Hello, and welcome to another addition of A Desi Woman Podcast. I am your host, Soniya Gokhale. And I want to take a moment to thank each and every listener for joining us. It means so much to me that you found yourself here. And as we prepare to bid adieu to 2021 and welcome 2022 goal, our goal at A Desi Woman Podcast remains unchanged. We are impassioned about bringing forth diverse voices, stories, thought leadership and narratives that can offer hope and connectedness to a global audience.
Soniya Gokhale (01:16):
And so perhaps it is quite fitting that we are ending the year with an episode that celebrates a truly historic moment for the South Asian diaspora in the United States, as we are so excited to welcome Shekar Krishnan to the show. Shekar Krishnan is a community activist, civil rights attorney, and the first South Asian to ever be elected to New York city council. Shekar is devoted his career to serving the most vulnerable communities in New York city. His advocacy has focused on amplifying the voices of those so frequently, unheard and unseen by powerful institutions. And he’s very focused on organizing for dignified and just treatment for communities of color. Shekar is fiercely committed to fighting alongside those most affected by injustice. And his extensive work, combating systemic inequality in New York city has now catapulted him to making history in one of the biggest cities on the planet. Shekar, welcome to the show.
Shekar Krishnan (02:22):
Thanks so much for having me, Soniya. I’m really happy to be here.
Soniya Gokhale (02:24):
Well, we are so excited to welcome you. And Shekar, I know your parents came to this country from Kerala almost 30 years ago, and here you are now making history as the first Indian American to be elected to New York city council. And that is such a remarkable accomplishment. I would even offer, it’s an example of the proverbial American dream come true, and you’re living it. But I do want to ask you about your life growing up in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, New York as a child of immigrants, because I do understand that part of what motivated you to enter politics stems from watching your parents struggle with discrimination and the inaccessibility of resources. And it’s very important to note that your parents are preeminent research scientists in the pharmaceutical industry.
Soniya Gokhale (03:15):
And in fact, when they first arrived to this country, they qualified for every single type of public benefit that was available at the time, however, they did not receive them because they simply weren’t informed about how to procedurally apply for these benefits or even where to begin in seeking such assistance. And I have to imagine that’s not an uncommon dilemma for many immigrants to this country. And perhaps even more heart wrenching is that as a child, you witnessed your parents struggling with the feeling of maybe not belonging here and even facing discrimination because of their skin color, accented English, and other factors. And all of this serve to make an indelible impression upon you, which is why you chose to become a civil rights lawyer and eventually venture into politics. So I’ve offered a lot right there, but if you could comment upon all of that, I would appreciate it.
Shekar Krishnan (04:08):
No, thanks so much, and I do for raising this such an important question as well. Just taking a step back for a second too. I feel so fortunate to be in this position and have this immense privilege of representing my communities at Jackson Heights and Elmhurst as the first Indian American in the history of the New York city council. And that is something that was the result of really, the entire community coming together and the completely multicultural, multilingual, multi-generational coalition on whose shoulders I stand and shoulders of so many, like my parents, and so many others who have sacrificed so much from immigrant communities across really South Asia, Latin America, who have made this possible. I never lose sight of that. And I always said when I was running that, I’m running because I understand how important it is for everyone to have a home, not just a place to live, but also a community where we feel seen, our voice is heard, we receive the resources that we need.
Shekar Krishnan (05:05):
Having that home and that place of home is so important. And also I’d say that, housing is always the most central crisis in New York city because it connects to everything else around us. Where you live affects the resources or services that we need, but don’t receive. For Elmhurst Hospital, for example, here in our neighborhood, which was the epicenter of the pandemic. More for our public schools or for our parks and open space that we need. The struggle for systemic equity and justice in our city is something that in particular affects our immigrant communities, right? Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, we are two of the most diverse communities on the planet. We are a community of immigrants, of essential workers, taxi workers, delivery workers, or street vendors, so many in our community who have really sustained this city during the pandemic long before and long after it as well.
