A weekly magazine-style radio show featuring the voices and stories of Asians and Pacific Islanders from all corners of our community. The show is produced by a collective of media makers, deejays, and activists.
- Without Fear Consulting
- Interfaith Alliance
- Oakland Peace Center
- Book – Blueprint for a Revolution
- Book – The Selected Writings of Eqbal Ahmad
- Podcast – Bending Toward Justice: Avatar the Last Airbender for the Global Majority
- The Alliance of South Asians Taking Action – ASATA
- South Asian American Digital Archive
- Archival Creators Fellowship Program
- Sandhya Jha’s project, you can listen to all of the oral histories here.
- Arab Resource and Organizing Center
- University of California Labor Center
- Equality Labs
- California Trade Justice Coalition
- NAFCON – National Alliance for Filipino Concerns
- Filipino Community Center
- Madhvi Trivedi Patak
South Asians and Labor Justice
[00:00:00] Swati Rayasam: Good evening everyone and Happy Thursday, my name is Swati Rayasam. While I’m usually in the background of APEX Express editing, this week I’m honored to bring you a piece from a dear friend of mine Sandhya Jha. We explore Sandhya’s background as a mixed race kid, a housing, labor, and racial justice organizer, and a faith leader.
[00:00:50] Swati Rayasam: And then we dive into an amazing project, Sandhya did for the South Asian American Digital Archive’s Archival Creators Fellowship program. Stay locked in.[00:01:00]
[00:01:00] Swati Rayasam: I’m really excited actually today to talk to Sandhya Jha, who is a really close friend of mine. Hi Sandhya. Hi there. Sandhya is, a Pastor is a consultant and has been working on this really amazing project with the South Asian American Digital Archive that will get into later in the episode. But yeah, Sandhya I’m just really excited to learn more about you and to hear more of your story and, let’s just dive in.
[00:01:26] Swati Rayasam: Absolutely.
[00:01:27] Swati Rayasam: We should first talk a little bit about how we know each other, you have this long organizing background. I’ve been in the Bay Area for the past seven years and I would be totally lying if I said I have not historically been, or I’m not even currently an active fangirl of yours. You are literally a pastor. You are a movement worker, how did you get involved in organizing?
[00:01:53] Sandhya Jha: Yeah. So I am the product of my parents who were generous, compassionate [00:02:00] people who thought about the world beyond themselves, but were never involved in organizing or activism or anything like that. I think for anybody who comes from immigrant backgrounds, it’s hard to tell our stories without naming who we come from. Right. And so my father was Sunil Kumar Jha from the village of Tildanga in West Bengal. My mother, who is still alive is Jeanette Campbell Jha. She is from Glasgow. So I come from a mixed religion and mixed race home. My parents chose not to name me Sandhya Campbell Jha not to give me that kind of grounding, but I was called Sandhya Rani Jha, which is a lot to live up to, well, yes, Rani does mean Queen. But it was actually handed down to me, part of the reason they wanted that middle name was it was my aunt’s name, Durga Rani Upadhyay and she was the one who really [00:03:00] brokered my mother’s acceptance into the Indian family and I think that there was something about being accepted on the Indian side of the family and not for many, many years on the Scottish side. That caused my parents and particularly my mother to double down on making sure I knew who I came from and who I came from was my people in the village of Tildanga.
[00:03:23] Sandhya Jha: I grew up in Akron, Ohio, so we immigrated to this country when I was a toddler, in the late 1970s, which was a complicated time for Asian immigrants to be in the Midwest because it was a time that the rust belt was rusting and there was a growing sense that we were the reason. But also I grew up alongside folks who were trying to figure out how to put food on the table. So I think that landscape shaped me in a lot of ways. And I also come from people who grew up in poor working communities. And[00:04:00] when I went off to college, there was an organizing campaign. The board of directors of the university had created a for-profit corporation with the exact same board.
[00:04:15] Swati Rayasam: Oh wow.
[00:04:16] Sandhya Jha: So that the universities could subcontract all of their catering, all of their custodial work to this… basically Shell corporation.
[00:04:28] Swati Rayasam: Are we telling on the university?
[00:04:29] Sandhya Jha: Mm, Yeah. Why not? It was Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, and I think that’s relevant because the tension between Black communities next to Johns Hopkins Medical School and the school itself were very real because this was part of a very long history of exploiting community members. So the workers were organizing, and you know, I had read about activism, I cared about it. I paid as much attention as I could for a high school student. But when I got to college, this organizing [00:05:00] campaign was going, and the workers were really clear, Hey, college kids who are excited about this, we do have a role for you. It’s to fill the crowd. It’s to cheer us on. It’s to when we ask you communicate to the university that our well-being matters to you because they will listen to you in different ways. But the campaign centered the workers and was really clear with us about what our role was because we were the folks with all the privilege by getting to be there, right? We had tons of privilege and it was a really good lesson for me. I am so grateful. The first organizing campaign I was a part of was a labor campaign that understood what it meant to center the people who were the most impacted by injustice and I think that shaped the rest of my career.
[00:05:46] Swati Rayasam: And that’s so special too because I think for many people who come into organizing, and I will definitely cop to this myself, like coming up and organizing through high school and college level organizing. When you are a student, nobody ever [00:06:00] tells you that actually you are the least useful kind of organizer that exists. Right. You are in this incredibly enclaved community. Your oppressor, the university, all they have to do is wait for you to graduate institutional memory will not keep you. Yeah. Right. And I think that it is, it’s this perfect storm of, you have actually sometimes cool ideas, sometimes very rudimentary ideas, but you also have this turnover issue and you have this sense of self import, which often comes with your teens, early twenties. Yep. As you’re just figuring all of that out. So Yeah, self differentiation, right? It’s a narcissistic phase in our development. .
