How Do We Do It?

Riti Sachdeva, Ramani Sripada Vaz and Monisha Das Gupta

South Asian Women for Action (SAWA) organized a discussion on pan-Asian coalition building entitled "What's going on? A forum to discuss issues arising from local attempts at cross-cultural alliance work" on October 28, 1995. As resources available to people of color in this country shrink, the backlash against progressive movements increases in virulence, and the political environment becomes more mean, coalition building among groups fighting for social justice is held out as the hope for bringing about meaningful change. While SAWA has taken the prescription to heart, we have felt that the actual work of coalition building is not extensively talked about. The incentive for the forum came from our need to clarify what "pan- Asian coalition building" meant.

Questions about the notion "pan-Asian" and about what coalition building actually entails started cropping up once we, as a South Asian women's group, got directly and sometimes peripherally involved in working with other Asian organizations in the Boston area. What is the difference between "Asian" and "pan-Asian"? Are we redefining ourselves as "pan-Asian," without a great deal of thought, to meet the requirements of funding sources? Given the demographics of the different Asian populations in the Boston area, how can we negotiate the hegemony of the better represented sections of our various constituencies within a "pan-Asian" situation? How can we deal with the tokenization of the smaller ethnic groups, who do not yet have a strong voice? How can we address issues of race, class, gender, sexuality in all their complex intertwinings within the umbrella of a "pan-Asian" identity? In short, how can we learn to be effective allies when we are working with other Asian organizations?

Many of these questions directly arose from our members' dealings with the Asian Task Force against Domestic Violence (Task Force) and with the Asian American Resource Workshop's (AARW) "Welcome to Asian America" project. In planning the forum, we tried to identify themes that were common to both situations and decided to use our experiences with Task Force as an example of the problems SAWA encountered. Class discrimination, homophobia and inadequate direct care at the shelter, and the Task Force's inability to provide an inclusive and sensitive community for South Asians were some of the concerns that emerged from our interactions with the Task Force. We hoped that other participating organizations at the forum would speak about their work on the "Welcome to Asian America" project and other efforts at coalition work.

The mounting urgency to discuss pan-Asian coalition building at an open forum was rooted in the problem of accountability. We felt that as activist groups addressing pieces of a large struggle we needed to be responsible for our respective mission. If organizations professed to be pan-Asian and empowering for people of color, then they needed to be held accountable for their rhetoric. Is it possible to jointly address the thorny issues of accountability as progressive Asian groups that can work together to fulfil some real needs that we have as a community?

Several factors added to our frustrations around not being heard, making it necessary for us to seek ways in which we could speak about our experience. There was the Board's inexplicable unwillingness to formally communicate with us despite SAWA's various attempts. We received no response to our letter and requests for a meeting with the Task Force. At one point, we were informally asked what our problem was since the executive director of the shelter was a South Asian (a concrete example of tokenism, minimization of our concerns, and essentialism). Later, we learned of attempts to use our letter to the Task Force's Board in very problematic ways for moves with which we, as SAWA members, certainly did not agree.

What were we to do with the anger we felt? We needed an outlet but we were scared that our anger would alienate our existing and potential allies. Therefore, we asked Tonya Seal from the Network of Battered Lesbians to co-facilitate the forum along with SAWA member, Ramani Sripada Vaz, recently back in the area. Ms. Seal seemed a good choice because she is interested forging a coalition among Asian organizations to fight homophobia in our communities. Asking Ms. Seal to the forum was our attempt at neutrality. We hoped that Ms. Seal would help us keep some perspective on our anger. Now we realize that there could not have been such a thing as " objectivity" in dealing with the issues at hand. How is it possible to be objective considering our investments as well as the investments of those who do not want to confront those issues?

October 28th arrived and we gathered at the Positive Directions meeting room, a space the Massachusetts Area South Asian Lambda Association (MASALA) let us use. Members of Asian Sisters in Action (ASIA), AARW and the Pilipino National Historical Society came. However, there was no representation from Queer Asian Pacific Alliance (QAPA), League of Indian Women and core MASALA members. Before the forum began, the one man from QAPA, who had come, left. The forum, thus ended up being all-women, despite both our publicity to groups that organize across gender lines, and our personal outreach to the male members of these groups. There seemed to be a lot of resistance to the idea that the forum was never meant to be an all-women's space.