Shekar Krishnan (06:00):
And I always said, we were the epicenter of the pandemic, but that was not just any accident or coincidence. It was a result of decades of disinvestment in our neighborhoods. And these kinds of fights for equity, for our voices to be heard are things that any immigrant or childhood immigrants knows well. My parents came to this country, as you mentioned, Soniya, more than 30 years ago. So I actually didn’t grow up in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst itself. I grew up right outside of New York city, but when my parents first came here and they came to… They would take the seven train all the time to Jackson Heights, to 74th street to get all their groceries, their furniture, their pots and pans to visit the temple here in Flushing because Jackson Heights in 74th Street was the only place that reminded them of a home that was 10,000 miles away.
Shekar Krishnan (06:47):
And to your point, as you mentioned, they faced so many struggles growing up, too. I start growing up, I’m coming to this country and me watching them as I grew up, they were discriminated against because of the color of their skin, because of their accent, because of their “foreign education”. In the beginning, when they came here, I remember, they jumped around from job to job. My dad didn’t even know what he was meant when the boss told him he was being let go from his first job because the boss didn’t want to foreigner taking his position. And he had to come home that night to dinner, but my mom explained to them that when someone says to you, you’re being let go, it means you’re fired. And it felt to my mom to find a work to support both of them at that time.
Shekar Krishnan (07:27):
And as you said, they had qualified for every single public benefit, but they didn’t apply or secure a single one because they didn’t even know what they were or how to apply for them, which is a problem that still drastically affects immigrant communities until this day, and especially more so from the point of language accessibility too. And I always say, my parents came here with the privilege of papers and an education, yet I saw how much they struggled and were discriminated against their entire careers. And it made me painfully aware of just how much those who come here with far, far less. We’ve crossed the border with no status and no papers, like many of my clients who have represented as a lawyer for housing justice over the years, how much more the struggles are magnified really exponentially.
Shekar Krishnan (08:11):
And that is what really first motivated me to become a lawyer for civil rights, fighting for tenants who are evicted and are harassed from their homes and displaced, fighting for housing justice and now running for New York city council. Because these are really, as I’ve always said, communities like mine, like Jackson Heights and Elmhurst are the essential communities of this city yet, no matter how essential we are, the pandemic illustrated and revealed and exacerbated, didn’t create them, revealed and exacerbated just how much this government from the city state and federal level has not given us the proper investment of resources that we’ve badly needed for decades. And now is really the time to rebuild this city by prioritizing neighborhoods like mine.
Soniya Gokhale (08:57):
Well, thank you for that response. And there’s so much there. And some of which I’m going to dive into, including housing. And I know you are very impassioned about this topic. And one of the things that you’d like to tackle when you take office pertains to New York city and housing. As you pointed out on the campaign trail, renter skyrocketing, and you cite gentrification as the reason. The harsh reality is that tenants, especially low income people of color are being displaced from neighborhoods they’ve called home for so long due to re-zonings. Small homeowners are often immigrants, and they’re struggling to make mortgage payments and are at imminent risk of foreclosure. Now, in your estimation, it is the role of government to ensure that every human being has an affordable, dignified, and permanent place to live. And among the broad spanning solutions that you offer, you assert that it is critical to prevent landlords from warehousing rent regulated apartments by tracking the number of vacant units in the city and imposing monetary penalties for landlords who engage in this subordinate practice.
Soniya Gokhale (10:03):
And as you’ve offered, warehousing causes displacement, takes affordable housing off the market when it is badly needed, and it really erodes tenant protections. Now you would also place a moratorium on all luxury re-zonings and development in New York city. In fact, you call for a complete revamping of the city’s re-zoning process to prevent further segregation across the city. And lastly, you also call it the need to design a community rooted comprehensive land use process that stops displacement and remedies racial and environmental disparities in urban planning. And so if you could offer for our listeners that maybe aren’t aware of this warehousing rent regulated issue that is at play in one of the biggest cities on this planet, it’s so appreciated.
Shekar Krishnan (10:54):
Yeah, absolutely. As I said before, it’s one of the most urgent crises we face because it’s connected to everything else. Housing is this portal through which you access so many other rights. Where you live affects all of these things around you. And fundamentally, I believe that housing is a human right, and it has to be seen that way and treated that way by government. The biggest problem is that government doesn’t treat it that way. As you were saying before, rents are skyrocketing in the city. Gentrification is skyrocketing as well, which means so many, especially immigrant families and low income families of color are being displaced from their homes, their communities they’ve known for so long as luxury developers are coming in. And I’ve actually seen it. The reason I make that point is because to me, the biggest issue in the housing fight in our city is not just laws.
