“If you don’t see the book on the shelf that you like, write it.”
This is one of Saira Rao’s guiding philosophies in life – one that has both influenced her decisions to start a media company focused on telling diverse stories, and more recently, make a bid for the congressional seat in Colorado’s 1st district.
Against the Odds: Creating an Outlet for Diverse Voices
When the mother of two, also a University of Virginia graduate and NYU Law School alumna, set out to establish a media company with friend and former executive recruiter Carey Albertine, they were told repeatedly that they didn’t understand the publishing industry, that they should intern to learn the ropes and that “white boys sell.” However, deep down, Rao knew that they were more than qualified to pave a path for themselves. She also recognized that in order to connect with a story, one needs to see him or herself in it.
“Representation matters,” she said.
And in the world of publishing children’s books, it’s clear that not all stories and authors are equitably represented.
According to a CCBC report, out of the 3,500 books received by U.S. publishers in 2017, 116 books were by African Americans, 18 by Native Americans, 256 by Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders and 108 by Latinx individuals. These numbers indicate that only 14 percent of all the books received were written by people of color, despite making up more than 35 percent of the nation’s population.
In order to bridge this gap, Rao continued on her mission, ignoring the naysayers, and finally in 2012, In This Together Media was born. Now six years later, the company boasts a rockstar list of authors—ranging from Trans teen activist Gavin Grimm to Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors—and bestselling young adult novels now in development for film adaptation.
Representation in Congress
In January 2018, Rao officially announced her candidacy for congresswoman in Colorado’s 1st district. This was also a decision influenced by the lack of representation and equity she saw in her own congressional district and all around the nation.
All nine members of Colorado’s congressional delegation are white, a fact that is simply unrepresentative of her district’s population, 30 percent of which is made up by people of color. She believes that regardless of which party they support, the experiences of people of color are important, and thus, their representation in public office is necessary.
“What I hear from people of District 1—no matter if they are Latinx or African American—is that they know I get what it is like to go through life as a woman of color, and that de facto makes me someone more representative of their experiences than someone who doesn’t have that background,” Rao said.
In fact, there has never been a woman of color in Congress who has represented the state of Colorado. For Rao, that isn’t surprising given her frustrating experiences as a woman of color in the Democratic Party and the roadblocks she faced from her own local and state party when she announced her candidacy. A democratic activist her entire life, she had a great awakening when she realized the Democratic Party’s true colors in the aftermath of the 2016 presidential election.
In a viral open letter she penned for the Huffington Post titled “I’m A Brown Woman Who’s Breaking Up With The Democratic Party,” she detailed her issues with the party, which she says wanted her time, her vote and her money, but would be silent or even hostile on issues pertaining to people of color.
“When it came time to answer questions about the Muslim ban or DACA, I got crickets,” Rao explained. “Crickets at best. I would hear ‘We’ve got bigger problems’ or ‘Civil rights are not our #1 issue.’ Neoliberal party loyalists told me to go away. I got on the ballot through both a petition and the party’s assembly process, which is a big thing, and the local party has done everything they can to blindfold me and tie both hands behind my back. The party will do whatever it can to protect the status quo.”
Given her grievances as a person of color, Rao strives to make racial equity a focal point of her own platform. She hopes that a framework of racial equity can begin to solve other problems like the American immigration system, which she contends is racist and broken. There is a cultural narrative that paints brown and black people as un-American and as people who ought to be grateful to be in this country.
However, she aims to remind people who subscribe to this narrative that everyone is an immigrant unless they belong to indigenous groups, and that African Americans were forcibly brought to the United States. To ensure racial equity, Rao believes there first needs to be a national conversation centered around truth and reconciliation. Then we need to discuss comprehensive immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship.
“I think in some ways the Dreamers and DACA issue has been very illuminating to Americans,” Rao added. “If Dreamers were white and they had a Super PAC, they wouldn’t be in this situation.”
