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April 4, 2010

April 4, 2010

Press Release

Media Contact: Minauti Dave 917-723-9456,; Photos

 Hindu American Seva Charities Holds Inaugural Conference
Focused on
Community Building with Seva

The Inaugural conference held by the Hindu American Seva Charities was successful in producing an inquisitive dialogue about Hindu American identity, faith and civic engagement to strengthen America among the many issues on the table. It was also successful in developing a road map to create an “umbrella of common principles” to collectively build and sustain healthy American communities.

The two-day conference started on Saturday, March 27th at the Sri Siva Vishnu Temple in Lanham, MD with inspiring introductions from a panel of speakers including keynote speaker Mara Vanderslice, Deputy Director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Majority Leader in the Maryland House of Delegates Kumar Barve, and Hindu American Seva Charities founder-convener Anju Bhargava.  Dr. Ved Chaudhary, who has been integral in bringing awareness of diversity, particularly of the Hindu American community, served as moderator for the presentations. Each individual spoke about their role and efforts to educate and inform the public on the ability of all faiths in the nation to respond to the community’s present day issues.

Vanderslice encouraged the Hindu American Community to maintain the momentum they have created in communicating with the larger American community about their immediate concerns and the service engagement potential. She praised the contributors of HASC and its comprehensive survey of seva, acknowledging an array of, specific community concerns including civic engagement, refugee assistance, serving the youth and senior citizens; and the economic recovery and a roadmap to foster the community’s integration in a pluralistic society.

The second day of the conference was split into four major subject areas, each with a moderator and several panelists. Areas of focus were: Multiple Hindu American Identities, Internal and External Hindu American Seva needs, Hindu American Seva and Social Innovation, Augmenting  an “Umbrella Of Common Principles” in the U.S.  All the panelists provided ways on how the Hindu American community could provide support to its own community and the community at large. Each panelist spurred a dialogue and fielded questions from the audience.

 Multiple Hindu American Identities: Moderator: Padma Kuppa, a writer, IT professional and co-founder of the Troy Interfaith Group in Troy, MI; Panelists: Aesha Mehta, active with the Hindu Youth Association at the Allentown Hindu Temple; Anurag Varma, an attorney who serves as public policy counsel for the Embassy of India to the United States; Keshav Khanijow, who works for the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and Minauti Dave, a former journalist and high school English teacher in the San Francisco Unified School District.

 Moderator Kuppa and the identity panel energized the morning audience with insightful presentations about their individual experiences as a Hindu American. The panelists represented an age range of 22-40 with varying perspectives and stories to share. Ms. Kuppa made introductory remarks by sharing her story about her pluralistic Hindu identity, issues growing up in the US and India and now having to further understand her identity through the lens as a parent. Aesha Mehta, a recent graduate of Drexel University talked about her experience connecting with Bal Vihar youths and how youths must be guided into having a better understanding of their religious/spiritual identity, without feeling pressured. University is where youths truly begin to question faith and their own lives, Mehta added and need guidance and a conduit to channel their energies to serve.

 As a champion of human rights for Hindu American citizens, Varma noted how his Hindu identity is closely connected to his professional life. He recalled his own youth and challenges in understanding his identity, He was raised on Hindu principles and attended Satyanarayan pujas but received little interpretation from his elders. Now with more explanatory knowledge available, he questioned how should today’s parents teach the youths about being Hindu American.  Khanijow spoke about his own mixed religious and Dharmic heritage with one Sikh parent and a Hindu parent. Although he experienced few formal practices at home, he remembers trips to Mandirs and Guradwaras where he learned to respect his faith and spirituality. Reading stories in the Mahabharata in particular that showed him the open-mindedness for sexual identity in the literature. It provided him with the faith and confidence to openly communicate with his family and friends. Finally, Ms. Dave provided an overview of how it took her some time to embrace and accept the various parts of her identity, whether spiritual, bi-cultural or personal. She said, as identities continue to evolve, it is critical parents and mentors communicate with youths about their various "selves" so that they don't feel lost or frustrated.

 Internal and External Hindu American Seva: Moderator: Shekar Narasimhan, Managing Director at Beekman Advisors and community activist , Panelists: Anju Bhargava, Council member President’s Advisory Council on Faith Based and Neighborhood Partnerships, Ved Chaudhary Assistant Commissioner in Environmental Protection Department, NJ and Founder of Hindu Collective Initiative, Harivilas of the Vedic Cultural Center of Shammamish, WA.

 To understand Seva and faithfully practice it as a Hindu American, one must feel the Dharma inside of themselves; and the organic and natural feeling of peace, love, devotion and humility, said Harivilas.  Bhargava agreed that the Hindus approach seva as service to humanity and/or God and that it is an integral part of individual spiritual practice.  In the U.S., community governance is through churches and synagogues and is largely funded by the government.  The Hindu and Dharmic institutions are new to this approach (as families provided the support). Hence they do not have a developed social support infrastructure to access the resources for seva.  Additionally the current seva activities performed by millions of Hindu volunteers are relatively unknown tp their own community and mainstream Americans.  Consequently, Bhargava noted, the HASC report documenting seva initiated in response to President Obama’s Summer 2009 United We Serve campaign “opened the government’s eyes” regarding the Hindu American community’s desire to serve and strengthen American through seva. 

