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In Conversation With Kavya Balaji

Ranjani Saigal

Kavya Balaji is a current graduate student studying Security and Resilience Studies and the focus of her studies is on how communities and cities can build themselves up and be resilient from anything from terrorism, climate change, natural disasters, pandemics, and cyberhacks. She recently graduated her undergraduate studies in International Affairs and minored in Social Entrepreneurship and Asian Studies from Northeastern University. Kavya has been very passionate about social justice and empowering communities from a young age and she has vast international experience. Kavya has traveled to 17 countries in the past few years and has worked in 4 different continents (Singapore, Sydney, Cape Town, and the USA). 

She has worked with multiple non-profit organizations, and social enterprises and most recently, she worked at the Ashoka Foundation in Singapore. There she championed changemaking and systems change and supported social entrepreneurs with their missions. She led the effort to plan a changemaking conference and evaluated over 800+ applications from changemakers for the CXC China retreat. Prior to working at Ashoka, Kavya worked with Northeastern University and Tsiba University in an initiative to uplift and consult with struggling local entrepreneurs from townships and her efforts led to her client receiving a grant for his business. 

Here is the letter that she has authored:https://tinyurl.com/BLMLetterToSouthAsia

Could you give us a brief overview of Black Lives Matter movement? 

The Black Lives Matter movement began in 2013 following the death of 17-year old Trayvon Martin. He committed the mere act of walking home from a convenience store when his killer George Zimmerman, followed him and then shot and killed him. The acquittal of George Zimmerman sparked this movement. The mistreatment and attacks against black folk is not a new occurrence, in America, this has always occurred. It is important to emphasize that black people do matter since society has deemed that they do not and treated them as such. There are many names we do know who have experienced these racist attacks and there are even more names we do not know. Police brutality is a big problem in America and if all of the black Americans were a country it would be among the top countries in which people are killed by police forces. 

Why do you think the protests and riots are happening at this time?

This mistreatment of black people has not stopped or slowed down and those in this movement want it to stop. In just 2020, Ahmaud Arbery was shot when jogging unarmed and his killers were not arrested for months until the public saw the video. The police barged into Breonna Taylor's own house and shot her many times even though she did not do anything wrong. As of this interview, her murderers have yet to be arrested.

 Similarly innocent, officers shot Tony McDade. Officers knelt on George Floyd’s neck and body when he did not do anything wrong. Despite his requests to breathe, officers showed no compassion and knowingly let him die. The list of victims is endless. The police should not have so little training and so much power to allow this to happen. After hundreds of years of continuous oppression, black people want this to change and we must support them. While the damage to property is unfortunate, we cannot compare the loss of human beings with property.  

How did these protests make you feel personally? 

I am worried that there has been misinformation about who is starting the riots. While in some cases, it may be angry protesters. It has been revealed that in many cases, the police and looting opportunists have been escalating the peaceful protests. 

These protests are so important as people are exercising their first amendment right and small changes have happened as a result. I feel incredibly passionate about this movement. It is time to stop silencing and oppressing the black community. No more people need to be unnecessarily killed by the police and no more should be hurt or taken advantage of by them either. The black community has tried to change this narrative and I sincerely hope that they will be listened to. It is time for change. 

What motivated you to create an informational letter  for South Asians?

While I am very active with my posts about this movement on social media, I realized most of my followers already had similar perceptions as me, so I wanted to make a more meaningful impact. Most of the resources I had found for education on this topic was geared toward white folk and was overly critical of people who did not understand the movement. I realized that many South Asian immigrant families, like my own, did not learn US or Black history in the USA, so it made sense that they did not automatically understand all of the complexities of this matter. I saw that many of my friends were passionate about this matter, but were struggling to start a discussion with their families as they did not know how to communicate the BLM movement clearly in a way that resonated with family members. I started this initiative to bring awareness and educate South Asians about the Black Lives Matter movement and why they should care. The letter is geared to aunties and uncles and it is supposed to help start that conversation in an empathetic and kind manner instead of critical. It provides many examples that connect to our South Asian culture and I wanted to make sure it felt like it came from one of our own who deeply cares about and understands our culture. This letter acts as a starting point with many resources, videos and links and should open the doors for further discussion.  

