The Organizer's Corner

SAMAR Magazine introduces The Organizer's Corner, an opportunity for readers to hear directly from the organizers about the work they are doing, the support they get to do the work, and insights into the organizing world. This issue features South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY), which emerged in fall, 2003. SAAVY is a national non-partisan organization that educates, organizes and mobilizes South Asian American youth 18-25 years old. The project is a youth led effort with board members all under the age of 30, and believes in empowering the next generation with mentors, trainings and resources to get YOU politically organized. The SAMAR collective asked Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed, founder and Director of SAAVY, to respond to the questions from the Organizer's Corners.

What are the major campaigns you are working on right now, and what motivated them?

The major campaign for this year is the "Vote SAAVY!" Campaign, a national campaign to register 15,000 young South Asians to vote, and turn out 10,000 to vote. We will hire 15 campus fellows all across the country to run 10 week campaigns in their campus/community. The motivation for the campaign came from two parts. First, there are so many South Asian youth in this country that want to organize, but aren't supported. We wanted to be able to support them, give them resources, training and mentoring opportunities so that they can run successful campaigns. The second is that we as South Asians Americans in this country have no power over what the political decisions are being made in this country. By creating a voting block and getting politically involved, we will get politicians to start paying attention to issues that affect us. More importantly, we will be engaging and empowering youth into the political process and creating a new generation of people that are invested in their politics and their community and shifting the political paradigm in this country.

How have you learned from and incorporated previous organizing experiences (your own or others')?

Personally, I have been in the youth environmental movement for the past 4 years. I worked with an organization that trained 18-24 year old people in political skills for the environment and empowering young people to have a political voice. It was that organizing experience and not seeing any South Asian youth in the programs we ran and, more importantly, not seeing a national South Asian youth organization taking the lead in training South Asian American youth that actually started SAAVY. SAAVY's model is based on this youth movement, and SAAVY is acting like a clearinghouse to make sure that South Asian American youth have the access to make them successful.

Are you working in collaboration/coalition/solidarity with any other organizations or individuals? What forms does this take?

SAAVY would not even have started were it not for the support of other organizations and individuals. We strongly believe in not recreating existing organizations, but working with them to build capacity and provide trainings and resources to South Asian American youth 18-25 years old. Though we are not an "official coalition" we are collaborating with over 75 organizations; in the youth movement, voting movement, pan-Asian movement and South Asian movement. We have started SAAVY as a project of South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow, and collaborated on a week-long training with Project Democracy. We are on the APIA Vote Coalition, and we have 18 Board members located in 10 different states all across the nation, all of them working with local community organizations.

What can people do to help?

Since we are a new organization, there's a lot of ways to support us: 1) We are looking for South Asian student leaders on key campuses that want to run a Vote SAAVY Campaign — we will have 15 fellowships all across the country. These fellows will be responsible for running a ten-week electoral campaign in their campus/community to register voters and get them to the polls; 2) We are seeking post college South Asian organizers that have training experience to join our national SAAVY Training Network of South Asian activists — ideally this national network will shuttle trainers to campuses and conferences and lead political skills trainings; and finally 3) We are accepting donations to get SAAVY off the ground! SAAVY is a new organization and for any of our plans to take course, we'll need funds for general costs as well as stipends for our campus fellowships. Currently, SAAVY is a completely volunteer-based organization, and run through the hard work of our 18 Board members. To make a donation to SAAVY, you can go to http://www.saavy.org, and click on Donate to Us!

After a rough week of organizing or when certain disappointments hit, what provides the inspiration to keep moving forward?

SAAVY's Board is my inspiration to keep this moving forward; we have a youth based Board of 18 amazing people all between the ages of 22 to 30. These young people from all across the country went through similar organizing histories of being a sole South Asian in political organizing. It's great that through SAAVY, we've found each other and are excited to empower and build resources for a new generation of South Asian youth activists in this country that all of us have never experienced.

What is your greatest challenge in your campaign or organizing work?

Personally? My biggest challenge is I gave up my independence to pursue this dream of creating this organization — I quit my job and moved home with my parents, and have been temping to make some money. It's challenging to work seven days a week, 12 hours a day to get SAAVY off the ground and not have any sort of an income to be sustainable — basically, I've been working on SAAVY for the past six months as a full-time unpaid staff. It's hard but I know that it will be worth it in the end, because I can't imagine doing anything else right now.

Professionally, the South Asian movement in this country is relatively new, there aren't as many resources in place to make SAAVY easy, and in many ways we are paving historical paths in the South Asian movement. Though there are many youth conferences, SAAVY is essentially the first national South Asian American Youth non-profit organization in this country. Our training in Florida was the first of its kind that trained young people on voter mobilization specific to the South Asian community. The challenge with this is that funders don't know the importance of funding us, youth don't get the power they have when they organize, and there isn't that sense of "organizing is good" in our community. Where as if this organization was started in the environmental movement, resources would be a lot more accessible. SAAVY has to start with something fresh. That's fine though — because it means the work SAAVY is doing is truly breaking grounds and shifting the political paradigm of the movement, and that's when you know the organizing work you do is really making a difference.

What are you reading?

Bollywood Boy, by Justine Hardy. It's kind of embarrassing actually, it's a "pink" book. It's a book about a journalist and her year long Bombay journey for the perfect interview with Hrithik Roshan. I call it... demographic research for SAAVY. I'm also reading a book by Edward Abby.

What do you see are the biggest stumbling blocks to effective organizing/ coalition building?

Right now? No funding! Or better to say un-fair distribution of funding to the big organizations that are so unstrategic, when SAAVY could use just a fraction of that and do so much more...

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