On Thursday, September 15, South Asian American Policy & Research Institute (SAAPRI) hosted “Our Vote Matters!,” an event focusing on the organization’s civic engagement initiative.
The event brought together over 40 supporters, board members and staff together for a thoughtful conversation regarding SAAPRI’s get out the vote (GOTV) work in advance of the 2016 Primary and General Elections. The night’s special guests included Sameena Mustafa, Co-Founder of Simmer Brown, a South Asian comedy collective, and Archana Jain, Festival Director of the Chicago South Asian Film Festival, who discussed the relationship between art and civic engagement.
The event opened with remarks from Ann Kalayil, SAAPRI Co-Founder and Board Chair, who recounted her father’s experience as a young Loyola University student facing discrimination while searching for housing in 1956. Though he went on to find housing and even wrote his master’s thesis on the subject of discrimination against South Asians, Kalayil underscored the importance of civic engagement as an effective tool to fight the biases currently facing the South Asian community.
Reema Kapur, Executive Director of SAAPRI, provided an overview of SAAPRI’s civic engagement initiative, the supporting data, and how SAAPRI’s GOTV efforts are grounded in research best practices.
She shared that SAAPRI’s research has shown that South Asian Americans are a rapidly growing, relevant, and powerful demographic in this country. South Asian Americans including people of Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan, Bangladeshi, Nepalese and Bhutanese descent, represent approximately 36% of Illinois’ Asian American population. Since the 2000 Census, Illinois’ South Asian population has grown by over 55%, but this growth has not been represented in the civic engagement process.
Ms. Kapur stated: “[i]n part because of low voter turnout, South Asian American communities have largely been overlooked by American political campaigns.” She stressed: “[u]ltimately, voter education must make the connection that increasing voter turnout and creating a powerful issue-based voting bloc is directly tied to increased respect and accountability for our community from elected officials and representatives.”
Kapur then underscored that SAAPRI’s voter engagement and education strategy relies on three principles underlying effective voter outreach: (1) incorporating nonpartisan electoral organizing as an ongoing part of issue-based or constituency-based organizing, (2) recruiting community leaders, stakeholders, and faith leaders to bolster voter registration and education and (3) providing nuts-and-bolts practical information about the mechanics of voting as a way to reach young and infrequent voters.
Following Kapur’s remarks, invited guests, Mustafa and Jain, examined how art and culture can tie into civic engagement.
Jain emphasized the importance of a united South Asian community. “In order to get our message aligned, our job is to show we have a lot more in common than our skin tone,” she said.
Mustafa spoke about the model of the comedy collective to provide opportunities for comedians and performers, including those in the South Asian community, who don’t normally get a chance to showcase their talents publicly.
“Simmer Brown provides an opportunity for us to be agents of change…The key is identity and representation. If you don’t see yourself represented, it’s hard to identify with that,” Mustafa said.
The guest speakers also discussed how to use art and comedy to give voice to the South Asian community.
Mustafa uses candor as a way to give voice. “We want to connect the dots. We have a voice; we’re not shying away from [any] subjects,” she said.
Kapur wrapped up the evening’s conversation stating: “While voting is a primary indicator of civic engagement, SAAPRI understands that the concept of civic participation is broader. Art and culture can provide a method of self-reflection and self-expression. Conversations like the remarks shared this evening allow community members to examine what full participation in our communities and civic life looks like.”