Shekar Krishnan (11:45):
Sure, we need better laws. We need more laws. The biggest problem I’ve seen is that if the laws are worth less than the paper they’re written on, if they’re not actually enforced in reality to protect vulnerable communities, then they don’t matter. And I’ve been in representing tenants and tenant associations and buildings where landlords have literally taken sledge hammers to them and destroyed them overnight, blatantly illegal, shutting off heat, hot water, also services, forcing tenants out onto the streets overnight. And there’s been no enforcement by government to hold them accountable, to make sure the tenants return home. I always say, you would think when you’re displaced from your home, so violently that city government would descend upon the situation with all its services and resources, because that is the most urgent and most violent situation you could experience as a tenant yet, that is when government fails us the most and where it takes the longest and the biggest fight to get tenants back home.
Shekar Krishnan (12:40):
So in that world where really landlords break the laws, the cost of doing business, where the laws mean so little, because they’re not enforced in reality, we have two issues that you ask about. The first one is, there are actually so many vacant apartments in New York city, much more so than people realize. And a lot of times landlords hoard those apartments and keep them and wait until the market goes out so they can rent them for a higher price. Well, if we really think that housing and we must treat housing as the human right that it is, then the reality is that these vacant apartments need to be put back on the market, that the practice of warehousing needs to be stopped, because it’s one of the most harmful ways to artificially restrain and constrict supply while artificially elevating demand, and then artificially increasing prices.
Shekar Krishnan (13:31):
That’s already, what makes it even more horrendous is this kind of practice is happening while we’re already facing such pressures of displacement while rents are already rising in this city and especially rising in low income communities of color. So to have them on top of that warehouse units, when we have a housing crisis, I think is just is appalling. And I think that’s not talked about enough and what’s not talked about enough either is the lack of enforcement of our housing laws. And I always say, when the landlord shuts off heat and hot water, that’s a violation and that’s a class C emergency violation, where if the landlord doesn’t fix it in 24 hours, their fines accumulate. And I have not seen once in my decade as a housing lawyer, the city of New York collect fines for violations like that, and so land alone just racked them up.
Shekar Krishnan (14:17):
But I think if we were to get serious about housing as a human right, we have to stop warehousing. We have to make sure the housing laws are enforced. We have to also legalize basement apartments in our city. And that’s a huge topic as well, where especially here in Queens and Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, so many immigrant families live in basement units that are not legal under the housing codes, but they are such a crucial source of affordable housing for immigrant families. And the city needs to make them legal, to bring them up to code, to make them safe for tenants, for small homeowners who rent them out. And we saw it during hurricane Ida, the consequence of that where so many families living in basement apartments were devastated and lives were lost because they’re not protected as the source of affordable housing they actually are. And so I think these are really crucial ways for the city to really ensure that. As I said before, housing is the human right and treat it that way as it needs to be.
Soniya Gokhale (15:11):
Yeah. And some of what you’ve outlined is absolutely jaw dropping. It’s really difficult to wrap one’s mind around the fact this is happening here in the United States, and you are really bringing attention to it. So huge kudos, and I know many lives we change and transformed based on your candidacy. So we are so excited for that. And I do want to move on to another hot topic that we are hearing about nationally in cities across the US, and that relates to community safety and justice. I know you are unabashedly critical of efforts regarding current reform efforts for a variety of reasons. And I want to quote you directly. “So-called reform efforts do not address the racism and violence underlying the criminal institution of our society, or keep new York’s community safe. Instead, we must divest from policing and decarcerate our society.” As you point out, Michelle Alexander has nicely articulated a perspective on this topic, which you wholly share.
