In college I thought I could change the world. Well, ok let me be honest – I ALWAYS thought I could change the world; it didn’t start in college and it definitely didn’t end after I graduated. But when I studied at San Francisco State University and took Larry Solomon’s Grassroots Organizing course, I really did believe a small collective of committed activists could plot and organize and scare away the evils of the world with our unyielding idealism. It was in Larry Solomon’s class that I was first introduced to the works of Rinku Sen.
I studied her book Stir It Up, absorbing her words from cover to cover. Not only was her manual on community organizing my first introduction to strategic movement building, I felt I found a role model in this young, brilliant, powerful South Asian woman. I learned that Rinku began her organizing career around that same age when she was a student at Brown University. It was there she received a B.A. in Women’s Studies and, much like my young college self, organized against the varying faces of discrimination on her campus.
From there she became an organizing powerhouse along the intersections of race, class, and gender, receiving a plethora of awards and recognition along the way. She received the Gloria Steinem Women of Vision Award 1996, and was recognized by Ms. Magazine on their 21 Feminists to Watch in the 21st Century list that same year. In 2005, the same year I graduated college, she received an M.S. in Journalism from Columbia University. Rinku published her second book, The Accidental American in 2008. In The Accidental American, Rinku tells the story of co-author Fekkak Mamdouh, a Morrocan-born waiter who endured the racist aftermath of a post 9/11 New York and later co-founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center of New York.
When I committed myself to social justice work I unwittingly committed myself to a series of mini heartbreaks at the many failed attempts at changing the world. This is why it is important for me to constantly remind myself of my inspirations, because they are what keep me motivated and give me hope. I can sit here and continue to write about Rinku’s many achievements in the arenas of community organizing, social justice, and academia, but I realize that this is all available through a quick Google search of this accomplished woman. Instead, I would like to tell you what Rinku and her body of work means to me.
I come from a long line of strong women who passed down the knowledge of how to protect yourself against a world that is structured to break women down in a multitude of ways. I carried their wisdom with me throughout my life. I include Rinku among those heroes who have shaped me. Although I never had the pleasure of meeting her, Rinku helped me channel my frustrations as a young activist into strategic community organizing. It was through her writings I learned how to pick and choose my battles, as well as how to organize effectively. Her grace and fierce intelligence taught me how to cope with the losses and celebrate the victories of my efforts.
Rinku Sen is a 2012 Ella’s Awardee presented by the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. I feel very fortunate to work at an organization that celebrates unsung heroes in our communities like Rinku. Join me on September 13th at Ella Baker Center’s 6th Annual Ella Awards as I celebrate Rinku Sen and other incredible community leaders.