Youth On the Move

The Groups in Their Own Words
Youth Solidarity Summer

"Youth Solidarity Summer conducts a yearly one-week workshop and training session for South Asian youth aged 17-24. It targets youth who self-identify as progressive, particularly those combating social inequalities and oppression among multiple lines: racism, sectarianism, homophobia, sexism, classism, and all the ways they connect, and tries to strengthen the intersectionality of those oppressions, and also just provides support and networking for people."

Desis Rising Up & Moving

"DRUM was founded in 1998 in New York City as an organization by and for working-class South Asian folks. It was founded, in large part, in response to the classism and exclusion of working-class folks in our leadership in organizing, in youth organizing, in community organizing, in the South Asian movement or the South Asian left in general. Currently we have four main projects; one of the projects is youth organizing, called 'youth power.' The others include an 'INS detention campaign' and 'community justice education.'"

South Asian Youth Action

"Our main purpose is to promote self-esteem, self-awareness, provide education, and social and political awareness among South Asian youth. Our current programs are 'academic leadership,' 'Desi Girls on da Rise' (girls only), 'sports,' 'employment,' and also we have a 'leadership council.' We started five years ago -- we had a space and we had young people and it was serve as they come, so it became a very service oriented organization."

Back when we were brainstorming about the current issue on the South Asian American generation, the idea of a discussion involving SAYA, DRUM and YSS emerged. The two of us attended the youth organizing workshop at the 'Desis Organizing 2001' conference held in New York City, where the shape of this interview first took place. After a series of unsuccessful attempts to record a coherent and comprehensive discussion, we finally were able to meet with our participants in a more relaxed pot-luck setting. Among those present were Sonali Matani from SAYA, Monami Maulik, Subhash Kateel, and Ravi Dixit from DRUM, Prachi Patankar and Prerana Reddy from YSS, and Darrel Sukhdeo from Agenda 21. Agenda 21 (email:, an Indo-Caribbean community organization based in Queens, is in the process of building its own youth program and was therefore not included in this edited version.

We have also chosen to identify speakers by their group names and not their individual names. What follows below is a taste of our discussion, which not only emphasized the varied backgrounds and experiences of growing up South Asian American but identified some of the complex daily challenges faced by them. The participants themselves grew up as South Asians in America and had a strong understanding of the youth populations they work with. We hope you will find these shared experiences as insightful as we did.

What kind of practical strategies do you employ to fulfill your goals and objectives?

DRUM: One of the strategies that DRUM uses is recognizing that there is a need to pay young working-class desi youth and do long-term organizing in the community. Most of the youth that we work with are either high school students from public schools or college students who go to universities and community colleges in New York City. A lot of them go to school and work part-time jobs for families. So it's really important that we provide living stipends for young people to participate in community organizing. It's also important that we find long-term funding to sustain permanent staff positions for youth organizers.

YSS: We really work hard on the way the week is structured. We conduct workshops that combine creative work, just sharing different people's experiences around particular issues, and also informational workshops. We talk about the history of immigration, queer organizing, globalization and World Bank policies.

After the actual week ends we have a listserv that connects people. We also periodically gather information from past participants, which gets written up. This way everyone who has gone though YSS can know who's working on what issue, and can use people as a resource.

SAYA: Our strategies I feel come a lot from what the young people need. SAYA started with a very vague understanding of what was going on in the community. That had negative and positive points. Some of the positive points are that SAYA addressed the community's needs. So, again, young people needed jobs, so we have an employment program; young people wanted to do something in the community, so we have an organizing program. Academic tutoring and services are extremely important for the young people because for a lot of people coming here the first institution that they enter is school. Once you get fucked over in school then you drop out, so being able to support them until they get their degree is really important for a lot of reasons, mostly financial.

In your experiences of working with youth, what, if any, are the specific issues that affect desi youth? Is there any relevance in thinking in terms of desi second-generation youth, or even just desi youth for that matter?

DRUM: There is no such thing. I mean you can make up phrases as much as you want. I think we are no different than any other youth of color community. You can say "the black young people" or "Latino young people" - you can say it, that's fine, and its nice to say it. People like to use words like that, but I don't think its very useful in terms of DRUM's work. It's more helpful to specifically talk about who your target population is and what their needs are. Even within the South Asian community, for example, in the INS detention center a lot of the people are Sri Lankan Tamils, which has to be recognized, because they need people who speak Tamil. They need resources that can help them in their situation, which is very different from a Punjabi, or from a Pakistani or Bangladeshi.

