“It was really thinking about my relationship to my homeland that actually brought me into thinking about space and place.”

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Tonia Sing Chi (TSC): This is Tonia Sing Chi, and I’m here with Nupur Chaudhury for Storytelling Spaces of Solidarity in the Asian Diaspora.

I would love it if you would tell me about how your identity as South Asian has played a role in your experience growing up. What was your family home like? Did you grow up around other South Asians or immigrant families?

Nupur Chaudhury (NC): Sure. So I grew up right outside of Boston, Massachusetts, so a suburb of Boston, a city where there was diversity, not a ton of South Asians. And I’ll add really at the jump that although I’m South Asian, there’s another piece of my identity because of the fact that my father is Bengali and my mom’s Gujarati. They’re from very different places in India, and so there’s this experience that I had growing up where I was definitely in an Indian household, a South Asian household. But within it there was a nuance where Gujaratis that I came across always felt like me and my brother were never Gujarati enough. And then Bengalis felt the same way—that we were never Bengali enough. And so we never really even felt at home in the South Asian community, which I think is important to mention at the jump because I was exposed to a lot of diversity and there were some South Asians, but the South Asians that we were exposed to weren’t really open to this idea of the fact that we were essentially living in and from a mixed household.

TSC: That’s really interesting to hear you talk about that tension of being from different parts of South Asia within your own family. How did you interface with people who were not South Asian?

NC: I grew up in Brookline, Massachusetts, which is a suburb of Boston. It’s a predominantly Jewish community, and so it’s a very white other-centered community. So there was synergies around the fact that the Jewish community had an experience of being othered in the US but they were white. And so there were some similarities around it and some differences. I think growing up in the eighties and the early nineties in that area—especially being a part of the Boston community and the fact that both of my parents are physicians—there’s a lot around academics and there’s a lot around academic achievement. And kind of that piece is very much a doorway of getting into spaces and places, being able to be allowed into conversations. And so a lot of my currency growing up was around my academic achievement and then my identity was second. And so I grew up in a household and was kind of affirmed when I was able to academically achieve. And then after that, there might be conversations about where I’m from or kind of where my parents are from or what food we eat or things like that.

TSC: Did you feel like there were spaces outside of just your family home where you found community or places where you saw yourself or your experiences reflected while you were growing up?

NC: I think that one of the really important pieces that I’ll mention is that my mother’s brother—so my uncle and my two cousins—grew up maybe 45 minutes away from me. And so there was a little bit of affirmation in the fact that we had family that was close by. But I’ll also mention the fact that my uncle married a Gujarati woman who was Muslim. And so, again, there was this piece around connection, but also fragmentation. So I grew up with this understanding that there is this idea of India as a nation and South Asia as an identity, but also this fact that there are so many nuances within it. I was very rarely exposed to what you would think of as a full Bengali home or a complete Gujarati community because there were so many different nuances within it.

I understood at a very young age that you can be Gujarati first and then have multiple religions either Hindu—my mother is Jain, which is a completely different religion, and then my aunt is Muslim. And then you have my dad who’s Bengali, who actually is from—he calls it pre-partition India because he’s from what is now Bangladesh, and he considers himself Bengali first, but was forcefully displaced because of his religion. He’s Hindu and he was born in Bangladesh where it became a predominantly Muslim nation. And so this idea of being Bengali first and then Hindu and Muslim second—there’s also this idea that you can be Bengali and also have different religions and have languages that have different dialects. So there’s this piece around the fact that when I have conversations or when I had conversations growing up with people who were South Asian or people who looked at South Asians, there was this belief that there was this singular identity, and I understood at a really, really young age that it just wasn’t that simple.

So I’ll say one of those pieces definitely was the fact that we had family that was close by. I think the other piece that I’ll share is the fact that, about maybe 15 minutes away from where I grew up, I took classical Indian dance classes. And so that’s like the equivalent of probably taking ballet classes. There’s a very classical, traditional history within it. There’s also a piece within it where you learn a lot about specifically Hindu mythology. So thinking about a specific South Asian culture, but classical Indian dance usually originates from South India where I’m not from. So I grew up in this household where my mom understood and learned Bengali from my dad. She was also speaking Gujarati to her brother, my uncle, on the phone. I understood that my aunt was Gujarati, but she’s Muslim, so that’s a very different community.

And then every Saturday morning I was learning parts about my culture, but it was in a completely different language, and it was from a South Asian culture. And so, again, this idea that there were pieces of myself that were belonging in certain places, but also there were pieces that there was just a real dissonance or kind of a lack of affirmation within it. And trying to figure out how to be okay with that was something that is still a lifelong journey.

TSC: I think a lot of us are aware of the nuances and granularities within the identities we hold. And people from the outside looking in, naming us one way or racializing us in another way, obviously don’t see that. It’s interesting to hear about all the tensions within even just your own family and the overlapping, even polarizing ways that you understood that.

One of the questions that I asked on the pre-interview questionnaire is, “How do you describe your racial or ethnic identity?” It’s been interesting for me to see the variation in responses. Some people are really specific, naming where their grandparents, great-grandparents came from, and some people are less so, choosing to put “Asian American.” I noticed your response was South Asian, and that you named your ancestors were from pre-partition India, so it was interesting to hear you share a little bit more about that. I’m curious when or how you become aware of your racialization as Asian or South Asian in this country. Do you identify as Asian? And in what ways might that identity or racialization empower or limit you?

NC: Sure. I went to a small, liberal enough private school in Boston where they were politically correct in some ways, so they understood and acknowledged difference. But at the time and place that I grew up, they would have—I don’t know what you would call it, whether it was afternoon clubs or whatever it was, and there were ones that were related to people’s identities. And the club that was for Asians was all East Asians. And so I was very, very clear that people saw me as a part of this larger group that I didn’t see myself in.