Taking Corporate Money Out of Politics and Leading with a Bird’s-Eye View
Rao’s platform is based on two foundational concepts which influence all of her policy stances: The first is getting rid of corporate money from politics, and second is legislating from a macro-level place of equity. She believes corporate money is a huge poison that impacts both political parties and absolves politicians from being accountable to the people they represent.
While she recognizes that the formal way to get rid of corporate money for good would be to overturn the Supreme Court case Citizens United v. FEC, Rao knows it is unlikely in her lifetime or even her children’s lifetime. Instead, she thinks politicians ought to take personal responsibility and refuse corporate PAC money. She herself has led by example and not accepted a single dime from corporate PACs and has even gone on to raise more money than her incumbent.
Coming to her platform, Rao believes in taking a bird’s-eye view on issues and working to achieve social, economic and political equity. When asked about how some of these big policy ideas will be implemented, she prefers not to get too into the weeds. She believes her main goal is to unite people and agree on priorities before delving into the “how.”
“There are a million ways to skin a cat, so as a party, we have to first agree that healthcare equity or racial equity is our goal, and we will figure out how to get there,” Rao said. “Donald Trump has figured out a way to get his wall built. My company is essentially people from all different backgrounds around a table talking about how we can create the best story together, so I know we can come up with great legislation as long as we are operating from this place of equity and without corporate money in politics.”
For example, when asked about how she plans to accomplish free public college education, Rao pointed to the 1.4 trillion corporate tax bill recently passed and how student loan debt just so happens to add up to around the same amount. Just like how Congress came together and decided that they were going to give corporations a break to drive economic growth, she thinks we ought to do the same with young people who are primed to jump-start the economy. Currently, however, despite attaining a good education and job opportunities, young people out of college are burdened with mountains of debt and are struggling to achieve financial security.
“We can eliminate student loan debt,” Rao said. “We are sitting on 1.4 trillion dollars of student loan debt but we gave companies a 1.4 trillion dollar tax cut. Again, we have the money, but we don’t have our priorities in-check. The average price of a home in Denver is half a million dollars, so how are young people going to afford that? We are not just stopping wealth creation. We are enabling cycles of poverty.”
What has been your favorite and least favorite part of your campaign?
Favorite: Meeting and listening to thousands of people all over District 1. Truly truly amazing.
Least favorite: The amount of money I’ve had to raise and the amount of time I’ve spent to raise money. I wouldn’t have a chance if I wasn’t raising money. I spend tons and tons of time on the phone and writing emails But all of that pales in comparison to meeting people. Hearing what matters to them and their pain points and seeing that I can actually give them a voice and a seat at the table makes everything worth it.
If you could come up with a Saira Rao special menu featuring food from favorite places in your district, what would be on it for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?
Saira Rao Special Menu
Breakfast: Santiago’s breakfast burrito
Lunch: Chicken vindaloo bowl from Biju’s Curry Shop
Who is one Brown Girl/woman who you’d like to appreciate?
I have an idol, Niti Pawar. She is the founder of the South Asian Bar Association in Colorado, and I have truly never seen someone practice what they preach like she does. She takes her privilege and power and advocates for communities of color. She is a mentor to young attorneys and attorneys of color. Everything she does is magic.
Every year on August 5th, the Sikh American community remembers one of our community’s most devastating tragedies in recent memory — the Oak Creek massacre. On this day in 2012, a white supremacist gunman entered the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin, a gurdwara (Sikh house of worship) in Oak Creek, Wisconsin where he shot and killed six worshippers and severely injured others. This violent attack was the deadliest mass shooting targeting Sikh Americans in U.S. history, and at the time, was one of the worst attacks on a U.S. house of worship in decades. Six worshippers — Paramjit Kaur Saini, Sita Singh, Ranjit Singh, Prakash Singh, Suveg Singh Khattra, and Satwant Singh Kaleka — were killed on that horrific day. An additional community member, Baba Punjab Singh, was severely paralyzed and ultimately passed away from complications related to his injuries in 2020. Others, including Bhai Santokh Singh and responding police officer and hero, Lt. Brian Murphy, were seriously wounded during the shooting.