Soniya Gokhale (16:10):
And this is, that it is clear our criminal justice system locks up and locks out of society countless black and brown people, and its entire history is predicated on the subjugation and devastation of black lives. So called reform efforts really don’t address the racism and violence underlying the criminal institutions of our society, or keep New York’s community safe. And what I think is a very powerful metaphor you’d offer that we must end the school to prison pipeline by supporting, not punishing or policing students, such a sad metaphor and yet woefully true. And so if I can seek out comments in all of this and your hope for what can be done to create impactful, positive change in this area. And I have some follow up questions for you.
Shekar Krishnan (17:02):
Yeah. I think that that is one of the most pressing questions we face today. And I intentionally don’t call it a criminal justice system and say it’s a criminal system because there is no justice in it. I mean, I think Michelle Alexander and Jim Crow does an excellent job, really tracing the history of the criminal system in our country that is systematically locked up and locked out of society. So many of our black and brown communities in particular, young, black and brown men. And what you see is the way in which, from our drug loss to our methods of policing and surveillance, how they’ve been used to really target low income communities of color and to trap, especially young brown and black people in a system of incarceration that will first from stop and frisk to other policing tactics to arrest through a court system that is fundamentally disconnected with the rights, especially of the low income to incarceration.
Shekar Krishnan (17:54):
And right now, one of the biggest fights in New York city is to stop the practice of solitary confinement, where we are confining people in a way of torturing people when we are incarcerating them. And then of course, where after you come out of being incarcerated, where you are locked out of society, it’s impossible to get a job. You’re discriminated against an employment because of your record. You’re discriminated against public housing and you can’t find housing. I mean, how do we expect people to rehabilitate themselves if they are being first locked up and locked out of society in this way? And you really do create second class citizenship that affects communities of color in particular. That is a huge problem. And of course, as you mentioned too, that extends to our schools where if you walk into a school and you see male detectors where students, and their statistics are clear on this, especially black and brown students are suspended or expelled at much, much higher rates.
Shekar Krishnan (18:48):
We are criminalizing our youth. We are depriving them of opportunities for success, for flourishing, for discovering and themselves and who they are. And that’s where, frankly, this punitive method and this carceral regime really starts from. But I think that is we need to really rethink our approach to these issues. And I think, I always say it this way. Everyone deserves to feel safe in our society, in our city. Walking down the street, safe from hate crimes that our community’s been experiencing, a lot of Asian Americans. Safe riding the train. But the reality is that as a young man of color and like so many other young people of color, I don’t feel safer with increased police presence and many others don’t too. We have to really be investing in strategies that truly make people feel safe.
Shekar Krishnan (19:44):
And that’s why I think it’s critical that we are investing in social services, whether it’s creating. And one of the things they advocated for in the campaign was creating a dedicated hotline like we have, 311 or 911, but for mental health response calls where individuals in distress or need help with mental health services, they can receive those services right away through a hotline, for example, or making sure that we are permanently rehousing our homeless, because being homeless is such a destabilizing destructive force, or making sure that we’re investing in a community center for our youth, which is a big concern for me here in Jackson Heights and Elmhurst too. We don’t have any. And finding ways to engage our youth in positive and constructive ways. I mean, if we want people to feel safe, we have to really be investing in strategies that truly keep communities safe.
Shekar Krishnan (20:28):
And really reality is we keep our community safe. And if you think about this, you look further at the ways in which the system operates. I mean, most recently a case that I’ve been very involved with, with several south Asian colleagues as well has been the prosecution of [Prakash Truman 00:20:44], who’s a young INO Caribbean man who spent about six years already in Rikers Island. And he’s probably 22 years old now. He went in when he was 16 or 17. It’s very clear that he was the victim of false confession. And the police who have been accused before and have also engaged in unconstitutional confessional time tactics in other cases, elicited a false confession from him where he’s been locked up for so long before a trial even. And then once the decision in the case was actually reversed his conviction by an appellate court.
Shekar Krishnan (21:19):
There was no evidence presented on a false confession. And now as a 22 year old, he had spent six years in records. He’s out now, but facing a retrial by the Queen’s district attorney’s office. And I think that’s just unconscionable that we would treat our youth in this way. And this is someone who, when he was being interrogated, his mom wanted him to confess falsely because she had to go back to work and she couldn’t be at the precinct for so long. And so if you look at the way our society has treated our youth in our schools and outside, this is a system that really discriminates against so many young people of color, leading them with lasting consequences for the rest of their lives.
