5 Questions: Parag Rajendra Khandhar
Unmargin will post short interviews with Asian American community organizers, including the advisory collective. Let's start with advisory collective member Parag Rajendra Khandhar!
1. Give us a three line bio:
I am curious about everything, inspired by the synthesis of seemingly disparate ideas and actions, love the people, and have finally started telling stories that connect the scatter plot of my journey so far. I've worked with Asian American communities in NYC and the DC Metro area, practice solidarity economies and community economic development law with my Baltimore-based firm Gilmore Khandhar LLC, and believe capitalism is way past its expiration date.
2. But where are you REALLY from? Wink wink, nudge nudge.
Most people look at me like I'm from outer space. If that's true, I'm from Planet Muppet.
It's probably because I think about things differently sometimes, like considering whether that rad shirt about Asian American "solidarity" with other communities was made by the sweatshop labor of our kin in Bangladesh or the Philippines. Or problematizing the notion that Asian American activists are being "like Yuri" or "like Grace" by reducing complex histories and intersections of racism, classism, xenophobia, hetero-patriarchy and actual moments of solidarity into soundbites about how racist Asian immigrants are.
3. How did you get involved in social justice work?
I started talking to executive board members of other student groups in college after joining the board of our year-old South Asian Student Association at the State University of New York at Albany. The notion of an "Asian American" identity was new and inviting to me and my curiosity and hunger drove me to learn more. It certainly helped that Kazim Ali and Rosa Clemente were student leaders on campus at that time. After that, I moved to NYC and learned much more from friends and comrades involved in community arts, organizing, and services while I worked in supportive roles at the Asian American Writers Workshop and Asian American Federation. I started taking a more active role after September 11th, working on direct relief services, advocacy, and coordination for Asian American communities that were affected by the tragedy. I saw deep suffering and also tremendous resiliency, but did not feel like I was making enough of a difference. The guidance of my mentor, Charlie Lai, really helped me to think about how I wanted to be in community, which eventually led me to law school in the DC area.
4. Tell us about what you do now.
After years of working as a volunteer or staff member in nonprofit intermediaries between communities and activists, organizers, direct service providers, and scholars, I decided to be more directly involved. I trained as a community lawyer, worked on language access and tenants' rights in Asian American communities in the DC Metro Area and found community economic development as an initial space to synthesize my interest in how lawyers can support community-building and self-determination. I got to support a new tenant association led by Chinese American seniors in D.C.'s Chinatown who taught me a great deal about authenticity, acceptance, and what it meant to be community-grounded. This led me to explore cooperatives, mutual aid, and ways to build truly interdependent and non-exploitative solidarity across communities.
I moved from working in Asian American communities to looking at how "solidarity economies" were being built in Baltimore and in local and regional sites across the country and the world. I started teaching in law school clinical programs, built a new law practice at the intersection of racial equity and economic justice that centers on solidarity economies strategies in Black and Brown communities with my comrade Dorcas R Gilmore, and am involved in a few other projects that focus on this goal such as Baltimore Activating Solidarity Economies (BASE), the Baltimore Roundtable for Economic Democracy (BRED), and the national Asian American Solidarity Economies Network that I co-founded with Yvonne Yen Liu of the Solidarity Research Center. Ends up that Yvonne was a volunteer at the AAWW when I was working there more than 20 year ago so I'm starting to see some convergence of my many different lives and interests.
Today, my day-to-day includes working directly with groups and communities as a lawyer and technical assistance provider integrating ancestral and new knowledge in projects as wide-ranging as Black and Brown food sovereignty, collective ownership and tenure on land, worker cooperatives, and non-extractive finance. I'm really interested in telling stories about these kinds of projects in Asian and other migrant communities and supporting them directly. I'm also thinking a lot about how to collectively weave more stories and ideas of true solidarity—which comes from knowing and loving your own people first—as a resource for the exciting but sometimes rootless wave of Asian American activists who have come out in committed support of various movements over the past 2-3 years.
Finally, I'm really excited to be part of the facilitation team for the Law and Social Change Jam, an annual gathering that builds beloved community among pretty amazing folks engaged in the law in many different ways. I'm actually in conversation with some folx about creating an API Jam, which would be truly amazing. And I'm a super-proud Dad of an almost-eight year-old, who challenges and teaches me every day he's not beating me in card games.
5. When you imagine an ideal world, what does it look like?
I have to split my answer on this.
First, this world and this present in which we are conscious is the ideal world because it is all that I will know. Every minute that I pine for something better—something more ideal—I lose time in the one I have. I just heard that the famous naturalist John Muir was fascinated by all things mechanical and man-made until he temporarily lost his eyesight for a few weeks and thought he may never again see. When he regained his vision he realized how important the natural world was to him and dedicated his life to preserving it. Each day we lose parts of an ideal world we didn't know we had, whether the old neighborhood or the old way of life or the old forest. We have to train our eyes to see what we have even as we fight for what we have lost and what we have dreamed.
However I will honor the spirit of this question, because without dreams we cannot make what we have into what we could have. In the ideal world that I imagine we recognize and see one another for all our complexity and beauty, and as interdependent cells on this living, breathing planet. Each of us is able to align and care for our own mind, body, heart, and spirit and that of others. We know the intrinsic value of life, of love, of everyone's contributions and are able to pursue what interests us without harming anyone or anything because privilege and resource hoarding have been extinguished.
Follow Parag @ParagCED