10 October 2018
At around 7:30 a.m. the day of the Sept. 11 attacks, Sayu Bhojwani left her one-bedroom apartment in Astoria, Queen to visit a nearby high school doubling as a polling site for New York’s citywide elections.
She remembers the walk there vividly. She couldn’t help it; she was excited. It would be the day she cast her very first vote.
But what Bhojwani did not know then was that 9/11 would soon come to characterize the beginning of a period in her life when her “whole world was turned upside-down.” What was particularly pivotal was what was on the ballot that day: A referendum to create a permanent office for immigrant affairs—an office she would, six months later, come to lead. She just didn’t know it then.
In the years following the 9/11 attacks, what emerged was the 51-year-old Indian-American’s heightened commitment to serving immigrant communities and to uplifting their presence in political leadership.
In fact, “symbolism” is exactly how Bhojwani described her appointment as first commissioner of the office of immigrant affairs under the Bloomberg administration. “It really made me understand the power of being in a government position,” she said. “Like, here was someone who had been an immigrant, who had been a green card holder, who hadn’t even voted since 2001, and was suddenly in this position.”
Today, her commitment to immigrant political leadership materializes in her new book, “People Like Us,” published early this month. It explains current problems with, and potential solutions for, more accessibility and representation in elected office at local and state levels. It acts as both a how-to-run book for potential candidates, as well as a critique on the systemic barriers that work against them, advocating for term limits, public financing and district elections.
Her book was written for “people who feel like they are not seen. People who feel like they’re not ready,” Bhojwani said. “I want them to see themselves in it, and I want them to see the potential that they have to lead.”
Bhojwani began writing the book in early 2016, following the lives of current and formerly elected immigrant officials in districts across the country, both in the lead up to and following their elections.
One of these candidates was Carlos Menchaca, a Mexican-American immigrant elected to the New York City council for the 38th District in Brooklyn in 2013, and again in 2017. Menchaca, who unseated an incumbent from his own party in his 2013 race, did so with the help of Bhojwani and her organization, New American Leaders (NAL), which she founded in 2010.
“One of the biggest influences that the New American Leaders has had on me is helping me realize how powerful my immigrant story is,” said Menchaca, now an NAL board member.
Through the NAL’s annual localized workshops, potential candidates like Menchaca learn about what it means to deliver a speech, make an ask, and fundraise. But its central, larger goal is also one that Bhojwani holds close to her heart: To rise up not just as immigrant leaders, but as leaders who are willing and fit to be a champion on behalf of communities, like and unlike their own.
Bhojwani first had the idea for the organization back in 2008, at a national meeting of groups discussing strategies for immigration reform. It was there that she realized that it wasn’t about field or messaging strategy that required change, it was the people they were talking to. “It was kind of as simple as that,” Bhojwani said. “It just suddenly was like, you know what? We just need to change who we’re electing.”
Sitting at the head of a conference table at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, Bhojwani speaks in a confident, firm tone. While discussing her professional life comes easy, she is more reticent about speaking of her private life. Born in India to Sindhi parents, Bhojwani’s family left for Belize when she was four years old, where she was raised before moving to the United States to attend college at the University of Miami.
Her experiences as an immigrant herself has often been the driving force behind her dedication to propelling new Americans into political leadership. But her decision to create an organization devoted to exactly that was borne out of experience at her first organization, South Asian Youth Action, which at the time offered a small youth development program.
Bhojwani’s desire for change at the systemic level, instead of merely the personal, was what motivated her to later pursue a graduate degree—or rather, three—in politics and education. “I’m an overachieving immigrant, what can I say,” Bhojwani said with a smile.
This ambition extended to her time as commissioner for the Office of Immigrant Affairs, where she served as the link between the mayor’s office and immigrant communities. Bhojwani’s role meant ensuring that the work of the Bloomberg administration was being properly communicated to immigrant communities, apparent in her contributions to a 2002 legislation that required a number of city agencies to translate their documents in a number of languages.
Under the Trump administration, the NAL has seen an 80 percent increase in their applications from 2016 to 2017. There are 54 alum running in this cycle, and 36 of them are still on the ballot in November.
One of these candidates is Catalina Cruz, the first DREAMer to be elected to New York State Assembly for Queens’ District 39, and a candidate for the November election. When running, Cruz, a Colombian immigrant, jumped at the opportunity to sign up for an NAL weekend-long course for immigrant women.
“I credit them with changing my mindset and my ability to raise the money,” Cruz said, explaining that, as an immigrant woman of color, the experience of running comes with its own unique set of struggles, like the difficulties of asking for donations.
While the NAL operates in states outside New York, including Washington, Arizona and Michigan, New York’s training is only offered to women. This is due to the huge gender gap in the 51-member city council, which currently has just 11 women serving, according to Bhojwani.
Bhojwani believes there are many benefits of running in New York City, and listed them off with ease: public financing, term limits, and single-member districts were some she listed—all discussed in depth in her latest book. But quite as easily identified were the difficulties facing candidates running in New York—even more emphasized in her book. Beyond the gender gap, a New York candidate would also first have to enter a more localized pipeline before working their way up. You can’t just start from nowhere, according to Bhojwani.
This is precisely the reason Bhojwani decided to tell Manchaca’s story: Because unseating a democratic incumbent in New York City is difficult. But Manchaca’s story also speaks to one of Bhojwani’s central beliefs: It isn’t impossible.
In fact, Bhojwani believes that people should keep running against incumbents, so much so that she advised the journalists in the room to do just that. “You should all run,” she said, grinning.