Friday, August 28, 2015

API Chaya: Nonprofit Directs Services to Seattle’s Minority Communities

There’s no shortage of fanfare that bestows Seattle; the most current, Forbes naming it 2015’s top city for Most Jobs. There are also accolades for Fastest Growing City and America’s Coolest City which has led to a dramatic, record-breaking rise in the city’s population. As the city grows to new heights, its immigrant and minority population is skyrocketing at record pace. As the new waves of immigrants comingle with the existing minority communities, there are ripples of discord, leading to a tsunami of problem areas too often covered-up by their culture’s stigma of shame and patriarchal regime. Those suffering, primarily women, are often left silent until outreach efforts provide information and safe havens.

A Seattle-based nonprofit organization that works with and advocates for minorities finds a way to reach those that need help. API Chaya formed in 2011 when the South Asian social services center, Chaya, merged with the Asian Pacific Islander Women and Family Safety Center. It provides direct services to Asian, Pacific Islander and South Asian survivors of domestic violence, human trafficking and sexual violence by educating and empowering survivors to take action and bring change. Earlier this year, it hosted a community forum on the powerful documentary INDIA’S DAUGHTER, following the candlelight vigil and dialogues the organization hosted in 2013 after the crime. 

API Chaya volunteers at a candlelight vigil 
Many of its clients find API Chaya through word-of-mouth, confidential hotline, referrals from law enforcement/agencies but often, API Chaya will make its way to its clients by visiting temples and mosques to help those shrouded in silence and shame. “The highest number of clients we see are from the South Asian community,” says Didi Manhas Saluja, board president for API Chaya.  Didi and I met last month in a Seattle Green Lake neighborhood coffee shop and she gave good insight on the people API Chaya helps. “Some of the women we help are affluent and professional while others are bound to their husband’s Visa immigration status but unable to legally work themselves,” Saluja continued. Second most served client group is the Filipino community and though the rate of violence doesn’t differ much across communities, the same value of not marrying an individual but rather the entire village is constant across its clients. When marriage is perceived as a village then the shame when things go wrong is not just felt by the women but also her relatives, family and overarching community.

Volunteers hold support signs
API Chaya uses linguistically-relevant, trained advocates in many diverse programs such as Peaceful Families Taskforce, Queer Network Project, and Jaago,( which raises awareness of sexual assault in South Asian communities) to help domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking survivors. Another layer to the trained advocates is the nationally-recognized program, Natural Helpers. Saluja says that this additional support level is key in engaging community members to be leaders and help survivors demystify issues and talk about them in an open, safe environment. Natural Helpers undergo rigorous training in order to engage and help community. Many staff, leaders and community members come together annually for the popular API Chaya Annual Dinner and Auction. Surpassing last year’s attendance record, 2015 attracted over 600+ supporters for the fundraising event.
API Chaya 2015 Annual Auction
API Chaya is led by a nine-person all volunteer board, 18 paid positions and the tireless effort of volunteers. They participate and offer events in almost all aspects of Seattle minority communities. From movie screenings, to panels on human trafficking, to candlelight vigils, to campaigning for equal rights, API Chaya is there to support and empower the community. But like most nonprofits, Saluja is quick to point out that API Chaya plans to remain a viable community organization by building their financial sustainability.  They rely on private donations and government grants to help Seattle’s burgeoning minority community. If you can help, please donate here.

Monday, June 29, 2015

New Law and New Study on Child Trafficking in Georgia

No matter how uncomfortable it is to talk about selling of children for sex, the reality that

demands it is staggering. Atlanta ranks first in sexual exploitation in the U.S and about

200-300 girls are trafficked on a monthly basis. There is legal reason to be hopeful with

the legislative passage this week of Safe Harbor/Rachel’s Law, cracking down on

sexual exploitation of children. On the other hand, there is a rising rate of concern about

the understudied sexual exploitation of boys.