[00:06:46] Swati Rayasam: It absolutely is and I think that’s so important, and I can’t imagine how my life would be shaped if I didn’t have to spend a lot of time unlearning the self import and narcissism that I had gained through student [00:07:00] organizing.
[00:07:00] Sandhya Jha: Yeah. No, I am really, really grateful for it.
[00:07:02] Sandhya Jha: My first job outta college was working for a member of Congress, which sounds super fancy and pretentious, but, a member of congress from Akron, Ohio. So put that all in perspective. His name, believe it or not, was Tom Sawyer. Oh, wow. What I loved about Tom was back in those days, he believed very strongly that 80% of legislation was nonpartisan and that was the part that he spent most of his time on. He would weigh in with his party, when they were dealing with that 20% pretty consistently. But he was more interested in the stuff that everybody could agree on and I remember for about 15 years after I worked for him, I looked back and found myself thinking that was so naive. How did he not understand where we were about to head with the divisions between the political parties? But at this point in my life, I realize the people I respect most in organizing work keep pointing out that the binary of [00:08:00] left and right actually doesn’t serve us very well. One of my biggest heroes in the movement right now is the Reverend Dr. William Barber,
[00:08:07] Swati Rayasam: Hometown hero of mine. Yes.
[00:08:09] Sandhya Jha: Poor People’s campaign from North Carolina. And he always talks about how it’s not about right and left. It’s about right and wrong. And it turns out that when we engage in organizing with the awareness that there are huge swaths of things that most of us are well served by, we can do better organizing. And that was actually how Tom was legislating. And at a certain point I realized that my deep passion was around racial justice, but the distinct experience I had in a multi religious household was an awareness of how religion was being used as a weapon. I had an obsession. Every paper in college I wrote was about the Christian coalition, this right wing, organizing body in the nineties. So a friend of mine [00:09:00] said, You know, there’s an interfaith organization working against the Christian Coalition. And it was called the Interfaith Alliance. Her mom had been a superintendent in Washington state in eastern Washington and was a pretty conservative person by my standards.
[00:09:18] Sandhya Jha: But, Dr. Chow believed in multiculturalism and believed in teaching evolution. And the Christian coalition had organized to push her out of her position as superintendent and the Interfaith Alliance of Washington State had supported her in that time.
[00:09:38] Sandhya Jha: And so Liz said, you know, they’ve got a national chapter, a national office. And that’s where I ended up, cutting my adult organizing teeth which was great because talk about learning lessons for our current moment where religion is being weaponized in ways that are anti-trans, that are anti-queer, that are anti-women, that [00:10:00] are anti reproductive rights, that are anti-immigrant and refugee. I am really grateful to have experienced the power of multi-faith organizing, around a lot of those same issues. So that was what I did in the early two thousands and then I went to seminary and public policy school, and then I ended up out here pastoring a congregation of 10 people in a building of 40,000 square feet.
[00:10:29] Sandhya Jha: And long story short, that’s how the Oakland Peace Center was born, was out of this dream of cultivating deeper collaboration among nonprofits who were dedicated to a shared cause. The Oakland Peace Center, which is a collective of 40 different nonprofits committed to dismantling the root causes of violence in our community. I was the founder of that organization and it was when I was pastoring First Christian Church of Oakland that I asked the handful of folks who were members of that church, what they wanted to [00:11:00] contribute to the community, and they said they wanted to contribute peace in the midst of violence. And for a dozen folks to have given birth to a space that in non pandemic years, saw over a hundred thousand people do things like the Lawyers for Black Lives Conference and to do Kingian non-violence training and to be a part of food and clothing distribution, to participate in all the very diverse ways that we can create peace is pretty impressive.
[00:11:30] Sandhya Jha: And a couple of years ago, I left the Oakland Peace Center because a colleague of mine said, Anybody can run a non-profit. We need you to do what you’re actually good at, and what she meant by that was we need more people of color doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work that is actually grounded in power analysis. That isn’t just how do we be nicer to each other in the workplace, but how do we recognize the ways that systems of white supremacy [00:12:00] unconsciously often shape the culture of our workplaces? And what do we do to dismantle that white supremacy culture so that we can be building nonprofits and institutions of higher education and faith organizations, and even corporations that are dedicated to our full liberation, our liberation, the lands liberation.
[00:12:23] Swati Rayasam: I mean coming, especially from the place that you come in grassroots organizing and in faith based organizing, what is it actually to transition into this kind of consulting space around racial justice and really interface with a lot of people that I feel like as organizers, we don’t really talk to?
[00:12:42] Sandhya Jha: One of my favorite things about this shift in my work is I love getting to work with folks who don’t think of themselves as organizers, who, it turns out are organizers, Right. I think we sometimes create a cult of here’s what an organizer looks like, you [00:13:00] have to be a Martin Luther King or a Cesar Chavez and what I love is getting to work with moms and with teenagers and with folks who think of themselves as caring, compassionate, individuals, and when I go into an organization and work with their handful of folks who care about this issue, the DEI team, I get to teach them how to strategically organize. I get to teach them how do you create culture shift over time? I get to teach them how do you figure out who your allies are? How do you figure out how to move people who are neutral? It turns out that there are a lot more organizers out there than we realize if we don’t create one definition of what an organizer needs to look like.
