South Asians are helping build Chicago’s progressive movement 

Somebody organized Mueze Bawany’s mom. He doesn’t know who it was — maybe Matt Ginsberg-Jaeckle, a longtime community organizer who had been trying to convince Bawany to run for alderperson of the 50th Ward. 

Bawany and his family immigrated to Chicago’s West Ridge neighborhood from Pakistan when he was three years old. He’s a high school teacher, community organizer, and member of the Chicago Teachers Union. He’s also someone who wasn’t interested in running for alderperson. He prefers being under the radar. So Ginsberg-Jaeckle brought in some help to try to convince Bawany. 

“My friend Nash texted me and I was like, ‘Why are you trying to ruin my life?’ I’ll frame that text if we win, InSha’Allah, on the wall,” Bawany said.  “But once my mom found out, it was game over.”

Bawany’s mom didn’t necessarily know what the role of alderperson entailed, but after he explained to her she was proud that someone was asking her son to do something.“For people who felt really small in this city and in this community and in this country, for them to know that their kids and their grandkids are loved and supported and appreciated, it means the world to them,” he said. 

50th Ward aldermanic candidate Mueze Bawany Ankur Singh

The election will be “a referendum on how we trust the public sector and how we reinvest in and rebuild it after the pandemic,” Dasgupta said. “This is an opportunity  . . . I can literally imagine the way that we will work together in the council.”

Over a cup of chai at Spinzer, a Pakistani fast-food restaurant on Devon, Bawany said the city’s budget reflects “a lack of moral imagination. So for me personally it doesn’t stop me from imagining what can happen.” 

If elected, Bawany would be the first South Asian alderperson to represent West Ridge, a neighborhood with a large population of immigrants from countries such as India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Afghanistan, Bhutan, and more. 

Bawany’s love for his community is evident the moment you meet him. He arrived at our interview at Spinzer a little bit late. He was helping a neighbor who had just been hit by a car while riding their bike. As he walked in, he ran into an old childhood friend who immediately began making jokes about the campaign. “I love this place because the characters always crack me up,” he said.

Another restaurant he recommends is Pak Sweets, across the street from Spinzer. “The owner there is one of the most ridiculous human beings. Hilarious.” He also loves Anmol, partly because it’s on the non-busy side of Devon and it’s easy to find parking. House of Biryani is also a favorite.

And then he threw a curveball: he loves Levinson’s Bakery, which is located right next to Anmol. “Everybody jokes that this is the future liberals want,” he said.”It’s like, man, you got the Jewish bakery and then some Desi folks making really good meals side by side.”

According to Bawany, regardless of whatever geopolitical tensions might be happening between the various countries whose food can be found on Devon, “we’re all family here.” 

Over a veg thali at Ghareeb Nawaz, Dasgupta said that building solidarity and diverse coalitions has long been a big part of South Asian history and culture. 

Dasgupta’s mother was Catholic, and her father was a Hindu communist who protested the Vietnam war as a student. She recalls growing up with images of Hindu warrior goddesses and how it informs her idea of motherhood. “Being a mother is not being a mom,” she said. “It’s not just about stewarding your own children but stewarding the children of your community. That to me is tied up in the idea of motherhood because I learned that from my own mother who learned it in a communal culture that was one generation off the farm.”

Bawany echoed that sentiment. “I think what the Sikh community, the Muslim community, the Hindu community, there’s so much in our faith-based traditions about service, right?” he said. “Understanding the importance of feeding people, of sheltering people . . . we can fundraise a lot, but imagine wielding the budget of the city of Chicago to address inequity.”

When she first started working as an organizer in Chicago, Patel didn’t see many other South Asians in the progressive movement. She worked for many years as a union organizer with SEIU Local 73 and then later became executive director of Grassroots Collaborative, a coalition of unions and community groups focused on economic and environmental justice.

According to Patel, whose mother was a factory worker in the Chicago suburbs, what feels different now is that many South Asian organizers and activists are rooted in multiracial, working-class communities.

“Any visible South Asians are often positioned as model minorities . . . the reality is there’s a lot of working-class South Asians; they’re just not who people know,” she said. “How do people who come from our communities play a leadership role that not only represents our communities but also does it in a way that has very clear values? It’s definitely exciting with Denali and Mueze to see the possibility of that in their beliefs, their platform, their orientation. Because I think that there’s just tremendous power in building an Asian, Black, Latine, white coalition that is rooted in that context.”

Building solidarity both within and outside the South Asian community is central to the mission of Chicago Desi Youth Rising (CDYR), a collective that works to educate and organize young South Asians across the Chicagoland area in an effort to have youth leadership at the center of larger fights for social, economic, and racial justice in Chicago. 

The group organizes an annual summer leadership retreat where young people examine their own diverse identities and cultural history in conversations that span caste, class, communalism, religion, and hypernationalism within the South Asian diaspora. 

“There are so many ways in which we can understand our connections to other communities by understanding our own experiences,” said Himabindu Poroori, a member of CDYR. 