Hindu Americans need external support from the government and other U.S. stakeholders to develop Seva Centers, as conduits to challenge the collective energy, resources and skills to address both their needs and the needs of the community at large. Thereby strengthening America.  The Hindu Americans have to break the silence and deal with many of their unaddressed internal issues (such as poverty as more than 10% of Indian Americans live below the poverty line, which is the highest for any Asian community)  Hindu and Dharmic Institutions also need to partner with other organizations to expand religious classes to offer yoga classes; scholastic classes for youths, resources for senior citizens, women’s empowerment, youth at risk and help to meet immediate needs such as housing assistance for financially struggling families. The Seva Centers could augment meeting internal and external needs, by partnering with well-established and staffed service providers like AAHOA (Asian American Hotel Owners Association) and AAPI (American Association of Physicians from India), South Asian Total Health Initiative (SATHI), and many more.

Hindu American Seva and Social Innovation: Sonal Shah, director of the White House Office of Social Innovation gave a keynote speech.

Shah of the Social Innovation office of the White House commended HASC and the tremendous work all Hindu institutions have done to date in showcasing their dedication to Seva.  After explaining her role and responsibilities in the Social Innovation office, she went directly to the audience members to field questions and provide feedback.  It is important the Hindu American community effectively communicates information about Seva as shown through the HASC report, Shah said, however, the community has to be more unified in its presence.  For example, she suggested the Hindu American community create an “umbrella of common principles” so that the larger community clearly comprehends its goals. What would provide further credibility to the community is to collect data to document the need and highlight the collective strength 

 Shah also suggested Hindu Americans work with state and local governmental officials to discuss issues regarding capacity building, funds and resources.  She said working with government takes diligence, patience, persistence and the ability to compromise.  Finally, Shah emphasized the immediate need to educate America’s youth, especially in light of the 50 percent high school dropout national rate. She said education is a key item on the White House agenda, adding organizations, such as Hindu American Seva Charities can be more proactive about educating the under-privileged youth and closing the achievement gap through programs, and events.

 Sustaining Hindu American Seva Charities. Moderator: Dr. Siva Subramanian; award winning Professor/Chief of Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. Georgetown University Hospital and community activist, .Panelists: Candy Hill,, Senior Vice President of Catholic Charities; Ms. Ruth Baker of Jewish Charities, Suketu Patel of BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha and Ana Maria Arumi of the Amma (M.A. Math) Organization.

The final presentation was a broad overview of three large faith-based institutions and their experiences in organizational structure; capacity building and understanding the challenges they face in serving their respective communities.  Ms. Candy Hill said the Catholic Charities first started as an organization that primarily assisted immigrants, helping them through education and social services.  Although much has changed since the Catholic Charities started about 283 years ago, the organization still stands strong with 20,000 board members and about 225,000 volunteers who continue to focus on reducing poverty.  As a non-profit organization, 65 percent of their funding comes from the government, said Hill. 

The Jewish Charities lives by the motto “Tzedakah” or righteousness and has made its mission to enhance Jewish identity; reduce poverty; and support 40 different agencies including schools and camps.  Approximately 50 percent of their non-profit organization functions on private donations.  The primary way to financially strengthen a non-profit faith-based organization is to teach young people how to raise funds said Ruth Baker of the Jewish Charities.  The Jewish Charities also lobbies for its own institution and partners with other organizations for various interfaith initiatives including Hispanic workers’ rights.  The Jewish Charities also has local planning officers, endowment office (with levels of giving) and obtains necessary grants to fund numerous programs. 

Suketu Patel of BAPS Swaminaryan Santhsa presented the audience with a power point presentation regarding their Hindu philosophy and three charitable programs they target:  natural disasters, human inflicted issues and soul/self inflicted issues. BAPS Swaminarayan Sanstha, which is entirely built on volunteers, provides annual training for local leaders nationwide and internationally.  In addition they train older youths to lead the younger ones. 

Arumi of AMMA, the final panelist, said its aim is to serve the community at large – a multi-faith community nationwide and internationally, said Ms. Arumi, adding they have focused on disaster relief all over the world.  Ms. Baker said it’s important that all the organizations collectively share best practices and adapt to different environments accordingly and that they help train members on fundraising when it comes to capacity building.  Ms. Hill said it is critical that as the organization grows and evolves, it stays rooted to the immigrant experience and to honor one’s traditions.  Both Hill and Baker warned the audience to “tread carefully” in dealing with the government, as reporting requirements are onerous.  They said, both the Jewish and Catholic Charities started out as the Hindus, operating 80 to 90 percent of the time with help from private donors.

Augmenting “Umbrella Of Common Principles”

The conference ended on a collaborative effort with the audience members to pinpoint the top issues of concern and focus as HASC moves forward.  The following summarizes the key actions:

  • Establish a Hindu American Seva Corp. to spur a sustainable nationwide collective Seva movement.
  • For the coming year, education should be the theme for a national initiative for Summer 2010 (focus of  Summer Seva of 2009 was health and poverty reduction).  Under the theme of education the following ideas were presented:
    1. Tutors for high needs population of youths (i.e. Bhutanese youths)
    2. Address the education needs of youths outside of Hindu American community
    3. Improve youths’ literacy skills, primarily reading ability.
    4. Volunteer resources to close the achievement gap for the low high school graduation rates in the U.S.
  • Foster ways to develop technologically based solution to connect various seva and educational resources and to collect data to provide comprehensive, ongoing analysis of the community. 
  • Empower youths to volunteer and take action in the Hindu community through recognitions (i.e. community service credit, college credit, etc.).
  • Obtain resources to hire full-time, paid staff to further develop HASC

    Please email or call Minauti Dave to know more about HASC or to volunteer.