[00:13:45] Swati Rayasam: I have been reading this political scholar Eqbal Ahmed, who really talks about the way the burden is on those of us who are deeply committed to movement work, narrow definition people, the burden is really on us to try and [00:14:00] create a liberatory future that feels both achievable. Mm-hmm. and safe for everybody. Because when people engage in mass struggle and in revolution, there are people who are a hundred percent willing to put their lives on the line. People who are willing to die for the cause. And we absolutely need those people. And there are many people along the spectrum who, if you can create a future that feels like it’s within their grasp, they will come with you.
[00:14:30] Sandhya Jha: Yep. I teach a lot of organizing classes and have gotten a chance to teach alongside my beloved colleague BK Woodson at Allen Temple Baptist Church, they have a leadership institute there. And one of the books we use is Blueprint for a Revolution by Srđa Popović. And I feel like I learned a lot as we read that book together and thought about how to apply it to the work we’re doing in Oakland. They talked about how by engaging in nonviolent direct action, [00:15:00] they created space for elders to be a part of their work and youth to be a part of their work and families to be a part of their work. By making the movement playful. They gave people hope and gave people courage because dictators are terrified of being mocked.
[00:15:17] Swati Rayasam: Yeah, exactly. And I think by being really restrictive or narrow about who we view as actually valuable organizers. And I think labor movements teach us this a lot, right? We really cut ourselves off at the knees on our ability to build a network or to be in touch with the general population, many of whom are more connected than we ever give them credit for.
[00:15:41] Sandhya Jha: Yeah. Yep. it’s part of why I love labor organizing. I talk with a lot of people who are disenchanted with organizing who ask me how I can have stayed involved for the past 25 years. And why I’ve been able to stay in it is cuz I’m organizing alongside workers and they have [00:16:00] full lives. And the work that they’re doing in the movement is so that they can live their full lives. And there’s something about having that perspective and recognizing the why all the time instead of getting lost in the weeds of the what. Is so important in this work. I think that has been a big theme of my organizing life is how do we build to the greatest common denominator? As my friend BK often says how do we build towards those shared values that often get erased when we are engaged in the right versus left debate.
[00:16:39] Swati Rayasam: Yeah. I think that it is so important and I also think that it’s really hard in this moment of what feels like constant trauma and re trauma.
[00:16:51] Swati Rayasam: And to some extent especially when we’re talking about the left right dichotomy there are real concerns [00:17:00] about safety. Yep. And there are real concerns about security and who you are in community with and who you can find even the smallest level of acceptance from to ensure that you won’t have violence visited upon you. And I think that these conversations of united front organizing, Right. trying to bridge across difference mm-hmm. for a shared goal, for a shared liberatory future Yep. Are really important. And they feel kind of impossible to achieve right now.
[00:17:31] Sandhya Jha: It’s interesting cuz I think that in many ways that is true. There are a lot of conversations that I think people with privilege expect, people who are marginalized to engage in. And those expectations are unfair, what I found very frustrating was the number of people with a lot of privilege who would be like, Ugh, I just can’t talk to those people. And I’m like, Then who’s going to? Exactly. and so I do think that some of this is about being willing to have [00:18:00] hard conversations in the places where we have privilege and recognizing who’s at actual risk and showing up in ways that are protective of who is at risk. But that doesn’t mean walking away from people who aren’t where we are. Right. Because the fact of the matter is everybody’s on a journey. And I have watched at the same time some of the disposability culture in movements write off people without giving them any way to address harm, repair harm, and find a pathway back into community.
[00:18:41] Swati Rayasam: Yeah. And I think that’s why, at least I am feeling really hopeful about, what I’ve seen over the past couple of years, this really important track into transformative justice and restorative justice, to acknowledge that there is harm that has happened, there are harms that happen every day between people. [00:19:00] And also we are all on our own journey to unlearn the things that we have been taught either directly or indirectly by our upbringing, by our environment and that you cannot easily dispose of people and that people are able to come back into community. Now that comes with a very important caveat that like they recognize the harm. Mm-hmm. that. They have done or how they’ve been party to it, that they acknowledge that there is healing work that needs to be done both with the person that they harmed and also probably in internally.
[00:19:35] Sandhya Jha: Well, and the community, folks who don’t do RJ on a regular basis tend to skip the community aspect. Yeah. That there is actually repair that needs to be done with community and there’s work community needs to do to figure out how to re-embrace reabsorb people who have done harm in ways that still protect the person who’s been harmed.
[00:19:55] Swati Rayasam: Exactly. In ways that do not erase the harm that has happened, but [00:20:00] acknowledge, contextualize it and say, Okay, we are patching this and we are working to move forward in step with each other. Absolutely.
[00:20:09] Sandhya Jha: Can I just say that one of the other things that I think you and I have in common is a real passion for bringing joy back into the work of Justice I quote Fabiana Rodriguez a lot on this particular thing, because I was at an event she was doing eons ago, and she looked out at us and most of us were activists and she said, Listen, y ‘all you keep inviting people to a struggle. I’m on your side and I don’t wanna join a struggle. I want to join a party. And that was like a call to arms for me when I heard her say that. I was like, Oh my gosh, you’re right. We are so much more fun. Like, I’ve hung out with people who are anti-trans and anti queer and anti-immigrant and anti refugee. They are not fun people. No, no. We have all of the best parties. So I don’t know why we don’t [00:21:00] capitalize on that more. So I think the role of joy and justice is so important. And this is why I was so excited to have you on the podcast that I launched recently.
[00:21:11] Sandhya Jha: Right. Bending Towards Justice Avatar the last Airbender for the Global Majority.