I will say that growing up there was a lot of frustration within that because of the fact that I didn’t see myself in that group; there’s a total lack of affirmation. Forget about collective organizing, even in grade school, high school, what have you. Because of the fact that I could not see myself anywhere, there was a real lack of understanding or even a lack of affirmation that I mattered or I belonged anywhere. So, even within the Asian club that we had in junior high and high school, you would have more than one Japanese student; you would have more than one Vietnamese student; you’d have more than one Chinese. So, at the very, very basic level, you would see someone else that would affirm the fact that you exist in this world as you are. 

Interview Segment: Like wearing an itchy wool sweater


Nupur Chaudhury, she/her

Interview Date:
April 03, 2023

South Asian identity, Bengali identity, Gujarati identity, Hindu, Jain, Muslim, code switching, cultural holidays, urban planning, community development, public health, nonprofits, philanthropy, MBA, Black and Brown solidarity,

Boston, Pre-partition India. Brownsville, Brooklyn, New York, Kolkata, India

Quit India Movement, UN Habitat, UNICEF India, IE University, Brown University, Martin Luther King Jr., Dalits, Brown Girl Magazine, Shalini Agrawal 


Ancestral Land:
Pre-partition India

Outside of Boston, MA

Current Land:
Lenapehoking (New York, NY)

Diaspora Story:
They migrated in 1978/1979, first to Mt. Vernon, New York, and then to Boston. Prior to that, my mom and dad independently migrated to Manchester, England, and met and fell in love there.

Creative Fields:
Urban Planning, Community Development, Public Health.

Racial Justice Affiliations: Dark Matter U, Design As Protest, Trust Based Philanthropy

Favorite Fruit:
mango, specifically an alphonso mango from India

Nupur Chaudhury is a public health urbanist who looks at cities, communities, and connections through a grassroots lens. A bridge builder and translator in the fields of urban planning and public health, she has developed and implemented strategies to support residents, communities, and neighborhoods, challenging power structures to build just, strong, and equitable cities. She has led coalition-building efforts after Superstorm Sandy, redeveloped power structures in villages in India, and developed a citizen planning institute for public housing residents in Brownsville, Brooklyn. Her work spans the nonprofit, philanthropic, and governmental systems, and has been featured in the American Journal of Public Health, CityLab, National Public Radio, and the National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicine. She is a core organizer for Dark Matter University, an Urban Design Forum’s Forefront Fellow, and a Salzburg Global Seminar Fellow. She was a founding director of the Center for Health Equity, housed at the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. She holds degrees from Columbia University (Master’s in Public Health), New York University (Master’s in Urban Planning), and Bryn Mawr College (BA in Growth and Structure of Cities).



And so there’s a real understanding that I had of the fact that I really did have to fragment myself based on where I was at and who I was with and what I was doing. There wasn’t that language around code switching. And code switching is usually around language, but I would move further than that and actually even say my presence and how I showed up was different based on whether I was in school, in Indian dance class, with Bengali folks on the weekend, or with my cousins. It was just very, very different. I think that I was, from a very young age—I would probably say, when I was in elementary school—very cognizant of the fact that we got holidays off for Jewish holidays. I was also super clear that there was a big group of Jewish students, and I was super clear that I was not one of them. And so our holidays we didn’t get off because it was just me. So, like, I would probably say maybe second or third grade.

TSC: The holidays element is interesting because a lot of people who have lost some connection with their identity in their childhood due to various reasons (assimilation, safety, lack of affirmation) are now, as older people, looking towards celebrating holidays as a way to reclaim those identities. But, also, I think a lot about how I’ve lost a lot of that knowledge myself just from not having those days off in school and not having the ability to celebrate or learn about them because our school didn’t allow for it.

I also think that piece you touched upon about belonging within the Asian club—and how you were being viewed as part of a group that you didn’t see yourself as—is so important, and something that I want to think a lot more about through this project—I’ve had South Asian friends say to me, “Am I Asian?” And I’ve impulsively responded with, “Of course you are!” But even within that small interaction is exactly the larger phenomenon and dynamic you’re talking about. Thank you for sharing that and allowing me to reflect more on it.

I want to talk a little bit about your work. Something I find really interesting about you and your approach and what I know about it is that you’re always working at the intersection of many fields—urban planning, public health, design, community development, community engagement and now business—all of it kind of through this equity lens. How would you would describe your work and how your upbringing and your identity has shaped your creative path and the way that you approach your work.

NC: I feel like I’m always evolving how I talk about my work because I feel like my work is always evolving, but I’ll start with the fact that I call myself a public health urbanist—so I look at cities, I look at communities, and I look at connections through a grassroots lens. I’m very, very interested in that intersection between urban planning and public health around space and health, and how folks can really be thinking about not just co-creating but actually leading their vision of their future—whether it is their own personal vision, their community vision, their spatial vision. What are the ways that we can change systems so that it actually skews towards community rather than these white supremacist systems? So I’m always very interested in that.

I will say that I think that I find myself—and I actually encourage myself to be at the intersection, a lot for the reasons that I’ve shared with you in terms of my upbringing, because of the fact that it is so much of how I have moved in the world—that it seems very odd to me to be firmly within one space, one field, one lens—that just doesn’t—I know that the world is so different because of the way that I’ve grown up, who I am, kind of my upbringing. And so it seems very odd to me to kind of firmly place myself within one space and place. In my career, I’ve leaned on one side or another, whether it’s urban planning and community development or public health because of the fact that there actually just were never positions that merged the two of them, and so I had to be jumping back and forth between the two of them.

I’ll say the way that I got into it actually was because of my South Asianness. When I was in college, I was really trying to figure out a way that I could connect with and be a part of South Asia in a way that didn’t involve my parents. Traditionally, I’ll say in the South Asian community, you grow up, you spend winter break or summer, what have you, spending three weeks in South Asia with your parents. You’re with family. They take you everywhere. You do a bunch of shopping; you eat lots of things. You meet family that you don’t really know, and then as soon as you get used to the time change, you’re back in the US. And I really was just trying to figure out the fact that there was this real connection to this homeland of mine that I wanted to understand more about.

