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SAPP Blog Forum – Day 2: Sunil Garg

February 3, 2009

Professor Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia University:

What should we do?

I posed the following question to three people who are involved in philanthropy and the nonprofit sector. “South Asians are, for the most part, an economically successful group, so why organize their charity along ethnic lines? In particular, perhaps they should think about looking outside their own base to find recipients of philanthropic largesse. If South Asians should not necessarily give (solely or primarily) to South-Asian causes, then how should they approach their philanthropy? Give us some alternatives.”

(More from Sudhir on this special SAPP Blog Forum.)

Sunil Garg has extensive experience in philanthropy, including currently serving as the Chair of the Interfaith Youth Core, the President of the Chicago Children’s Theatre and a board member of Operation ASHA, The Chapin Hall Center for Children and Resident’s Journal.


Recently, through good fortune and friends, I became involved with Partners in Health (PIH), the not-for-profit organization founded by Paul Farmer and others more than 20 years ago. This involvement has focused not only on fundraising to support PIH, but also visiting hospitals, health clinics and homes throughout the central plateau of Haiti where PIH has a critical presence. It was on one of these trips to Haiti last weekend that I found myself struggling with this question, “What does ‘South Asian (American) philanthropy’ mean to me?” and I kept finding myself asking related question: “Why would an Indian-American born and raised in America like myself be so committed to Haiti and other philanthropic causes so unrelated to South Asia.” Eventually, I realized the more appropriate, and uncomfortable, question was, “Why does South Asian (American) philanthropy mean so little to me?”

After all, my parents grew up in poor in India and there are hundreds of millions of Indians still living in such conditions (or worse), so why not focus my philanthropic efforts there and not Haiti (or elsewhere)? Aren’t there certain sacrifices to be recognized and certain debts of gratitude to be paid?

What I found myself returning to as I turned these questions over in my mind was that philanthropy for me – and most likely most others – is centrally linked to my identity and the communities to which I belong or want to belong. I grew up in a community in Ohio where it was to my advantage to minimize my Indian-ness, and thus, being Indian-American was never central to my identity. However, the issues that I associated with India as a child have firmly manifested themselves in my approach to philanthropy as an adult, particularly social injustice, inequality, poverty and access to basic services, such as education and health care. While it could be a stretch, it seems that my giving reflects a desire to belong to communities that address the issues I care passionately about but not communities specific to an ethnicity or race, which I have long (and perhaps wrongly) associated with limiting my identity and opportunities.

Based upon conversations I have had with other Indian-Americans of my generation, it seems that my reluctance to embrace my Indian-ness as a young person was not uncommon, particularly among those who, like me, did not have a significant Indian-American community around them to reinforce that identity. Whether that identity and thus, affiliation with the broader South Asian community, can take a greater prominence as an adult remains unclear to me. As someone who found comfort with their identity through issues and achievements and not ethnicity, I am doubtful that it will.

However, this line of thinking and analysis does not preclude me from participating in or supporting South Asian philanthropy. Instead, it may be more a question of framing, whereby I become more drawn to South Asian philanthropy through a focus on issues and not ethnicity or geography per se. For example, I recently joined the board of an organization fighting TB in New Delhi – what drew me to this organization was not the fact that is was in India, but instead that it was fighting a grave injustice and had terrific people and programs to do so.

Thus, it would seem that both the ethnicity and the issues that shape our identities and define the communities to which we belong or want to belong, provide strong points of entry into fostering the broadest interest and support for South Asian philanthropy and the work to be supported.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Kevin permalink
    February 3, 2009 1:52 pm

    PIN is such a great organization and it’s wonderful that Sunil finds himself compelled to give even beyond the US and India. Philanthropy knows no bounds.

  2. Reka permalink
    February 4, 2009 1:55 pm

    Giving, as mentioned in several posts, is very personal. We are touched by certain causes because we have had some intimate reaction to the needs of others. As South Asians, our earliest direct involvement with a community is our own and we cannot discount the fact that many of us have parents who came directly from the subcontinent. And we learn from them, what causes are important, what issues plague the world. They are our examples and their identity is still very much about being from their respective countries and often they continue an insular existence. But as Sunil mentioned, we, as their children, have one foot in that community and another in the greater world where we often have to deny our whole selves, our ethnic identities. So the personal becomes home, our ethnicity. So when we feel connected to a cause it’s because it hits that personal self. And yes, many of us spent years denying that self and some became more in touch with it when we got to college, when we were surrounded by other people of color or South Asians. This might also explain ethnic centered giving in our adult lives, that reconnection is still somewhat new so we give to those causes. In the end though, I think this is also a time issue because as we become more invested in the place we are born, as we are seen as being just as American as anyone else, then we can give as Americans and not just as South Asians. As the country embraces a multicultural identity, so too can we. But it starts in forums like these and also by reaching out to younger people in the spaces they are in and adult organizations (professional, religious and otherwise) about political candidates and/or showing them where our people are in leadership positions in various organizations, etc. So we can see that we are actually not peripheral but being woven into the quilt of every day American life and are essential to it. So that we can see ourselves in our candidates, in our decision makers and therefore feel invested in the lives of all Americans because they are. It goes back to that notion of the personal. But I think it’s up to us now, not our parents, to be the ones who give beyond our South Asian identities because we live lives that are beyond it. And that will only become stronger as we have children and they have children because again, we learn from example…

  3. asridhar permalink*
    February 5, 2009 3:21 am

    Such a great post by Sunil and a great comment by Reka – thanks! I have had the exact same feeling as Sunil when it comes to my travels and philanthropic interest in Latin America. I think for many of us in the younger generation, it is a matter of looking forward to where our lives are going rather than where our families came from. But, we’ve written about globalization on this site in a few places and I think the connections back to South Asia as well as to other parts of the world will become more compelling as our world becomes smaller and more interconnected.


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