Mohan Seshadri, a veteran organizer, first came to Pennsylvania after the 2016 election to work for Planned Parenthood and on the Affordable Health Care Act campaign and the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) fight. He became the API PA’s Political Director after previously serving in the Office of Asian Affairs for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. Mohan grew up in rural Wisconsin. This interview was conducted by Eddie Wong on October 19, 2020.
Mohan Seshadri, API PA Political Director, on Zoom call with Eddie Wong.
Eddie: When did Asian Pacific Islander Political Alliance (API PA) start?
Mohan: API PA publicly launched this past July. Our leadership comes out of combined decades of work on the nonprofit side both organizing and building a base in our communities. There’s been about two years of work of formal planning, raising money, putting the board together, and putting the plan together. We’re a 501(c)4 (Ed. Note: This an entity that is allowed to make political endorsements and advocate for candidates and issues.) Our leadership comes out of those C3 (nonprofit, charitable, nonpartisan) organizations. Asian Americans United has 10 years of work and for VietLead, there’s at least five years of voter registration work. We have amazing organizations in Philadelphia and to some degree in Pittsburgh as well that are bottom lining community organizing, direct service, mutual aid, voter registration and civic engagement. Then in the middle of Pennsylvania we have fewer of our folks, but those populations especially Korean and South Asian populations are just expanding at an enormous rate especially thanks to IT companies and pharma companies that are moving in as well as Syrian and Bhutanese refugee resettlement over the last five years. On the 3c side in so many cases, it’s going completely uncovered. We need to build infrastructure on the ground so that those folks are getting politicized, organized and brought into the political process.
Eddie: I think a lot of us on the West Coast don’t realize that South Asians are the largest Asian American group in Pennsylvania. How did that come about?
Mohan: As a young South Asian, I’m very committed to busting stigmas about my community. Then I went to work in central Pennsylvania in Indian communities and they’re all working for Deloitte and they’re all IT people; it’s very bad for the whole life model minority stereotype thing. I will say our South Asian communities are indescribably diverse across PA. We have factory workers up in Scranton who are Gujarati and they’re unionized through SEIU and they all live on the same block. In years where we could do it, they’d go knocking on doors in their own neighborhood. The union would give them a list and they would say these three people are in India so we’ll shoot them a WhatsApp message, these five people are at work right now so we’ll talk to their aunties and uncles and make sure that they get registered to vote, these 20 people would be home right now, all right, we’ll go knock these doors.
Then in central Pennsylvania you have a mix of it folks who are working for the state, often times in IT or medical work. You have large number of folks who are at universities and then you have this enormous population of Sikh workers especially in the trucking depots out in central Pennsylvania and then Bhutanese refugees folks, ethnically Nepali from Bhutan, who were resettled in the suburbs around Harrisburg. It’s the second largest Bhutanese resettlement in the country outside of Columbus, Ohio. They came here out of a genocide; they’re incredibly working-class. English proficiency is not always what it could be and then thre’s the amount of trauma they’ve faced such as elders who survived wars and genocide and the crossings.
When I was at the state, a lot of the work was dealing with substance abuse issues, gambling issues and mental health issues stemming out of just the amount of trauma so many of our refugees communities have in central PA. Our communities are just more spread out and so there’s a lot fewer cultural institutions compared to Chinatown. There are the whole lot of folks in Chinatown who really need a lot of support, but cultural institutions are there providing a safety net. In so many cases non-Asian hospitals and institutions just don’t provide for folks.
Eddie: The diversity of the of the population that you serve is also reflected in your staff which has South Asians (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali, Bhutanese, Sri Lankan), Chinese, Vietnamese, and Koreans. Describe a little bit more kind of what your focus is right now.
Mohan: It’s winning this election. No offense to our comrades in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Georgia, but we see Pennsylvania as the make or break swing state. It’s a state that was won by 44,000 votes in 2016 and for the last four years our communities have been under constant attack. Long term we know we need to build power for our people at the local and state-level and we’re going to be the organization in Harrisburg, the state capitol, making sure that our state representatives and state senators are actually going to listen and fight for our people.
