Indians in B-N: Eager for more representation, and not just at City Hall
Presidential administrations are no stranger to crises. And these past 14 months have produced plenty for the Biden administration – from COVID variants to inflation to war in Ukraine.
What’s unique to the Biden administration is who’s on the front lines of its response: Indian Americans. Early in his administration, Biden had appointed 55 Indian Americans to key leadership positions, such as the speechwriting chief Vinay Reddy and two-time Surgeon General Vivek Murthy. Vice President Kamala Harris’ mother was an Indian scientist who immigrated to the U.S.
“It’s amazing. Indian — of descent — Americans are taking over the country: you, my vice president, my speechwriter, Vinay … You guys are incredible,” Biden said last year while speaking with an Indian-origin scientist working on a NASA Mars mission.
A bit of hyperbole, perhaps, from a president prone to it. But it’s an affirmation of the growing influence of the Indian American diaspora and what it feels like when a government and other powerful institutions start to look more like the people they represent.
As shown in WGLT’s weeklong series, Indians have already shaped in Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways. There were around 5,300 Asian Indians in McLean County as of 2020 – more than any other downstate metro area in Illinois and one of the county’s largest minority groups.
While that has manifested into extensive community service work, many people interviewed by WGLT say they’re eager for Indians to take the next step in representation – serving in elected positions – and are hopeful that historic barriers to those opportunities can be overcome.
“I feel like it’s just a matter of time,” said Jay Tummala, a Normal Planning Commissioner.
It’s not just a Bloomington-Normal dynamic. South Asians (a group that includes Indians but also Pakistanis and many other groups) account for some of the highest income and highest educated ethnic groups in the country, but they are among the least represented in participatory democracy, according to the Chicago-based South Asian American Policy & Research Institute (SAAPRI). The group calls it an anomaly.
There are myriad reasons why.
Many Indians come to Bloomington-Normal on a work visa, and their immigration status can be a barrier. Civic and political engagement among Indians varies considerably by one’s citizenship status, according to a 2021 study from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. U.S.-born citizens report the highest levels of civic and political engagement, followed by foreign-born U.S. citizens, with non-citizens trailing behind.
“To be invested in the government is not something you do as a foreign worker,” said Mukta Pradhan of Bloomington, a paraprofessional who works with special needs children. “You go, you work, you do your job, come home—that is what you do. Your work visa is not going to allow you to do a lot of things. You may want to get involved. You may want to do a protest or march in a parade, and maybe you can do that if you’re inclined. But usually, the thinking is, my government is elsewhere. I have a different passport.”
And the same economic forces that brought many Indians to Bloomington-Normal occasionally swing back the other direction, as seen most recently with State Farm’s outmigration of jobs to regional hubs elsewhere in the U.S. The Indian population here declined by 12% between 2018 and 2020, Census data show. The longer you stay in a place, the more likely you are to serve it.
“We lost a good number of volunteers,” said Tummala. “The biggest thing, though, is the immigration system. It’s such a broken system, unfortunately. If someone feels like they’re stagnated and they’re not moving and they want to try with a different employer, they’re going to move on. They won’t live here.”
The recent political climate – including a rise of anti-immigrant sentiment surrounding the Trump administration – certainly hasn’t helped.
Archana Shekara is an ISU professor who’s also served on the steering committee for the anti-racist Not In Our Town organization. She recalled an event she organized in Bloomington in 2017 on behalf of Not In Our Town, in response to the racially motivated killing of an Indian, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, in Kansas.
About 150 people attended, she said, but only a dozen or so Indians.
“Because they were afraid,” Shekara said. “People are seriously afraid to speak up, because they are like, Oh, maybe I’m being noticed or people will judge me if I say something, or my workplace will do something if I say something wrong. That fear is one of the things that (causes) people to want to be in that bubble.”
Ravi Duvvuri grew up in Bloomington-Normal, and he thinks he’s one of the few Indian kids from the 1980s who’s still here.
