this country our target is certainly South Asian immigrants of the third wave I described, but it is also Blacks and Latino and South East Asian immigrants.

Raka: What about Trikone ? Has Trikone had to deal with questions of class ?

Sandip: Trikone is in many ways an upper middle class organization because only that class within the South Asians chooses the label 'gay' or 'lesbian'. There is this whole thing with 'gay' vs. 'men who have sex with men', 'lesbian' vs. 'women who have sex with women' and so on. So, the people who come to Trikone have at least gone through the process of thinking of themselves in terms of such an identity, probably had some exposure to the American gay and lesbian culture. The other issue related to class, in the context of Trikone, is the one of economic independence.

A professional person like me can afford to be out, I can control whom I am out to. Since my family is in India I could decide when I wanted to be out to my family. There are so many other South Asians who do not have those resources, who cannot afford to be out, who can only have the occasional bit of quick sex in a public toilet or something. Every so often someone like that will come to Trikone, the whole family is bearing down on them to get married and they have no recourse, they don't know what to say, because they're financially dependent on the uncle who got them the job here

Raka: Are there issues that rise because members come from different generations?

Sandip: In Trikone it's not so much age as whether you're first generation or second generation immigrant. We can have 20-something board members and 40-something board members who relate very well, but what really divide people is the issues they consider important depending on whether they grew up here or back in India or Pakistan.

Rinku: CTWO is very similar. There is a straight age difference. But I find the difference tends to be much more in terms of organizing and political experience, and what was going on in the world when you hit adulthood and whether it helped ground you in a certain progressive worldview. Whether you were in college during the mid-'80s wave of college activism, South Africa and domestic violence and gay rights. With activists who were in college before that time or after that time and don't have political grounding in a movement, we clash around organizational ethics, what kinds of issues we should be picking up, the connections between your identity, your politics and your organization.

Raka: How do we consciously act within the progressive South Asian community to build alliances amongst ourselves? You have groups like Asha or the India Literacy Project who can raise money more easily because every one agrees that literacy programs in India are a good thing. And you have groups like Trikone and Narika (a battered women's hotline) which are more controversial. So how do you make alliances across progressive groups who don't necessarily have interests in common with each other?

Rinku: The first step is to realize that all of our individual groups can make connections with a common analysis and a common agenda. Take communalism. The interesting way to see communalism is as a part of a global right wing. There are 3 parts to it. There is an economic part that is concerned with adopting laissez-faire capitalism. There is a religious right wing that is concerned with ordering the family in a patriarchal structure and then there is a racial right wing that is concerned with preserving racial identity. Communalism seems to be an expression of all three things together in India, taking over the government, moving forward with capitalism and setting up a sort of Hindu state. A very early alliance-building project is to make those connections and talk generally of what alternate kind of society we would like to see. How would the government function there ? How would I as a gay person fit in there ? What would the workplace look like there ? What would school look like ? I'm eager at this point to start to build coalitions.

Sandip: I think that groups need to do some amount of soul-searching as to why they need these alliances. A lot of gay men see Trikone just as an organization for gays that should simply hold parties and dances and so on. So when we start talking about gender equality, even on the Trikone board, a lot of gay men are really confused-why should it be an issue for them? After all, they're not married, they don't have some woman stuck in the bedroom or kitchen, how could they possibly be sexist? It is a long, slow process for them to realize that homophobia is linked to sexism. That is why it is important that Trikone has a direct connection with something like Narika. Besides the fact that there are a lot of married gay men who end up abusing their wives to take out their frustrations at being trapped. So, Trikone has cosponsored Narika's fund-raisers and we encourage people in Trikone to go to the fund-raisers. Then, slowly, you get to feel the connections somewhere, in the belly, and you start supporting the other person because it really matters and not out of some abstract ideal.

Raka: Aside from time and inclination to form coalitions, there is, of course, the question of the size of the South Asian progressive constituency.

Rinku: The thing is, a constituency is built, politics is not something you're born with. There is nothing natural about being progressive or conservative. At all times, the progressive core has consisted of just a few people, and the only way those groups have managed to grow is through a process of persuasion and participation. My experience has been that with 15 or 20 people you can get a lot done. You don't need 100 people in front of City Hall. 20 people, going right there into the mayor's office can really do something. The job of those 20, though, is to go out and recruit and be visible with their politics. The way to not keep preaching to the converted is to be brave enough to go out and engage and not preach so much but to listen and argue with the unconverted.

