My family immigrated to Rochester, New York, in 1975. My parents were first-generation Indian immigrants who helped establish various ethnic community groups that focused on celebrating our Indian culture and building community in a strange land. My parents were active in the Bengali Association of Greater Rochester and then cofounded the Indian Community Center. We grew up in a part of Rochester that was not diverse—it was majority white. My sister, brother, and I experienced a lot of racism as children. We were the “other,” and most kids we grew up with had a hard time placing us in their worldview.
I was called everything from “Aunt Jemima” to “Pocahontas” to so much more that I can laugh at today but that deeply hurt me as a child. Kids would ask me, “What are you?” I would reply that I am Indian, which was met with kids circling me and mimicking their idea of a Native American chanting and singing. When I would explain that I was not a Native American but the other kind of Indian from India, they would either look at me like I was crazy since I mentioned a country they did not know of, or, for those who had, they would immediately equate me to the extreme poverty that they saw in Save the Children ads on TV. It was their only point of reference. I remember being surrounded in the lunchroom one day in second grade by kids who held their thermos cups and pretended to be beggars, asking for money and food. I got teased a lot, but nothing in comparison to the hate crimes my older sister experienced in middle school, or the regular fistfights my brother endured through much of his childhood.
I knew that I was a Brown kid and I was also very grounded in my identity as an Indian. But what perplexed me was the assumption of poverty and that I was worse off than the white kids whose parents’ jobs were being threatened. In second grade I was confused by the assumptions of race and class. I clearly did not have that language as a seven-year-old, but again, I knew something was wrong.
We are always trying to make meaning of the world we live in. I have early memories of trying to do just that as I journeyed through my childhood as an immigrant in Rochester, New York. I grew up in Kodak City and lived through the early years of downsizing. I listened as my friends talked about their parents losing their jobs at Kodak and feeling a real uncertainty about their own futures. For many, their families had been working in the Kodak factories for generations and they believed they too would be working their someday. After all, these were good jobs with decent pay and benefits, and Kodak had a reputation for being a place that promoted economic mobility for working women and men. I remember sensing the powerlessness that people around me were feeling. Many of them had to settle for low-wage work that could barely pay the bills, with little or no benefits. This eroded the economic stability in the largely working-class community I grew up in. Families could no longer afford their “middle-class” lifestyles.
And I could not understand how people who worked there had, what seemed to me at that time, to be no say or agency in their future. What options did people have? Who was shaping the jobs that could replace these lost jobs? I was too young to ask sophisticated questions about corporate responsibility, economic development, and the future economy in Rochester. All I knew as a kid was that my community was changing and that something felt wrong about it, but I could not yet articulate what it was. And so a seed was planted.
Decades later, I continue to try to make meaning of how the city and community I grew up in has transformed. I now understand that Kodak was not unionized and, therefore, that the workers had limited voice and protections. They were always told that Kodak would take care of them. Kodak employees, much like other working people in the Rust Belt, lost good family sustaining jobs and faced a future of economic instability with no immediate prospects for economic mobility.
These two experiences and the underlying questions that they surfaced have been an important part of my journey as I explore questions of power and identity. I still remember my first memory of when I felt truly powerless and it radicalized me. Me and a few of my friends in high school went to a local Planned Parenthood to get birth control. As we pulled into the parking lot on a Saturday morning, the lot was full of people praying. I really did not understand what I was witnessing. We got out of the car and an older man approached me saying that he will write my license plate down and call my parents to let them know that I was at an abortion clinic. I was furious! Who was this guy? And why was he threatening me? Then a few people tried to block our entrance to the clinic. We managed to get around them and make it inside, but not without fear for our safety.
This experience radicalized me. I had never felt so powerless than in that moment of trying to do the responsible thing, only to have these people judge me and threaten to punish me. I was scared for weeks that my parents were going to get a crazy call or letter that I would need to explain. And I feared for my friends who had much stricter parents on the issue of birth control. I knew I was a minor, but it still felt wrong to me that there could be a possibility that I would not have a say on issues about my own body. Don’t I have the power and right to make decisions for myself?
In college I had the experience of exploring this question of power. I entered college the fall after the Los Angeles riots in 1992. There was immense racial tension on campus, as people were grappling with the complexity of all that had happened in LA. As a first-year student I was quickly recruited to build an Asian American student group that would work on issues of anti-Asian violence taking place across the country and to take part in a larger effort with other organizations to address issues around the lack of supports for women of color on campus (I went to a women’s college) and how to manage the racial tensions people were experiencing. We organized a coalition of the women of color organizations on campus and designed a successful recruitment and retention campaign to win cultural space, ethnic studies program, more support for first-generation students, and an increase in recruitment and tenure of faculty of color.
It was amazing! It was my first experience with designing a set of demands and taking it directly to the president of our college. We organized a thoughtful campaign with tactical escalations that were rooted in a clear understanding of power. Ultimately, we did have to escalate with direct action, which resulted in meeting with the president, at which we shared our understanding of our power. This all resulted in our demands being met. This campaign taught me the art of organizing my peers, identifying the forms of power we had as students and consumers on campus, designing a campaign though which we could exercise our power, and winning through coalition building and collective action. I felt powerful!