[00:21:15] Swati Rayasam: So literally like bringing it together. Two of my favorite things right, is like TV shows, wholesome TV shows like Avatar, The Last Airbender that I deeply love and organizing. Yes. All the work that I love. And I think it’s true You know, what is actually really the important work is to work to build toward a future that is desirable Yep. That people want to be a part of. Yeah. That people can see happen. Yeah. And I think that is a lot of the difficulty that I have seen in some organizing circles. We are so well versed in what we are against and all of the things that are bad that so many people have a really hard time seeing or visioning or communicating [00:22:00] what it is that we are fighting for. Yeah. Right. And it’s not enough to say, I’m fighting for a world where we can all be safe. Right. Yeah. I’m not, I’m fighting for a world where we can all take long naps in the middle of the day if we’d like to do that. Right. Yeah. But like really building and visioning that future of like, in this world in which we are all safe, there will be harm that happens. How do we deal with that? Yeah. What do we do with that? How do we make sure that it is able to keep everybody safe and also able to account for the times in which it is not able to keep everybody safe.
[00:22:38] Sandhya Jha: Visionary does not have to mean naive. And we need it to be visionary. And sometimes I forget to do the visionary stuff. I’ve got a colleague, Dave Bell, he’s a farmer who is also an anti-racism trainer and we do a lot of work together. He’s a white guy who lives in White Swan, Washington, on the reservation and I remember being at a training with him and I [00:23:00] was all fired up and I was so excited about the conversations we were having and the people were really ready to do the hard work and roll up their sleeves. And Dave says to them, I would like to not have to do this work. And I’m like, What is he talking about? This is amazing. We’re doing such good work. And he says, I would like for us not to have to talk about racism all the time. I would rather be farming. I would rather be, taking care of the cows in my field.
[00:23:26] Sandhya Jha: I would rather be talking about my pottery work that I’m doing badly but learning how to do, I would rather be doing anything than have this conversation. But I don’t get to be on the farm with the wheat, with the cows, with my bad pottery until we figured out how to do this anti-racism work. And it was a really humbling moment for me because I also get into that like I’m an organizer, that’s my identity space. And it was this reminder of Dave’s doing this. So he gets to live in a world where he gets to hang out in the fields and he [00:24:00] gets to, love on the cows. There’s something about being reminded that we’re doing this so that eventually we don’t have to do it. That I think is actually visionary in its own way and it’s important.
[00:24:12] Swati Rayasam: Moving into a little bit more of the grit of like why I asked you to be on the show today. I met you originally when I moved to the Bay Area when you were the executive director of the Oakland Peace Center because At that time I was doing organizing work with the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action, which is a 20 year old bay area based organization, that was really founded around the Laki Reddy Bali Reddy sex trafficking. Yep. Caste and labor exploitation case that happened in Berkeley in 1999. And I was just so thrilled to be around and have in community so many rad desis. And you also did work with ASATA, right. Historically and are actively doing work with us.
[00:24:56] Sandhya Jha: Absolutely. One of the places I think I invested the most [00:25:00] energy in where we got to spend a lot of quality time in the kitchen was one of the projects, Bay Area Solidarity Summer, an organizing institute, camp, however you wanna refer to it.
[00:25:10] Swati Rayasam: Political education, Summer camp.
[00:25:12] Swati Rayasam: Yeah, exactly. For young South Asian Americans who are committed to activism. What I think was the most beautiful part of that program when I was involved in it, and it’s still the case today, is for young South Asians who think that they’re the only ones who care about justice issues, who haven’t met other people, who are South Asian, and identify as justice seekers first to meet each other and realize that there are people just like them. Then to look around and realize that those of us who are usually 10, 15, 20 years older than them are also committed to the work and have been doing it for decades. And then for them to get exposed to the long history of radical visionary organizing and activism of South [00:26:00] Asians here in the US and also in the homelands of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, and diasporic countries all over the world.
[00:26:13] Sandhya Jha: There’s something about realizing, Oh, you have contemporaries, oh, you have elders, oh, you have ancestors. Mm-hmm. Especially in the face of the model minority lie that so many of us have had imposed on us, this lie that all we are all we’re supposed to be is cogs in this larger capitalist machine that are non disruptive, which is why we’re allowed to survive. And if we are non disruptive enough, we might even be able to be comfortable. And to discover that there’s more to our story than that is so exciting and I love, love, love being a part of that.
[00:26:52] Swati Rayasam: Yeah. I think that is like fundamentally one of the most important kind of activities that [00:27:00] happens in the ASATA universe, I was a kid who also grew up thinking that there were no other South Asians like me, or there were no other folks who were interested in justice. I spent a lot of time doing, reproductive and queer justice in the south; I always think about what would it have meant if I came in, BASS for 18 to 24 year olds. Yep. what would it have meant if I had come in at a fresh 18 and been able to basically be apprised of the fact that I have this history Yeah. That it’s not just me. And that actually, immigration and white supremacy and neo-colonial culture has created this project of assimilation that all of our parents have been in on, in a way to survive Yeah. And to be safe. And I tell my, I tell my mom that a lot because she’s always a little surprised about the organizing work that I do. And I was just like, Your job was to survive. My job is to liberate. Yeah. [00:28:00] You know? Yeah. And I could not do that if you were not so focused on creating that environment for me.
[00:28:07] Swati Rayasam: I love that.
[00:28:07] Swati Rayasam: we’ll drop in the show notes, but, BASS – Bay Area Solidarity Summer is solidaritysummer.org. So we’ll put that in the show notes as well as ASATA, the Alliance of South Asians Taking Action is ASATA.org. And yeah, I think that is a really good segue into how we got involved in this amazing project.