SAYA: Ok, I've always been a little confused about this whole question. I think it's a great question. I think placing everyone in the diaspora under "desi" can be helpful at times for certain reasons. I think there is something to learn from everyone who is desi, who has a background of being desi (there is a common history there), but I think it's harmful for a few reasons. Desis can have a certain stereotype and that then applies to everyone -- that stereotyping itself is wrong. People who are desi, who think that's what they should be now, have that identity available to them. SAYA is a very South Asian space with very few non-South Asians. A lot of times I see people coming in there thinking that being at SAYA gives them permission to talk badly about other groups, whether they be black, Latino, white, or Asian. I think that can be harmful. There has to be a certain politicization involved to get to a larger understanding, which isn't present for all the young people who enter the space.

DRUM: I think when you're dealing with stuff like class, when you're dealing with where desis are supposed to live, whether it's in the city or in the suburbs, that's when you really test the term desi and how encompassing it is. How much of a unifying concept is "desi youth," if at all? You know I think Sonali [SAYA] had an interesting point in terms of if you're a desi person walking down a street wearing a shalwar kameez, a churidar, a lungi or whatever, you get a certain reaction, regardless of whether you're rich or poor. But at the same time when you start talking about police brutality, for example, or when you talk about being scared because you don't have papers, you know what I mean, that's when you really start dissecting the reality of the desi youth experience.

YSS: At the annual India Day Parade YSS protested against the fia's refusal to allow salga [the South Asian Lesbian and Gay Association] to march in the parade. I think it's important to come together as desis to fight against our own reactionaries and elites. This is especially true since it's hard to for other races to critique these issues because it becomes: "who are you to question us?"

In terms of when I was in college after I came from India, it was important to me to find a community that was desi and there wasn't much at my school, so I went to the Asian organization. I found a community but it wasn't the same. I found a way to organize, but I needed a space where I could talk about certain issues that only certain desi people could relate to. So in that way desi organizing is important.

How do you think South Asian youth that grow up in this country are affected by religion, ethnicity and nationalism? How do you deal with some of those issues?

YSS: When YSS started, it came out of responding to the [Hindu] religious-right wing that had summer camps all over the country. They're more conservative, more culture-of-pride in different sorts of ways. I think the original organizers felt that there was a need to respond to that and that there wasn't much being organized to provide an alternative to understanding culture or understanding the politics in South Asia. Certain kinds of youth were being bombarded by a certain kind of social conservatism, one which is about preserving tradition, fear in immigrant families when they come to the U.S., and how these get compounded in certain ways through gender roles and conservative ways of understanding what people should do and how they should set their life.

DRUM: I see an intense Indianism, an intense North Indo-centricism in the community, and I'm talking about the decision-making. I think that North Indianism and that sort of particular nationalism works out for a couple of reasons. A lot of it has to do with a particular racism that's brought over here; there's also a classism. There's a lot of marginalization that Indo-Guyanese and Indo-Trinidadian people face in New York city (that I've seen growing up) and now I see this, much more, for Bangladeshis from the larger so-called "South Asian community," which is much more Indo-centric. That has to do with the fact that these groups are seen as working class, are seen as the 'other' that mainstream South Asians don't want to identify as, and are darker-skinned. It has to do with that colorism too. That stuff is something that is particularly relevant for the Bangladeshi community now. It's so real. It's something nobody talks about within the South Asian progressive community. How many Bangladeshi folks from New York do we know that are involved in this [activist] work? The fact is that the majority of the South Asian population here is Bangladeshi, after that it's Pakistani, and a lot of kids talk about this. It's a huge thing. Bangladeshi women talk about a fear of being identified as desi, as South Asian, period. It's less shameful to be Dominican or something else. But if you are identified as South Asian you can't say you are Bangladeshi. You're Indian.

The assumption that homeland shit doesn't apply here in our circles, the assumption that beef from the homeland is not conceived here because when we come here we're all desis and we're all brown or what -- bullshit, bullshit. You know what I mean -- bullshit. Bullshit. I mean even if you look at the gangs, or even if you look at the cliques that form or what not, I think you definitely see stuff that is so reflective of what goes on in the homeland.

But, isn't this "beef" from the homeland re-constructed and therefore specific to the North American setting, or is it simply transplanted here wholesale?

DRUM: It is constructed. It doesn't make sense for young people who grew up here to know what the beef was back home and recreate it, but it's recreated. Unfortunately what ends up happening with a lot of immigrant communities is a blending of the worst from back home and the worst from here, to create this ultra-conservatism, you know. That's a product of the American society that we live under. That's what it forces us to be, those are the people it empowers in the immigrant communities to push us in a certain direction. They don't want us to identify as working-class people of color because then we'll be threatening.