Soon after this campus organizing success I became active with the US Student Association (USSA). USSA was an incredible training ground for me. I continued to learn about organizing and power from peers across the country, at small and large colleges and universities. During my tenure at USSA, the student movement was confronting a new assault on student power and voice in the form of attacks on student fee autonomy. A student activity fee is a fee charged to students at a college or university to support student organizations and activities. Over the last few decades, people have tried to legally challenge the idea that student fees can be used to subsidize “political groups.” These attacks are taking away the ability for students to voice their opinions on how they want their student fees spent. For example, some student governments that are members of USSA run referendums on campus to raise money to support their membership at USSA. Their membership ensures that their voices are represented in federal policy-making on access to higher education issues. Opponents of student fee autonomy are essentially trying to limit the voice and agency of students. They are stripping away democracy on campuses.
Sound familiar? As I journeyed into the labor movement after USSA and learned about the attacks on collective bargaining rights, I came to appreciate the similarity of the attacks on workplace democracy to attacks on campus-based democracy. Instinctually I understood that the student and labor movements needed to work together to confront these attacks and strengthen democracy on both fronts. Historically, these connections have been drawn across various movements in history, the civil rights movement and labor for one. I asked myself, “who are we up against?” And in exploring that question it became clear that we must confront the greed of some corporations and some of the wealthy individuals in our society.
And much later in life, when I had the opportunity to visit the Narmada River Valley in India, I learned that there is a deep understanding of the attacks on basic rights and democracy in other parts of the world. The Adivasi (indigenous) communities I stayed with were clear about the attacks by corporations and governments on their voice and ability to live dignified lives.
My entry point into the labor movement was Jobs With Justice (JWJ). I was hired as a local JWJ director in Chicago. I got to work with an incredible set of local leaders who helped me learn what it takes to mobilize people, work at the intersections of issues, design campaigns, innovate new approaches, and build lasting relationships rooted in our values. I was in Chicago at the right time. There was an uptick in union organizing in the city. Most of these organizing efforts were focused on immigrant workers across various industries, including janitorial services, hotels, industrial laundries, and food production. This climate of active organizing created the conditions for JWJ to engage many people—students, faith and community leaders, academics, political leaders, and other influencers. And more important, it inspired us to create new structures to support organizing. Through these campaigns I came to appreciate the limitations of our current labor and immigration laws. I was able to leverage existing relationships and weave new ones to help us innovate new approaches.
Alongside these campaigns I worked with leaders at the Chicago Coalition for the Homeless, Chicago Interfaith Committee on Worker Issues, and the Center for Urban Economic Development at the University of Illinois at Chicago to open the first day labor center in the city. Up until that point there had not been a worker center in Chicago. This effort was born from research that quantified that about 100,000 Chicagoans were working as day laborers. We interviewed homeless men and women in shelters and learned that most of them worked as day laborers but never made enough money to be able to afford housing and food. This led us to begin an organizing effort in a neighborhood filled with temp agencies to learn more about the experiences of day laborers in the city, most of whom were Black, white, Latino and Polish immigrants. We learned that there was rampant wage theft, major health and safety issues, and much more. We opened the day labor center as a space for day laborers to come and share their stories, learn about the temp agency industry in Chicago, and develop strategies to address the problems.
This was my first foray into learning about the experiences of workers who fall outside of the traditional employer-employee relations that our current labor laws are based on. These are excluded workers with no real protections. We tried to create policy vehicles to set standards in this industry. Ultimately we were successful in passing a city ordinance and state legislation. And we were able to leverage JWJ’s association with some local unions to establish strategic and supportive relationships. This was a time when many local unions did not look favorably at organizing this labor force. For many, day laborers were the strike breakers in campaigns—they were the “scabs.” The dominant narrative was that these people were undermining union work in various sectors, including construction.
The day labor center offered a new pathway to organize these workers and begin to regulate the temporary agencies in the city. We learned a lot from peer worker centers across the country and the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. I credit this local experience with my appetite to learn and be in relationship to new worker organizing taking place outside of traditional unions. Most of these efforts are being led by local worker centers and national worker center networks. Since then I have worked on campaigns with domestic workers, guest workers, and restaurant worker groups and have learned to develop strategies that are relevant for workers who are excluded from collective bargaining rights either explicitly or implicitly. I have learned about informal sector organizing in the global south through partnerships with social movements. In fact, the Asia Floor Wage campaign that JWJ helped to develop and launch with worker organizations and unions in Asia is an attempt at developing new bargaining pathways for garment workers throughout the region. I was fortunate to take part in key strategy meetings at which new bargaining theories were being developed and, since then, tried.
My experiences with the organizing efforts in the United States and globally have helped expand my thinking on bargaining rights. I am aware of the infrastructure and capacities we need to build and/or strengthen as well as the shift in cultural values that we need to create the narrative and political environment that makes the evolution of bargaining rights possible.
We are always trying to make meaning of the world we live in. I deeply believe that people should have the ability to shape their futures. They should be able to govern every aspect of their lives. As an organizer, I know that an evolution of bargaining rights is a critical vehicle through which more working people can collectively exercise their voice and agency to shape their lives, communities, and workplaces. We need them to be in the driver’s seat of shaping the economy and our democracy into the future. I know that practicing democracy is messy and hard, but I also know that it is empowering and effective in making sure we are addressing needs for the common good.
As a parent I feel a responsibility to teach my daughter to value her voice and to see power in the collective. Whether it is having her and her fellow Girl Scouts identify, debate, and vote on which country they will learn about for World Thinking Day; or make choices as a soccer or basketball player that benefit the collective versus only her; or to vote in her school elections to select the leaders she believes can address important issues, I am clear that I need to intentionally model and practice everyday democracy for my daughter, to seed the demand and practice within her to be able to govern over every aspect of her life. She needs to have the tools to make meaning of the world we live in. And she needs to be ready to struggle to make sure our vision of people being able to live a dignified life in a healthy democracy is not only possible but also inevitable.