At its annual legislative breakfast, youthSpark nonprofit organization hosted several

keynote lawmakers including Senator Renee Unterman (R-Buford) who authored the

recently signed law. In it, minors will be restricted from being charged with prostitution

as well as offenders will be fined $2,500 per penalty. “Lots of tough negotiation to pass

this law but this shows that Georgia is equally committed to rehabilitating the victims

and offenders will be punished for profiting off of innocence,” she said. Levied fines will

pay into the Sexually Exploited Children Fund to assist victims.

                             Executive Director, Alex Trouteaud, speaks during the annual breakfast event.  

Seated next to Unterman on the panel was Rep. Andy Welch (R-110) who worked side-

by-side with her to ensure passage across Senate and House said, “The key to this

bill’s passage was the young survivor, Rachel’s testimony. She gave credibility and bore

witness to those that are in the shadows.”  The now 20-year-old survivor, namesake of

the bill, is also the recipient of youthSpark’s 2015 annual advocacy award.

Based at the Fulton County Juvenile Court, youthSpark, works on the front lines to end

human trafficking on both the supply and demand side. Their work protects girls but lots

of boys too as they unveiled recent findings in a ground-breaking study on exploited

boys of Georgia.

Commissioned by the Dunn Foundation, youthSpark research team captured data that

showed a telling statistic: 1 out of 5 boys sexually exploited is a minor (17 or below).

Sex trade for boys is happening primarily online and with the advent of new internet

sites cropping daily, it makes it difficult for law enforcement to conduct investigations.

Thusly, buyers are becoming bolder because the risk for arrest is minimal. On the flip

side, however; if a buyer is arrested (study shows buyers account for 10% of

prostitution-related arrests) there is a 70% lower recidivism rate.

Sen. Unterman says the problem of child sex trafficking is problematic not only in the

city of Atlanta but also in the suburbs. Recent study confirms by geocaching posted ad

problem is not inner-city Atlanta but far reaching suburbs and all across state.

Rectifying the issue involves firstly looking for exploited boys not by “visual cues such

as tattoos and piercings,” said Alex Trouteaud, Executive Director of youthSpark. He

continues, “We have to ask the right questions and immunize before trafficking actually

happens especially the high-risk youth.”

Partnering with legal professionals and trained social workers will help in addressing the

problem as well as building on early intervention and prevention.
WABE's co-anchor, Rose Scott, was the event's panel moderator. 

Georgia Attorney General Sam Olens, spoke at the youthSpark annual breakfast meeting

