Hindu American community building
Our multiple identities are reflected through the lenses by which we are seen and how we see the world. May is Asian American history month. As an Indian-American, a Hindu American, grafted and blending into the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) tree, I am celebrating a distinct political identity - Asian American. A space in which a diverse group of people are coming together to address some of our common issues. We are "strangers from a different shore", of different races, often seen as - the model minority - whose collective voice has, in the past, often not been heard effectively.
As I see it, the commonalities within the AAPI group come from our shared eastern ethos and values which have roots in our varied Dharmic/religious backgrounds - Hindu, Jain, Buddhist, Sikh, Shinto, Confucius, etc. Yet, many of our eastern organizations do not play a major role in the political arena in the same way as the Abrahamic (Christian, Muslim and Jewish) faiths do. Nor do we collectively have well established faith based infrastructures through which to provide sustainable social services.
"For we know that our patchwork heritage is a strength, not a weakness. We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and non-believers." said President Obama, in his inaugural address. And on April 4th, 2009, I was appointed as a member to the President's Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP). For the first time, a U.S. President explicitly included a Hindu American in the public arena not only though speech but through action. We Hindus, the beneficiaries of Hart-Celler Act of 1965 which eliminated highly restrictive "national origins" quotas impacting Asians, felt accepted in our own country, America. A door for inclusion of our faith was unlocking!
The President's Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships developed 60 consensus recommendations to provide greater clarity on guidelines for how religious charities receive and utilize government funds to provide social services. However, as the only person of the eastern faith in the Council, I am struck by the gap that AAPI groups have to access funding in the faith-based space compared to the other 3 major American classifications (White, Black, Hispanic) with established infrastructures.
At over 2.2 million, Hindus in America now form the fifth largest religious group, after Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. However, Hindus are often mischaracterized in textbooks and academia. The Hindu people and their social needs are not well understood by the majority. And as New Americans, we do not yet know how to fully engage with the government to address our needs and to harness our talents to serve America.
A transformation within the community, in temples, in ashrams and government policy levels is needed to foster development of sustainable infrastructures. This historic appointment, the first public inclusion of a Hindu American, became an opportunity to collectively learn, educate and act.
On June 22nd 2009, President Obama announced the United We Serve initiative. And the Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships (OFBNP) asked Council members to mobilize their respective communities to serve. For us to participate fully, we had to start the grass root mobilization effort from ground zero.
Hindus Americans conduct seva (community social service) regularly as part of their sadhana (spiritual practice). Though the diverse Hindu community has no one particular central authoritative governing body; many, enthusiastically, came together, united for the first time to be part of a national movement.
The Hindu American community collectively expanded the ongoing seva to focus on poverty reduction, health, environment, youth, elderly and education. More than 120 "Seva Centers" conducted significantly over 1,300, mostly interfaith, service projects nationally.
Under the guidance of OFBNP, an inspired team formed Hindu American Seva Charities (HASC) which mobilized the response to serve. OFBNP provided a context, a voice and learning opportunities to bridge the gap between the U.S. government and Hindu institutions.
Concurrently, while mobilizing the community and coordinating service projects, in light of the knowledge imparted by OFBNP, officials and Council members, we conducted pioneering research. The aim was to assess the capacity of key, large faith based organizations and service providers and analyze the needs of the community itself, building upon earlier assessments during President Clinton's Community Builder program.
It also built upon the community's interfaith collaboration, not only as a response to the President's Call to Serve, but from the global interaction as well. During the summer 2009, I visited Chennai and the U.S. Consulate organized interfaith dialogues. For the first time, an American was publicly representing the Hindu faith in India. It became clear pluralism and interfaith collaboration are shared values between the two countries and could be strategic initiatives.
The visit to India also revealed that Hindus (the faith of the majority population in India), like many people in developing countries, welcome humanitarian international aid, when done in the spirit of seva which is part of their culture. Many are greatly concerned about the impact of proselytizing on the global and local religious ecosystem. They expect the U.S. to have safeguards to ensure international aid, primarily USAID, is used appropriately; and that the Diaspora is more actively engaged in international aid programs.
The new understanding through Hindu American community mobilization enabled identification of partnership opportunities with the Administration's innovative federal approach. The knowledge garnered through the community's response, also augmented the recommendations in the full Council report submitted to the President and supported the engagement with the Muslim communities.
As I see it, the President's Cairo speech, (I participated it its development), has relevancy for interfaith pluralistic collaboration with more than Christians, Jews and Muslims as "Indeed faith should bring us together..............All of us share this world for but a brief moment in time. The question is whether we spend that time focused on what pushes us apart, or whether we commit ourselves to an effort - a sustained effort - to find common ground, to focus on the future we seek for our children, and to respect the dignity of all human beings....."
The research highlighted areas of concern within the Hindu-American community, and is in many ways reflective of the entire Dharmic community (Hindu, Buddhist, Jain and Sikh). These concerns need to be addressed further by many stakeholders.
We hope our research and findings will enhance understanding of Hindu and Dharmic Americans, encourage greater integration of America's growing pluralism and religious diversity and open wider the door of inclusion President Obama has unlocked.
The Council's consensus recommendations recognize America's Religious and Cultural diversity (Pages 89 - 92 of entire Council report). It is a new beginning. U.S. Government agencies are encouraged to increase efforts to enhance access to government, as well as increase civic participation among traditionally under-represented religious and immigrant communities. These efforts are meant to continue to foster inclusion of America's religious diversity, which we hope will enable diverse religious communities to be effective partners with the government and build social cohesion.
The post 1965 New Americans, the people of Dharmic and eastern traditions have a long road ahead to develop their temple/ashram/gurudwara based, their faith based, infrastructures, to be able to be effective partners with the government and for them to be able to provide services on par with the other established faith groups in America. They need technical assistance, and considerable more research to be understood by the many stakeholders.
Social cohesion can only be achieved by supporting efforts to ensure that Americans have opportunities to understand America's increasingly religiously diverse and pluralistic society. Until their community governance gaps are understood, the Hindu Americans, the Dharmic Americans, the people of eastern faiths, the AAPI community, will have difficulty fulfilling the potential to serve their country fully; for the rich diversity to strengthen the common good in America and provide aid, development, and other services overseas to advance peace and justice abroad.
And this pluralistic diversity can help strengthen US relationships with the new emerging economic powers in Asia. In effect, channeling US aid through Diaspora faith-based organizations as well as of eastern faiths, can have twin salutary effects. They will not only improve international relationships but also deliver tremendous value for the US aid dollars spent overseas. Diasporas have greater sensitivity to the prevailing cultural norms, established relationship and networks and understand the internal workings in the host countries and communities. The AAPI communities, the "strangers from a different shore" want to be accepted as Americans!
Personally, this appointment, has been a momentous opportunity for which I am grateful. Working collaboratively with world-renowned faith and secular leaders, the Council members, and Office of Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, this inclusion enabled me to interactively combine my professional skills, years of community building and diversity knowledge. It transformed a bleak transition time (like millions of Americans, I was unemployed) into a positive, creative, experience to serve my country and community.
I hope and pray our collective effort will be a seva movement adding value to strengthen America domestically and globally in partnership with the stakeholders.
Posted by: bharatorot | May 7, 2010 9:48 AM
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