At this point, it is also necessary to mention that ASIA, SAWA and AARW have overlapping membership with QAPA, MASALA, Asian Pacific American Agenda Coalition (APAAC), Massachusetts Asian AIDS Prevention Project (MAAPP), and the Task Force. In such a situation, can those of us who have cross membership with other groups, be selective about the group we choose to represent? After all, when people wear several hats, the head underneath is still the same. In other words, as individuals belonging to several groups, we are the repositories of knowledge about all these groups. Instead of playing the politics of convenience, should we not take responsibility for what we know? If certain stances and activities of one group clash with those of the other group/s to which we belong, should we not try to create a space where these differences can be discussed? Cross membership can become a wonderful resource if we use it to share relevant information, educate one group about the other and work to radicalize our agendas by learning from others.

The meeting began with Ms. Seal limiting the discussion to only positive experiences. In planning the forum, SAWA members had wanted to begin with positive experiences (and we have had quite few, especially with ASIA and AARW in terms of putting out our newsletter) and then move on to why coalition building can be a lot of hard work. The qualifier on the discussion had an unintended silencing and self-censoring effect on all present until an ASIA member intervened to point out that we needed to discuss both positive and negative experiences in order to be realistic. This much-needed intervention opened the discussion up somewhat.

One ASIA member brought up the problems of going to "pan- Asian" events and then feeling left out because the assumption was that everyone spoke Chinese. In discussing the coalition work that SAWA was engaged in, our members raised issues of real diversity, accountability, trust and mutual respect using our experiences with the Task Force as examples. This topic was met at the forum with confusion and questions about its relevance. It was later characterized as "derailment" in an otherwise excellent report on the forum in ASIA's newsletter.

As SAWA members, we continue to be puzzled by this reaction to our efforts to discuss the Task Force and the shelter. We have brought up this issue with ASIA since the Fall of 1994, when SAWA and ASIA signed a joint letter to the Task Force about SAWA's concerns with the shelter. If the participants were unclear about what our problems were, we would have welcomed questions asking for clarification. The refusal to treat our concerns about the Task Force and the shelter as legitimate makes us ask why our example was so disturbing that we could not even talk about it? It strikes us that the forum would have afforded all of us as activists an opportunity to make allies and support each other on issues such as homophobia, racism, tokenization, disempowerment that we all generally agree on in principle.

When the questionable representation of business interests on the Task Force Board came up in the broader context of funding minority efforts to provide services in their communities, it too was treated as external to the discussion. We wanted to point out the danger of organizations with missions like the Task Force being appropriated by business interests. Furthermore, we wanted to emphasize the need for such an organization to have greater representation from the grassroots instead of elite sectors. The danger of appropriation and the need to build community support underline the importance of coalition building.

From these incidents, it was clear to us that the response to our raising these particular set of questions has remained unaltered over the last one-and-a-half years. The response has been shock, denial, irritation or aversion. But we will continue to bring these questions up. We hope that some time all of us can come together and face issues in cross-cultural coalition building honestly to it a reality.

The forum ended with an exploration of what we could do to strengthen the bases on which we build coalitions. Some of the responses to this part of the discussion emphasized the nurturing of personal ties and developing cross-cultural understanding. While we agree that these strategies are very important, we find the clarity about our political commitments to be crucial. We should be able to come together on political issues regardless of our personal friendships and be able to explore our common political concerns as they arise from our cultural specificities. Cross-cultural understanding needs to be rooted in how our politics emerge out of our position in this country as Asians from various countries and cultures. Hammering out our particular issues and agendas will be painful because we still have to learn how to deal with difference. People will be angry and we will disagree. But we need to move forward from that point by keeping the lines of communication open. We need to develop trust, again, not on the basis of personal relationships, but on the basis of our belief in each other's issues. That is the hard work of coalition building.

In reviewing what happened at the forum, we realize that the outcomes hold some promise of such work. In spite of the tensions that crept up during the forum, we concluded on a positive note by agreeing to continue the dialogue and wanting to organize a follow-up forum.

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Last altered May 29, 1996