During the summer of 2020, CDYR members participated in many solidarity actions with the prison and police abolition movement. They organized a virtual workshop with uncles and aunties on anti-Blackness in the South Asian community where they also discussed their own experiences with police. The group also worked with many community organizations on a campaign to get police officers out of Chicago Public Schools (CPS). That same summer they held an event with Pilsen Alliance outside the southwest-side home of Sendhil Revoluri, a member of the CPS board, calling on him to vote to remove police officers from CPS. The festive event featured food, music, and dance. 

“Taking time to cultivate solidarity is very important,” Poroori said.

Both Bawany and Dasgupta draw upon personal experiences that inform both how they connect with the diverse peoples in their communities as well as their policy platforms.

Bawany was six years old the first time his family was evicted from their apartment. The family came home to find all their belongings sprawled out on the lawn. 

“My first reaction was, ‘Are my parents reorganizing?’ My second reaction was this elation that maybe we’re tossing all the shit out and getting new furniture,” Bawany said. 

He then began going through the piles of stuff and pulling out his stuffed animals and other things that he loved.  

“I was like, I don’t want mom throwing this out . . . And then my brother was like, ‘Put it on the ground, it’s not going anywhere.’ I’m like, ‘Where’s it going?’ My brother says ‘Wherever we’re going.’ And I understood,” Bawany recalled.

His family was evicted two more times throughout his childhood. After the third time, Bawany’s two older brothers started working to help the family make ends meet. One brother began selling shirts on the south side. The other was working in IT while their mother sold samosas and pursued catering gigs and their father worked as a taxi driver. 

Years later when Bawany became a teacher in Humboldt Park he had many students who were going through similar struggles with housing instability. 

“I had students who would open up about being unhoused as a means of saying, you know, please cut me some slack,” Bawany said. “‘I know you keep yelling at me, about homework, homework, homework, homework, homework, and all these things, but can I tell you about my living situation?’ And that stuff used to crush me.”

If elected, he says he’ll fight for more affordable housing in the 50th Ward. He also plans to make ward democracy a big priority with initiatives like participatory budgeting, creating a youth council, providing ward services, and translating all materials into the forty-plus languages that are spoken in West Ridge. He hopes to do listening tours of the neighborhood by connecting with schools, religious groups, and local business owners to learn more about what their needs are and how the aldermanic office can support them.

“The story of my father and my mother and their struggles in the ward exists all throughout this neighborhood,” he said.

Dasgupta also wants more affordable housing in her neighborhood. She also supports Treatment Not Trauma, a campaign that would redirect 911 calls for mental health crises from police responders and instead send teams of social workers and paramedics. 

Her support for this comes in part from her own experience with trauma as a survivor of gun violence. 

In 1986 Pan American Flight 73 left from Mumbai to New York with a layover in Karachi. When the flight landed in Karachi it was immediately hijacked by four armed Palestinian men who had dressed as Pakistani security personnel. The men were members of the Abu Nidal Organisation, a militant group that was fighting for the liberation of Palestine from the Israeli occupation.

Members of the cabin crew were able to warn the airplane’s pilots of the hijacking, who then escaped and left the plane grounded. The hijacking, which lasted nearly 16 hours, ended with a mass shooting that killed about 20 people and injured over 100.

Dasgupta and her family were on that plane and were taken hostage. She was three years old. 

“We survived and we came home and we just pretended like nothing happened,” she said. “That was the advice my parents were given. And having grown up to be somebody who studies Child Development Studies, Child Trauma, themes about developmental arcs—it’s utterly wild to me.

“My mom thinks about it all the time. She’s like, ‘I can’t believe that I listened to that.’ But it just felt easier to move forward,” Dasgupta continued.

When her middle son was three years old Dasgupta says she was horrified because she got to see as an adult where he was at developmentally. 

“It feels profoundly unfair that some people get left behind. Because there were moments where that was us,” Dasgupta said. “A trauma to your community, a trauma to your family — it happens to a whole system . . . . We were just really struggling and we didn’t know how to ask for help. And we didn’t know that we needed help. And we didn’t know what we needed. And it was infused into every way that we related to each other and related to the world. That’s what happens.” 

According to Dasgupta, this experience has profoundly shaped how she approaches public safety. She often works with violence interrupters throughout Chicago and is able to easily build rapport with them, even though her experience is very different.

“So when someone comes in and says we’re gonna spray paint your catalytic converter and everything’s gonna be fine—it’s like ‘no,’” Dasgupta said.

According to Pawar, today there is more of a space for the South Asian experience than there ever had been. “It feels less lonely. When you’re the first it’s always that way,” he said.

Patel recalled being a young South Asian organizer in Chicago nearly 30 years ago and having a lot of insecurity about where she fit in the progressive movement, despite coming from a working-class family. “With time that really shifted,” she said. “I just got more grounded and more connected and confident and secure in who I am and the values that I have and the work and the role that I was playing in the movements.”

For Bawany, feeling grounded happens when he speaks with uncles, aunties, and youth in the neighborhood who support his campaign.

“Yesterday I met with a bunch of youth at Centro Romero, and you can picture how much winning this will change their lives,” he said.

One youth who Bawany has already made an impression upon is Dasgupta’s own son.

“My son had a Mueze button on his backpack before he had a Denali For 39th button on,” Dasgupta said with a laugh. “Mueze is their favorite.”

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