Then we’re going to show up at their offices and make sure they actually do what our folks need when it comes to language access protections, for clean air and water especially with so many of our communities resettled in an area with lead in the walls and lead in the water or asbestos in the schools. There’s so much more that needs to be done at the state level, but right now we’ve got to get this guy out of the White House and get someone in charge who’s not going to fearmonger about Chinese Americans, who’s not going to play politics with testing, who is not going to target our communities for deportation, who’s going to support access to healthcare – things folk need to survive. And to build a terrain where we’re not just playing defense every single day, where it’s not just a new attack on our communities every single day, but where we can actually have a moment of peace in order to build foundations for real progress.
(Editor’s note: Here’s a complete list of API PA’s endorsements for federal and state offices: https://apipennsylvania.org/about/wesupport/)
Eddie: Have there been advances made in voter registration? How does that lead you to think the turnout might be with your efforts?
Mohan: Because we’re on the C C4 side completely we’ve been leaving voter registration to our C3 siblings. We’ve been looking purely on two things: a) persuading folks who might be on the fence or might have the right values, but they’re just not bought into this political process for language access reasons and persuading them that these candidates on the ballot are right to vote for this year. Since September, we were focused on specifically holding Trump accountable for his actions on COVID-19 and talking to our community about the ways in which he has failed our people. And then b) signing up as many of our people to vote by mail in September and October. For the last month or so we can do political persuasion work up and down the ballot for Biden/Harris but also for Nina Ahmad for Auditor General, who, if elected, will be the first-ever Asian American state elected official as Auditor General and then for key state house and state senate seats to build a majority so we can actually pass progressive legislation. And then we will the launch the Get-Out-The-Vote (GOTV) program, so less on persuasion and more on we know where you stand, get out there and vote right now!
Eddie: I’m doing text banking with API PA and know you are tracking all the strong Biden/Harris supporters. Do you have any sense of how it’s going?
Mohan: It’s been so busy that I haven’t had a chance to look at the data for a hot minute other than for some battleground state House districts, but I will say both from our work and polling wise our communities, when we talk to them about what is at stake in this election in language they understand and whether that is Chinese or Vietnamese or even just meeting where they are in terms of issues – they’re dealing with can they afford healthcare – they overwhelmingly are in support of Biden and other Democrats. For so long that work just didn’t happen with our communities whether it was legally not having a C4 to do it or not being bought into doing that work in our communities and for our people. Our communities are overwhelmingly in support of fighting on the issues and against Trump. The real question is can turn them out whether it is to satellite election offices so they can cast their vote early in-person or voting by mail using ballot drop box or whether it is making sure they have a mask and gloves and hand sanitizer so they can get out there and vote.
Nina Ahmad is the Democratic candidate for Pennsylvania Auditor General. Ahmad is a Bangladeshi immigrant who came to the U.S. to earn a PhD in Chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania. She married and stayed in the U.S. to raise a family and start a small business as a molecular biologist. She served with many nonprofits and advocacy groups and most recently as Deputy Mayor for Public Engagement under Philadelphia Mayor Kenney.
Eddie: What’s been the most effective outreach tool?
Mohan: Nothing beats the canvas and I am emotionally very sad that we can’t go door-to-door this year. The dialer that we’ve been using is amazing. Last Thursday we made 76,000 calls in six hours and with previous technology we would have gotten one person make 60 calls in three hours. We’ve been hearing a lot of questions about election fatigue in swing states, but our folks are still so shocked to hear from an Asian organization that they’re just more willing to stay on the phone and talk about what’s at stake. We are also running relational organizing which is about getting close. Rather than talking to 50 or 5,000 random strangers, you talk to cousins or aunts or uncles and nephews about the importance of voting. A total of seven flights of mail hit last Friday and then also on last Friday morning, we put a six-figure digit ad buy up on Facebook, Hulu, Google. Asian Americans are about to get deluged about what’s at stake in this election. We made a video about candidates and their specific districts all the way down to the state house and provided information about naked ballads and secrecy envelopes and things that they have to do to make sure that their vote gets counted when voting by mail.
Eddie: Do you think Kamala Harris will have an impact?
Mohan: We’re on the independent expenditures side so we’re not able to coordinate with the Biden/Harris campaign, but I think there have been two or three events with her in the Philly area. Polling wise we definitely have seen just a sharp spike in terms of the moment she was picked as VP, just a sharp spike in terms of approval from the fact that she would be our first in the White House.