YSS: I'll just give you a story from my first India day parade in New York with YSS. Just to see that the BJP contingent was so huge and that most of them were these young couples to me was shocking. Many were young and were out-of-control, calling us names, and it was the old people coming in and being like 'lay-off, it's not worth it.' You really feel the aggression coming from people my age. At YSS we had a big discussion this year about whether or not to do a whole workshop on religion -- because it's an experience that is so different for youth. Some people were raised going to temple or to mosque; for other people, all it means is they go to functions. It's a social thing more than a spiritual thing, so how do you deal with that? And how do you deal with that in left spaces where you can't be practicing anything and be left (as though it's so horrible)? What often happens in a discussion of religion is similar to a discussion of casteism, which doesn't include all South Asians feeling the same way or being able to relate the same way. One thing that's been really hard for us, being a South Asian group and having Muslims and Sri Lankans in the same space, is to try and address religion and not specifically just talk about Hinduism or the BJP or what Indian people feel comfortable talking about even on the left.

SAYA: At SAYA what I've done in the groups is break things down because when we all get in a room together, there's a lot going on. People joke around but it's there. They know the stereotypes. They know there's anti-Muslim sentiment; there's anti-Hindu sentiment; there's anti-Christian sentiment. We take it back four hundred years and start from there; We break it down and follow where people have gone, what happened, and the wars that were fought and the battles that were won. We took a whole week to talk about how and why people are here and that includes globalization and what's happening in other places and the economics of the world. And then we talk about the commonalities of growing up here and what's going on here in this country, and at that point the tension loosens. It takes work, it takes two months of work to do that in the curriculum. It has to be done or else it's not going to go anywhere and people are still going to joke pretending that it doesn't mean anything. It's a challenge but I think it's not as difficult as other challenges because of the commonality of being a young person in Queens.

Many of you have repeatedly alluded to class as a major concern in how it intersects with other identities. Would you consider class to be the overriding factor in terms of challenges facing youth?

DRUM: The youth recognize their economic circumstances. They talk about how they live it, how they struggle with it. At the same time they're dealing with this real internal shame and guilt. Growing up I didn't say I'm a poor working class this or that. No. Nobody wants to be identified as poor or working class. The kids we work with wouldn't want to be called poor or working class. That's a bad thing. That's not a thing of affirmation and power. Here the stigma is huge, maybe even more so than with other people of color. That's why for a lot of working-class South Asian folks like myself it was much more affirming to identify as a person of color, or with black or Latino communities where there were other poor single mothers raising their kids and it wasn't shameful or something to be hidden. For a lot of these reasons, for cultural connection and material connection, you know class is a better basis of lived reality and experience. It cuts across so many different things.

YSS: Another thing that needs to be addressed is the huge suburbanization of immigrants. People start out in Queens or start out in the city [Manhattan] and as soon as they make enough money they go out to the suburbs -- their needs are generally not addressed anymore because they're so scattered. A lot of that is also true for professional South Asian people who have been spread out everywhere. Their kids are just scattered and no one is addressing their needs. They're growing up mainly in white institutions without much direction. That's another issue about the process of what this country does to people. Once you make enough money, you move away from people who don't, and then they don't exist.

DRUM: We're always hit with the argument that class is fluid, especially with desi folk. And to some extent yes, that's true, that's a reality. Desi folks are making out of neighborhoods that I grew up in at a much faster rate than Black and Latino folks. That's a reality for different reasons, but the fact is that classism is a problem. You know the stigma. It trickles down for poor and working class people, who still wouldn't identify as poor and working class, who are in complete denial, shame, and pushed out. So that's really the problem. It's the problem of building and creating an identity. And even if folks can get out and buy a house or whatever, if your identity comes from an understanding that economic struggle is powerful and positive, I think it is very different. You are very politicized people in a certain way.

SAYA: That's what the world is about. For example, someone found a job at an organization in New York. It's great for them because he's getting paid $9-$10 an hour at the age of sixteen, but I know that he's not going to be able to use his potential. We talked: 'I'm going to an interview, can you please prepare me?' 'Okay let's sit down and talk. What is this? Where are you going?' And 'okay the world is going to be like this but this isn't the way it should be.' We have young people growing up now with such a knowledge about what's happening, to a point where they can dissect any situation, but then they have to go out there and face this messed-up thing, where every office that they walk into, a woman-of-color is a receptionist. So that's just a tough issue to work with.

In terms of intra-generational conflict, how do you deal with issues of sexuality and queerness among youth?

YSS: I think in YSS we definitely prioritize making the space as safe as possible for queer people. I think that we're lucky to be able to do that, since it's a space that we define and it's not in a community. It's easier to kind of set these ground rules and have this kind of discussion. Also there are a lot of queer people in our organizing collective, and I think that it's good in the sense that it's changed the way in which we've dealt with sexuality and the idea of queerness. There's not a huge space for South Asian queer people, especially if you're not in a huge city. There are a lot of people without any support network and one thing that YSS at least tries to do is connect them with South Asian queer movements.

