Democracy Diva Takes Aim

Democracy Diva Takes Aim

Sayu Bhojwani’s not having it. Polls, pundits and pols be damned!

Unmoved by data showing Joe Biden with commanding leads over the incumbent, Bhojwani holds tight to more reliable barometers. No matter how low Donald Trump’s approval ratings sink, she thinks it’s detrimental to conclude he’ll go down in wholesale voter rejection.

“I don’t think we can assume that widespread dissatisfaction with Trump will translate into his election defeat,” says Bhojwani who calls the 45th president “the biggest modern threat to our democracy.” 

Bhojwani, part ‘boss lady’ and part democracy diva, minces few words. She holds forth with expansive absolutes, insisting that actions speak loudest, and the most profound outcomes must be scored before Election Day. 

Sober about the prospects of voter suppression and other dirty tricks, she is fighting back with a trifecta of targets: training new candidates, stoking new donors and activating new voters.  

“We are facing a monumental challenge to our future on so many levels,” warns Bhojwani. “The solution is to expand the electorate. Otherwise it will be infinitely harder and much more harmful for new voices to be heard.”

New is the operative word for Bhojwani, founder and president of New American Leaders (NAL), an organization dedicated to tapping recently-minted American citizens. Her base is disproportionately women, moms and activist-types who hail from the “Global South” including Latin America, Asia and Africa. 

Bhojwani spells democratic with a small “d” and wraps it around inclusion that breaks down anti-immigrant walls rooted in racism, xenophobia, and islamophobia. She argues for vigilance and activism to thwart shrinking players in our democracy. “Participation is at greater risk when people are also juggling bread and butter issues. This COVID pandemic has played into the hand of Trump and White supremacy.”

Like most organizations that thrive on public engagement, COVID-19 has forced much of NAL’s work online. This includes “boot camps” on electioneering, campaign management, policy platforms and leadership development – trainings designed by and for immigrant activists who aspire to hold office or run political campaigns. 

Bhojwani, concentrating on “down ballot” local and state races, got her start in New York City running the inaugural city office of Immigrant Affairs in 2002. The series of failed congressional immigration reform measures was Bhojwani’s springboard to NAL. 

“By 2008 it was clear that to have the right policies you needed the right people at the table to assess, not what we did wrong, but what we needed to do right.”  

If the congressional fits and starts were an igniter for action, the Arizona “Show Me Your Papers” law in 2010 sealed the deal.  Raids, roundups and border atrocities have hastened the importance of NAL’s work to ensure advocates for immigrants hold seats of power. 

Systemic change is protractive, with success and setbacks along the way, reflects Bhojwani. Since it’s launching, NAL credits its programs for training 1,000 fellows, securing 41 officeholders and enlisting scores of candidates who have taken on incumbents, sometimes losing with razor-thin margins, then returning to claim victories. 

Articulating the aspirations of immigrant and migrant people is a job I’ve trained for all my life,” says Bhojwani. “It’s my lived experience.” 

Born in India and raised in Belize, she gained an appreciation of what diversity looks like from that Central American country inhabited by a vast rainbow from Mayan, Caribbean, African, Indigenous and Mestizo heritages. 

“The immigrant experience was not strange. I was just one of many Brown kids, not visibly different from others with different ethnic and racial backgrounds.”