Solidarity Case Study: A Conversation with Aarti Kohli

Solidarity Case Study: A Conversation with Aarti Kohli - Proteus Fund

The Proteus Fund has been working with frontline organizations and philanthropy to better support solidarity as a value and strategy for moving towards representative, inclusive democracy.

To inform these efforts, the following case study features questions and answers with Aarti Kohli, the Executive Director of Asian Law Caucus on the value of intentional solidarity work. Aarti reflects on a series of racial justice leader convenings called “Solidarity Summits” and their impact. Solidarity Summits are cross-community gatherings that foster and support solidarity across racial justice leadership and organizations.

The following is lightly edited for length.

How was the trajectory of learning at the Solidarity Summits, where you worked to foster solidarity between racial justice leaders and communities?

When I first got there, it was interesting because I didn’t know the vast majority of people in the room. I had seen some of their names, and I knew of their organizations. It was a little unsettling at first because who are these people and what do I have in common with them in terms of the rest of the world? Through a series of conversations, it was great to discover that there were a lot of things we were struggling with that were similar…before we could even get to the potential collaboration, we had to build a relationship. It was important to have that concentrated time with each other, without interruption. At first, I have to say, I thought gosh this is a lot of time. I don’t have that kind of time. But that was what was needed to build an actual relationship with other folks.

And it was in the time outside of the Summits that it became clear how helpful it was to have those Summits…issues would come up, and I would think, who can I talk to? And I would think, Sspreet from the Sikh Coalition, because I know her now, and she will return my call and get on the phone with me very quickly because I’m not a stranger. So, it’s not as if the work was happening at the Summits, but it helped us establish connections and relationships so that when we did our day-to-day work those became important.

How did you navigate moments of tension or conflict during the Summits, if any?

I think what was helpful about the summits was to talk about those conflicts, to learn, and to share our own. We have to take positions on issues at times.

Just recently, someone texted me to take a position on something, someone that I talk to once a year, not someone from the summit. I have to say that I was a little disturbed. To me, if you’re going to work through something complicated and sensitive, you have to have a conversation. And the summits were good at providing that. And it’s very poor practice to text someone to take a position. I am not a fan of and don’t think it’s strategic to craft a sign-on letter and ask organizations to take a position. So, for me, the summit is the place to actually educate each other about the issues, and discuss where there are many different perspectives, and to me, that is much more fruitful.

What has grown within yourself and within your work because of the summits?

It’s helped me think about what is happening nationally within the social justice movement space and how we as an organization fit into that, and what gaps and opportunities are there for us. We are a really strong local and increasingly statewide organization, but we have a local-to-national strategy. This idea of using what we’re learning on the local level to have greater impact at the statewide and national level. I think what’s really interesting for me is, for many years of my career, I thought national meant federal in DC. But I realized, what’s even more important is building power on the ground across the country. The summits gave me a lens into – there were a lot of national organizations there – and it was interesting to see how they were trying to do that.

And it was helpful to get insight into that. It helped inform my work and our strategy. And it was super clear for the Asian American part of the social justice movement that we were pretty limited and invisible in the movement space. I started my career in the immigrant justice space, and there was some overlap, but in general, the needs of Asian Americans were really not lifted up as a huge part of the advocacy.

When solidarity works well, what does that look like?

It’s very basic.  I don’t know if I’m going to say anything groundbreaking to you. It’s the stuff that people say. First, before you can actually connect to someone you need to understand their struggle. The Summits were a place to do that: to hear, to deeply listen, to understand different community struggles, and what is important to them. And then think together where and how we can show up for each other. After one Summit, the NARF was doing census work, and I connected them with our ALC staff attorney, and we were able to provide support and that felt really good.

In solidarity, it’s important to say the right things, but I guess I’m one of those people, my love language is not words. It’s actions, and I will feed you, write the memo for you, that kind of thing. So, to me, solidarity means showing up in a deeper way. I still feel like we do that and we could do more. We don’t even have the capacity to meet the needs of our community, and so, we’re constantly thinking about how to show up. Even with that challenge, we are doing it. For example, redistricting in CA, we were representing Asian American communities in the redistricting process, but we worked really hard with Black and Latinx communities to really think about fair districts.

We weren’t trying to elevate Asian American communities at the expense of other communities.

What do you want peers and young leaders coming up behind you to know about solidarity?

Solidarity takes time. You can’t just say some magic words and say you’re in solidarity. Sometimes it takes sacrifice. It’s really interesting that you’re asking me this question because of what’s happening with Asian American communities and anti-Asian violence. There are challenges for our community where they are being courted by anti-democratic forces who are saying to them, “You know what? You should align [with us]. Why are you supporting criminal justice reform? You shouldn’t support that.” Things like that. For us, we’re having these conversations with our communities to help them see that the structures that they are looking to for safety and protection are not working for anyone. Literally, the messaging being sent to our community is “You are being harmed by other communities of color.” That’s not just related to anti-Asian violence, but also affirmative action. So for me, if we’re going to dig into this and do this work with our communities, I need to do this with other BIPOC leaders, because our communities need to talk to each other, and if we as leaders aren’t going to talk to each other, then our communities aren’t.

Thinking about where we are now and where we need to go, what do you want funders to know about solidarity?

It’s so important for the work. It’s really important to invest in the building of relationships. Otherwise, we will be in our siloes. We have to get beyond transactional work.

If every movement organization had dedicated resources for solidarity practice, what do you think would change about how folks build policy, advocacy, or other organizing?

We went through that process and are still going through that process at ALC in thinking about that. I think that the work is so much better when it’s informed by multiple perspectives, and we’re more likely to win. Given the demographic shift in this country – it’s going to be a majority-minority country. If we don’t work to align ourselves and our communities, we already see the writing on the wall. The other side is very clearly trying to divide us. I think for Asian Americans in particular, this is an acute challenge. Our communities are being targeted. Unfortunately, because there are feelings within the community that our needs have been invisible for so long, they are ripe for the picking. The solidarity work has to happen on both sides: from us and from others.