Friday, June 5, 2015

This post originally published in NRI Pulse May 2015

Leslee Udwin’s Passion Translates Justice-Seeking to Filmmaking

Leslee Udwin shopping at Squash Blossom in Decatur, GA. Photo courtesy Neha Negandhi.
Atlanta, GA: So much has been written about the powerful documentary ‘India’s Daughter’ and its ban by the Indian government. And then there are the lengthy discourses about the filmmaker, Leslee Udwin’s audacity or awesomeness in making the film about the 2012 infamous gang rape and murder of a Delhi college student. But before the banning and before the protests, Leslee Udwin was an award-winning producer and before that, a successful theatre actress. But it is not the accolades that Udwin uses as inspiration when she births a new visual story to life. Instead it is her upbringing in a patriarchal household, her unequivocal views about women’s rights and her extreme mindset – with no shades of grey allowed – which serve as the building blocks to use her voice.
During Udwin’s recent visit for Atlanta’s premiere of ‘India’s Daughter’ documentary screening, I got to spend 24 hours with the super-charged, boisterous, designer-shopping filmmaker extraordinaire and it was like experiencing a caffeinated high without a drop of coffee. Udwin’s intensity is infectious and enveloping and it’s no holds barred from moment zero. She makes no apologies for the entire traffic-ridden ride from Hartsfield airport to her press interview for sending texts, writing emails and scheduling calls with the head of Universal Studios but why should she? The time is now for her documentary to serve as a platform for women’s rights, gender inequality and ending sexual violence against women and if ever there was a person to give credence to these heady topics it is Leslee Udwin. Her entire life has been dedicated to waging wars against society’s oppressors and wrong-doers.
Leslee Udwin (L) with Neha Negandhi (R) at PBA 30, Atlanta’s PBS Station. Photo courtesy Neha Negandhi.
“If it is a test for humanity, I will always fight for justice. I’ll stand every time for the common good, fight for what’s right and insist on basic human rights. Every time,” Udwin says.
Udwin was born in Israel, shortly thereafter though; her father uprooted the family and moved them to South Africa. Her father “a patriarchal Jew” insisted Udwin and her older sister attend an orthodox Jewish religious school explains Udwin as we sat outside a lunch cafĂ© in a quaint Atlanta neighborhood called Decatur. Her first test, at age 13, was the ignition switch in her patriarchal regime battle when she insisted the school’s director mandate abolishing reciting the Morning Prayer, Shacharit.  Udwin says the prayer is misogynistic because it states, “..has not created me a women” and when she told Father Tanza where to shove the Torah, it resulted in her immediate expulsion. She went on to secular school and succeeded even while continuing her rebellion by creating a gambling den in the back of the classroom with peers betting real money on card games. Though she earned her university degree in drama, it did not come with unconditional support from both parents.
“My father was absolutely dead-set against [me obtaining a degree in drama],” Udwin blisteringly said. Udwin’s father’s authoritarian ideals have deep-rooted connections in her life chapters; it lays a foundation from which she draws to tell her visual stories.
Moving to London after college graduation opened theatre doors and acting projects galore. “I was pretty damn good [at theatre acting],” Udwin admits in between bites of hummus and pita. She played roles at the prestigious National Theatre in London as well as Royal Court theatre and many more. Seemingly, all was well in Udwin’s life except when the silent, omnipresent patriarchal shadow came to life and this time, in the form of her unscrupulous landlord (in fact he was a convicted felon and one of Britain’s main criminal landlords). He was “merciless” in his tactics to get the rent-controlled tenants to vacate so he could sell the property for a huge profit. All the male tenants fled fearing for their lives. Udwin and the other single females remained. And by doing so, she challenged another patriarchal figure, so for twelve straight days and nights, she read the housing law volumes until she discovered the one piece of legislature that could get rid of the landlord for once and for all. A small aside: I was immensely impressed with Udwin’s memory when she recited the law section number and subsection, etc like the law volume was sharing the table with us. Her standing up to fight for justice set a legal precedent in the High Court of England and Udwin continued to build solid foundation in campaigning for human rights.
Her first foray into the televised arts was after her high court victory over the landlord. Deciding that the story had “a crucial message to deliver”, she consulted with a producer to make “Sitting Targets”, BBC Screen Two film. Her real deep-dive into filmmaking came from, yet another, justice-seeking project called “Who Bombed Birmingham?”.
At a party, Udwin was asked by the Birmingham Six Campaign Group to look into six men who were wrongfully convicted of bombing mainland Britain by IRA, based on police brutality and subpar judges. She championed the cause because it is “the greatest miscarriage of justice” to deny six men their freedom for something they did not do so she and Granada Television produced the drama-documentary which starred John Hurt. It was groundbreaking because it eventually led the six men to be released after 17 years of wrongful imprisonment. The real telling of how impactful and controversial the release was when angrily then PM Margaret Thatcher said to the House of Commons, “We will not have trial by television in this country.” Thatcher’s furious statement eerily echoes similar angry words used by a Member of Parliament in India’s Lok Sabha over Udwin’s current documentary, “India’s Daughter”.
Udwin went back to acting and through her co-star met Ayub Khan-Din, playwright (and award-winning screenwriter for “East is East”). After listening to Din’s play titled, “East is East”, Udwin knew it had to be made into a movie. “Though I was supposed to be listening to character George Khan, what I heard in my head was my father’s voice reverberating the same religious insistence being thrust upon his children, intolerance, controlling attitude,” Udwin said. She produced her first feature film in 1998 which went on to achieve huge financial and critical acclaim (it won the BAFTA award for Best British Film). But in true Udwin style, the film was not released without a fight for justice. BBC who owned film rights called it “a niche film” and did not allocate the marketing budget to advertise and Udwin sued the BBC to get back the film rights.  It eventually went to another film company and went on to gross $48 million box office worldwide.
Udwin continued to make feature films until that fateful day when she, like the rest of the world, saw the demonstrators protest the rape and death of Jyoti Singh. Though she had no experience in making documentaries, she heard that same omnipresent voice – the one that has fueled every battle – to tell the story. Stand up, fight, there’s an injustice and Leslee Udwin will deliver the message.

