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Sayu Bhojwani

Founder and President, New American Leaders Project

“By helping first- and second-generation Americans prepare to get on the ballot, we are working towards a fairer, multiracial democracy.”

I started New American Leaders (NAL) eight years ago, when I was 43. Our mission is to recruit and train immigrant leaders to run for and win political office and to challenge assumptions about who should lead our democracy. More than 600 people, of all ages and backgrounds, including many nontraditional candidates such as brand-new citizens, first-generation college students, union workers, and those who were formerly undocumented, have taken our training; nearly 10 percent of them now hold elected or appointed office. By helping first- and second-generation Americans prepare to get on the ballot, we are working towards a fairer, multiracial democracy. We want as many people as possible to understand that each of us has a responsibility to make democracy work for all of us and not just a select few.

The problem I’m trying to solve

I first came to the United States from Belize, where I grew up, to attend the University of Miami in Coral Gables, Fla. I didn’t think I was going to stay, but I was captivated by America and its opportunities. On my way to becoming an American citizen (I cast my first vote on the historic day of September. 11, 2001), I became more and more committed to America and its democratic ideals. But I also saw how our political system does not reflect how varied America is in gender, class and ethnicity. The United States has the largest immigrant and most diverse population in its history, yet the current Congress is 81 percent white and 81 percent male. Even at the state and local level, only 2 percent of over 500,000 seats are held by Latino or Asian Pacific Islander Americans, our two largest immigrant populations.

In some instances, Immigrants are being called animals, gang members, terrorists, freeloaders. In reality, immigrants open many small businesses, are less likely to commit crimes than native-born Americans, eagerly invest in education, and pay a great deal of taxes into public funds. No one believes in American democracy more than immigrants, because we fought so hard to get here. One in every 5 Americans is an immigrant or the child of an immigrant. Without us participating, democracy isn’t inclusive democracy.

The moment that sparked my passion

By 2008, I had already worked on immigration issues a long time, including serving as New York City’s first Commissioner of Immigrant Affairs. When I started NAL, I was tired of not seeing people like us making decisions about people like us. Until a country’s leaders reflect the experiences of people like me, change is a long way off. To create better policy for our communities, we had to run for office ourselves.

Advice to others who want to make a difference

Often, when someone has an idea about what they want to change, they envision something that doesn’t exist — so first you have to persuade others that there is a problem to fix. And you can’t give up just because other people don’t see what you see. Making your idea a reality is much easier if you can meet people where they are and guide them on the journey to where you are.

The struggles that shaped my life

I’m the child of refugees, products of British colonial rule, who were displaced when India split, and ended up in Central America. I grew up in a family that felt a great deal of insecurity about their place in the world. They worked for financial stability but politically they didn’t feel they belonged in Belize. They didn’t encourage me to be involved — they saw engagement as a necessary evil, not a way to be empowered.

In addition, for a long time I was one of the few Indian kids in my school, so there was also a sense of outsiderness that has deeply informed who I am.

My work is focused on leveling the playing field as I felt it wasn’t for me — as a female, Asian immigrant and as a person of color.

Why my approach is unique

When I created NAL, there was no national organization that focused on tapping into one of the country’s most robust natural resources for innovation and leadership — our newest Americans. I felt it was time for immigrants and communities of color to be the candidates and not just the voters. We encourage trainees to use their skills as teachers, activists, mothers, engineers, lawyers, social workers, business leaders to be inspiring candidates and effective lawmakers.

My first book, People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door, will be published in October — it’s full of stories about diverse local and state politicians from around the country. Arizona State Representative Athena Salman is a great example. Athena grew up in Phoenix, in a Palestinian, Latino and European immigrant family. When her mother took her to Washington, D.C., for the 2004 March for Women’s Lives, Athena saw the power of people’s voices. That experience shaped her as a community organizer and union shop steward. In 2015, Athena completed NAL training, and in 2016, as a first-time candidate, she was elected to the Arizona State House.