People I Love: South Asian Women Who Make Change

These political trendsetters are helping to lead the call for racial, economic and gender justice.

By Rinku Sen Mar 09, 2011

Last week, when I spoke at the Western Regional LGBTQIA* conference at UC Berkeley, a young South Asian woman said she’d been looking for South Asian women who worked in social justice and was thrilled to find me. Well, sister, I started 25 years ago and in those days we were so few that I was already on the job for five years before I had some South Asian colleagues. It’s exciting to be part of a legacy in the U.S. of women devoted to building power with and for communities of color, poor people, and everybody else the government had no idea would interest us when they opened U.S. borders to South Asian professionals in 1965. We benefit from some distinct privilege — most of us have at least one form of elite education, and our position in the racial hierarchy gets us a pass in some settings as the "model minority" — but we do manage to use all that sometimes just to stick it to The Man.

So here’s my list of awesome South Asian women.

Vanita Gupta is the Deputy Director of the ACLU and leading a modernization of that critical organization’s strategy. Once upon a time she was a young lawyer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, where her first case led to the release of 46 black women and men from Tulia, Texas, who had been convicted by an all-white jury on the word of one undercover police officer, who had no any evidence at all. They got out after four years in prison, and then Vanita got them a $5 million financial settlement. She also worked to end the abuse of immigrant families at the Hutto detention center in Texas.

Urvashi Vaid started out fighting domestic and sexual violence, served on the National Prison Project at the ACLU, as Director of the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force, as program officer at the Ford Foundation and most recently as President of the Arcus Foundation. Read her book, Virtual Equality: the Mainstreaming of Gay and Lesbian Liberation, and see her thinking at the intersection of race and sexuality in What Can Brown Do For You?

Mallika Dutt is the founder and President of Breakthrough. While she lived in India as a program officer for Ford (no, South Asian women have not taken over that foundation), she decided to produce a song and music video about domestic violence. People made fun of her, but then Mann Ke Manjeere won India’s National Screen Award in 2001 for best music video. Breakthrough also works to restore due process to immigrants here in the States, while continuing to help end gender violence in India, where men appear to commit sexual violence at the super high rates.

Lest you think one must go to law school to contribute, consider these women:

Sarita Gupta is the Director of Jobs with Justice, the leader of community/labor coalitions in this country, operating in 45 cities and working on dozens of workers rights campaigns annually. In a typical year, JwJ affiliates support more than 172,000 workers in 82 organizing and first contract campaigns. Sarita was a principal in building the Student Labor Action Committees, which helped the Coalition of Immokalee Workers get McDonald’s and Taco Bell to pay more the farmworkers who pick their tomatoes.

Pramila Jayapal is the Director of One America in Washington. Over time, they’ve won a comprehensive plan to address the needs of immigrant communities in Seattle, an ordinance preventing any City of Seattle employee from inquiring about immigration status, and numerous city and county resolutions upholding the human rights of immigrants and the need for comprehensive immigration reform. They’ve registered tens of thousands of new citizens to vote, and defended them against countless horrible policy proposals. Against all odds, they just defeated a bill to restrict drivers licenses to immigrants, including a no vote from the original sponsor!

There are so many more. I wrote a whole book about Saru Jayaraman. Monami Maulik organizes immigrants at the Desis Rising Up Movement and Deepa Iyer leads the national South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT). At any rate, if your parents say, as mine once did, that no one does activism as their job, you’ll have a whole list of people who prove them wrong. Feel free to add to it in your comments.

* I know you want to know, so this whole thing is Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender, Queer (or Questioning), Intersex and Asexual (or Allied).