I was really, really connected to my grandparents; even though they were both based in South Asia, they came to Boston many, many times. My grandfather on my father’s side was actually there during my birth, and he was the one who actually took care of me as my mom was recovering from childbirth because my dad didn’t get a ton of time off. I think this was pre-paternity leave and all that kind of stuff. My grandfather is an amazing, amazing man because he was someone who was in medical school and dropped out of medical school because of India’s fight for independence. And so he was a part of a lot of the organizing and a lot of the protesting around this concept of the Quit India Movement. It was trying to get the British basically to leave India. And so there was a lot that at that time young college students were doing to be able to really make the case both on the streets and then also politically.

And so he was incarcerated for—I want to say—a little over a year in the equivalent of Rikers Island. It was an island off the coast of India. It’s called the Andaman Islands. And so, because of that, he had to drop out of medical school, and he became a traveling salesman to make ends meet. But he was someone who I really, really connected with. And early on in my college career, he passed away very suddenly. I wasn’t there when my grandfather had passed, but I wanted to be in his space. And so, when I was in college, I was like, What can I study? Like what are the things that I can do that can take me to India and what could that look like? So I played around with the idea of literature and creative writing. To this day, I still consider myself a creative writer, but I was studying South Asian literature and it didn’t feel right. Then I was looking at history and thinking about, like, the history of the Indian diaspora—could that be a part of it? Took some classes in that—didn’t feel like the major was one that would really support my relationship with India.

And then I came across this major that’s unique to my college called the Growth and Structure of Cities. And so you studied how cities would form and function and grow through the lens of urban planning and architecture, but also through the lens of anthropology and history and sociology. And that department was very, very supportive of me saying, “I see myself going to India every summer doing primary research,” and they’re like, Great! And I’m like, “I want to be taking classes in understanding the history of the diaspora, understanding how space and place are defined. I want to understand this language of difference through space and place.” And they’re like, Awesome! We’ve never had anyone who is doing this; we support you a hundred percent. 

“Code switching is usually around language, but I would move further than that and actually even say my presence and how I showed up was different based on whether I was in school, in Indian dance class, with Bengali folks on the weekend, or with my cousins.”

And so it was really thinking about my relationship to my homeland that actually brought me into thinking about space and place. And I think that that’s invariably so much of what Asians in general feel when they go to their homeland and then they’re in another place. The energy of the space is just different. The sites, the sounds, the smells—forget about sidewalk setbacks, forget about streets and whether they’re up to code! You are physically in a different space, but you also feel it in your bones. And there’s a way that actually urban planning and urban design speaks to some of that, or maybe a lack of it, or a different kind of—I’ll say a different aesthetic kind of really makes you feel that, and so I was excited to dig into that.

And so, to be honest, it was actually my relationship to India and my desire to have a deeper relationship that actually brought me into this idea of what would it look like for me to start thinking about space and place, examining it. And then the idea of changing it for community withcommunity came after that.

TSC: That is such an incredible story. I didn’t know that about you! And it’s interesting to hear that that is where you started. I’m curious now whether any of your work nowdirectly addresses South Asian identity and history, and if so, what is the experience of doing that work like for you?

NC: Yeah, it’s interesting because my trajectory has been this really organic, very, very slow flow, down this river that I don’t even know where I’m at now, and now I’m thinking about new and different things. I had started doing a lot of international work. I was working at the UN, I worked at UN Habitat, I was a part of UNICEF India doing a couple projects there, and thinking about space, place, and health. So I was looking at maternal mortality and how forced displacement affected that. So there were all these really interesting things, but when it came down to it, again, it was this idea that the system or the field was not set up for someone like me. So the only place and space that I could find myself in was being an international development consultant.

And so I’d spent some time doing that in college. I was doing some of that in grad school when I was getting my urban planning degree and my public health degree. And it didn’t feel right because it created such a difference between myself and folks that I worked with that I ended up really thinking about what’s the work that I could be doing in the states—and could that feel different? Would there be a closeness that I could experience in which there wouldn’t be these walls between an international development organization and then a local nonprofit or things like that? And so then I started down this path of thinking about local work, which is how I came across a lot of the community organizing work that I did, specifically in Brownsville, Brooklyn, in New York with a public housing community there that was looking at health and space and place.

And I’ll say that the folks that I work with now still to this day, the folks that I met with then, the closeness that I felt in terms of, like, we are of the same people, even though we were so different—I’ll say that that was the longing that I had—that we are doing this work together. And so I did think that I would feel that, or I did think that that would kind of be my role doing international development work, and it really wasn’t. And I think that looking back on it now, it just really speaks to the fact that the systems aren’t set up for folks like myself, where I have experience and expertise from the US, but I have a connection to India and there’s an opportunity to think about a bridge between the two. Unless you’re thinking about becoming an ambassador to, or working for, USAID, where there’s a dynamic where you are more powerful, that you are like, I know the answers, I’m trying to implement that on you for Indian nonprofit or for Indian community—that’s the dynamic. Unless you’re into that dynamic, there’s not a ton that you could be doing.

At least this was when I first started out my work, which is how I kind of came across some of the work that I was doing here in the US, saying that, okay, I’m Indian—I’m also American in really weird ways. And so are there ways that I could actually be of service here? I mean, I’ll say the first time that I got off the subway in Brownsville and kind of went up the steps, I was like, Oh, this actually feels like Kolkata, India. And it was both how people were interacting with each other as well as the sounds that I was hearing, as well as what was happening on the streets in the sense that people knew people. People were in relationship with people. And I was like, Oh, okay, I think I understand some of this to be able to be of service to folks here. And then that’s kind of how I developed this trajectory of doing work here in the US.