In 2022, the community came together to demonstrate that we are undaunted. My organization, the Sikh American Legal Defense and Education Fund (SALDEF) joined in supporting the anniversary observance at Oak Creek: a remembrance eventcentered around the theme of “Heal, Unite, Act.” The Oak Creek Sikh community hosted a series of in-person events, including the 10th Annual Oak Creek Sikh Memorial Anniversary Candlelight Remembrance Vigil on Friday, August 5, 2022. The program included a representative from the White House, Wisconsin Governor Tony Evers, Oak Creek Mayor Dan Bukiewicz, and representatives of the families who lost loved ones. Being there in Oak Creek 10 years after the tragedy was deeply meaningful — both to see the inspiring resilience of this community and to remember how much remains to be done.
In D.C., SALDEF continues to fight for policies that improve the lives of Sikh Americans. I had the honor of chairing the most recent iteration of the Faith-Based Security Advisory Council at the Department of Homeland Security, providing recommendations at the request of Secretary Alejandro N. Mayorkas. Consequently, the three subcommittees published a report that emphasized the importance of greater accessibility, greater equity, and greater transparency in counterterrorism efforts that for too long revolved around surveilling populations like the one that was senselessly attacked at the Oak Creek gurdwara in 2012. Leading the FBSAC as a Sikh woman, and representing a community that was highly targeted alongside Muslims by both white supremacists and in post-9/11 counterterrorism profiling, was an opportunity to push the Council to advocate more fiercely for further information-sharing between communities and law enforcement, extending grant opportunities for security for Gurdwaras and other houses of worship, and building trust between the government and Sikh communities. In addition, I advocated for accountability for the damage needlessly caused to Muslim, Arab, South Asian, and Hindu (MASSAH) communities by federal agencies historically pursuing “counterterrorism” objectives which has resulted in eroded trust rather than the development of strong partnerships.
Although we have made great strides in this country, there is still more to do. Through our work we have partnered with many across the nation to come together and find solutions through tenets central to Sikhism and America — unity, love, and equality.SALDEF continues to strongly endorse the policy framework articulated across the Domestic Terrorism Prevention Act (H.R. 350 / S. 963); Justice for Victims of Hate Crimes Act; and the Nonprofit Security Grant Program (NSGP) Improvement Act (H.R. 6825). We believe strongly in mandating federal agencies to create dedicated offices to investigate domestic terrorism; allowing prosecutors to feasibly indict perpetrators of hate crimes; and allowing religious nonprofits to access federal funding to enhance their own security.
While 11 years have passed, the effects of the Oak Creek shooting are never far from the minds of Sikh American advocates and the community we serve. SALDEF will not stop taking a stand against senseless violence and hate crimes. We continue to work in unity with our community and movement partners, and fight for better policies that will actively keep all of our communities safe. Through tragedy, we find hope. We know there can be a world where people from all backgrounds and cultures can practice their faith freely and, even though it has eluded the Sikh American community in the past, we still believe this world is possible.
Photo Courtesy of Amrita Kular
The following open letter is written by Hindus for Human Rights, an organization advocating for pluralism, civil and human rights in South Asia and North America, rooted in the values of Hindu faith: shanti (peace), nyaya (justice) and satya (truth). They provide a Hindu voice of resistance to caste, Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), racism, and all forms of bigotry and oppression.
Dear President Biden,
As Indian-Americans, human rights organizations, and concerned allies, we are writing to urge you to engage publicly and meaningfully to push back against the Indian government’s escalating attacks on human rights and democracy, especially ahead of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s state visit to the United States.
