What's On Your Ballot?: Usha Srinivasan, Event Producer and Dancer

Usha Srinivasan of Sangam Arts uses dance to build community and bridge cultural divides in a stratified place like Silicon Valley. (Estefany Gonzalez)

In 2020, the United States faces an election like no other. Citizens will vote in the midst of a global pandemic, severe climate change, an uprising for racial justice and an administration that has eroded the norms of democracy. In ‘What’s on Your Ballot?,’ KQED checks in with ten different artists, activists and cultural figures about the issues on their minds and their hopes for the country.

Considering its vast resources and highly educated population, Silicon Valley has surprisingly thin soil when it comes to building and sustaining cultural institutions. That’s never daunted Usha Srinivasan, the co-founder and president of Sangam Arts, the Saratoga-based non-profit that seeks to create and nurture connections between the Valley’s different cultures using traditional arts as a vehicle. One of the region’s visionary arts leaders, she promotes an embracing concept of American citizenship that celebrates ancestral ties while forging new identities via shared creative experiences.

Born and raised in the Southern Indian city of Hyderabad, Srinivasan came to the United States in 1990 for a graduate degree in electrical engineering and moved to the Bay Area in 1995 to attend Stanford Business School. After years working in high tech, she launched Sangam Arts in 2013 with Priya Das to present classical Indian dance. The organization has evolved into an innovative, award-winning arts presenters with the Mosaic Silicon Valley program, which seeks to foster cross-cultural conversations by combining a diverse array of ethnic art forms in multimedia productions.—Andrew Gilbert

As we head into the election, what do you make of the political climate in America today?

This is a very important election, kind of a defining moment in our history. The outcome will really determine the quality of life for Americans and the nature of American society going forward, and whether all of us feel we belong or not. I don’t think most people really thought we’d find ourselves at this turn. We thought a lot of the battles that had to do with race and inclusion were in the past. We thought we were post-racial. And we found out that there’s a lot more healing to be done and many more issues to be addressed. And now that we know that we have a choice, do we address that in a way that really reflects our core American values? Or do we want to veer off and become a fascist society?

Usha Srinivasan: ‘The outcome [of the election] will really determine the quality of life for Americans and the nature of American society going forward, and whether all of us feel we belong or not.’ (Estefany Gonzalez)

With the tremendous power and influence of social media, Silicon Valley has become a focus in this election. As an artist and someone deeply involved in promoting women in STEM fields, how do you weigh and balance the impact of companies like Facebook and Twitter on American politics? 

I think for most of us social media has turned out to be like boiling the frog. Most of us didn’t quite realize the detrimental effects of handing this kind of power to these networks. Now we find ourselves in this bind where it’s very difficult to disconnect because that is our interaction with this world, whether we like it or not. In my work in the arts it’s almost impossible for a small organization to find an audience the traditional way, with fliers or ads. We’ve all found ourselves deeply entrenched in social networks, and we’re finding out that the technology is far ahead of our ability as social animals to adapt.

For example, being able to tell truth from fiction. People look at what’s happening online and assume they are real and true which leaves us vulnerable to manipulation by bad actors. We literally are not equipped to handle this as a society.

What response have you seen from the Desi community regarding Kamala Harris as Joe Biden’s running mate?

It was absolute exuberance. The South Asian community overall is very diverse, but I come from a Tamil family and that picture of Kamala Harris with her sister and grandparents could easily have come from my family photo album. You feel this kinship. She used this word ‘chittis,’ which, very specifically in my mother tongue of Tamil, means a mother’s younger sister or a father’s younger brother’s wife. Chitti is like a little mom. We were all raised in families with big moms and little moms, big dads and little dads. We’re were raised by a village, and we all had a throwback to our younger days. That one word she uttered about family instantly made an entire generation of Indian American women not only feel connected to her, but that we belonged here in America. So she has not only made us proud, but she's made us feel like we too belong.

What performances or works of art have you seen in the last four years that capture this surreal moment or respond effectively to what’s going on in the country? 

When I came here to go to business school in ’95, Silicon Valley was still two-thirds white, and the rest Hispanic, Asian and others. In the intervening 25 years, we have gone through enormous demographic changes in a very short period of time. The performances that are most compelling to me are the ones that reflect this changing community. One of the issues I grapple with is the lack of social cohesion in Silicon Valley. Even as we become more diverse, we are less integrated. You have entire communities that are quite content to live in their own silos. That represents a missed opportunity to express the true potential of America.

Usha Srinivasan: ‘[Kamala Harris] has not only made us proud, but she's made us feel like we too belong.’ (Estefany Gonzalez)

The way to break that down is through the arts, because art offers a universal language. For me the most compelling works of art are those that help bring both artists and disciplines from different communities together as a way of bringing audiences from those different cultures together. What creates bonds are shared experiences, as well as a shared understanding of history and a shared vision of the future.

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Now in Silicon Valley, 40 to 50 percent of people came from elsewhere, so they don’t have a shared understanding of history. People like me didn’t need to take a history exam to become a citizen. I had to take a civics exam. A lot of us didn’t know about the Ohlone or know about slavery. And then there are the latest stats that say for various reasons—transportation, cost of living—40 to 50 percent don’t see themselves living here 20 or 30 years, including people who were born and raised here.

You don’t share a past. You don’t see a future together. How do you build community? I think the arts provide a great way of creating those shared experiences.

After the election—no matter how it goes—what are your hopes and goals for the country, and for the Bay Area?

Obviously I am an ultra-progressive liberal and I have come to realize that I have taken so much for granted. I’m in the process of examining my own privileges as an Indian American. I may look like a person of color, but the truth is, at this time here and given my background, I have all the privileges of my white brothers and sisters. I’m not saying that’s true of everyone. In the wake of Black Lives Matter and George Floyd, I’m realizing how broken the system is and how much work remains to be done. My hope is, inshallah, the Democrats win, but I hope we hold their feet to the fire and realize there’s a lot of work to be done. We can’t just tap into the Black vote, especially Black women, to help our candidates win and then forget them. We need to be just as vocal as we are against Trump in terms of systemic injustice, voter suppression and inequality.

Usha Srinivasan: ‘We thought a lot of the battles that had to do with race and inclusion were in the past. ... And we found out that there’s a lot more healing to be done and many more issues to be addressed.’ (Estefany Gonzalez)

I’m hoping now that we’ve come so close to the brink, hopefully we’ll be more thoughtful and go back and make sure we never make these mistakes again. In the United States, it’s an idealistic country and a lot of systems are designed to rely on the honor code. And when you have dishonorable people taking advantage of the system, the system breaks down.

I’m hoping I can rededicate my life to being a powerful ally for those who have been left behind. It bothers me so much that the top billionaires have made a trillion dollars during the pandemic. It bothers me so much that I live in Saratoga where we want for nothing, but the people that tend to our lawns and watch our kids and clean our homes are living three to four families in one house 10 miles from here.

It’s immoral, and unsustainable, and not the way to build a harmonious society. I’m hoping that we’ll take a moment to celebrate, but regardless of what happens we have to fight.

This interview was edited for length and clarity. Learn more about Usha Srinivasan here

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