December 2021 — Sayali Amarapurkar has called Minnesota home for the last 22 years. Over this period, she has seen the state’s South Asian community double. Until recently, however, the support systems available to these families had not kept pace with that growth.
“When we say South Asian, we’re referring to families who have origin in any of many countries: India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Tibet and more,” Amarapurkar explained. “That’s a big spectrum already, but made even more diverse when you consider that some are immigrating to secure high-paying jobs – while others come as refugees.”
While different from one another, however, all these Minnesota communities are bound by many cultural norms and by certain unmet or under-met needs. Amarapurkar came to this realization over time, but points to 2014 as a watershed moment.
“I had a PhD in Family Social Science and a position at the University of Minnesota, where my research interests were always around ethnically diverse families,” she explained. “When my kids were little, though, I scaled back at the university and instead volunteered for a few nonprofits.”
She found precious few embedded in – or even particularly well suited to understand – the South Asian community. In partnership with friend and fellow Edina resident Kamala Puram, “We started our very [own] organization, devoted to research, programming and other education for the South Asian community.” AshaUSA, which takes its name from the Hindi word for hope, is going strong to this day.
Among recent achievements, Amarapurkar is particularly proud of AshaUSA’s well-received Breaking the Silence program series. “Within the Indian and other South Asian communities, there are many taboo topics that really should be talked [about and] better understood … everything from autism, to infertility, pregnancy loss, depression and anxiety.” Launched in 2020, Breaking the Silence hosts monthly candid, expert-led talks aimed at dispelling stigmas.
“With the pandemic what it is, talks are held online … This has actually contributed to the quite good response so far, because people can watch programs later on YouTube.”
COVID-19 likewise reshaped a second AshaUSA program, titled Under the Banyan Tree.
“In India, villages have large banyans at their center. People build platforms around them, and it serves as the meeting place for the whole community,” Amarapurkar explained. “It’s literally their social media platform.”
In that same spirit, Amarapurkar, Puram and their colleagues wanted AshaUSA to provide South Asians in Minnesota “with our own storytelling platform, to share a bit about their immigration story or what it means to them to be here.”
While this crowdsourced program first found its footing in 2018, the pandemic gave it new life. In 2021, Under the Banyan Tree has encouraged the sharing of personal stories and pictures around the themes of resiliency and hope, particularly as they relate to life in Minnesota during these unprecedented times. Features can be read on AshaUSA’s website.
COVID-19 also strengthened AshaUSA’s – and in particular, Amarapurkar’ s – relationship with the statewide India Association of Minnesota.
“IAM exists to represent and share Indian heritage and diaspora in Minnesota, and is the oldest and largest cultural organization of this kind,” she shared. “They’ve done much in [response] to the last two years, including fundraising and relief work in both India and Minnesota.”
Amarapurkar joined the association’s board of directors last year, citing their promising racial justice work as a second chief attraction of the post. “Within a week of George Floyd’s murder, IAM held silent vigils at the site, and began working on things like panel discussions,” she said.
As she grew her role within IAM, the Edina leader took on a shaping role with this new programming – which she describes as sensitive, but much needed within the South Asian community. “Asian communities are in general white-adjacent, in that we identify with the white point of view and share many of the privileges that white people enjoy. It is polarizing. Not everyone wants to talk about it.”
In order to facilitate those hard discussions, Amarapurkar and her peers created a coalition called South Asians Against Racial Injustice (SAARI). Their recent talks have included a primer on Black Lives Matter allyship, celebration of Juneteenth, and discussion around the similarities and differences between systemic racism in the United States and casteism in India. Amarapurkar herself co-presented a series aimed at youth and caregivers: “using age-appropriate strategies to help parents and kids move beyond a frozen space of inaction around racism,” according to IAM’s website.
This is a space that Amarapurkar knows firsthand. She is the mother of two Edina High School graduates and has served for the past four years as the official South Asian cultural liaison for Edina Public Schools. “What I do in that role is help families navigate the school system, including many who are transitioning to the American education model for the first time.” It’s a vital post. According to Amarapurkar, students of color now comprise about 30 percent of Edina Public Schools enrollment.
In recognition of her tireless and impactful work with AshaUSA, IAM and Edina’s schools, the Human Rights & Relations Commission named Sayali Amarapurkar the 2021 recipient of the City’s annual Tom Oye Human Rights Award.