I will say that recently I have been thinking more and more about what it means to be doing work in India, which is part of the reason why I went back to school and I’m getting an international MBA because I want to think about what it looks like to bring my expertise and my experience to other countries—India and other places as well.

TSC: I’m excited. I want to interview you again in ten years.

NC: Sure! Yeah. I mean, I’ll say that you had asked a little bit specifically about the business school piece of it, right? Because—it’s wild that I even did it. But as someone who—I’ve worked in nonprofits, I’ve worked in government, I’ve worked in philanthropy, funding nonprofits—I’ve really been in this circle around what does it mean to fund and support and build the capacity of grassroots organizations, nonprofits, and things like that. I was experiencing again and again,  just the people that have the most money and the most power are for-profit businesses. And they’re not people like me working there, or at least I didn’t see them, or they weren’t making themselves known. And so, as someone who’s working in communities and would see these large hospitals and these health systems that—okay, some of them were nonprofit, but a lot of them are for-profit systems—and realizing that they weren’t in relationships with the communities that they were in, I was like, There’s got to be a different way to kind of explore all of this.

But the first step is to really just understand how they think, what they do, what’s the language that they use, because the moral imperative is not what motivates them. And it’s like, I have gotten to this point where I actually don’t have judgment around it, where I’m like, all right, whether or not it’s the right thing to do, it does not motivate you. So what doesmotivate you? Let me understand that piece of it. So that’s kind of like how I got into business school. (laughs) I just finished midterms and I’m like, Am I doing this? Yeah, I’m in it, it’s happening! (laughs)

TSC: Wow. So you just finished your midterms. Is it a one-year or two-year MBA?

NC: It is a fifteen-month MBA, so it’s like a year and some change.

TSC: Okay. And the Spain part was how long?

NC: So the way it’s set up is that—it’s a really interesting program because it’s a joint degree between IE in Spain and then Brown in the US. And so we toggle between Providence and then Madrid, and then in between we do some virtual work, but we do intensive work for two or three weeks where we’re, like, taking all classes for like three weeks straight, and then we go online, and then we go back and we’re, like, taking classes for three weeks straight, and then we go online. It’s crazy, but it’s also super interesting.

TSC: It’s interesting to hear how you kind of moved from international work to local work, back to the international work. I’m curious: When you started to find your community here of people that you were working with, what was that experience like? And, also, did you ever experience resistance to your role or your presence in racial justice or solidarity work?

NC: Oh yeah. I mean, always because of the fact that I’m a South Asian who is financially privileged, who is, also, I’ll say racially privileged in the sense that I am of color, but I’m not a Black person. So people can insert me into, like, a job or they can insert me into a panel to say, We have diversity in this panel or in this department, but it’s like the safe way of doing it, right? Because traditionally South Asians do not speak up; they do not challenge the status quo. They do not do a lot of things. And so there’s a lot of people being able to leverage the fact that I am of color but not Black. And I’m very, very cognizant of this. I think that it’s becoming more and more known, but I don’t think that people really knew that I was in relationship with, and I’m now married to, a Black man. And so that changes a lot.

Once people find that out—like people in power who are thinking about maintaining status quo, but actually just kind of changing the shutters, if you will. Once they find that out, they’re like, Oh, wait, okay, so this is actually not what we bargained for. We bargained for someone who was like, not white, but not super progressive. Not white, but not like super into racial justice in that way. It’s been one of the biggest challenges that I’ve had professionally in the traditional working world. 

“It was really thinking about my relationship to my homeland that actually brought me into thinking about space and place. And I think that that’s invariably so much of what Asians in general feel when they go to their homeland and then they’re in another place. The energy of the space is just different.”

Interview Segment: The energy of the space is just different

So me being a consultant is totally fine because I can decide who do I work with, who do I get to be in relationship with, and what jobs do I want to take. But when I am in a system of white supremacy—so when I’m working for government, when I’m working for philanthropy, even when I’m working for a nonprofit—it is a huge challenge because I think people don’t understand how I can be a South Asian woman of two doctors and also be really committed to solidarity amongst Black and Indigenous folks. It does not compute in their mind.

And so then, further than that, they don’t understand what it means to utilize myself as a strategy for Black liberation. So, working in Brownsville, a lot of what I use to talk about with the community and how we used to plan together was the fact that, okay, I have a master’s in public health and urban planning, city agencies will talk to me because of the fact that I work for this nonprofit that’s led by this person, and I have the right letters behind my name, so I have those degrees. You have a degree in Brownsville, you know what needs to happen, you understand what will happen if we do this in five years or so. So together we can start thinking about what it looks like to create the change that you want, and when do we need to leverage my body and when do we need to think about putting you there?

There was a lot of strategy around that, and I think that people were really surprised about that. And so there was a piece of, like, working for a white-led nonprofit and kind of thinking about how to leverage degrees or pedigree or whatever to support what the vision was that the Brownsville community had. There was a whole other piece that I started working on that was like, What does it mean to break down this idea of nonprofits led by white people not from Brownsville? And so then, like a lot of work that I was doing there, and still now was like, How do you see Brownsville-led organizations that are for folks that are from Brownsville? And then what are the ways in which I can leverage myself around that?

So one of the biggest examples was my intern—was thinking about a project that he wanted to develop for the nonprofit that we were both working for. And I said, “This should not go under the umbrella of this nonprofit. You should start your own organization. I’ll chair your board. I will work with you to develop your organization as a chair of the board, but you are the one that’s leading it. So I’m going to follow your lead on this.” So we worked together for ten years to develop the organization. It’s gone through a couple of different iterations, but now their operating budget is like a million dollars.

And so then, like, there’s another organization that I’ve been working with that there were two women who would really—and rightfully so—challenge the work that I was doing when I was working for this nonprofit. They started up their own nonprofit; I started supporting them. And then, once I became a program officer at a foundation, I was like, "Great, how can I fund your work? What does this look like? And what do I need to take away in terms of barriers so that you can have this money as flexible and as free as you need it? And then what panels do I need to put you on because you’re trying to meet x, y, and z person?”

