Dec 10, 2005

Desi Orgs: The Big Tent.

This is interesting. Some folks have come together recently to launch an initiative called "Desi Orgs" which they claim, on the website, will focus on "the use of technology to communicate better and to give the ALL desi groups an opportunity to convene online, and, perhaps, once a year in person. Groups that have never dealt with each other on a regular basis are finally going to get a chance to."

An interesting development, and worth watching to see where it goes. The meeting is today, so I'm interested to see what comes of it. It seems like, because of some of the players involved, it will probably get decent press, but I would urge anyone reading at home to wait a bit for the enthusiasm to settle. This isn't groundbreaking, but it would be useful to have a calendar and perhaps a database, for organizations. If that's the only agenda, more power to them.

However, the utility of bringing together groups of all stripes simply because they have overlapping contacts or constituencies is questionable, if it's for some other purpose. Most of the "South Asian" groups in the United States, especially those without an explicit progressive or radical mandate, are governed predominantly with an Indian, Hindu, male, heterosexual focus.

As a person with radical values and progressive tendencies, I worry about the marginalization of women, queer communities, the arts, minority religions, creeds, languages, castes, geographies, abilities, divergent or radical politics, ages, citizenship status, work status, and the like. I question the bull-headed determination to crank out the largest gathering of South Asian organizations possible, without a sense of what unites them. Race- or national origin-based organizing has its utility, but it also has its limitations. If you bring these groups together with only that common denominator, the prospect that they can see eye-to-eye on anything (even the concept of "South Asian" is hotly contested by traditionalists/neo-nationalists) is very unlikely. Regardless, even if this extraordinarily heterogeneous group of groups can find some common ground, with such radically different views on so many things, how can they work together, or find allies in a common struggle from different communities?

Aside from the sea of hegemonic indo-cultural groups (many of whom promote a monocultural narrative as the sole vision of an India or South Asia that has many more facets), there are more malignant currents in the community, many of whom are rabid about their neo-theocentric-nationalism, trying to paint India, Pakistan, Bangladesh in a particular brush, streamlining, reinventing, and rewriting histories to conform to a world view that excludes the perpetual others that make a uniform view of any of these nations very problematic. Ethnic cleansing begins with the negation of peoples' histories, and some of these folks are damn good at it. I wouldn't want to deal with them, for any reason. Even I feel marginalized by these folks - what about more traditionally oppressed groups within our communities? But perhaps my progressive bias shouldn't taint this post. Still...

Besides the obvious problem of bringing together people with many different agendas (some with communal perspectives), I am worried about the ability of the many political and quasi-political organizations and groups, including the many political action committees that have sprung up to the various folks vying for an elected seat somewhere, to push their agenda in a mixed crowd like this. Is it just a big networking opportunity for ambitious self-promoters to dredge up support for their foray into the wide and wacky self-promotive world of politics? Without a filter or framework to bring people together, what keeps these folks from hijacking the agenda?

The desi left may have many rifts and partitions within itself, but I think that folks generally agree that there is another threat to our work than a competing theory of change from a sister organization. Everyone coming to a meeting of desi organizations has an agenda, but does it make sense to bring them all together without sufficient shared common ground? What purpose will it serve, and does that purpose transcend individual dreams of recognition?

Keeping my heart open is more difficult when confronted with the ballooning egos of many desis involved in non-traditional careers and life pathways nowadays. Everyone is a so-called social entrepreneur, on the cusp of introducing the idea that will make a unified desi voice a reality. So many people enter this work with the perspective that they have the silver bullet, and that it can't be that hard - it just takes the right person, people, or know-how.

The remarkable hubris in that calculation, as well as the inability of many folks to realize that this work takes time, commitment, an open process, and a dedication to the value of community empowerment rather than personal achievement, drive me crazy. Community work is messy, is built on relationships, and takes time. Trust is built through experience, not emails. And without that trust, without that stable and firm foundation of shared values and vision, efforts are hollow and will be unable to weather the challenges of consensus building and conflict, both internal and external.

I will reserve judgment for now about the Desi Orgs initiative, because I don't have the details, and I should be positive about developments, even if I don't understand the underlying motives. I know that there will be posts and articles about this phenomenon and initiative, and thought I might as well get my initial thoughts out before the flood for what it's worth. Let's see if I'm pleasantly surprised.


someone else said...

Nice post.

Rage said...

Thanks. Let's see if there's a part II.