Wanted to go beyond elections, create support for South Asians: SAFA co-founder Neha Dewan

Ritu Jha-

I wanted an organization that is beyond presidential elections and does more than just campaign work,  Neha Dewan, co-founder of South Asians for America (SAFA) told indica.

SAFA, which transitioned from South Asians for Biden last year, is a national grassroots organization dedicated to the education, advocacy, engagement and mobilization of the South Asian Democratic community in the United States at the local, state and federal levels by increasing civic engagement, political participation and networks of South Asians.

Dewan, an attorney by profession, was co-founder and national director of South Asians for Biden, an organization dedicated to engaging with, educating and mobilizing the South Asian community to elect Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in 2020.

In 2016, she served as national co-chair for South Asians for Hillary and was appointed by Hillary Clinton and has served and advocated for President Barack Obama as well.

There was a demand from the community to not just get active during presidential elections but to have a collective voice from the state to the federal level, Dewan told indica.

SAFA now does not simply endorse candidates for election. It has become an organization that offers training tailored for a South Asian audience, teaches interested members the basics of community organizing, provides resources and guides, and promotes best practices for community organizing.

“We look at ourselves as a grassroots one-stop-shop with a presence in all 50 states,” Dewan said. “We want to be able to support, train, recruit South Asian candidates at the level of government and also advocate the issues that affect our community.

“We are not an organization that raises millions of dollars and gives money to candidates, but we will help to promote and also help when needed to win,” she added.

Dewan, who succeeded in pulling South Asians together to vote for Biden, says what made the campaign successful was that when she started South Asians for Biden in 2019 there were 20 volunteers, but when Biden emerged through the primary race, they recruited more volunteers.

Most of the volunteers were those who had been so marginalized over four years of Trump that “you won’t believe, it was the first time we had an 81-year-old retiree on the board and a 16-year-old. All they wanted was to get rid of Trump.”

With the Covid pandemic raging, Zoom helped a lot as there was no way to knock on doors, yet people were able to connect with high-profile folks and that helped to motivate the volunteers.

“I think once we won in 2020 and won the Georgia Senate seats, people got very excited and thought we can actually do it,” she said.

SAFA launched a free training series on political organizing April 14, the first to cater specifically to the South Asian community and tailored for it. The third and final session will take place April 28 at 8 pm EDT on Zoom.

Asked whether the organization will only support Democratic candidates, Dewan said it depends on the values.

“SAFA’s mission is very clear whom to support,” she said. “There is a protocol for whom to select as a candidate. It’s a natural selection based on values, and what they have done for the community and would continue to do. So, the endorsement is on a case-by-case basis.”

Another focus area for the organization now is to make sure of its presence in all chapters. “This is going to be super important,” she said. “Now we need to work on issues that impact our community. Immigration is a huge one.”

On the challenges of dealing with the Indian community as well as South Asians from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, Dewan said, “I am dealing with the entire South Asian diaspora. My biggest challenge in 2020 was that Biden made a few Kashmir-focused comments and some supporters said we are not interested and perceived a relationship between Trump and Modi and that became a big battle for us.”

The other problem was that many first-generation immigrants don’t identify with the term ‘South Asian’. They feel Indian, Pakistani or Nepali.

“We are in America, we care about our heritage and where we came from,” said Dewan, “but the issues we are working on here are going to impact us here. not in India. The racist looks at you based on the color of your skin, not which country you are from. So, we have to be united as a community to overcome the collective challenges we face. So I always try to bring the focus back.”

Dewan said there are many issues in the U.S. that directly affect South Asians as a whole — health insurance, children, jobs, safety — versus what is happening in India, the tension between India and Pakistan, and so on.

The mantra that keeps them united in the States is to advocate for the whole community. “Let’s form a collective network, be strong to support, so we are taken seriously. I am Indian by birth but growing up people made fun of who I was because I was desi,” said Dewan who moved from India while in middle school. “And those days there was no support for our community and there is still not. I want SAFA to be that support system that other communities of color have had for decades.”

Harini Krishnan, chair, community organizing campaigns and training, SAFA, told indica she was with South Asians for Biden as national grassroots chair and before that with the Harris campaign when she announced her presidential bid.

“We helped Biden and Harris and elected the two Georgia Senators and after the election, the South Asian people reached out to us and said we have created this momentum and energy like never before.

“There were thousands of volunteers who joined the phone bank and I know because I was organizing it across states,” she said. During the election campaign, at any one phone bank there would be up to 200 volunteers across generations. “We had 70-year-old aunties and uncles joining the phone bank, who were never politically involved, saying I want to do something,” she recalled. “We had a group of Sikh American aunties, 80-plus in age, in the Central Valley in California, and they would meet regularly in the gurdwara and write postcards.”

Krishnan said there is unprecedented momentum and energy now in the South Asian community to participate and so the team thought it would be great to have a permanent organization that mobilizes the community politically. That is how SAFB became SAFA.

It was launched with the intent of building South Asian political engagement. In just the last year SAFA has established 18 state chapters and has a 28-member advisory council.

“We are truly a South Asian organization, so I always make sure there is a gender balance in the leadership, event and membership side and also in terms of diaspora,” Dewan added.