The Indian community was small back then. He remembers being bullied and even facing physical violence for the color of his skin.
“I was beaten up on occasionally for being ‘Arab,’ or ‘Libyan,’ or some generic form of terrorist during the height of the 1980s,” Duvvuri said. “It was hard not to be aware of the political zeitgeist and how certain groups of people were being othered or perceived as the enemies, even if we were just as American and doing the same things and loved the same TV shows and cartoons and toys as everybody else.”
Duvvuri said the aftermath of the 9/11 terror attacks—and the subsequent discrimination—opened the door for him to get more civically and politically engaged.
First, he started speaking up more online, then did some volunteer work. Today, he’s on the steering committee for the local chapter of the ACLU and serves on the Bloomington Technology Commission, where he recently helped shape public discourse around a police department push to buy new license-plate reading cameras.
Now 45, Duvvuri said he’s been approached about running for office, but a combination on factors have given him pause. He has a young son, so he’s busy. The political climate is another concern.
“When you are in a minority group, it’s hard to know what you’re going to face. … I’ve had people threaten me physically for things I’ve said on social media,” Duvvuri said. “So the thought of putting yourself out there to run for public office, it’s frightening. It’s daunting. It’s intimidating. I can see why a lot of people wouldn’t want to do that.”
The Indian community in Bloomington-Normal is so big now that it’s not a monolith, Duvvuri said. There’s no single driver that could push more Indians to run for office.
“There’s definitely room for opportunity. This is something the community needs to look into,” he said.
Building the pipeline
Phani Aytam of Bloomington said many groups – not just Indians – struggle to build that pipeline of future community leaders.
“Imagine yourself being an immigrant coming to McLean County in the early 2000s and you want to get involved. How do you get involved? Your parents haven’t taught you how to do that. The people around you haven’t taught you that. Who do you reach out to?” Aytam said. “I don’t think we’ve made it easy to navigate that path.”
Aytam has done something about it. He founded the Multicultural Leadership Program, which is now in its 13th year. Tummala, the Normal Planning Commissioner, is a graduate of MCLP.
A separate program, called Leadership McLean County, attracted the attention of Mustafa Jawadwala of Bloomington. He’s part of the LMC Class of 2022. And he’s already got the track record. When he was in school, he loved organizing blood donation drives. At his former employer, he was the lead person for corporate social responsibility.
Now, he’s raising two kids, ages 8 and 3, who were born here. Life is busy.
“That initial phase when I came here (to Bloomington) was a little busy, trying to accommodate, integrate,” Jawadwala said. “But I hope to take that next step, time and opportunities permitting.”
Across the U.S., Indians’ social communities are heavily populated by other people of Indian origin, according to that 2021 Carnegie study. Indian Americans—especially members of the first generation—tend to socialize with other Indian Americans, the survey found. That’s a dynamic seen in many immigrant communities, not just Indians.
For some, like Jay Tummala, that community led to leadership opportunities (including the McLean County India Association, or MCIA) that spilled outward. He helped bring dental care to the free Community Health Care Clinic. He volunteered with the Ecology Action Center. He served with the Minority and Police Partnership.
Some interviewed by WGLT say they worry that the Indian community—while big and diverse—is perceived as a bubble by everyone else. That Indians “keep to themselves.” Others interviewed by WGLT dispute the characterization of a bubble or describe it differently.
“The bubble is a safety net. That bubble is what creates belonging. That bubble is what has given the Indian community the power to be who they are, to live their life in a certain way, to keep whatever culture it is they follow,” said Archana Shekara, the ISU professor and a former MCIA president. “So I understand the bubble. But the disadvantage is representation. Because we’re so comfortable in our bubble, we don’t go out and participate in community events or things like that.”
One way this has played out is with cricket, a sport popular with many Indians.
