Kavita Das has been working in social justice careers for decades, from direct government policy work to public health to grant-making foundations such as Susan G. Komen. I was introduced to Kavita’s work through Colorlines and Race Forward (formerly the Applied Research Center, or ARC), which focuses on advancing racial justice through research, media, and practice. I sat down with Kavita in the spring to talk about her work across the field of social justice work, during which she gave me a practical plan for having social impact. Here are the highlights.
A Clear but Nimble Plan: An Interview with Kavita Das
by Jordan Alam
Q: Please give an introduction about yourself and your career.
A: I’m born and raised in New York, so I had this very diverse childhood and then in the suburbs, I was one of maybe a handful of minorities in my school. And that dichotomy really affected me on a lot of levels. And I didn’t have the tools to figure out how to analyze that or think about that until I got to college. And I think that that’s what made me gravitate to urban studies.
That is what led me to my first phase of my career, which was in working in city government on community development and urban development issues. I am glad that I worked in government because later on in life, I have more than understanding and appreciation even if at the time it was sometimes frustrating – you know, one step forward, two steps back – I feel like I have a realistic understanding of how things in fact happen or don’t happen.
It’s a very disciplined thing [referring to market research in business school]. We can like it, we can hate it, but they study us really well. I wanted to understand that and think about how good market research principles, good compelling communications together could help us make better cases for things in the social change sector. Did an internship at Sarah Lee, working on t-shirts, and it helped me really understand that I did not want to be selling t-shirts. So then it was like, ok, what do I want to do?
I went into the public health sphere and I worked in the American Academy of Pediatrics, so it was all about trying to address pediatric issues in the community and make pediatricians into public health advocates. Because they are seeing the patients, so they should not just see each individual patient, they should say: what are the commonalities? How many head injuries have I seen? How many cases of lead poisoning? And what does that say about the environment in which these kids are living and how can I get involved as an advocate?
And then I went into the foundation sector, and the foundation sector had always kind of been this big mystery to me, this kind of ivory tower. I had been in grant-funded positions before and I had received grants, so I had always wondered how it worked. There’s like hard data, public health data, and then there’s qualitative gathering that I really wanted to do to supplement that because I knew that there were some populations, some stories, that were not getting captured in the data yet. There’s just a lag always in public health data. To me, there was a social justice imperative in there, which was the stories that were not getting captured were often immigrant stories, including Asian immigrants. That’s what really attracted me to the Applied Research Center and Colorlines because I had this nagging feeling through all my work that it was just this twin-sized blanket that I was trying to pull… and yes, perhaps I got this project funded, but it wasn’t addressing fundamental inequities in the system.
Q: I think that we can both agree about social justice trying to address at the root causes rather than, as you were saying, service provision. So how do you think that that’s changed over time and how do you think that different groups address the same problems?
A: I think that more and more progressive social justice groups have understood for their own sake the importance of quality improvement, being able to see what they’re doing that’s working. They’re doing so much, doing so much with so little, and so on some level it’s kind of saying ‘we can either go left or go right; we can either do this work or that work.’ Let’s do the thing that’s the most important. And how do we judge how that’s important? How do we evaluate that? I want to make this less about funders, but funders are important if you don’t have a self-sustaining revenue model – it’s just how it is right now.
On the flip side, I think there has been some slow-moving growth on the funding side of understanding funding advocacy efforts. Because they’re not services and programs that are concrete. I always say that we’re not manufacturing widgets – we can’t be translated into these ends. And the other thing I would say as the big thing is that I talked to you about the silos. So to sit there and be like ‘well, I can address this need of yours, but you have to go somewhere else and you have to deal with this other institution to address those,’ it didn’t make sense.
Q: Just going off of the alliance-building and coalition-building question, I want to ask: how does one even go about that? We talked about how difficult it is to create a pan-Asian community or pan-Asian community – does it exist and is there anything we agree on? – so how does one even go about bringing together those issues in a way that’s productive?
A: So, two things – I have completely opposing thoughts on this. I’m a pragmatist. There’s the symbolic aspect of things, and there’s the pragmatic getting things done. I have learned a lot about this from Rinku – she has spoken on MSNBC about this very issue and I think that’s really important. So I don’t have a solution. The pragmatist in me has sometimes been like ‘Why can’t we just frickin’ go and do this?’ because alliances are complex and so you’re adding layers and layers of complexity, and the pragmatist in me that wants to get stuff done but by pursuing allies, there’s suddenly more voices, more opinions, more thoughts on which way to go, more considerations… And you have to really deep down believe, not just say it, but believe that that building coalitions is a good thing. And that’s hard. I just think that it’s important for there to be clarity of communication, respect, [and] a clear but nimble plan that can change and adapt depending on what’s going on in the world – which changes every week. People have to feel like this is a third thing, and this third thing brings us all together.
Q: I have a last question about how people, especially young people, should get involved in whatever movement or social justice work there is. So how does one get involved? And how does one, on the other hand, not try to reinvent the wheel?
I really believe in the experiential. I was honest with you to say that my views have shifted on certain things, I have opinions that are molded by my work across sectors. And I have not taken a linear path. And some people don’t get that – they are like ‘what is this? I can’t find a common thread.’ But I disagree with that fundamentally. So I think it’s important to find people. People that you identify with – their philosophy, what they’re trying to get done… so the whole mentor thing is actually really important. And mentors don’t mean that they’re thirty years older than you, they could be three years ahead of you, but they’ve taken that step that you’re pausing and thinking about. I think it’s really important to do that, to go out for coffee with somebody, have an informational interview, and all of that. Because that will help you. I also think that you hear this and it’s a little bit of a cliche: figuring out what you don’t want to do is just as important as finding what you do want to do.
And I think that the point that you made right at the very start is actually a really important one that I wish someone had told me when I was starting out, which is that often we have idealistic understandings of what working in the social justice field because we’re thinking about the fight. And then you go into an office and there’s a computer, and they’re like ‘please put in these five pages of data’ and you’re like ‘I thought that you were going to give me a picket sign and I was going to go out and be on the front lines.’ I see people confront that every day because we have interns, I’ve had interns, and I can see them be like ‘you want me to do data entry?’
Jordan Alam is the founder and a current editor of As[I]Am. She is a desi American and graduate of Barnard College working to better Asian American mental health care one pamphlet at a time. She is a writer, artist, activist, and knitter that keeps a blog at The Cowation. Follow her on Twitter @thecowation.