Sabyasachi Collections showcased at ‘Ramp it up for Raksha’

By Neha Negandhi
May 2015

This article was originally published in Khabar in May 2015

Sabyasachi Collections showcased at ‘Ramp it up for Raksha’
(Photos: Niraj Sharma)
Combine fun and fashion, spice it with a worthy charity and you’ve got a designer saree showcase benefiting the nonprofit organization, Raksha. Barkha Jayaswal, owner of Bollywood Closet boutique, Sumeta Satija, choreographer/creative director, and Pooja Kapoor Badlani, jewelry designer for Elegante, joined forces for an afternoon fashion-focused fundraiser on March 28. “Ramp it Up for Raksha” showcased stunning Sabyasachi Mukherjee sarees and lehengas with part of the proceeds benefiting Raksha, a volunteer-driven organization empowering Georgia’s South Asian community.
Bollywood elegance radiated from the moment you approached the Country Club of the South’s residence of Anil and Salila Sharma who hosted the afternoon soiree. Two tuxedoed teens greeted guests as they entered the charming home with vaulted ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows. DJ Sam provided music while guests nibbled on food platters ranging from Manchurian samosas to South Indian pakoras. But it was when the center spotlight beamed on the arched entryway, new music beats began to strum, and the 60-person full capacity living room stilled that the real show began.
Raksha_fr above_0478-320.jpg
"Amazing and dedicated young men volunteering for Raksha."Aparna Bhattacharyya, Raksha’s Director, was the first model to walk the ramp.
Rakhsa volunteers welcomed guests and spoke about the power of youth volunteers and the importance of engaging teenagers in dialogue regarding taboo subjects. Aparna Bhattacharyya, Raksha’s Director, was the first model to walk the ramp and she thanked the sponsors, volunteers, and marked Raksha’s 20th year anniversary celebrations in 2015. Music was beautifully choreographed to Satija’s creative direction as each model made a dramatic entrance—some on the upper floor overlooking the guests below and some at audience level. Each striding to the beat, stopping at the exact moment the music insisted, and telling an exquisite story with each show-stopping saree. The Sabyasachi Mukherjee saree and lehenga collection was quite simply exquisite. The silks and organza fabrics with finest embroidery were draped to perfection on the models in a candle-lit backdrop. Make up and hair by fashion blogger Shreya Kadu added to the look. Audience members went wild as each model took center stage; clapping, whistling, celebrating each other as well as the designer who masterfully defined his design motto, “personalized imperfection of the human hand.”
Later, it was in the crowded basement converted to a sales room that the women’s voices (and checkbooks) took center stage. Bollywood Closet’s Barkha Jayaswal, who grew up with designer Mukherjee, couldn’t wait to partner with Raksha for an event. “Raksha does such important work for the community. I wanted a way to not only support what Raksha does but also celebrate women and bring everyone together for fun and fashion.” All the models walked around, showcasing their haute couture sarees and guests were encouraged to try the designer pieces on for themselves. Pieces were bought quickly off the models as well as the racks lining the walls and at the jewelry table covered in velour; Badlani reigned supreme insisting guests model hoop pearl earrings, granite-pendant necklaces and other intricate pieces. Conviviality filled the air, couture glamour overflowed and for those who helped fill their closet, they also helped fulfill a community member’s need to feel empowered. And that will always be in fashion.


Friday, April 3, 2015

Banning “India’s Daughter” is insulting and embarrassing

This article was originally written and published in NRI Pulse in April 2015. 

