The Inter-Asian Council (IAC) hosted activist Mrinalini Chakraborty, the field director of the Women’s March, to speak about her experiences as an Indian activist on Saturday, Nov. 4.
One day after U.S. President Donald Trump’s inauguration, millions of women around the globe marched in what was called the largest single-day mass demonstration in history. Participants marched in support of women’s rights and racial justice, among other causes.
Chakraborty is known for co-coordinating the National Committee for the Women’s March on Washington, which she spent 11 weeks setting up. She was also the Illinois state representative and took charge of mobilizing 3,300 buses to Washington, D.C. from all over the U.S.
Along with her work as an activist, Chakraborty is also pursuing a doctorate at the University of Illinois at Chicago in Biological Anthropology. In March 2016, she organized 10,000 students at her university to protest a planned Trump rally on campus.
As a child in Kolkata, India, she faced challenges which eventually led her to the world of activism. She began her work as a teenager, advocating for the rights of sex workers and their children as well as addressing issues such as human trafficking.
“I remember as a child what it felt like to not have a voice, to be silenced, to be taken advantage of,” she said. “I feel like that colors my work.”
Chakraborty moved to the U.S. when she was 18 and received an academic scholarship to pursue her undergraduate studies.
Many questioned her role as an activist because of her immigrant status.
“[It reminds me] just how much misinformation there is out there about not just immigrant rights and immigrant issues but probably all other issues that we are fighting for,” she said.
Chakraborty also questioned what barriers might hold individuals back from being more socially active. She asked some audience members to share how they felt that Trump’s election had impacted them.
Many students said that they felt personally attacked because their experiences of racism, sexism and bigotry were mirrored by the rhetoric of the highest elected office in the nation. However, some shared that they felt hope after the Women’s March.
According to Chakraborty, they decided to host the March the day after Trump’s inauguration to express their discontent with Trump’s rhetoric and show his government that their actions were going to be met with resistance.
“The goal was to make sure he knew on that very day that no matter what he was doing in that office we were going to be there outside his house… keeping an eye on everything that he’s doing,” she said.
For Chakraborty, the March not only sent a message to the Trump administration but also encouraged many people to engage in activism and politics. This included many newcomers to the world of activism.
She encouraged students to get more involved.
“You have to start somewhere and you can’t start on five different things at the same time,” she said. “Find that one thing that really gets you excited and really motivated to start working on and just jump in.”
Chakrabortty said that she draws motivation from her beliefs and the fear of what might happen if no one takes action.
She said that she wants to be prepared if, years from now, someone were to ask her what she was doing during Trump’s presidency.
“I want to be able to answer that I did everything in my power to stand up to this neo-fascist regime,” she said. “I stood up to this hateful rhetoric that we see in this country every single day.”
She highlighted the intersections between racism, sexism and environmentalism and said that people should build strong and beloved communities.
“When they come for one of us they have to go through all of us,” she said.
Senior Natalie Qin, president of IAC, said that they invited Chakraborty to share her perspective as both an activist and an immigrant.
“The theme for IAC this year is immigrant and refugee rights,” Qin said. “We wanted to tie that in with Asian Pacific Heritage month, which is a month-long celebration spreading awareness of all the Asian cultures that we have on campus.”
Qin said that she was particularly interested in getting more insight into intersectional feminism and wanted to hear Chakraborty’s perspective. She agreed with Chakraborty that sometimes activists might get caught up in too many issues.
Qin appreciated the broad perspective of an intersectional feminist.
“If we lived one-issue lives, we could solve it in one go,” she said. “There are a lot of issues that need to be thought about. You have to discover what truly makes you passionate, and that’s what makes you a great activist.”
Junior and IAC member Bianca Tu contrasted Chakraborty’s visit with the first event of the 2017 Milton S. Eisenhower Symposium in October, at which the four organizers of the Women’s March spoke.
“Having a more intimate setting and having a direct interaction with the speaker is very important,” Tu said. “We got more of a detailed experience from her.”
She explained that she had been in Japan during the election and said that seeing thousands of women march in D.C. on the day after Trump’s inauguration had inspired her.
“I was so devastated that Trump won, I started crying,” she said. “Seeing days after, a march full of thousands of people just coming to Capitol Hill and protesting — that gave me hope. This isn’t something permanent, it’s something that can be changed.”