Shekar Krishnan (22:01):
And I just believe that that is not the way that we should be treating our youth, that it’s not the kind of system that America has, one of the highest or the highest incarceration rate in the world. And it doesn’t work. It harms people tremendously. It perpetuates systemic inequalities. And in fact, it doesn’t keep people safe either. So this isn’t that we have to reevaluate entirely.
Soniya Gokhale (22:21):
Well, I think all of that is just so compelling. And I’ve interviewed many political candidates and elected officials from our diaspora. And what’s interesting is one of the areas of consensus appears to be the need to invest in low income communities by providing mental health services. And you alluded to it, it’s inextricably connected to law enforcement because perhaps what we’re utilizing currently is limited. And in your estimation, providing mental health services, training social workers, instituting community education around conflict resolution, and basically creating a citywide rapid response system of mental health professionals, medics and crisis workers, independent of the men and women in blue can be called upon to intervene and humanely non violently help those in need of assistance is what you think would be a far more effective program than what’s currently in place. And I always like to cite this amazing quote by the Reverend Desmond Tutu. And it seems that we have to come to a point where we need to stop just pulling people out of the river. We need to go upstream and find out why they’re falling in.
Shekar Krishnan (23:34):
Yeah. And I think that this all ties together in a much larger way. I mean, I would say to the immediate question you had raised about mental health services. This is a huge problem in our city where the government has not invested in mental health services and resources nearly in the way that it should. When someone is homeless, they need help and services, policing them, arresting them, harassing them off the streets, forcing them to go into shelter, many of them opt to stay on the streets and live in shelter because of how dangerous and also how poorly maintained shelters are too, should give a sense of the problem that really, the city is not investing in these deeper strategies to help those who are homeless by for example, providing services, by permanently rehousing them. The same thing with mental health services. Those who have suffered from mental health illness or other issue, policing them and harassing or arresting them doesn’t solve the problem.
Shekar Krishnan (24:29):
In fact, it makes it a lot worse. And we need to be investing in services that truly help people. And so both when it comes to homeless services, when it comes to mental health services, creating a system that is independent of law enforcement to actually provide real and meaningful services to those who need help in times of crisis, I think is so critical and can resolve so many issues that arise, because this is really, like dominoes, if you’re suffering from mental health issue, or if you are homeless, it has a cascading effect on everything else in your life around you. It’s incredibly destabilizing. And that’s why we need to have comprehensive supports in place to help individuals who need help. And we don’t have that right now.
Shekar Krishnan (25:09):
And that just goes to a larger point of one of the themes of our campaigns, which is communities like Jackson Heights and Elmhurst, like my community, there has been such a lack of investment in the social infrastructure of our communities. Our public schools are excellent, but they’re overcrowded. We have some of the least amount park space and open space in all of New York city. We don’t have a community center. And our hospital, Elmhurst Hospital has less than one bed for every 1,000 patients that come through its doors. And it receives less in public funding than every other private healthcare institution in our city yet, Elmhurst Hospital was the epicenter of the epicenter of the pandemic. It serves our immigrant communities, especially undocumented. It turns no one away. And the lack of investments mean a shortage on bed capacities. It means a shortage on language accessible services for immigrant communities. So this just goes to show you the magnitude of systemic inequality that you’re talking about.
Shekar Krishnan (26:05):
And so rather than the government investing in immigrant neighborhoods, rather them investing in social services, mental health services, homeless services, not only does that create a serious inequity between some communities like mine and others, but it also just means that we aren’t actually investing in the services that truly help people keep their homes, to stay in their homes, to stay in their communities to sustain their lives, and which will affect everything else around you. Otherwise, all these issues are connected. And so to your point, and to Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s point too, that is the kind of investments in our social services and our social infrastructure that we need to see, which can avert so many other catastrophes and challenges that individuals face down the road, especially when they’re poor.