While I may have started this initiative, it by no means was a solo effort. I reached out to several friends and even though all of them agreed with the movement, many of them feared the judgment and criticism that would arise from speaking out in our community. Luckily, my friends Shefali Mangtani, Shilpa Bhat, and Audreela Deb were passionate and willing to assist! After sending this letter, many people reached out to share this and everyone who does that helps this movement by spreading awareness. Now, I am working to translate this document into Desi languages, so that it can reach even more people and open more minds. I am thankful to the people who have been helping me with those translations. Last but not least, everything I have learned about this movement has come from the years of hard work and efforts of the black community. Reading books and listening to black voices has shaped my understanding of this movement. Books like The Hate You Give and The New Jim Crow, movies like the 13th and many academic resources written by black folk all helped me write this letter.

Have you received any feedback on the letter? 

I am very happy to share that this letter has been shared considerably through Facebook, Whatsapp, Instagram and email. It is estimated to have already reached tens to a hundred thousand within a few days and it has spread all across the country. Many organizations have listed this as an official resource and it has even been used as a resource at a vigil to honor George Floyd.

After sharing this, we have received quite an outpouring of support and solidarity that I am very thankful for. I have been receiving an influx of messages sharing that this letter had been able to get through to people’s families, while their previous efforts had not made much of a difference, it is so important to raise awareness and educate people around the Black Lives Matter movement and I am so glad that this resource has been making a difference in that! In addition, I hope this shows people that they too can reach out to their communities and make that difference. 

What do you perceive as the role of the Indian American community in these times? 

There have been a lot of articles aimed at the white community with slogans such as “white silence is violence”. While we have not directly oppressed the black community, this is not the time to be indifferent. We too need to show solidarity with the black community. We must assess our own biases and educate ourselves. There are plenty of anti-racism resources out there and we should take this time to understand black history and systemic racism better. As I mentioned in the letter, everyone who’s families immigrated to the US after 1965 has to thank the civil rights movement for this. We should no longer champion the model minority myth and we should do whatever we can to help out. This can be anything from reading, having discussions, signing petitions, donating, physically protesting and emailing. Let us use this time to infiltrate our group chats with resources on this movement, uplift black voices and support black-owned businesses. 

Your note brings up comments on casteism. Where do you get your information about casteism and why did you couple that with racism? 

 While the section on casteism/colorism was a group effort, I do agree with it. This, like the other topics mentioned in this resource, is a sensitive topic and we were careful about researching this and made sure to get different perspectives. Even though I grew up in the US, the idea of the caste system is not new to me. It was never something that my parents sat me down and taught me about but it was something I always knew about, as they never hid this information from me. I learned the western perspective of the caste system in depth through the college classes I took on Hinduism and Indian History, but I also challenged myself to keep reading from Indian authors. I go to India often and I pay close attention to the rhetoric used around caste and this has taught me a lot. Even as an American, I have witnessed anti-lower-caste language in the USA. In addition, this is a topic I regularly discuss with my South Asian companions and we share our experiences of this system.

        In the US, those who look down on lower castes, also tend to have negative perceptions of dark skin altogether due to the perception that dark skin = lower caste. Colorism and casteism go hand in hand. If you already view dark skin and lower castes as inferior, you might also be biased against other communities that are also dark-skinned. The caste system in India and racial injustice in America have similar parallels. While this by no means is an all or nothing situation, this has been the trend. 

Why do you think people who are very racist , (Eg. British Colonists) work intensely to point out discrimination in other societies (Eg. Caste Based Discrimination in India)?

I think that we all have implicit biases and it can feel very shameful to acknowledge these biases. We need to work on being open-minded and really listening to different voices and reflecting about what they are saying. This is something that everyone struggles with. Many people when discussing the importance of this movement immediately respond with, “I am not racist” and dismiss the matter, but that is a deflective mechanism for not wanting to look internally and grow.
In this similar regard, those who may be overtly or publicly racist do not want to do that extra effort on self-reflecting and educating themselves so they deflect by focusing on issues that do not relate to them. While we should be aware of problems occurring and not turn a blind eye even if they do not relate to us we need to consider a few things. First, what does that community need? We should not make assumptions about another’s community's needs without making the effort to listen to them and learn. We should be careful not to be saviorist, which is to try to help people by doing what you think is right for them without considering the community’s needs. British colonists thought they were saving India from Indians themselves because they saw themselves as superior, but that’s not what our Indian communities needed or wanted at all. We, Indians, did not need to be saved. Similarly, we should not exhibit the savior complex in other instances. Second, we should also make sure to reflect on our own self, community and society, so that we are constantly bettering ourselves and not acting hypocritically. 

Any special message for our readers? 

Thank you to everyone who has read and shared this resource. Spreading this key information has truly been a community effort. 


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