I was born in New York City in 1993 and grew up at a time when India was in the spotlight. I vividly remember my mom giving a presentation to my kindergarten class and holding up a Time magazine article on President Clinton’s historic trip to India in 2000.
For several days I was the coolest girl in the class, but growing up I often felt hyper-aware and uncomfortable with my ethnicity, race, and identity.
In middle school, a classmate’s parents grilled me on how my parents met, commenting that she “really hoped my parents did not have an arranged marriage”. Not only were her questions inappropriate, but also represented the many misconceptions that exist about Indian culture in the United States, even in a very liberal place like New York City.
My Experience As Key Staffer In New York City Census Drive
This year, I had the opportunity to work on the NYC Census Campaign, an initiative launched by the city to ensure that every New Yorker, especially those in historically underrepresented and immigrant communities, are fully counted and represented in the 2020 Census.
The data tabulated from the census impacts billions of dollars in funding for New York City’s health care, hospitals, schools, public housing and much more, in addition to our political representation in the Congress.
At NYC Census, I served as key staffer to our Census Director, creating content and managing the logistics of over 100 speaking engagements, in addition to creating and implementing strategies for special projects – including persuading over 100 organisations to actively push out census content, among other things.
US Census 2020 Is Over, But Fight For Representation Continues
Through my work, I want people in the Indian American community to know that they matter and that they do count. Our census results are a clear indication of how impactful New York City’s efforts were.
At 61.8 percent, New York City achieved a historic self-response rate in the 2020 Census, a figure that outpaced most major cities in the United States and the United States Census Bureau’s (USCB) estimate of 58 percent for the Tri-state area. This, despite being the epicentre of COVID-19 and the Supreme Court’s decision to end the census early.
While the census is officially over, the fight for representation and funding continues.
On 3 November, Election Day, approximately 500 volunteers were stationed at poll sites to report instances of voter intimidation and harassment, and protect our constitutional right to vote.
I had the opportunity to help support this initiative by spearheading our material distribution plan in which I ensured our 460-plus volunteers received the informational materials they needed for their poll site shifts across all five boroughs over two days.
As the city continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic, the racial injustices and systemic racism that black Americans continue to face in this country – and as we await the historic election results, the resilience, bravery and determination I see New Yorkers exhibiting every day inspires me to continue to preserve the city my dad fell in love with in 1977.
My Father’s Tryst With Racial Abuse
On Election Day, as I anxiously watch the election results on CNN with my Indian parents sitting by my side, it’s hard to reflect on this year’s election cycle, without thinking about my parents’ immigration story and my identity as an Indian-origin American woman.
In 1975, when my dad, Prem Pyara Cohly, first arrived in Canada, he was one of the few Indians to live in Downtown Toronto. Despite being surrounded by a large extended family, life in Toronto wasn’t easy for my dad.
For the first time, my dad encountered racism in every aspect of his life.
For two years my dad faced racial biases in the workplace, received racial slurs like “Pakis go back” while buying groceries, and struggled to build relationships and contracts with local businesses while helping build his family’s travel agency.
How New York City Became ‘Home’ For Us
Two years after moving to Toronto, my dad went to New York City for a business thip. While walking around the city, my dad came to the revelation that he was living in the wrong city; it was love at first sight. Not only was New York City a vibrant, populous city, but it also symbolised opportunity, inclusion, and freedom.
Celebrating diverse communities and my narrative as a person of Indian origin are integral to who I am, and what makes me feel proud to be a New Yorker.
My dad’s experience in Toronto and my personal experiences addressing misconceptions and cultural biases is what drives me – and are the main reasons as to why I have decided to dedicate my career to public service. Every day I do my best to empower my community through the work I do. I want other young women who look like me to never doubt themselves and always have faith in who they are.
(Aarati Cohly is the Deputy Director of Strategic Planning and Executive Affairs at NYC Census 2020. Aarati is a 2017-18 Fulbright-Nehru Scholar. A life-long New Yorker, she has devoted her career to working with local organisations that focus on environmental, housing, and immigration equity. She tweets @ACohly. This article represents Aarati’s personal opinions and beliefs.)
(This is a personal blog, and the views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)