Banning “India’s Daughter” is Insulting and Embarrassing

It is as it always has been in India: men are superior, women don’t belong in society. There was not shock or surprise when I saw the BBC documentary, “India’s Daughter” on YouTube; instead I had a meteoric rising of rage only to descend into a deep depression. Watching the harrowing images and interviews, it only reiterated how India’s unwavering patriarchal society has created conditions ripe for that heinous crime in Delhi and the abusive mentality that still continues to flourish today.
British filmmaker Leslie Udwin painstakingly details the gang-rape and murder of a 23-year-old medical student, Jyoti Singh who was on a private bus home after watching a movie with a male friend. It narrates her faithful and devoted parents who cashed in their “ancestral land” to pay for her schooling while juxtaposing images of public protests ignited after Jyoti’s rape. At the center of the film is the crux ofIndia’s shame: the jailhouse interview with the bus driver who was convicted of the rape and murder and is currently sentenced to die. He says unaffectedly, “A decent girl won’t roam around at nine o’clock at night” and. “A girl is far more responsible for rape than a boy.” The rapist, Mukesh Singh, echoes what India’s masculine mirror has curated for centuries: women are to blame for any blatant abuse and violence against them.
These convicted rapists learn what other men in society inadvertently teach them. Hundreds of millions of Indian men are taught that if a woman dresses immodestly, if she chooses to go out after 9 pm, if she wants to go to bars/clubs then she is asking to be raped. Some of these teachings could be symptoms of little to no education and/or growing up poor and deprived but mostly it is learning the widespread belief that women are subservient and they [are only good for] as Singh says, “housework and housekeeping.” What is inexcusable are the well educated leaders who fully embody this repugnant thinking such as the lawyers of the six convicted rapists and murderers, M.L. Sharma and A.P. Singh.  In extensive film interviews, Sharma says, “We have the best culture. In our culture, there is no place for a woman.” Even more shocking is when defense lawyer Singh says, “If my daughter or sister disgraced herself, I would take this sister or daughter to my farmhouse, and in front of my entire family, I would put petrol on her and set her alight.”  If these men, who are proficient in the letter of the law that gives women equal rights inIndia, are projecting these regressive thoughts, what are the others to learn?
In sure-fire response to the furious riots after Jyoti Singh’s murder, the government passed laws to protect and serve the security of women. Mostly though, these have been knee-jerk reactions and lip service to gloss over the real truth which is implementing these new laws and security measures. But where does legal change begin when newborn girls are subjected to female infanticide at rates that are still alarmingly high; when discrimination even for nutrition is taught at the dinner table, as discussed in the film, a boy is given more milk than his sister because he needs more energy; and a woman’s choice is only good when the man chooses for her? How does change begin when the enforcers of law and the society in general does not collectively stand up against discrimination and violence against women?
The Indian government has banned the film from public view stating it is perpetuating violence against women and creating a “white-savior” notion amongst international audiences. It has gone on to demand that all copies of the film be permanently removed and Google (who owns YouTube) has complied. (I was able to watch the film before YouTube was forced to remove it.) I happened to be in India visiting when the new government was elected. The tangible feelings of hope and change permeated the air. But sadly, things have quickly resumed to the way they have always been: censorship and ignorance. It is not unusual for a newly-elected leader to showcase his shiny government or to sweep injustices under the proverbial rug. The reality is,India’s government wants to salvage its international image and any undesirable news or story is dubbed “international conspiracy to defame India” and is irrevocably and immediately immobilized. The real question is how to apply this same swift and sure justice to the societal depravity and disease that permeates its society.
I am an Indian Daughter. I am proud to be labeled this but in doing so, I realize the prejudices and contradictions it comes with. In a land where female deities are venerated equally as much as their male counterparts and its largest democracy elected its first female Prime Minister in 1966, women are still treated as second class citizens by a majority of the population. These prejudices and contradictions can only be resolved through education. To ban “India’s Daughter” is like sticking our head in the sand and pretending that gender inequality does not exist. Instead, we should make sure that every man and woman watches it, because in doing so we promote a dialogue that banishes ignorance and encourages a soul-searching look at the underlying cultural gender inequalities. Or should we “just be silent and allow the rape”?