[00:28:31] Swati Rayasam: You’re tuned in to APEX express at 94.1 KPFA and 89.3, KPFB in Berkeley. And [email protected]
[00:28:43] Swati Rayasam: I think it was Fall 2021 that you and I were talking. Yep. And you were telling me that you were involved in this amazing archival fellowship project. Is run by the South Asian American Digital Archive and [00:29:00] that you were going to do your project about labor. Mm-hmm. and South Asians. Yep. And my immediate, incredibly naive response was, how many South Asians are there in labor?
[00:29:12] Sandhya Jha: Exactly. And it’s not naive. It’s interesting cuz I think that this project actually emerged out of my favorite part of BASS, which was when the young adults would ask what their opportunities were in the world of justice. And I would say, you know, there’s a place for us in labor justice. It had never crossed most of their minds. Right. We don’t think of ourselves as having a role especially in formalized unions. And so SAADA, the South Asian American Digital Archives has an archival fellows project. And the whole purpose of it is to diversify their archives and collect the stories that are usually overlooked in the telling of South Asian American stories.
[00:29:56] Sandhya Jha: And they have done a great job over the years of collecting the [00:30:00] stories of informal organizing, like the Punjabi Taxi Drivers campaign, the Bangladeshi Nail Workers Campaign. Those were informal labor organizing campaigns. That have been really well archived and they’re amazing stories. I wanted to make sure that the next generation of South Asian activists knew about the South Asians who were actually part of the formal organized labor movement.
[00:30:30] Sandhya Jha: And so I spent this past year interviewing, maybe a half a dozen or so South Asian American workers. Generally, not always, but mostly what would be classified as low wage workers who found a pathway into formal organizing bodies, unite here or the building trades or any number of the formal unions that keep [00:31:00] the labor movement alive across the country today. And I’m really proud of the fact that we do have South Asian workers who have moved up the ranks to be official organizers or to be at negotiating tables. And so that’s part of the story I thought it was worth us telling.
[00:31:19] Swati Rayasam: And I am, I’m so excited that we get to dive deeper into this project and I really love your framing too, around the three large bins that you have, solidarity, spirit and struggle.
[00:31:34] Swati Rayasam: Right? Yeah. Yeah.
[00:31:35] Sandhya Jha: I started out with certain assumptions about what I was going to learn, partly because I’ve been doing labor solidarity work for 25 years at this point. I really thought I knew what I was gonna hear. And what I discovered was there were these consistent themes across, the interviews. that there were these notions of, Oh, what’s meaningful to me is [00:32:00] getting to organize across cultures, getting to organize with people who, on the surface and even deep down are very different than me, but we share this vision of what our lives can be. And so that solidarity message I found really powerful. Also, and admittedly because I come out of a spiritual background, was probably looking for it. I was really struck by how many of the interviews ended up talking about the role of spirituality and shaping people’s values. And in a couple of instances, organizers said, what my religion taught me was that religion needs to be challenged. And building up that muscle was what helped me challenge systems of injustice in other places. But others said that their journey with their faith tradition was what guided them into the work of labor organizing.
[00:32:52] Sandhya Jha: And then that third bucket of struggle, I think is the lived experience of how [00:33:00] hard it is to take on oppressive systems of capitalism, how hard it is to take on decks that are stacked against us and what it means to have somewhere to turn in the midst of those struggles. I will say there were also a couple of lessons I was surprised by because my South Asian identity is so central to my organizing work, I was expecting to collect stories of people who were proud South Asians, who were also proud to be involved in the labor movement. And I assumed that they would see connections between those things because I certainly do. But what I discovered is for the most part, they were like, Yeah, I’m South Asian. I’m not saying that doesn’t matter, but it’s not super relevant to my organizing work. My organizing work is about [00:34:00] our cross-cultural solidarity. And that was something I hadn’t been expecting that emerged as I did those interviews. Interesting. And I’m really grateful that the South Asian American Digital Archives likes telling all of the stories because I think I promised them that what they were going to get was, we’re proud to be South Asian organizers. And what I got was, yeah, we’re South Asian, we’re proud to be organizers. And the that SAADA is like, yeah, that’s part of our story too.
[00:34:28] Swati Rayasam: Yeah. And I think that’s, that I think is incredibly important. We have this really, amazing series of audio clips from your SAADA interviews that really represent a lot of the themes that you were highlighting about solidarity, spirit, and struggle. And I’m just really excited to play them as we talk through these larger themes in your larger project and the experience of South Asian labor organizers.
[00:34:55] Swati Rayasam: This clip is from somebody that you and I both know, which [00:35:00] is Prem Pariyar. I was so thrilled that Prem was a part of your project. I think Prem is an incredible organizer, so yeah tell our listeners a little bit about Prem.
[00:35:09] Sandhya Jha: It was pretty exciting to get to work with him you know, he moved here from Nepal and in Nepal he had been a Dalit activist and he came to the United States and had this notion that in the United States there is no caste and he was disabused of that notion very quickly as a restaurant worker dealing with anti Nepali bias in Indian restaurants, dealing with caste bias in Nepali restaurants, well dealing with Caste bias in all the restaurants.
[00:35:35] Swati Rayasam: Hey, everyone, Narrator Swati here, I just wanted to put in an explanatory comma, a la W Kamau Bell and Hari Kondabolu to talk about some terms you just heard. Sandhya referenced that Prem was a Dalit activist and also talked about Caste bias. For those of you who don’t know, Caste is a violent system of oppression and exclusion, which governs social status in many south Asian countries, although it is [00:36:00] most commonly associated with India. It works on an axis of purity and pollution, and it’s hereditary. At the top of the caste system are Brahmins, by the way Sandhya and I are both Brahmin, and not even at the bottom, but completely outside of the system are Dalits who were previously referred to by the slur untouchable and Adivasis who are indigenous to South Asia.
