Library | Speeches

Empowering South Asian communities across the US

Vivek, Malhorta, New York 2014-2015. Photo Credit: Simon Luethi ©Ford Foundation.

Vivek Malhotra, Ford Foundation director for Civil and Human Rights, delivers the keynote speech at the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) ChangeMakers Awards Reception, held at the 2015 National South Asian Summit in Washington, DC.

Good evening. It’s great to be here with all of you good people, so many familiar and new faces. I am inspired by tonight’s ChangeMaker Award recipients. Thank you for everything you do to empower our communities and blaze a path forward for social justice in our country. On behalf of the Ford Foundation, I am honored to accept this Philanthropic Award, and I thank Suman for inviting me to make some remarks.

The National South Asian Summit provides an opportunity to come together, strategize around the important challenges of the day, and build a collective vision for advancing rights and, yes, claiming the power of South Asian American communities, but it also gives us a wonderful opportunity to celebrate the work of such a diverse array of strong, vital organizations that are both shining a light on the experiences of South Asian American communities and helping to re-shape the trajectory of civil rights in our country. And I am so thankful to be a small part of this.

Tonight, I represent the Ford Foundation, a proud and long-standing funder of the cause of social justice in our country and around the world. It is truly a privilege to lead our work on advancing civil and human rights globally, but it wasn’t that long ago that I was on the other side of this podium standing side-by-side with all of you.

In December 2000, I made the big leap into social justice work. I had just left a corporate law firm and started a new job (and a new life) as a community-based advocate with an Asian American civil rights organization in San Francisco. There were only a handful of progressive South Asian lawyers in the city at the time, and we all got to know each other well.

I began working with and organizing Asian and Latino immigrant groups to push for a new language access law. It was work that was deeply rooted in and responsive to community needs and so gratifying in its transformative exercise of power at the local level. Two years into the campaign we were successful, and San Francisco and Oakland became the first two cities in the country to enact local language access ordinances, inspiring places like New York and DC to do the same. It was an experience that would transform my understanding of how change can happen.

But as all of you in this room know, it was also a time of great fear. Within my first year on the job, September 11 happened. After the disbelief in those first shocking and agonizing hours after the terrorist attacks began to wear off, a knot grew in my stomach as I and my colleagues began to anticipate what would become an unrelenting and indiscriminate backlash against anyone perceived to be foreign and Muslim; that meant especially people who looked like me, my family, and my friends.

I remember the families keeping their children home from schools, planting American flags on their front lawns in the hope that might keep them safe, and men shaving their beards. For those of us who had the means to do something, the immediate focus was on community safety. There were of course countless incidents of harassment, intimidation, and violence that followed.

In those days, there were few organizations to reach out to the most affected communities beyond cultural associations and houses of worship. There were few avenues to engage the public in a meaningful conversation about race, religion, and rights. And there was virtually no one with deep connections to American Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, and other South Asian communities to advocate on their behalf.

In those early days, I am so proud that my organization, Chinese for Affirmative Action, stepped up to provide a space for an emerging organization, Alliance for South Asians Taking Action, to have a home. And I am of course thrilled to see that ASATA has become a vibrant all-volunteer organization that is at the center of Bay Area immigrant rights and racial justice coalition efforts to support the next generation of South Asian activists, and a vital member of NCSO.

Back then, we could only dream of an organization with the strategic capacity and resources to represent and help network a range of South Asian community partners around the country, in all their diversity, as agents of change in their own right, to confront the injustice of laws and policies affecting their lives. But that is exactly what SAALT has become.

Today, SAALT stands shoulder-to-shoulder with long-standing flagship institutions that form our nation’s civil rights infrastructure, like the NAACP, the Leadership Conference for Civil and Human Rights, and the ACLU. They are educating and bringing together affected communities, broadening the public debate on civil rights, and helping to shape public policy on a range of critical issues for our country, from immigration to hate violence to profiling.

But as a funder for social justice, the Ford Foundation doesn’t just look at the organization; we’re also in the business of investing in people, visionary leaders who will help chart new pathways of change.

I want to acknowledge two of those leaders. 

First, almost 15 years ago, I got an email from a young South Asian lawyer who was starting up a new national organization to help build a progressive movement for South Asian Americans. She knew I was going to be in DC for a meeting at what was then known as National Asian Pacific American Legal Center and wanted to know if I’d like to grab coffee. I’m still not sure how she heard about me, but remember our little progressive South Asian legal community was small. If there were only a handful of us in San Francisco, you can imagine what it was like in DC.

Little did I know then what an incredible and visionary leader for our community she would become, whether sitting at a table with the president and national civil rights leaders at the White House to negotiate critical policy reforms or becoming a leading voice of conscience on race and civil rights in our country that she is today. Deepa Iyer, I’m so proud to know you and in awe of what you have done to help build SAALT and the NCSO network into what it is today.

The other is, of course, my good friend, Suman Raghunathan, who strategized in the trenches with me when I was at the ACLU to fight back against anti-immigrant laws around the country in the wake of SB 1070. I am already so inspired by the passion and vision that she is bringing to chart the future of SAALT. I know that you have a great team, and that together, you are not only building an organization but helping to lead a movement. 

So let me just close with this. At the Ford Foundation, we are ever mindful of the deep legacy and power of the civil rights movement to advance equality and freedom. We all stand on the shoulders of those who came before us. We especially remember this in this 50th anniversary of the March from Selma to Montgomery, the Voting Rights Act, and of course the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which is the reason that so many of our families were even able to come to this country, after racist immigration quotas were finally lifted. 

But we also know that this movement must evolve to confront the challenges that lie ahead. That includes broadening the voices represented in the conversation to reflect today’s demographic shifts and evolving forms of discrimination. It means identifying and investing in the next generation of social change. And it means supporting those who are innovators, who understand that yes, we still need to be in the courthouse and the halls of Congress, but we also need to organize and empower communities, to engage in the public debate on new terms that reflect our increasingly digital society, and to reach people’s hearts and minds through cultural change.

At Ford, we also know how critical alliance building with other communities is in an increasingly diverse America where communities of color will be the majority by 2040, if not sooner. 

SAALT understands these realities. The theme of this year’s National Summit captures the essence of this: it’s time for South Asian communities and leaders to claim their power at the center of a broad-based 21st century racial justice and civil rights movement. Many of this weekend’s plenaries, workshops, and panel discussions feature leaders from other communities of color. SAALT and its community partners are taking a comprehensive approach and forging the partnerships necessary to help us all achieve a more inclusive democracy for the 21st century. The Ford Foundation is so very proud to support this organization and to help support this important national summit. Thank you all for doing the same.