BAPS Women’s Conference empowers through faith and education

This article was originally written and published by Khabar magazine. To view original article. click here

BAPS Women’s Conference empowers through faith and education

By Neha Negandhi
April 2015

On March 15, 2015 the bright sun outside reflected the mood inside the hall at the eighth annual BAPS Women’s Conference in Atlanta. Beaming with positivity and welcoming smiles, the 650+ women attendees were ready to connect with the 2015 conference theme, Moving Forward. This year’s conference added a new twist with a networking mixer that promoted attendee interaction, and exhibition activity centers that combined learning while promoting the three main conference pillars: compassion, forgiveness, and perseverance.

As the sun gleamed on the 13-dome white marble mandir, the largest BAPS location in North America, the hall reflected its guru’s altruistic spirit which spread from one attendee to the next. Not one person could point to the official conference organizer; rather, people gave varying responses of teams, volunteers, and humble leaders. This quiet sentiment summarized the all-day conference programming: moving forward while ridding oneself of life’s excess baggage. To be successful on this journey, one must learn compassion, teach through forgiveness, and exemplify perseverance. Though she herself wouldn’t admit to being the unofficial chair, Rimisha Patel was definitely the go-to person and has been helping with the conference for the past six of its eight years. She says the conference is a tool to “empower women” and gives women a “safe environment to listen” and be heard. 
This year’s speakers highlighted empowering women in today’s society by building a strong cultural identity platform to stand on and also to remove excess “stuff” that hinders spiritual growth. They shared personal stories while giving lessons on each of the three pillars. The well-spoken emcee, Ashini Parikh, who recently worked as VP of Global Marketing for Edelman in Los Angeles, did an engrossing job of weaving the stories together with the theme. The lighting of the diya was followed by Payal Patel’s soliloquy: strengthening our compassion muscle is a “cure all” good for everyone, taking us out of the “me-first world” but also releasing the brain’s feel-good chemical, oxytocin for ourselves as well as “making the world a happier, welcoming place.” Patel, who holds a JD from Roger Williams University and is Assistant VP and Division Director at Robert Half Legal firm, shared stories about how her guru’s compassionate gestures is one of her foundations and urged everyone in the audience to live in an “us-world” and incorporate “kindness and gratitude in everyday life.”
Manshi Patel shared how her recent marriage taught her how to conquer her anger at out of control circumstances. “Through faith and looking deeply within myself, I found how to forgive and move forward with humility and empathy,” Manshi said.
Dr. Jayshree Patel, Pharm.D., delved deep with her personal anecdote: “Every single one of us has persevered; it is a fundamental part of being human.” She compared how Rosa Parks, Gandhi, and even Kasturba Gandhi (Gandhi’s wife) struggled mightily; her own perseverance “is not a mighty battle—it is the ongoing struggle of everyday life.”

Keynote Speaker, Dr. Nazeera Dawood speaks on perseverance, compassion, and forgiveness.

Keynote speaker Dr. Nazeera Dawood, Health Promotion Division Director at Fulton County Department of Health and Awareness, told her heartfelt story to a captivated audience. Her perseverance in becoming a doctor against cultural norms, showing compassion for her patients, and forgiving those that did harm to her serves as a bona fide example of the three pillars. 

In the packed auditorium were women of all ages. What is significant is how the learning and then living of the three mainstay pillars proves true across every age range, from child to elderly. When I asked why UGA college student Katha Patel comes every weekend to meet nine other fellow students at BAPS for servitude and fellowship, she said matter-of-factly, “this is how I connect with my community, this is where I get back to my culture, and this contributes to who I am.” If Katha is an example of living and learning then this conference is a sure success.
Dancer Mrs. Mital Patel a software engineer, completed a deeply moving abstract dance on the concepts of compassion and perseverance through Kathak.