Cricket players in Bloomington-Normal have lobbied their elected leaders and government staff to help them identity a place they can use for cricket full time. They say the fields they use are too small or not level. One has a large ditch in the middle. The fields are so small they have to play with a tennis ball because it’s softer and won’t travel as far.
Risik Rangineni gets up before sunrise nearly every weekend during the spring and summer to drive to Peoria, Chicago, Springfield, St. Louis, or other cities to play in cricket games and tournaments. He thinks there would be great economic benefit for Bloomington-Normal to host those events.
“There’s lot of food, Gatorade, drinks and everything we spend in a different city, we could spend here and the teams that are visiting and revisiting all the time and get business for the city,” Rangineni said, adding that players often travel with their families to these tournaments.
Rangineni and other cricket players have tried to convince the two communities to help them secure four to five acres that they could use as a dedicated space for games and tournaments.
Rangineni said cricket players would fundraise to cover a portion of the costs for a dedicated field, but their requests have gone nowhere.
“I don’t know if I can say this but (it’s) probably politics, because we mostly are immigrants. We do not have any voting rights,” he said. “That is one of the concerns. We are always a moving population like every two or three years if State Farm says we need newer employees, so this person moves out.”
Shekara said, as immigrants, “sometimes we feel invisible.”
“But then we’re noticed whenever there’s a need. When opportunity arises, we are noticed. Sometimes we fill the diversity quota. Or sometimes we feel like we are tokenized. But how do we create that inclusiveness within the community and feel like, yes, we’re a part of it? Not many people feel that,” she said. “People call and ask, Can you serve on this or that? I think we’ve seen that happen, for a select few, who want to be part of the community.
“I really want to fill these gaps that we have. And it’s not going to be a beautiful line we’re going to draw. It’s gonna be messy, but that’s OK. At least we have a dialogue.”
"I understand the bubble. But the disadvantage is representation."Archana Shekara, community leader
Others are empowered by smaller moments.
Mukta Pradhan, the Unit 5 paraprofessional, recalls asking then-Bloomington Mayor Tari Renner a few years ago why there wasn’t a traffic light at a dangerous blind intersection near her home, at Streid Drive at Ireland Grove Road.
“And lo and behold, 2-3 months later, there’s a traffic light there. I thought, ‘Whoa, this really works,’” Pradhan said. “That’s when you start to get involved in things.”
This push for representation doesn’t just play out in city halls and school boards.
Kim Pereira is a retired ISU theatre professor who’s lived in Bloomington-Normal for 32 years. He was the only person of color in his department at ISU for about a decade. Pereira, who wrote his dissertation on the works of Black playwright August Wilson, said he constantly met resistance as he fought for more diversity in the authorship and production of what was on stage at ISU.
“I once proposed an entire slate of plays that were non-white plays for the whole season. You would have thought I had bombed the place just for doing that. It was unbelievable,” Pereira said of the reaction he received. “Now they tend to do a little more, but it’s not enough.”
Pereira said change is slow. Bloomington-Normal is now a different place than it was three decades ago when he came to town, he said.
“You bring what you are to the place. America changes you, and you change America. At least the little corner you’re in,” said Pereira.
ABOUT THE SERIES
Why we did it
Bloomington-Normal has more Asian Indians than any other downstate metro community in Illinois. First-generation Indian immigrants and their children have shaped Bloomington-Normal in big and small ways, and that's worthy of attention. WGLT's Newsroom aimed to measure that impact in an 8-part series of human-centered stories.
How we did it
Bloomington-Normal’s Indian community is not a monolith — socioeconomically, politically, culturally — and this series aims to reflect that. The WGLT Newsroom interviewed over 30 people from various backgrounds. We acknowledge these sources do not represent every Indian in Bloomington-Normal. They represent themselves, and we appreciate their willingness to share their story.
We want to know what you think of the series, and what future reporting we should consider. You can send our Newsroom a message at WGLT.org/Contact.