So again, it’s like a strategy in thinking about, as someone who’s a South Asian woman who philanthropy will say like, Okay, she’s brown enough to be allowed in the room, but not so brown that will, like, actually challenge us—working around a lot of different systems and kind of a lot of different cracks to be able to say, All right, you can let me into the room and also this is what’s going to happen, and also these are the things that need to change. I think that folks never realize what they’re going to get when they hire me.

TSC: I’ve heard someone describe Asians as Swiss Army Knives. Part of that is that people will use us in whatever ways they want to in order to serve their needs. But, on the flip side, we, as Asians, can think about what power we hold in being placed in those roles. What rooms are we let into and what privileges do we hold that we can then leverage to uplift people who didn’t get in the door? How can we create our own rooms and open our own doors? You’re touching upon a lot of these issues that I think about a lot, specifically with Asians in relationship to BIPOC solidarity.

NC: I think that I’ll say that there are not a ton of—just in terms of my own personal life—there are not a ton of what they call, like, “Blindian” relationships—like Black and Indian relationships. But the folks who are connected—we actually do have a lot of conversations around this across the country—who are just like—and they may not be working around these fields at all— but, like, how they leverage their South Asianness or how they leverage kind of their ability to be accepted or let into rooms or things like that. And like, what does that do for the South Asian community or not, or things like that? I mean, in the summer of 2020, there was a lot around anti-Blackness in the South Asian community, and there were a lot of conversations that South Asians led, really with their elders, to really talk about how so much of this is embedded in supremacy from colonization.

And that—it is deeply within the bones of South Asian elders that they don’t even realize it, right? Everything from, like, skin whitening to like thinking about kind of alignment between race and class that are not actually real. Like, thinking about the fact that in the South Asian community, if you’re Hindu, what they will say is that, like for a South Asian woman, do not come home with anybody who’s Muslim or do not come home with anyone who’s Black. When you hear that, what does that tell you? And how do you move in the world then? Regardless of whether or not you marry someone who’s Muslim or Black or whatever, how does that change the way that you approach the world? And then on top of that, the idea of, like, academic achievement and the ability to be invisible as a positive trait. Like, there’s all these coded behaviors that you have to break open and kind of challenge.

TSC: Absolutely. Something else that I’ve been hearing from other people that I’ve also experienced myself is a phase or a moment of distancing ourselves from your Asianness because we witnessed racism within our own communities.

Given the context that we know each other, which is Dark Matter U, I want to hear more—what personal experience brought you to Dark Matter U and Design as Protest? How did you find out about it? How did you get involved?

NC: I was brought in by a friend, colleague, Justin, who said, "Hey, so there’s a bunch of us having conversations on this WhatsApp group—let’s get you in here." And I’m like, "Really? Why?" I mean, I’ll say at that point—it was the summer of 2020—I was deep in philanthropy, challenging philanthropy. I was super clear that I was going to leave philanthropy because of the lack of movement that I saw. And so I’ll say that I ended up departing from philanthropy—I would say the end of 2020. And so I was just in a space where I felt like there was nothing right with this world. There is just absolutely nothing right in this world. As someone who was a health funder in New York State, which was the epicenter of the pandemic, and just being the only health funder was super traumatic.

And then, also, feeling like we weren’t doing enough for Black and Brown communities when the priority area that I managed at that time was onlyBlack and Brown communities. I could not understand in my brain why philanthropy was not throwing out the book and then just saying, We need to be thinking about these communities across the country, and we need to be thinking about funding them in a way where they can survive and live beyond this pandemic. And the conversations I was a part of—just philanthropy in general—I just didn’t see that. What I saw was that philanthropy’s endowments were getting bigger and bigger. So I was getting angrier and angrier, and that was when Justin approached me and said that there was a group of like-minded people on WhatsApp that I think you should be talking to.

It was a random Sunday that I got dropped into a WhatsApp group where people were having all these different conversations and I was just seeing phone numbers. I didn’t have anybody’s name saved in my phone, but I’m just seeing all these things. And I will say, as someone who, at that time—my now husband and I, we were living together, but he was an essential worker, so he was out of the house every day. So I was by myself, alone, reading this WhatsApp group being like, Okay, so there are people who are thinking about this stuff. There are people who are trying to figure out what to do. And for me as someone who is in solidarity with the work but not Black, my question always is, “Where do you need me and how can I help?”

It is not for me to decide what that looks like. It is not for me to lead: it is for other people, and I am ready. You just tell me what that looks like, and I’m ready to do it. As someone who is trained in urban planning on public health—and there were a lot of architects and designers—I was like, Ooh, I don’t know if I know what these people know. And it actually was Justin that was like, “You actually know stuff. There are very few people on this chain who have worked deeply with communities in the way that you have.” And I was like, “Okay. So what?” And he’s like, “No, it’s not ’So what?’ That’s everythingright now—you need to be here.”

And so then I think that that’s kind of like how it snowballed from there. I think at that time there was a deep conversation with the Van Alen Institute to think about how we could support the Gowanus community. And I remember that there was a lot of conversation—there were a lot of people who wanted to be a part of that project, and I was like, “Why? What’s going on? What’s happening?” And I think that people were talking to me because they wanted to be in relationship with community. People want to be understanding how they can utilize their expertise towards creating change. And for me—that’s my everyday life. I just didn’t understand that that was new or different or desired because that’s just what I do.

I think that it took me a while to understand that piece of it, and then once I understood it, I was like, Oh, okay. So based on what I know and based on where I come from, here are the things that I would suggest, here are the things that I would say. I think there was a lack of understanding even how you build and run an organization. And so, because I’d had experience around that—both funding organizations, but also building nonprofits and then also understanding how you fund nonprofits and then how you shape and organize nonprofits—I think that there were skills that I had that were in service to the larger vision. And so, again, it was just two years of, “What do you need? How can I help? Okay, you want me to help you with a budget? Got it. You want me to help you think through what a nonprofit structure would look like? Got it. You need help in thinking through how you shape a curriculum based on, and kind of led by, community members? Got it.”

