Fighting for a Voice

saavy"Something happened last week, but I don't want to tell you about it because you'll get mad," my mother told me over the phone. My mind was reeling -- what could it be? I was a year out of college and living 3,000 miles away from my parents, working as a youth organizer in Washington, D.C. It had been a difficult adjustment, magnified by the events of 9/11, which had happened only a couple of months after I moved. But I had no clue what my mother was talking about.

"Homeland Security came to our house. They knocked on the door and asked about your cousin! They were asking all this stuff, but I just kept quiet. I don't know why they were asking about Nabil. He was born in the same hospital as you."

My mom was right -- I was pissed. For this to make a little more sense to you, let me explain about us. My parents immigrated to the United States from Bangladesh and gave birth to me soon after. Our family practices Islam. Our last name is Ahmed (which is like saying your name is Smith in this country). The reason Homeland Security singled out my straight-laced American-born cousin? His name was similar to a name on the terrorist list Homeland Security was circulating.

"You know," my mother concluded, "it doesn't matter that I got my citizenship or live and work here. I will always feel like a second-class citizen."

That broke my heart. Here I was an activist in the nation's capital, where my job was to empower young people to have a political voice, yet my people's voices were not being represented. There are over 2 million South Asians in the United States, and all of them felt some impact from the post-9/11 backlash. My family stopped going to the mosque, a friend of mine stopped wearing her head covering and all my South Asian friends were too scared to call their representatives to bring to light how these issues were affecting them.

I felt that if the South Asian community had been able to unite and represent their power in a political voice, we could have avoided the wrath of the Patriot Act. As a youth, a Muslim and a South Asian American, I was tired of being ignored and knew that things had to change by the 2004 elections.

There was only one solution I had to address this problem: organize. It's what I've been doing for the important years of my life. In junior high, I organized school dances; in high school, I organized campus rallies; and in college, I organized voter-registration drives. I've been involved in the youth voting movement for the past four years, and it's the most effective way I know how to organize and to create a united voice.

There are two things that the people in power pay attention to: the power of money and the power of the vote. Since we don't have the money, we need to do everything possible to influence our power of the vote.

In my eyes, youth voting isn't just about getting more voters to the poll. It's about shifting the political paradigm that stifles our voices from being heard. It's about educating, organizing and mobilizing to create a united voice and increase political participation as well as civic engagement. My research showed there was nobody doing this for South Asian American youth, and I saw a niche that needed to be filled. More importantly, I saw that my voice, as a South Asian Muslim woman, was not being heard, and I was tired of being ignored.

So I did some research about first-generation South Asian youth in America. I learned that South Asian Americans have ancestry in the countries of India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan and Maldives. I read books like The Karma of Brown Folk and Born Confused. I talked to cool South Asian organizations such as Indian American Leadership Initiative and South Asian Network, and I talked to young activists who were excited that someone wanted to help them organize more effectively.

I learned that there is a new generation of American-born South Asians in this country, and this mass of youth has just reached voting age. The 1970s immigration boom led to a South Asian American baby boom, which has led to the biggest generation of South Asian American youth in this country to date. I also learned that this generation of American-born South Asians felt very disconnected from all the surrounding movements, and if we could mobilize them to get involved politically, we had the potential to be very strong. With the post-9/11 strategy in play, we have the potential of harnessing the emotions in the South Asian movement in a very progressive way.

I knew that to make an impact in time for the 2004 elections, I had to start mobilizing quickly. I took the biggest risk of my life and quit my job to move back to Los Angeles -- my hometown -- to pursue this dream. I don't really understand why I took such a giant risk for something I believe in. I can say that if I hadn't had my past experiences and seen as much as I had, I probably wouldn't have taken the risk I did. My office is my parents' kitchen, and my computer is whatever is available at the local public library. I have been pretty nervous. After all, what 24-year-old college graduate moves back home to live with her parents?

South Asian American Voting Youth (SAAVY) is the name of the new nonprofit organization I am creating to address these issues. The mission is to empower South Asian American youth to be a unified voice and create a voting bloc that will push our issues to the forefront of American politics. We will do this by educating, organizing and mobilizing South Asian youth to create a national united progressive voice and to increase political participation. The goal is to train South Asian American youth leaders in political organizing skills and mobilize them to run electoral campaigns in their communities. SAAVY's core is built upon the importance of training youth -- after all, most youth have the skills they need to organize, training just confirms skills and instills a process. We hope to train 300 young leaders and have an impact on 20 South Asian communities across the nation in time for the 2004 elections.

I understand the social justice movement is an uphill battle, and even more so for new immigrant communities. I also know that I want to live in a world where hate crimes are documented, racial profiling is annihilated and freedom of religion is true. I want to live in a world where the South Asian community can call their representatives without fear of the FBI tracking them, and where politicians start addressing the issues important to South Asians. Call me hopeful, but I think SAAVY can make a small dent in social injustice. I challenge you to do the same.

If joining the SAAVY fight is something you'd be interested in, please check out www.saavy.org and email taz@saavy.org.

Tanzila "Taz" Ahmed graduated from the University of Southern California and has been an organizer in the youth environmental movement for four years. She is currently the Executive Director of South Asian American Voting Youth and is working to get the organization off the ground.

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