Helping the South Asian-American community find its voice

Harish Patel at the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute on North Broadway Street. Patel has worked as a coalition organizer on the Southwest Side, a non-profit called Southwest Side Youth Collaborative and started a youth engagement project called ChicagoVotes.

Photo by William Camargo

Harish Patel at the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute on North Broadway Street. Patel has worked as a coalition organizer on the Southwest Side, a non-profit called Southwest Side Youth Collaborative and started a youth engagement project called ChicagoVotes.

An Indian-American, Harish Ibrahim Patel is a graduate student enrolled in the University of Illinois at Chicago’s urban planning and public affairs program, the owner of a small, fair trade business and one of the founders of ChicagoVotes.

His work is devoted to raising awareness on social issues, big or small, and mobilizing people of all races and ethnicities to become more civically engaged.

In collaboration with Ami Gandhi, the executive director of the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute, Patel published a report titled “Voter Registration, Activation and Engagement in the South Asian American Communities in Illinois.”

The first-of-its-kind report aims to shed light on South Asian demographics in the city and state and on the issues surrounding voter activity and registration within a community that has become one of the fastest growing populations in the country. Patel hopes that public officials and policy makers can use the information to engage more with South Asians in the political process.

The Chicago Reporter recently met with Patel to talk about his life and his work.

What led to your involvement in issues affecting the South Asian-American community in Chicago?

I grew up in Gujarat in India till the age of 14. I come from a Muslim family and things were changing fast in Gujarat at the time. There were a lot of riots and my father passed away. So it triggered my mother to think about moving to another place. A lot of our family members lived in the United States so that is when we decided to come here. I’ve been here for 15 years, more or less, in the Chicagoland area. I got involved in a lot of activism work and ended up with a degree in political science and philosophy from UIC. I also traveled a lot. I lived in Uganda for some time and that’s where I began to rethink what I was doing.

How does your community work tie in with public policy?

I worked as a coalition organizer in the Southwest Side. I wanted to do more work within communities of color especially the African-American community because of the idea that South Asians are very far away from that community and there’s not much that can be done to pursue gaps. While I was working for a non-profit called Southwest Side Youth Collaborative with a bunch of other organizations, I focused on youth violence and trying to create a safety-net for them to either get jobs or get back in school. In the past I have mostly worked with non-profits and there are a lot of non-profits and foundations that have a tricky relationship with the state or the city where the non-profit might be getting funding. So sometimes the state or the city in turn gets to decide how the organization should be run. That triggered me to go back to graduate school and get a degree in urban planning and policy.

Why did you work on this report that focuses on the South Asian community?

The South Asian community is growing drastically in the state of Illinois. Just in a decade between 2000 and 2010, the U.S. census tells us that the South Asian community has grown by 55 percent. That’s huge, right? But what we haven’t seen at the same time is a growth in the South Asian electorate or South Asian community being involved in the policy decisions, or registering to vote or coming out to vote. So we thought it would be helpful to create some tools like this report that can be utilized by communities and organizations to increase both voter registration and activity amongst registered voters in specific, targeted ways. There’s also the fact that 2 percent of the state population in Illinois is South Asian, and 36 percent of the Asian-American population is South Asian. About 200,000 South Asians are just in the Chicagoland area. In the state of Illinois, it’s 242,000. But we don’t see that reflected by the policy-makers when they’re making decisions. We also hear from community members that they want to be involved, but they don’t know what steps to take. The 50th Ward has 1,682 South Asians, which is the highest number of registered voters that are South Asian, and the 42nd Ward has the second highest with about 807, and so we see this as an opportunity for us to be engaged with them in a much more specific way.

What is the best way to get the South Asian population to come out and become more active in their communities?

A lot of us who work within the South Asian community always want to know, “how can we get more of our people more involved and be engaged?” We’re always working towards better access. For example, language access was a huge barrier. However, in the last few years, the city, county, state and federal government have been quite responsive of diversifying and providing language access. Now, since 2012, at least in Cook County, the ballots are in Hindi as well. And polling information is available in multiple languages. SAAPRI was at the forefront of getting that done. We also realized that if there are people in office who look like us then more of us will listen to them. But even if there are people who don’t look like us but address our community, our folks are more willing to listen and be engaged.

What is your next step?

I have a full time job with Accelerate Change and a small business called Ishi Vest, a fair trade, naturally dyed, organic clothing line. Another project that I feel very close to, and I started with a few other friends five years ago, is ChicagoVotes. It’s a youth engagement project and also tries to increase voter registration and voter engagement among young people, especially young people of color. So between everything, I have to figure out what’s next.

This interview was edited and condensed for clarity.