Soniya Gokhale (26:57):
Well, there is no question about that. And I know you spoke about it briefly, but education does feature prominently in your agenda as the city council member. And you state, “Every child in New York city deserves an outstanding education. However, our public schools are segregated, underfunded, and they’re failing families.” New York has systematically underfunded public education in violation of court orders in your estimation. You’d like to integrate the public school system to provide a solid foundation of learning for all students and families. And all students should be able to see themselves in the materials they learn, but this requires meaningful implementation of culturally responsive sustaining education and bilingual education is also a necessity. And one concept, which I think is very innovative is that you believe the department of education should adapt a public health approach to education. In other words, we must center students, teachers, and staff in decision making.
Soniya Gokhale (28:01):
And what’s very critically important is that through COVID 19, you call out the fact that every student in New York city should have guaranteed access to remote learning technology. And yet this wasn’t the case. Students with special needs, those who are homeless and multilingual learners must be prioritized. And the methods of instruction and allocation of resources. And researching for this podcast, it is a sad reality that many of those students, just mentioned, are at risk of falling behind their peers due to inadequate resources available to them during the pandemic. So I’ve offered a lot there, but would really enjoy your insights on that.
Shekar Krishnan (28:43):
Yeah. And by the way, talking about the schools, my younger son just returned from daycare. So you can hear some background noise and chatting. Those are my kids running around. It’s part of the reality now of all us, with our kids at home and two young kids as well have big working parents. But I think our school system is overwhelmingly students of color yet, it’s also deeply segregated and deeply underfunded. I am a proud public school parent myself, and I strongly believe that our public education needs far more investment and support from our city and state government. And as I’m indicating my platform, that’s not just a belief I have. That’s actually under the law and court decisions that have actually called out the need for proper funding of our public schools and how critical that is for education equity too.
Shekar Krishnan (29:34):
But that all ties together to the two points that were essential parts of my campaign. One is, that students need to see themselves in the material they learn and they study from. I just saw a statistic the other day talking about how the overwhelming number, over 80% I think, of students in our public school system are students of color. Yet the vast majority are the same percentage or 80% or more of the books they read according to the curriculum are actually by white authors. Experience is a lot growing up too. But it is so crucial that students in exploring and understanding and developing a sense of their identities, see themselves, their cultures, their identity in the books they read, in their teachers and who their teachers are too. Because the truth is, whether it’s from issues of racial and immigrant justice to language, to LGBTQ, LGBTQIA+ issues.
Shekar Krishnan (30:34):
Students have to be able to see themselves and their identities in what they’re learning. It’s the only way to one, make sure our schools are reflecting the vibrancy of our student body and are being inclusive in their curriculums. And two, it’s the only way to truly support students and make sure that they feel like they get an education, which reflects who they are and helps them to feel like they’re equipped in education that speaks to them and helps them develop the kind of education they will need to be successful afterwards too. And so I think that is just such a crucial point. And as part of that, a core part of my campaign here at Jackson Heights and Elmhurst was to fight for bilingual education in all of our local public schools. This is a facet, I think of culture responsive education, where we have such diverse communities.
Shekar Krishnan (31:23):
It’s really disappointing that we don’t have, for example, a Bangla-English bilingual dual language program in our public schools. We have such a large Bangladeshi community that’s so active here And so many Bangladeshi students in our school system. We need more English Spanish bilingual programs, English Mandarin bilingual programs, English Nepali. The facts of the matter is we need to be encouraging bilingualism, biliteracy in our students and need to be doing so in a way that really centers multilingual learners or students of immigrant families or immigrant students themselves. And that, I think is also part of having an inclusive curriculum that really brings out the things about students that makes them feel like special to who they are, and also feels like they’re bringing their home cultures and their home languages to school as well. That’s part of what it means. Have them embracing inclusive education and to really make sure our students feel seen in the school system. So both of those are critical points to me and to our campaign too.
Soniya Gokhale (32:23):
Well, I cannot believe we are actually at the end of our time together, but I just want to offer what a deep inspiration you’ve been to myself. And I suspect for many listeners who may not even be aware of you and what you’ve accomplished and made history. And I think it’s so fitting that when you were elected and you received news of this, you indicated, when my parents came to this country 38 years ago, they never imagined their son would one day run for city council. Their sacrifices were on my mind as I voted just now three generations together in this moment. And it’s staggering that our South Asian communities have never had representation in New York city. And you changed that. You have made history.