I do think that the initial thing we can do is to have people talk about sexuality to begin with, which doesn't happen very often in their families. You can't be comfortable with queerness if you're not comfortable with your own sexuality, whatever that may be. I think that's what we're trying to do. We want to talk about sexuality in a positive way, because sexuality is always talked about in such a toxic fashion. Even in activist spaces, I think, there's so much attention towards gender disparity, domestic violence, violence against women, and incest that people just get so scared about sexuality and see it in such a negative context. It's such a difficult thing to address. If you start talking about incest, it's hard to talk about the positive side of sexuality in a workshop.

DRUM: So much of that too is that when you get back to the word "desi," or "South Asian," and much of that is this idea that "South Asian" or "desi" means a specific thing: it means privilege, it means heterosexual, and it means not talking about your heterosexuality, and on top of it not talking about sexuality period. And so every thing else - queer - is undesi; having sex a lot for a woman is undesi. The queer movement came out of this very white movement. On top of that, within desi culture, there's this whole idea of what desi is and everything else outside of that is not South Asian. I mean, not only desi South Asian - what Indian Hindu and Pakistani Muslim is - and being queer South Asian falls completely out of it to a point where queer becomes whiter.

A lot of working class folks who are experiencing racism are men. There's a specific amount of defending yourself, fighting it, that's based on this really messed up concept of masculinity, you know this toughness. Its kind of a resistance against racism,I think, but homophobia comes out of that in a lot of ways. There's this hypermasculinity because folks are calling you a "Hindoo," folks are kicking your ass so you gotta be tough, you gotta be this, you gotta defend what's yours but on top of that if you're gay you know...

SAYA: White and queer are synonymous with the young people that we're working with. And yeah, one thing that we've brought up in discussion is what happens to the young men in the community who have this pressure to be men, and to do something, and to get a job, and to support a family and their sisters and whatever it might be. Being male is tough, those pressures of being men are tough and they don't want to be queer on top of that...goddamn it! Yeah but that's something that we've not talked about in this interview -- what happens to young men in our community. And it's awful. Cause their head's held down and they're not looking up, having been beat up and then picked up by the cops after being here for four months. It's something that needs some attention. We talk about it at SAYA a lot. We've got women's leadership in every program but what's happening to our men, you know.

What would you describe as your main challenges in organizing?

DRUM: At a larger level, in the past few years, "youth organizing" has become a buzz-word, created by funders, and all those other people who determine what's important for the time. So nationally we see a lot of organizing happening, and kids talked about more. In some ways it doesn't make sense to disconnect it from other oppressions and other issues: youth are workers, you know, youth are women, youth are queer, they are all these other things. Some of the challenges are to connect this thing called "youth organizing" to that entire process. Like organizing youth workers, how many people think of doing that? When you are talking about youth, you're supposed to talk about education or this or that. I think getting out of that box of what youth is, is needed.

SAYA: Funding is a huge problem. Twenty youth organizing efforts are getting a small portion of the foundation funding in New York City, which is difficult to sustain. It would really help if the wider desi community were part of that funding.

YSS: One of the big challenges we have been dealing with is getting more working-class youth in YSS. We have outreached to college-youth or working-class local youth, but still it hasn't been working. It's really hard. It takes such sustained effort to do youth organizing and I think Monami [DRUM] said it best: "it's really hard to create those long-term structures." What you do after they come out of your program?'

We are thinking about doing alumni reunions, where people come back. Life on the left is something that we spend a whole day on during the week, that we want to continue doing. It's to keep that energy going, because it's the long haul. We're having to provide services to everybody, within our own community, and that takes up a lot of resources that could be going into advocacy. I think that's always a huge issue for people working in the community at all levels. It's hard not to provide services because there's such little resources available for that in the first place, and there's so much need. It's the kind of need that has to be addressed.

SAYA: Three day-to-day challenges facing youth, whether talked about openly or not, are education, housing, and health care. And then you want to get into inter-community issues, or issues in the family (I can't separate one from the other, they're very inter-connected): gender being one, of course money, lack of resources for people going through issues with their family and who want to get out immediately. I will say what's going on the most with the young people and what they say is the most prevalent in their lives is domestic violence and alcoholism. Age is a huge issue in South Asian communities, and not being trusted inside the home and in the larger community.

DRUM: Going to college, forget about a private college, even going to CUNY these days is not a possibility for a lot of young people. It's not going to be the girl in the family. Most of the times it's the girls that are doing the best in school; they're the ones getting eighties and nineties. There are a lot of women who are not encouraged to go to school. I think a problem is the feeling of powerlessness, especially initially, in terms of carving out spaces that you can call your own. I think that a lot of youth find really innovative and really ingenious ways to overcome that powerlessness. I see young desi youth using different methods of carving power out and getting power over their own lives, taking control over their own lives.


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