Dipti: It doesn't take that many people to organize, it just takes commitment. Putting ourselves in a situation like the India Day Parade. Or in front of a freshman class talking about being Gay and South Asian-Trikone does that a lot, we do family discussions at universities. I just recently did one on how lesbians are affected by arranged marriage. And someone asked me, "As a lesbian, how would you know anything about arranged marriages!" But sitting there, having a conversation with this man, getting him to realize that I live in the same world as he does, that's the real thing. You have to be able to talk to people who are not your buddies.

Rinku: And it's also the effect that conversation has on everybody around. To me, you and that man are not the most important players in that discussion. It's all the other people there who see, "Oh, she's arguing back with him, He's raising what seems like a legitimate point. And they're still talking to each other, I wonder what they're saying." It's about setting up these pictures, these plays that people can place themselves into. And being aware that every public interaction you have is really work you're doing out in the public realm. It needs to have the integrity that you want it to have so that it can offer people the option for moving.

Raka: The question of strategies is really fascinating. Trikone puts itself in these very uncomfortable positions but in non-confrontational ways to get conversations going. Another strategy is confrontation. One of the things CAC is struggling with is knowing that there is a constituency out there in temples and yet not being willing to go there. So, what sorts of strategies, confrontational or non-confrontational have your organizations used? Dipti: Well, I don't think everyone who goes to a temple is a right-wing fundamentalist. We have to identify those (non-fundamentalist) people and get them to talk inside the temple. Not everybody in a Christian Church is a right-wing fundamentalist. There are some very good progressive groups that I would love to get allied with. So, I think the key is to be able to connect with those who are religious in their beliefs but do not believe in this fundamentalism stuff.

Jayanth: In our strategy in the CAC we often find ourselves vacillating, between spending our energy trying to prevent a fund-raiser by someone like Sikander Bakht (the token Muslim in the BJP, a Hindu fundamentalist political party in India that provoked the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Dec. 1992- ed.) or trying to bring together people in this country or in India who think fundamentalism is bad, maybe even trying to organize a debate.

Rinku: The principle I generally use is one of increments and generalization. I start with the easiest and friendliest. In part because we're always trying to figure out activities that will put people up against power but won't freak them out so much and will result in victory. That gives you courage and makes you willing to have your next engagement with the same power. So, starting friendly, starting small, and growing from there is the way to do it. Raka: So far we've been talking in terms of our communities, women, poor people, gays and lesbians within the South Asian community. How do you see the role of your organizations in making links outwards, with the larger progressive community ?

Sandip: Trikone has changed a lot in the last 4 or 5 years that I've been with it. It has become much more of an entity in the mainstream gay community. Now, if the mainstream gay community wants to do something, they always ask us for input. Maybe in a way that's totally tokenistic, but at least they're counting us as a token as opposed to not counting us at all. Even in the South Asian community Trikone has become much more visible than it was seven or eight years ago. I would like to see Trikone being regarded as another integral part of the South Asian community, as a progressive voice with ideas to be taken seriously on all matters - not just the homosexual group or the sexual minorities group on the fringe that had to fight even to be part of the planning for an HIV/AIDS event in the South Asian community.

Rinku: The name, the Center for Third World Organizing came, in the late '70s, from the assertion that people of color in the U.S. constituted a third world country within the U.S., a domestic third world. Because of that particular position it made sense for Black people and Asian people and native people and Latinos - it has grown over time, we have a lot of debates about where to locate poor white people and Arab people in that. So I think that the project that we started with, of bringing all those people together, in the '80s, still remains a hugely important project.

One of the outcomes of globalizing economies, and of scarcity, is that it has led to people closing ranks in terms of nationalities and it has led to more racism. So the challenge to build a really diverse society, a compassionate society, and to ground that with the people at the bottom of society is still enormous and still requires us to plan the next 30, 40, 50 years of our lives devoted to building that kind of community and living in it while we fight for it.

For this generation of South Asian activists in this country, coming out of the second wave of South Asian immigration, our challenge is going to be to remain accountable. If you're just floating around as an individual, you can be progressive, you can take a stand, you can do all kinds of things, but you run the risk of only doing things that are easy and self-aggrandizing and not grounded in anything real. A lot of us are lawyers working in foundations, or academics, but without an organizational base. I think we have a responsibility to make ourselves work within an organization where we can be held accountable, otherwise nothing concrete will ever happen.


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