[00:36:25] Swati Rayasam: Despite being “illegal” Caste bias, Caste Oppression, Caste apartheid, are still prevalent, both in South Asia and as Sandhya references, in the United States. It manifests in many ways that people experience racial injustice, via socioeconomic inequality, systemic and interpersonal violence, occupation, and through the determination of marriage and other relationships. You can learn more at EqualityLabs.org and APEX currently has a show in the works that delves into this more deeply. Now. Back to Sandhya
[00:36:58] Sandhya Jha: What is [00:37:00] delightful to me is Prem went on to get an MSW and is building out amazing mental health resources for Dalit communities for the Nepali community. Seeking to build out a program where there are more and more people in Nepal who are trained with MSW skills.
[00:37:21] Sandhya Jha: I met with one of his professors from CSU East Bay where he got his degree and she said, You know, that the entire Cal State system is adding caste to its anti-discrimination policies thanks to the work he started at CSU East Bay. And it was really beautiful to hear that because the focus of my conversations with him were more around how his experiences in the restaurants led him into the solidarity work with nail salon workers.
[00:37:53] Swati Rayasam: To just, kick back to the caste abolition work that Prem has been doing, that caste abolition work [00:38:00] at CSU East Bay has been such critical work in these ongoing conversations around caste that have been in the South Asian community primarily, but have been percolating elsewhere.
[00:38:13] Swati Rayasam: You know, the state of California filed a lawsuit against Cisco systems Yep. For caste discrimination in their workplace and there have been all these conversations around caste and tech work and interplay that with the no tech for apartheid work. Right. That has been happening in Palestinian liberation circles. Yeah. And really building that solidarity movement. So I think that Prem is an absolute powerhouse Yeah. In that regard. But yeah, let’s listen to this clip.
[00:38:42] Prem: During that time, I got connected with other community organizer, like workers group. I got connected and so I was connected with nail salon workers, who were exploited at their workplace and with them, [00:39:00] I got to go to the capital in Sacramento. And so I thought I need to advocate for the restaurant workers. that was my first experience, like working with other workers and with the assembly members and like other other policy makers I shared what is happening what kinds of discrimination happening at the workplace. So I advocated for the restaurant workers at that time. I shared my stories and I supported the rights of nail salon workers. I was there to support them and they supported me as well, and it was wonderful. And finally that advocacy worked. And the bill was drafted and it was passed finally. And so it was huge achievement at that time.
[00:39:49] Swati Rayasam: I love that. I think that is such a perfect story of when you win, we all win.
[00:39:56] Sandhya Jha: And what I also love about it is he goes on [00:40:00] to talk about how he has remained in relationship with those nail salon workers. That they show up for each other, that they take each other food, that they show up to each other’s baby showers and birthday parties, and there’s this sense of community that emerges out of this shared struggle. And so that’s a cross-cultural campaign. They were mostly Vietnamese. There were some Bangladeshi nail salon workers, but it was mostly people from a different culture than his.
[00:40:27] Sandhya Jha: But somebody at the Asian Health Services program that he was at, saw his gifts, saw his passion, and he really responded to that in exactly, the most powerful way. I can imagine.
[00:40:38] Swati Rayasam: And I think one of the nice things as well about that is that person at Asian Health Services connected Prem in and the Nail Salon Worker group, California Healthy Nail Salon Collaborative, Prem came from Nepal, I’m not sure, but the extent to which his organizing background and how comfortable he was in the US organizing space around labor [00:41:00] issues was probably significantly less that worker group took it upon themselves when they saw Prem come in to say, Oh, you are advocating on behalf of restaurant workers. Great. Why don’t you join us? Let’s help support and so the nail salon workers saw Prem, saw solidarity with Prem and said, It is our responsibility mm-hmm to bring you into this space to connect you in and to move in, struggle together. Yeah. Toward our shared goals of safety, of health, of rights. Yep.
[00:41:35] Sandhya Jha: Exactly.
[00:41:36] Swati Rayasam: So, we have this clip from Daljit, tell me a little bit about Daljit.
[00:41:42] Sandhya Jha: Yeah. Daljit was an attorney who now reads tarot for people because she needed a break from the toxicity of that career and how it was taking her away from her family. Daljit is a deeply spiritual person and, [00:42:00] as I mentioned before, this theme of spirit showed up in some really beautiful ways in some of the interviews. I loved the way she understood her Sikh tradition as foundationally being connected with the land and foundationally connected with the people who work the land.
[00:42:15] Daljit: Agriculture is our culture and the religion that I was born into, Siki, the founder of that faith was a farmer. And so a lot of the scripture, the analogies, the metaphors, the poetry, the music, the songs, the boon, the traditional folk songs, that can be taunting and teasing banter, all that stuff the land is the framework for that. And my most favorite line from the Guru Granth Sahib, our holy book, is, [speaks Punjabi] and that basically means that, the waters our guru, the airs our father, but our mother is Earth. And that’s the greatest of all , and that’s adherence to ecosystem. That’s the [00:43:00] indigenous Cosmo vision that should be paramount. And that’s what I try to teach my children. And so I think that’s what I was taught as a kid without necessarily being able to pinpoint it, but it was just infused throughout our songs, our music, our food, the Harvest, there’s two times a year that our celebrations, whether it Baisakhi or Lohri. It’s so connected to the harvest and what is coming out of the soil or not. And you’re connected to the cycles of nature.