So that’s kind of just how it happened. I think that now I’m trying to be a little bit more proactive to say things like, “There is expertise and knowledge that I have, and what do I want to be doing?” And I think that that is very different than how I usually act. How I usually show up is, “What do you need? How can I help?” And now I’m like, “I think that we need this, or I’m seeing that there is x, y, and z missing,” and so I want to fill that gap. That’s not my natural state of being, and so that’s an evolution of myself within that collective. And why I’ve kind of stepped away from a little bit of the operations piece of it and starting to think about—whether it’s syllabus development, whether it’s thinking about writing a little bit more—because like you, when I start talking about my work, people say, Oh my God, I didn’t know that. Have you written about this? And so I’m trying to make that a little bit more a part of my practice.

TSC: That’s amazing! And what you’re saying about your work being suddenly new and innovative in these spaces reminds of my experience as someone who studied historic preservation. I’ve noticed that whenever architects talk about something that other fields or other types of practitioners or communities have been doing forever, it becomes new and innovative all of a sudden. That’s always been a bit of a pet peeve of mine.

NC: Yeah! I mean, I remember when we were developing FODJ, you and I were in a smaller group, and you were fighting hard—and rightfully so—for the need for a section around historic preservation and why that was important. And I think there weren’t a lot of people in the room that kind of had that experience, and so it was so important for you to be there to be like, This is everything. You guys need to have this be a part of it because if we don’t train folks around that—so yeah, totally.

I think that there’s also a larger piece that I often struggle with in the fact that when I teach, I’m an adjunct, so I’m not deeply embedded within any academic institution. And any educating that I’ve done has been, like, in community centers with community members. That’s a different type of curriculum. That’s a different type of teaching and learning. That’s a different type of homework. It’s a different type of, you know, all that kind of stuff. And so, when there’s conversations around pedagogy or when there’s thinking about alternative visions, there’s a language around it that creates such a difference. But I also understand why people use it, because using that language is currency to let you into those academic spaces.

So from the outside I see it. I don’t even understand what that person said. I think they’re saying this, and also I don’t blame them for it because of the fact that we all are embedded within these supremacist structures. This happens to be the academic kind of ivory tower supremacist structure.

TSC: That’s a really good point. And thank you for bringing up that working group—I almost forgot about that! I don’t even remember what our section was called, but I think we were put together as an “other” category of some sort.

NC: Yup. It was like the non-design—non-housing—

TSC: Yeah, it was like you all go into a breakout room and talk about it. And I remember trying to put together resources and they were all so different. I don’t recall how it was all resolved, but I think it worked out in the end! (laughs)

NC: I mean, FODJ has now been taught in, what, at least fifteen different institutions? I think you’re good!

TSC: It’s exciting.

I think it’s interesting also to hear you talk about your role in DMU and how that’s kind of shifted and evolved. I would just love to hear you talk a little bit more about how you feel your identity as South Asian in these spaces has been part of that shift. From showing up and being like, “I’m here in the space of DMU—what can I do? How can I help?” But then also the piece of advocating for yourself or what your interests and skills are and how that might ultimately, in the end, benefit the institution in more ways than just showing up and helping.

NC: Sure. I’ve been reflecting on it a lot because it is a big change. And I think that, for myself, as someone who’s been doing this work for twenty years now—and thinking about it in a different way—means that I need to think about myself in a different way. And I don’t know how much of this is a midlife crisis or whatever that piece is. I mean, I did just enroll in business school.

I mean, there might be a part to that, but I think there is a very key piece of being a South Asian woman in the US. A lot of what I saw my parents do, even with their degrees, was to figure out how to be invisible. This idea of you show up, you do your work, you do it well, you don’t cause trouble, get your A’s, and then you get out because no one can take that stuff away from you. 

“I think people don’t understand how I can be a South Asian woman of two doctors and also be really committed to solidarity amongst Black and Indigenous folks. It does not compute in their mind. And so then, further than that, they don’t understand what it means to utilize myself as a strategy for Black liberation.”

Interview Segment: Utilizing myself as a strategy for Black liberation

And being trained in that type of way in the home, being affirmed in that type of way, whether it’s in high school or in college, getting into good schools and getting good grades, getting an Ivy League degree—all those things are an affirmation of what it means to embed myself within a white supremacist structure and to assimilate within that. Assimilate or be invisible, I’m not sure which one—maybe a little bit of both. But I’m actively saying now that I actually want to be visible. I actually want to show up as myself and not just as a body. And that is a very uncomfortable space for me to be in, because everything that I’ve learned has taught me something completely different.

So, when I talk about my work, I’m like, Well, in my experience, blah-blah-blah-blah-blah, right? This is what I’ve seen—this is what—not my expertise, not my achievements or things like that. Just a very, very unassuming—like, in my experience what I’ve seen or what’s come up is this. That is a very, very different way than for me to say, like, I was one of the few people that got a joint degree in urban planning and public health before there was even a joint degree. I was trained under Mindy Fullilove, who’s one of the foremost scholars in thinking about the health effects of displacement and thinking about root shock analysis, thinking about health equity and health disparities. I don’t talk about that a lot. It is so uncomfortable. It is like wearing an itchy wool sweater. I just want to take it off—like, I just don’t even want to wear it.

And so a lot of work that I am trying to do is a lot of unlearning around that. And to be like, It’s totally going to be uncomfortable, but you can no longer have this experience in which other people are saying things like, This actually is really important; you should be a part of this conversation. Or: We actually need your voice in the room. But to say, “Actually, you need me to be here because this is what you’re missing out on.” And for me, if it’s related to community members, if it’s related to neighborhoods that are just invested in, that’s my motivation; I will figure out a way to do it. But when it’s me as an individual, that’s when it becomes very, very difficult. And I think that that is so embedded within South Asianness that it’s like, I have trouble separating the two of them, really.

