Rinku Sen is the President and Executive Director of the Applied Research Center, which publishes one of our favorite online news sources, Colorlines. The ARC is a racial justice think tank that Feministing readers probably know best for their Drop The I-Word campaign, which aims to eliminate the word “illegals” as a way to describe undocumented immigrants to the United States. The ARC campaign argues that, for one thing, a person cannot be illegal and, more importantly, that the word dehumanizes immigrants, making it easier for us to accept or condone mistreatment of and discrimination against an already marginalized population.
Sen immigrated to the US with her family when she was a young girl, but says she never really felt like an American until she started organizing. And for that reason, she has been an organizer her entire professional life, working for racial and gender justice, housing equality, workers’ rights and numerous other causes – a love affair with activism that began in college and will probably carry on for the rest of her life. After more than a decade of organizing, Sen went to journalism school order to blend community organizing with media strategy, which is exactly what the ARC does. Sen has written a handbook for community organizing and, more recently The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization, which I highly recommend.
And now, without further ado, the Feministing Five, with Rinku Sen.
Chloe Angyal: How did you become involved in community organizing and activism, and how did you come to make a career of it?
Rinku Sen: I started organizing when I was in college. I’m an immigrant; my family came to the US from India when I was five and a half, and it wasn’t until I started organizing in my second year in college that I really felt like I belonged in this country. And so, organizing and feeling American really go hand in hand for me. They go together. The early work I did, when I was still in school, was on racial justice and violence against women, mostly. I was really impressed with the process whereby a bunch of people could get together, identify the problems that were happening around them, challenge the institutions that controlled their lives, and then change it, so that from one year to the next, our campus would actually work differently and have different services, and people who the year before hadn’t felt like they really belonged the next year felt like they belonged a little bit more. I think organizing is a process of building community, and making that community as inclusive and compassionate as it needs to be. And once I discovered it, I could never really move very far away from it; if I wasn’t actively organizing, I was writing about organizing, or helping people think about organizing or helping people do organizing.
It was while I was working in the National Student Movement at the US Student Association. My first proper job outside of college was helping the USSA run a training program for college students to learn about the principles of community organizing, and how those principles apply to campus activity. That was when I first met professional community organizers, and started to understand that there were people who did that for their jobs, and you didn’t have to become a lawyer or an academic or a politician. All of those are good professions, but with organizing, if you really wanted to fight, you could make a living fighting. Once I understood that, it was very clear that that’s what I was going to do.
CA: Who is your favorite fictional heroine, and who are your heroines in real life?
RS: It’s Anyanwu, the heroine of the Octavia Butler novel Wild Seed. She’s a shapeshifter who has the ability to heal, and she lives forever because she can heal herself. She figures that out by injecting potions and herbs and performing surgery on herself, and figuring out what works, and then she uses that ability to heal other people. In the novel, she is sad because she doesn’t have any children, because she doesn’t want to outlive her children, but she meets this man who promises to give her children who live forever as she does. But the difference between them is that she lives forever by healing herself and other people, and he lives forever by taking over other people’s bodies. And it’s this conflict between two different forms of power. It’s an incredible novel, and she’s an incredible heroine.
One of my heroines now is Ai-Jen Poo, one of the co-founders of Domestic Workers United in New York City, and now the Director of the National Domestic Workers Alliance. Ai-Jen has this incredible passion as well as a strategy for organizing women who do the hardest work that there is to do – taking care of the elderly and of children, and who are exploited because their work is not considered work, and because their political positioning and their position in the economy can be traced directly back to slavery, and the ways in which the institution of slavery created categories among workers. I consider her really to be an abolitionist, and one of the smartest and best organizers I know. She helped Domestic Workers United win the first domestic workers’ bill of right legislation in the country, in New York State, something for New York to be very proud of. And Ai-Jen is now helping to expand that strategy nationally, and building lots of interesting alliances for the LGBT elders community who need care, and really thinking about not just what is available in current labor laws to protect workers, but how labor laws need to be changed so that it no longer carries out the legacy of slavery. She’s my heroine.
CA: What recent news story made you want to scream?
RS: The thing that comes to mind is the headlines that started to appear during the revolution in Egypt. At a certain point, the headlines changed from being about the demands of the protestors to headlines like “protests in Egypt turn violent,” or “take a violent turn.” Of course, what was actually happening was that the pro-Mubarak forces, the national security forces as well as the underground security forces, had begun to use violence against the protestors and the protestors to some degree defended themselves. But to read the headlines, if you weren’t reading fully about it, you would have this impression that the protestors had started to attack people. I thought it was really irresponsible journalism, given the number of people who just scroll through headlines and can’t read whole articles every single day. If you just look at the headlines, that’s the headline, and that would be the lasting impression. It really made me wonder about the journalistic standards of the outlets that use such headlines, and whether their commitment to accuracy extended to the headlines as well as the stories. The stories were often accurate, but the headlines gave the completely wrong impression.
CA: What, in your opinion, is the greatest challenge facing feminism today?
RS: There are many, many challenges. The one that’s on my mind a lot right now has to do with the sexual rights of women, and the many ways in which our rights to our own sexuality and our ability to enjoy it and control it, and grow it, to gain power from it, are challenged by other people’s need for profit or politics. I think there’s a whole range of issues there, one being the attack on our reproductive health and this whole effort with HR3 to redefine rape, to all these times that we’re denied access to birth control, access to sex education, or medication, or access to abortion. But part of it is also the sexual exploitation of women, the profit part of that. I worry quite a bit about the message that women’s sexuality is evil, but also about the message that it can be engaged casually by whoever wants to use it for whatever purpose. To sell cigarettes, or to make teenage boys feel powerful. There are a lot of efforts to control it and to push us out of the equation so that men and corporations tell us how our sexuality should develop and what its purpose is. In their vision, its purpose is not our pleasure. It’s somebody else’s ability to get off, and somebody else’s ability to make money.
CA: You’re going to a desert island, and you’re allowed to take one food, one drink and one feminist. What do you pick?
RS: Oysters, decaffeinated coffee, and my sister Chaiti, because she’s a wonderful storyteller and I’d be entertained, and on a desert island I’d want to be with somebody who loves me.