By Jennie L. Ilustre
Picture this: Outside, a storm, with wind gusting up to 30 miles per hour. Inside at the SAALT reception, the atmosphere was sunny and warm, as everybody welcomed new Executive Director Suman Raghunathan.
Suman, as everyone calls her, described the atmosphere as “fantastic–very warm, supportive and exciting!” She said many long-time supporters came, as well as some folks who are new to SAALT.
Suman adds advocacy savvy, high-octane energy and a high level of dedication to the organization. On the day of the interview, she started at 7 a.m. doing yoga. A round of meetings followed. She wrapped up the day 12 hours later. Her schedule has been so “wonderfully hectic” that she has not had the time to put her stamp on her office. Her desk has the usual laptop, phone and a flower vase.
SAALT is the acronym for South Asian Americans Leading Together. But it could also stand for determination to shine in the midst of adversities, particularly after the 9-11 national tragedy which stepped up racial profiling.
Former SAALT Executive Director Deepa Iyer, in her new capacity as its Strategic Advisor, shared the optimism and confidence at last month’s celebration. In an interview the previous day, she described Suman as the natural leader “to take SAALT into the future.”
“She brings a core understanding of the issues facing immigrants, and believes in the values that undergird SAALT’s mission–around supporting and strengthening local leadership and organizations,” Deepa elaborated.
“I couldn’t be more excited to pass the helm of SAALT to Suman, and am invested in supporting her leadership for years to come,” added Deepa, the leader instrumental in helping build a solid foundation for SAALT.
The new Executive Director said SAALT’s main challenges today are “discovering how to balance the need to evolve to respond to our community’s growing needs for advocacy and capacity-building assistance, particularly with our community partners, even as we seek to grow in a sustainable fashion.”
Many of SAALT’s community partners–through the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations (NCSO)–are interested in SAALT working with them to develop a community presence in their states, regions, or communities.
“SAALT’s challenge is discovering how to continue our advocacy, capacity-building and coalition-building work, while working in even deeper partnership with NCSO members throughout the country,” Suman stressed.
The new SAALT leader knows how to be at the helm of non-profit organizations. She was New York-based Chhaya Community Development Corporation’s Interim Executive Director. She became a long-time member of the Board of Directors thereafter. Chhaya is one of SAALT’s close partners.
Suman said her experience at Chhaya has grounded her in addressing the basic goals of the organization (meeting residents’ needs). At the same time, she realized the need to have a proactive response to “local and even state-level dynamics that have a profound impact on community members.”
She explained: “For example, the foreclosure crisis and the way it manifested among South Asians across New York City highlighted the importance of meeting residents’ needs for foreclosure prevention. We needed to engage in proactive efforts around homeownership education with prospective homeowners.”
It was a constant struggle, she added, to balance meeting the community’s immediate needs with more long-term, big-picture efforts. “It definitely informs my understanding in my new role of how to support the great work of many grassroots South Asian organizations,” she said.
Suman, who started work on February 3, has been busy traveling, attending meetings and coordinating plans for this year. On tap are community town halls on immigration, campus workshops, leadership programs such as the Young Leaders Institute, and touching base with supporters old and new.
Suman hit the ground running, as SAALT hosted Smithsonian’s “Beyond Bollywood” exhibit, and then welcomed NCSO leaders on March 21-23 in Washington, D.C. for capacity-building and communications workshops.
She proudly noted that SAALT has expanded the NCSO to 49 grassroots partners since its founding in 2008. Today, NCSO members are in NY, Chicago, Houston, and in the West Coast (California), among other areas. The coalition works with youth and seniors, LGBTQ communities, undocumented immigrants, and domestic violence survivors.
SAALT (www.saalt.org) is “a national, nonpartisan non-profit organization that elevates the voices and perspectives of South Asian individuals and organizations to build a more just and inclusive society in the country.”
Its strategies include conducting public policy analysis and advocacy, building partnerships with South Asian organizations and allies and mobilizing communities to take action, and developing leadership for social change.
Current Chhaya CDC Executive Director Seema Agnani echoed the view that Suman is a wonderful fit to SAALT at this stage, someone who will raise it to the next level. “Suman has a strong background in policy and communications, combined with strong commitment to advancing the South Asian community,” she emailed from New York.
She added: “In her work with Chhaya, she has helped us to grow into a strong and critical organization through strategic partnerships and building key alliances. We are looking forward to seeing her carry her leadership skills to a national level and continue on a path of effective progressive approaches to advocating for the diverse South Asian community in the US.”
Asset to SAALT
SAALT’s official announcement stressed Suman’s strengths as a leader, calling her “a seasoned immigrant rights advocate with extensive experience on the range of issues addressed by SAALT, deep connections to South Asian communities, and relationships with key stakeholders.”
Remarked Nitasha Sawhney, Co-Chair of the SAALT Board of Directors: “Suman has the optimal combination of skills, experience, and ability to connect to people that will deepen SAALT’s social change mission and expand our reach. She is a passionate advocate who is sure to identify and implement strategic and innovative opportunities to amplify the voices of South Asians in the US.”
Aside from Chhaya, Suman also previously worked with the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Progressive States Network and the New York Immigration Coalition.
Born in the US, she earned her degree in international relations from Brown University. She has a Master’s degree in Nonprofit Management from New York’s Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy in New York City.
Suman proves that advocates come from all walks of life. She is the only child of BR and Lalitha Raghunathan, an aerospace engineer and a geneticist, respectively. Her husband is a photographer and graphics designer.
Suman said everyone should have a crack at the American Dream. “I firmly believe every individual, particularly immigrants who may have arrived in the US without the professional advantages afforded to others, should be able to access opportunity and build a life for themselves and their family–one that is grounded in respect and hope. My advocacy work is part of a larger movement to bring us closer to that belief and ideal.”
Q & A
Suman was traveling to and from New York, and was scheduled to fly to San Francisco for pre-conference coordination, but she graciously took the time to reply to telephone and email interviews. Excerpts follow.
What’s the toughest part about constant traveling? Also, how does technology (Internet, teleconferencing) help? In this modern world, technology increasingly makes location less of an issue. Video conferencing makes it easy to see people’s faces as you have a conversation with them. However, I am a people person. I always prefer to meet with folks face-to-face, whether they are members of SAALT’s DC-based community or NCSO members across the country. Whenever I travel to a city or region that’s home to NCSO members and other partners, I prioritize meeting folks face-to-face. There’s simply no substitute.
You majored in international relations. Why did you choose to focus on advocacy work? I’ve been very lucky to have been offered fantastic opportunities and privileges, really, as a second-generation American after my parents made the decision to come to US, for the same reason as countless generations of immigrants–to seek opportunity for themselves and their children…My advocacy work is part of a larger movement to bring everyone closer to that belief and ideal.
What did your parents teach you that have helped you in your life, career? My parents have been central to my career. Currently, they live in Portland, Oregon and in Bangalore, India. They raised me to work hard, to treat others with respect, to value the opportunities we’ve been able to access in this country, and to work fiercely toward leveling the playing field–so many others can access the same opportunities and live their lives with dignity.
Who are your role models? People who have inspired and influenced you? Every immigrant who has arrived in this country, ready to work hard and build a bright future for themselves and their family, are my role models. America is and has always been a country of immigrants, and of people with hope.