Eddie: As you move into GOTV, a big emphasis seems to be Philly and the collar counties. What’s the plan?
Mohan: Of the 500,000 or so Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Pennsylvania, 67- 70% of them live in what’s called southeastern Pennsylvania. That’s Philly, the Philly suburbs and in the Lehigh Valley. Right above it is Bethlehem Steel, the old mining towns – places that were union strongholds but thanks to the ‘90s deindustrialization and everything that came with it are now just huge concentrations of immigrant communities especially both our folk and Latinx communities. As many folks get pushed out places like New York and New Jersey because they can’t afford it there, they’re coming to Pennsylvania to live. We’ve seeing an incredible diversification in parts of Pennsylvania, not just in Philly and Pittsburgh, but also in places like the Lehigh Valley where we have a crucial congressional district. I don’t know if you’ve heard that Biden is from Scranton in northeast Pennsylvania.
Eddie: Yes, but that was a long time ago.
Mohan: Yeah, he might have mentioned it once or twice. But now there are now Indian workers up there, there are Burmese refugees up there, there are Syrian communities up there and there’s a concentration of Korean doctors and medical workers who moved there back in the ‘70s. There is this idea especially outside of the state that Pennsylvania is Philly and Pittsburgh and then kind of Alabama in between and that Asians are in Chinatown and South Philly and that’s about it. Not that it was ever true but it’s less and less so every single day and that’s what important when it comes to making sure that we’re actually serving our people and serving our communities. We need to make sure that they have childcare, jobs and access to government and clean air and water. It just means strategically that as an organization we have the ability to make change not just in places like Philly and Pittsburgh but in crucial districts all across the state where these races were won or lost by five hundred votes. We have 500 Indians or 2,000 Chinese or 3,000 Koreans in that district and they never bothered to talk to you before about politics or about getting involved in the process of making change.
Eddie: You mentioned the concentration of AAPIs in the Philly area and we’ve seen large multi-racial demonstrations there for Black Lives Matter. Do you see more interaction now among AAPIs and other nationalities?
Mohan: Absolutely. Our 3C organizations are in the community day in and day out especially doing direct services. In the Philly area, there is this long, amazing history especially around the public schools and fighting gentrification and making sure that housing is affordable for everybody. Much more recently things like fighting deportation in North Philly where the same folks who are coming for Southeast Asian folks are coming for Latinx folks when it comes to tearing families apart. With multiracial solidarity it’s a long, long history but I think it’s a lot more obvious now that our fates are just completely intertwined.
Eddie: Are you recruiting a lot of volunteers among Asian Americans?
Mohan: Absolutely. I mean it doesn’t hurt to be the only game in town when it comes to Asian political work this year, but I’m really proud of both of our volunteer side and paid staff. You’ve seen the 30 to 35 people coming in for phone banking and relational organizing. We’re also just incredibly proud of the number of paid phone bankers and texters to come on staff especially for the final push.
Eddie: Are you still calling for volunteers from outside of Pennsylvania?
Mohan: Absolutely, the last two weeks of the election is just everything you’ve done before times 10. Every single volunteer we can source from anywhere is great. Pennsylvania is the place to be when it comes to making sure that we take back the White House and so we would definitely love anyone and everyone volunteering. What you been doing up until this point, for example, has been talking to a multiracial voters as long-term persuasion conversations with our folks and for the good of the broader progressive coalition. Because of the number of volunteers we have and the number of staff we have, we actually committed to the entire state. Right up until election day, it’s just going to be talking to every single targeted Asian voter in the state by text, mail, or digital ads making sure they turn out.
Editor’s Note: I have enjoyed phone texting with API PA. Once you complete an easy training session, you jump on a Zoom call and meet your fellow volunteers who are from all over the U.S. Each session is 90 minutes and one can text up to 1,000 people or more in that time. You wait for replies to your text and use a pull-down menu to reply to their questions. It’s fast, easy and very productive. and Sign up for text banking for API PA by clicking here: https://secure.everyaction.com/p/epSfz2KSY0-MecJnwGelxA2.