TSC: You said that so beautifully. Just like connecting the way that we grew up culturally with the role that we play as these invisible bodies showing up to both White and BIPOC spaces. I’ve thought a lot about that and how we’re never really the face of anything, and we’re kind of just there to sort of serve whatever purpose others are leading and moving forward. But then actually within that, there’s a kind of comfort because it’s what we know—it’s what we’ve grown up with. And so there’s a strong desire to be seen, of course, but then there’s also this fear of what that could mean. We don’t feel safe being visible in a lot of these spaces.

NC: You don’t feel safe! And I’ll add to that, that you feel like you don’t deserve it. You feel like you’re just helping out or you’re just in contribution of, but there’s nothing around here that there should be accolades or affirmation or things like that. Bringing it back to thinking about Black and Brown solidarity, I will say for myself, a portion of it is because I work very hard to center Black people. And so I’m trying to think about what it looks like to center Black liberation in my work, while also not forgetting myself. And I think I have not figured that out, but that’s so much of how I’ve shaped my work that it is like a square peg, round hole—whatever analogy you want to use—that’s how I feel.

“But I’m actively saying now that I actually want to be visible. I actually want to show up as myself and not just as a body. And that is a very uncomfortable space for me to be in, because everything that I’ve learned has taught me something completely different.”

But I’m in exploration around that because—I always think about the fact that the Dalit folks in South Asia in the sixties and fifties, I think—I can’t remember when exactly—they wrote a letter to Martin Luther King saying, We are in solidarity with what you are doing. We’re over here in India; we are watching you do the work that you’re doing around resistance—we don’t know what we can do, but we are in solidarity. It didn’t mean that they gave up or lost their identity. They were just saying, This is who we are, and this is what we’re doing over here in India. While you are doing this stuff in the US, let us join forces, even if it’s spiritually. That’s something that I think about a lot because I think about the ways that I can choose not to lose myself in the work while also being in service. I haven’t figured it out, but, you know?

TSC: That’s exactly it. I think about that question all the time through DMU and through this project. Actually the sort of impetus for SSSAD was for me to really spend some time thinking about this with others who I know are also thinking about this. With my work with my nonprofit, it is primarily or almost entirely serving an Indigenous community. And so I see my role there as somebody who is an ally, part of a coalition, working in solidarity. We have had a lot of conversations about things like: How do we present people on our website? Should we even have people who are not Indigenous on there? I’m always like, I know what you’re getting at, but I don’t think that the solution is to make everyone who isn’t Indigenous working on this project invisible. I don’t know what the perfect solution is in terms of visibility and transparency, but I want to think it through with more intentionality.

NC: I mean, I’ll say that related to DMU, Dark Matter U, I mean, we had a lot of internal conversations when we won the Black Innovators Award, and they wanted to take pictures of us. And I was like, I don’t want to be in these pictures. And they were like, No, you actually should be in these pictures. And I was like, “I’m not Black; I’m not a visionary; I’m not a Black visionary. I don’t need to be in these pictures.” The thing that motivated me was the fact that what they said was, By not being in that picture, you’re denying the fact that there have been a large group of Asians that have kept this organization together. And I was like, “Okay, got it.”

But even with that, it was because I was thinking about you and A.L. and Bz and Shalini and Joyce—all these other people. And I was like, Okay, because of them I’ll be in the picture, but if they were to say just me, I’d be like, "No, no.” And then you deny the fact that there’s so much that the Asian community has done—South Asian, East—like the Asian community has done in keeping shit together. I mean—and this struggle that folks have, myself included, of being behind the scenes, but keeping it together—where does that show up? How do you give homage to that? Like, what does that look like? And then being able to call on this exploration of what it looks like to be more visible and kind of step to the forefront is a whole additional piece around that. But the first piece is that there has to be acknowledgement of it.

TSC: Wow. Thank you for sharing that story. I’d heard Bz’s take on being included in the Instagram post, but I hadn’t heard yours on being in the photo shoot. I do think that there is a lot of erasure around solidarity between Asian and Black communities. I’m glad that someone brought that up to you in that way, and grateful that you took on that discomfort for the greater cause—because it is true that there are so many of us—I mean, I think a lot about all of you and the work you are all doing within DMU and in your own spheres as well. 

So I wanted to ask you a little about the future. What dreams and aspirations do you have for South Asians and South Asian diasporic spaces, and the people who are shaping them through design?

NC: Well, I think that I will say that, first and foremost, because we’ve talked about this a lot, just thinking about ways that South Asians can step into the forefront more and bring more of their South Asianness into their identity of their work—I think would be amazing. I think it goes beyond thinking about South Asians, thinking about projects in South Asia. It’s not just that. It’s thinking about what are South Asian aesthetics? What are the pieces of culture—knowing that the country is so nuanced—what are the pieces of culture that can embed itself in space and place when thinking about new realities or new spaces and places? I think that would be really interesting.

I’m really, really excited when I see South Asian women just being badasses around stuff. And so I’ve been really connected with this community that’s founded from Brown Girl Magazine, and it’s founded by a South Asian woman who was born, I think, maybe born in India but then came to the US at a very young age and built up a media company, primarily because they actually created an anthology. And I wrote a piece in that anthology around my South Asianness and my body and kind of identity and things like that. It’s a really interesting community that’s thinking about, Where can South Asian women be, and what does that look like?

It skews towards media, so it’s very, very different. But I want to see more South Asian women doing that type of work in the design world, in the world of urbanism, in the world of urban planning and community development, which is why I really admire Shalini and her work, Pathways to Equity. She was doing that work before it was a buzzword. And she’s on the West Coast, just doing the work, cohort by cohort, just doing the work, changing the field, so I’m always really inspired by her and I would love to see more folks like Shalini really take a stand around the field and the profession.