Soniya Gokhale (33:09):
And I want to offer, it’s a throwback, the great Mahatma Gandhi was a civil rights attorney. So I really want to credit you for your visionary leadership and just taking this bold move for this New York city, but also for any global citizen that’s listening. I guess, what are your parting thoughts and what would you have to offer for somebody that maybe wanting to make a change, be the change in their communities, and isn’t quite certain how to do so? Not necessarily run for offices you have done, but just would really welcome any parting comments you might have.
Shekar Krishnan (33:44):
Well, I really appreciate you saying that too. And I think that, obviously politics can be… the campaigns can be very exhausting, especially as a working parent with two young kids, too. Politics itself, I have no illusions. I don’t think politics is the movement nor does it lead it. It has a role to play. But the real work is happening on the ground at a grassroots level, in the housing movements, in our immigrants rights movements, in our reproductive justice movements. That’s where the real work is. And politics has a role to play, but it is not the movement nor does it lead it. What stays with me knowing all of this and coming into, and knowing the history that we’ve made alongside my incoming colleague too, the first Bangladeshi Muslim in the New York city council history, Shahana Hanif too, is that the stories, despite all the exhaustion, despite all of the nonsense in politics, too.
Shekar Krishnan (34:35):
What stays with you the most are the stories from the campaign for me. For example, I remember on election day, a number of seniors came up to me, South Asian seniors, who had said, “We came to this country years ago to sacrifice for you and for your generation. And now it’s your turn to take that torch and carry the work forward and make sure you’re passing that torch on to the youth to come after you.” They are whose shoulders I stand on. Or on the other generation end of the spectrum too.
Shekar Krishnan (35:06):
I’ll never forget a Bangladeshi father I met who came up to me one day in Elmhurst and said, “My son is eight years old and he gets bullied in school because of the doc’s color of his skin. And he is ashamed of his skin color. And I’ve shown him your campaign picture and your poster, because I want him to know that people who look like us who have dark skin too, can go on to do great things and should be proud of the color of their skin and not ashamed of it. And I wanted to meet you.” He said to me.
Shekar Krishnan (35:32):
And that brought tears to my eyes too, to hear that. And of course I met his young son later, actually at a Jummah prayer service at the Masjid in our community, where both the son and his father both introduced me. And I spoke to his eight year old son afterwards, too. And it brought tears to my eyes. And that’s what stays with me. Or the fact that the day after our victory, the taxi workers of this city who are overwhelmingly from our community won their fight for relief and to fight by their side for driver justice for all these months to go on hunger strike with them to also to be arrested as [inaudible 00:36:08] disobedience with them too.
Shekar Krishnan (36:09):
And we all celebrated and dance manga together in the street that night. I mean, I was so touched because I was there to celebrate them at city hall and they were happy to celebrate our victory. I said, “That doesn’t matter about my victory. I don’t care. I’m only here to celebrate you all.” But so many of them, I would see at Durga Puja in our neighborhood after fighting alongside them at city hall. Some of them pulled over as they’re driving through Jackson Heights and Elmhurst to stop and say, “Hey, we voted for you. We’re so proud you’re in office. And we’re so happy for us and for our community.” And they pulled over, done that. In the morning, late at night, when I’m coming home with my wife from somewhere, these are the kinds of memories and stories that will all stay with me because this is why I’ve done the work I’ve done.
Shekar Krishnan (36:48):
And I’ve run for office too. And that is what I hold closest to me in entering the city council too. And I just think that, that is what motivates me and inspires me and I keep at the forefront of my mind. And also what makes me say that this work must continue after Shahana, after me, that we also want to see so many of the youth of our communities rise up and represent our communities because we haven’t had a voice for so long, but this is really about so many who come after and building really and passing the torch to the next generation too.
Soniya Gokhale (37:22):
Wow. Just so beautiful and so inspiring. We cannot thank you enough, Shekar Krishnan for joining us today.
Shekar Krishnan (37:29):
Well, thank you so much, Soniya, for having me too. And I really appreciate our conversation as well.
Soniya Gokhale (37:33):