Despite objective evidence that India’s democracy is under critical attack, you have not spoken out about this crisis. In early 2023, Indian authorities conducted retaliatory raids on the BBC’s Delhi and Mumbai offices for releasing a documentary about Prime Minister Modi. The week before the Summit for Democracy, the Indian government made three successive attacks on Indian democracy. First, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party expelled Rahul Gandhi from Parliament. Second, the Indian government shut the internet down in Punjab, severely impacting the rights for Sikhs to peacefully organize and protest. And third, the Indian Supreme Court ruled that Indians can be found guilty by association for terrorism. And yet, not one representative from the Biden Administration said anything about even one of these developments. Instead, while Islamophobic violence gripped India in late March, you invited Prime Minister Modi to speak at the Summit for Democracy. Mr. Modi visits DC at a time when the state of Manipur has experienced heavy communal and anti-Christian violence after Modi’s ruling party pushed an initiative to undermine Indigenous rights in the state.
“As privileged members of the diaspora, it’s our duty to challenge the repressive practices of the current regime in India. We stand in solidarity with those … opposed to the government’s attempt to reshape the country into a Hindu nationalist state. https://t.co/RxU9wUy2Zy
Even when confronted with questions by Indian reporters about human rights in India, your administration has only had private two-way conversations about how both of our governments can always improve. Quite frankly, we find it unacceptable to see such equivocation on Indian democracy from an administration that has been strident in its defense of American democracy and the rule of law.
India is one of the fastest autocratizing nations in the world, mostly thanks to the current government. Freedom House has rated India as a “partly-free” country for the past three years, and has blamed Prime Minister Modi’s government for a rise in discriminatory policies, including persecution against Muslims and caste-based violence against Dalit and Adivasi communities; harassment of civil society, protestors, academia and the media, and the targeting of political opponents. It has also rated Indian-administered Kashmir as “not free,” citing violations of human, civil, and political rights after the Modi government revoked the territory’s autonomous status. In Reporters Without Borders‘ press freedom ranking, India has dropped to 161 out of 180 countries in 2023. India has appeared in the Committee to Protect Journalists’ Impunity Index — which examines accountability for unsolved journalists’ murders — every year for the past 15 years and currently ranks in 11th place worldwide. According to PEN America’s Freedom to Write Index, in 2022, India was one of the top 10 countries that jailed writers globally. The Varieties of Democracy Institute characterizes India as an “electoral autocracy” and blames India’s descent into autocracy on Prime Minister Modi. And the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has said India has been one of the top 15 countries at risk for a mass atrocity event every year since 2017, which reflects the toxicity of Indian politics under Modi.
“If the President meets with PM Modi, then the protection of the Muslim minority in a majority Hindu India is something worth mentioning…if you do not protect the rights of ethnic minorities, there’s a strong possibility India starts pulling apart.” Thank you @BarackObama! https://t.co/RhcMNfiqaR
Given the magnitude of this crisis, we ask you to engage directly with Indian-American and human rights civil society leaders to explore solutions to address India’s human rights crisis. We also ask you to employ the tools at your disposal to ensure that the Indian government cannot attack Indians’ human rights with impunity. As the 2022 Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor report details, several government individuals have committed human rights violations that, under U.S. law, would qualify them to be sanctioned under the Global Magnitsky Act. Indian security forces that have engaged in human rights violations should have security assistance rescinded, under the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961.
Finally, we urge you to publicly call on the Indian government to honor its commitments to human rights, including calling on Prime Minister Modi and his cabinet to halt the use of anti-terror laws to arbitrarily detain political critics. You can publicly denounce the rising numbers of political prisoners and the weaponization of the rule of law in India to shut down criticism. Even if you are not willing to personally criticize the Prime Minister, you have ample opportunity to criticize the Indian government’s misuse of public trust and public institutions to consolidate power and undermine the will of the Indian people.
This morning in DC, on the lawn of The White House at the welcome reception for Modi.
As President of the United States of America, you hold a unique position to lead the fight against authoritarianism. Prime Minister Modi will listen to you when you speak. But he and his allies will only change if you take a stand publicly. We urge you to listen to those of us who care about India and ensure that one man cannot steal the futures and the rights of our loved ones in India.
— Signed by countless organizations and individuals leading the charge (linked here).