[00:43:28] Swati Rayasam: The connection between nature land, spirituality the way that it shows up in so many faith backgrounds and so many faith organizers, I think is really, really beautiful.
[00:43:41] Sandhya Jha: And I love that Daljit Kaursoni who was raised in this tradition, has found her way to Buddhism and is raising her kids with those connections, but without ever losing this grounding in the liberation of the land, the liberation of the [00:44:00] people.
[00:44:00] Sandhya Jha: And for that to be a key element of her spirituality, even as her spirituality evolves, I think it’s pretty powerful.
[00:44:08] Sandhya Jha: One of the other people I got to interview ,Tafadar, he’s a Bangladeshi American in the building trades and is a deeply committed Marxist. For me, this was a particularly exciting interview because I’m Bengali, so from West Bengal, before partition, Bangladesh and what’s now West Bengal, were one state. And so it was fun to get to talk with him and to say, Hey, this is our legacy as Bengalis is radical worker organizing.
[00:44:40] Sandhya Jha: And I remember saying to him, Some people in the building trades are not super excited to be working with brown people. And some people in the building trades are a little biased against women. And as a very, very progressive South Asian? How do you navigate that [00:45:00] space?
[00:45:00] Sandhya Jha: And he said, Here’s the thing is, yeah, I organize alongside some moderate to conservative white folks from New Jersey and he said, but in the building trades, if that moderate to conservative white guy from New Jersey decides he doesn’t like my feminist politics, or he doesn’t like my brown skin, if he decides that’s a reason not to train me, he might die. And it was really interesting because even though I’ve been doing labor justice work for a long time, it was one of those moments I was like, Oh, right. Your work is very dangerous and you all have to rely on each other whether you like each other or not. That is the magic of organizing that no one ever talks about. This is why we can do cross class, cross-cultural work because literally you have to trust each other with your lives. Right. That was a really clarifying moment for me. And it was one of those interesting moments where I was like, [00:46:00] Solidarity is not a romantic thing. Uh, it is very much a matter of life and death.
[00:46:05] Sandhya Jha: And I think that is really important and that exact thing that you brought up, you don’t even have to necessarily trust somebody. Right. But you do need them. Yep. Right. And like that really clear understanding that like your fates are intertwined and it is truly in everybody’s best interest. If you are trained well, irrespective of whether or not at lunch, I’m interested in sitting anywhere near you. I think that’s really great.
[00:46:32] Sandhya Jha: One of the things that was really exciting about talking with Tafadar was the reminder that labor organizing and formal union organizing at its best can be in solidarity with other movements really worker justice and housing justice and racial justice are inseparable, on some level. And so, one of the most inspiring stories I got to hear across all of these interviews [00:47:00] was a campaign that brought together folks across the anti- gentrification, the immigrant rights, and the labor justice movement.
[00:47:14] Tafadar: It’s ironic, building affordable housing with deadly exploitation. And, um, to do this, the de blassio administration, they embark on massive major rezonings of poor areas to relax the local zoning laws to be able to bring in these developments. And a couple of years ago, my, my union in local 79’s. Took a very sharp turn towards a community organizing approach because labor can’t win on our own, and that’s the perspective that all of labor should adopt. In order to fight against the sweatshops in our industry. We united with a lot of community organizations in the South Bronx.
[00:47:53] Tafadar: We formed the South Bronx, Safe Southern Boulevard Coalition. And along with these groups, we [00:48:00] protested and did a whole lot of activism, lobbying, community organizing to stop the rezoning of Southern Boulevard, which is a massive stretch in the South Bronx, while the De Blassio administration had succeeded in another part of the Bronx where there’s like massive displacement still underway right now. And we were determined to stop it there. And it was a beautiful thing that we can unite because on our end as labor, we had to prevent all these trash companies from coming in and exploiting workers. And we were working with these tenants who are afraid of being displaced. And people generally, we do need revitalization of our neighborhoods. We do need investment. We do need things to be changed and made better. For us. If it’s not for us, if it’s done without us, then eventually we’re not even gonna be here anymore. So we had that alliance going on and not only did we manage to stop that rezoning, we also educated the local city councilman on why his position was wrong and supporting the rezoning. And he eventually completely flipped this [00:49:00] position. And now chairs the land use committee of the city council from the perspective that we educated him on, which it’s just been a very interesting dynamic. But, there’s a lot of rezoning battles all over the city that’s like the main front of anti gentrification struggles. And I’ve been watching those kinds of campaigns go on since I began organizing about 15, 16. I’ve seen very different approaches to them, but I’ve never seen any model really work until that one kicked in where Labor and the community came together. So that was one of my favorite campaigns because of that lesson that we were able to concretely put into practice and set as an example for not only for community movements all over New York City, but also for Labor.
[00:49:43] Sandhya Jha: I think this hit me in particular because I’ve done so much work around antis displacement in Oakland, and my experience has been.
[00:49:53] Sandhya Jha: That while for most of us on the ground, the connection between housing justice and labor justice is really clear. When you [00:50:00] start getting into the technical policy issues and the funding issues, the folks who are running labor and housing justice or affordable housing, struggle to find ways to collaborate. And it’s been one of my consistent heartbreaks for at least a decade at this point because I work at the intersection of those things and sometimes I despair of us being able to find ways to move forward together. And so to hear a story like this one and to be reminded at core, those justice issues can and must be we already knew, must be, but actually can function together to build a better community. That was actually really life giving for me to hear.
