Asif Bhavnagri: Engaging the Richmond Desi Community

Sunday, November 04, 2012


Asif Bhavnagri grew up in a tight knit South Asian community of suburban Richmond, VA. He has many memories of weekend get-togethers where his father's friends, his "uncles," had passionate, heated discussions about American politics. They had an opinion on everything -- the economy, healthcare, education, and of course immigration. But when it came time to act, Asif noticed that the passion from the discussions, just disappeared.


In 2008, when what seemed to an 18-year-old Desi kid like the entire country was rising up and becoming politically active, he saw a sad, disheartening lack of excitement in his own community. He recalls one specific moment when a pollster called his house wanting to collect important data about the elections and was hung up on because political surveys were a "waste of time."

But to Asif, nothing political was a waste of time. In fact, it was a moral obligation upon citizens to select and engage their leaders. Just blocks away from where he attends college in Richmond, the capital of the confederacy, are monuments memorializing some of history's most hideous leaders -- Stonewall Jackson, Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and Jeb Stewart. Leaders who, if victorious, would have maintained a slave-based society, making it impossible to have the freedoms we value today. Asif started taking political science and African American history classes when he realized that every community has a civil rights moment, and South Asians today were in the midst of their moment. Brought upon by 9/11, the backlash against Muslims and Arabs was expanded to included South Asians of various religions from diverse countries. In order for us to emerge from this moment stronger, Asif thought, we have to be involved. We have to vote. We have to be a part of the system. We can't bash the system and then expect it to work for us.


So Asif became involved. He ran for senator for Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) student government, and he won. The next year he ran for president -- and he won. The next year he applied to work in the nation's oldest state legislature, in a building commissioned by Thomas Jefferson, and he got the job. Suddenly, this sleepy South Asian community in suburban Richmond was awake. Beaming with pride for one of their sons who represented their community's interests, Asif's parents and their friends became interested in the political process. They encouraged other community kids to follow his lead. They no longer hung up the phone on pollsters.


Asif's main goal as a politically active South Asian college student was to set an inspiring example. To encourage other South Asians to drop their apathy and complacency, and to understand that change doesn't come from complaining or from chanting slogans. It comes from taking a risk and going against the grain.


Today, Asif is as well-known on VCU's campus as the mascot Rodney the Ram. He is also one of the most recognizable interns in the legislature. He is well on his way to securing the the interests of South Asian Americans for years to come. As for the 2012 election, Asif has used his position as President of the Student Body to organize a campus-wide shuttle service to take students to the polls. "Now," he says, "all students -- South Asians included -- have no excuse not to vote."



Fatima Ashraf is currently a Virginia 18 Million Rising Fellow and a former Senior Policy Advisor on Health and Education to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in New York City. She is currently mobilizing voters in Virginia for All Hands On Deck, a national organization committed to amplifying progressive youth voices in the political process.