[00:50:45] Swati Rayasam: Yeah. I a hundred percent agree. And I think the point that Tafadar as well brings in the clip of just saying we knew that we could do this, but we knew we couldn’t do this without community organizing. Right? Yeah. That labor couldn’t do this alone. Yeah. [00:51:00] And I think that is a lot of what, when we talk about solidarity politics, it’s not just a backdoor way of inclusion for inclusion’s sake, we have to all do this. Actually, it is integral that all of us are involved in any of these campaigns because it impacts all of us. And because we are not going to win with only a single constituency and in the very same way that, Tafadar was identifying that labor couldn’t do that alone. in community organizing spaces that you and I have been in mm-hmm. , like we are constantly talking about how we cannot do any of this without labor. Yep. And I think a beautiful example of that is the Block the Boat campaign yeah that the Arab Resource Organizing Center, started back in 2014 and then again during 2021 to block the Zim ship from the port of Oakland. And like this community organization [00:52:00] AROC could not do that without working with the longshoreman to collaborate with the port workers. And I think that when we see the marriage of community organizing and labor organizing, that is when we get the power of grassroots organizing.
[00:52:16] Sandhya Jha: Something I wanna mention about the SAADA Fellowship that I was really grateful for: two things. First off, they did a really good job of making sure we got trained in grassroots oral history. So they took really seriously what it meant for this to be justice work. And they made sure we had exposure to methodology that was gonna lift up and honor and foster the voices of people whose stories don’t get heard often enough. And that was a really big deal to me. The other thing is they made sure that we had an advisory board, people who are in this [00:53:00] work who could help us, figure out who to talk with, who could help us build out an event strategy. And you helped me build out my advisory committee. Anibel Ferris-Comelo who is with the University of California Labor Center,
[00:53:14] Swati Rayasam: Prem Pariyar, a Nepali Dalit restaurant worker, organizer pushing for Caste as a protected category with Equality Labs, a Dalit feminist organization, and a social worker supporting the mental health needs of his and many other South Asian communities in Alameda county.
[00:53:31] Swati Rayasam: Will Jamil Wiltchko with the California Trade Justice Coalition, Terry Valen who I did a lot of organizing with at the beginning of the pandemic, around the struggles that seafarers were facing with the onset of COVID-19. And he’s the organizational director of the Filipino Community Center in San Francisco. The president of NAFCON which is the National Alliance for Filipino Concerns and just an all in all amazing organizer
[00:53:57] Sandhya Jha: the last thing I wanna mention [00:54:00] is SAADA also helped me set up a digital exhibit with Art by Madhvi Trivedi Patak and I wanted to give them a shoutout because they’re an incredible artist, but also they grew up in a working class family and didn’t get exposed to what it looks like to do labor justice. And so as they developed the artwork to go with the digital exhibit, they got to experience the possibilities of labor solidarity that they hadn’t gotten to experience as a child. And so I really loved that Madhvi was a part of this project as well
[00:54:38] Swati Rayasam: All of the clips that you shared really identifying, again, these like huge fundamental pillars of solidarity and spirit and struggle. these clips were amazing. They are so rich and so layered with all of these people’s varying and different experiences. Really showing in [00:55:00] all of these different walks of life at all of these ages with all of these experiences, that all of these people have this unified and shared identity in struggle, in spirit, and in solidarity for liberation.
[00:55:14] Sandhya Jha: And one of the things that I think is worth celebrating is whether they see it as part of their South Asian identity or not. People who do identify as South Asian now have this resource that says there’s a home for you in the labor movement. Yes, there are. There is a value to your voice. There is a value to your wisdom, there’s a value to your experience in the labor movement.
[00:55:36] Swati Rayasam: I think it’s a beautiful project. Sandhya, I think it has been an amazing amount of work I’ve watched you do over the past year. These stories are so wonderful. I really encourage people to check it out. Where can they find your project?
[00:55:49] Sandhya Jha: The website’s www.saada.org/acfp [00:56:00] /exhibit/solidarity-forever. We’ll put that in the notes. We’ll definitely put that in the show notes.
[00:56:05] Swati Rayasam: I just wanna make sure that we replug your podcast Bending Toward Justice Avatar, The Last Air Bender for the Global Majority and you can find that at tinyurl.com slash ATLA podcast, Capital P (tinyurl.com/ATLAPodcast). And then the last thing that I also wanna make sure that we plug is Without Fear Consulting.
[00:56:27] Sandhya Jha: I love working with folks who know that their organization could be a little more liberative, and are, just not quite sure where to start. I love working with a team of folks who want to be about the work of incorporating diversity, equity, and inclusion into the DNA of their organization and I love setting them up so that they can keep doing that long after I’m working with them. So please do find me withoutfearconsulting.com. If you’re interested in that.
[00:56:58] Swati Rayasam: Amazing. Sandhya [00:57:00] Jha, Pastor, Racial Justice consultant, podcast host, archivist, singer songwriter, amazing cook. You can do it all. I think you deserve a nap. it has been amazing talking to you. I am so glad to be able to hear about your project and also to hear a lot more about your life.
[00:57:23] Sandhya Jha: Yay. Thank you so much.
[00:57:25] Miko Lee: Please check out our website, kpfa.org backslash program, backslash apex express to find out more about the show tonight and to find out how you can take direct action. We thank all of you listeners out there. Keep resisting, keep organizing, keep creating and sharing your visions with the world. Your voices are important. Apex express is produced by Miko Lee Jalena Keane-Lee and Paige Chung and special editing by Swati Rayasam. Thank you so much to the KPFA staff for their support have a great night.