I think that there are some really interesting South Asian organizers that I would love to see lend their talents to the design world, just primarily because of the fact that they’re just such interesting brains and interesting approaches. There was this woman, also actually on the West coast, who was trained as an urban planner, but then ran for city council—I think in the Oakland area, or maybe somewhere in the Bay. I have to look her up. But I want to see more South Asian women doing that kind of badass work that’s like, Yeah, we’re actually not doctors, lawyers, or engineers, and we actually have no guidebook for this because everyone in our family are doctors, lawyers, and engineers, and we’re going to do it anyways. We’re going to figure this out; we’re going to make it happen because we have something to say; we have an opinion; we have a point of view—and it matters.

It matters how we show up, but also what we think about and how we think about things matters. I would love to see more of that because when it comes down to it my brother just had a baby girl two months ago, and I want my niece to see more badass South Asian women that I can point to and be like, "Look at these people. You can be like them; you can be thinking about the world in a completely different way. You can forge your own path, and it’s totally fine. In fact, it’s really encouraged.” So I’d love design and architecture to kind of take more of a stance on that.

I mean, the South Asians that I see are few and far between that do that work. I can name them on one hand; there’s just a couple. But more often than not, I just see South Asians embedding themselves in cultures of whiteness and I’m just tired of it. I’m just tired of South Asian architects or designers being in these white lead firms, or South Asians designers and architects really just being the brown face on an all-white team. I mean, it’s just that’s very 2018.

TSC: Or that’s like the woman of color, second person in power or whatever, working under white leadership.

NC: That was very last decade. I want to see something new and different for the 2020s, you know?

TSC: Yeah. That’s awesome. You’re already talking about this a little bit, but I have one last question for you. An important component of this project is really creating resources that’ll be useful for Asian American designers and creatives. And so I’m curious: What resources would you love to see for other Asian designers? Or what would you have loved to see—be part of as a younger designer?

NC: Yeah. I mean, it’s a really good question. I am not even sure what I would say in terms of, like—there’s a piece of visibility that I want to see. I don’t think there’s a how-to manual, but I do think that there’s some South Asians being more vocal about their trajectory, being more vocal about their failures, being open about their explorations to give permission to younger designers to explore new and different things. I will say, as someone who’s been doing this work for a long time, and because I’m kind of at the intersection of urban planning and public health, I do get a lot of young public health practitioners who are trying to think about their work in a different way. And I can see the hunger in their eyes. They just want to hold onto somebody and be like, Are you going to take me on the path? Is this the way to go?

And it’s a very difficult thing where I’m here to support you and this may not be the path for you. And you get to decide what that looks like because your elders, your parents, your ancestors really worked for almost the professional liberation that you get to experience now. But that means that you have to experience it and explore it and think about it. And I think a piece of it is, especially within the South Asian community, this fear of failure—this fear of the unknown is really uncomfortable for folks. I mean, I’ve shared it for myself as well, but being more comfortable with that, I think, is one thing that I would say that I would really covet from the white community. 

“It didn’t mean that they gave up or lost their identity. They were just saying, This is who we are, and this is what we’re doing over here in India. While you are doing this stuff in the US, let us join forces, even if it’s spiritually. That’s something that I think about a lot because I think about the ways that I can choose not to lose myself in the work while also being in service.”

White folks are okay with falling on their face and trying again, and they will go in front of a room of investors and be like, I’ve got three slides and this is all I got, and I think you should give me a hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars. Whereas it’s a very different story for folks that look like me. I want to see more of that brazenness amongst South Asian. (laughs)

TSC: Especially in the Bay Area here, there is that that tech-guy-with-the-white-t-shirt-and-the blue-jeans phenomenon. You can’t show up like that in a meeting looking like me and expect people to give you any sort of respect.

To close out, is there anything else you would like to share or to revisit?

NC: Ooh, anything else to revisit or share? I don’t think so. I mean, I think that I will say that one of the key pieces that, I mean—because I know that we’re focusing on design and thinking about urbanism and stuff like that—but I’ll just share that a key piece of a lot of my work also is this intersection of health and public health and this drive around disparities in health. The fact that people who look different or people who live in different places and spaces die earlier than other folks is baffling to me. And I am still at a loss as to why we continue to allow this to happen. I will say that that is a huge fuel for a lot of my work. 

I think my work plays out in community co-creation and design, thinking about urbanism work or community organizing work, but the fuel is around health and thinking about connection, belonging, and what we can do to make sure that communities can thrive in a way that we haven’t really acknowledged or even agreed that that’s a human right. So I’ll just share that piece of it that really is embedded with a lot of what I do and kind of why I do what I do.

TSC: Awesome. Well, thank you so, so much!

NC: You’re welcome! 

TSC: I really appreciate you and enjoyed this conversation. I’m going to be thinking about a lot of things you said for a long time to come, so thank you so much.

NC: You’re most welcome. I’m so happy to support you in this project because of the fact that I think that this project needed to happen moons ago, so the fact that you’re doing this now is so wonderful. So obviously call me if there’s anything that I can do, but also, if there are other things that you want to talk about or collaborate on or things like that, I’d like nothing better than to collaborate on things, whatever that looks like. I’m so inspired by the work that you do, just from what little I know of the work. So, if there’s ever any ways that I can support your work or think about us creating work together, let me know. I’m super, super open to that.

TSC: Thank you! I will keep that invitation in mind. I’m excited to cook something up.

NC: Most definitely!

“White folks are okay with falling on their face and trying again, and they will go in front of a room of investors and be like, I’ve got three slides and this is all I got, and I think you should give me a hundred thousand dollars or a million dollars. Whereas it’s a very different story for folks that look like me. I want to see more of that brazenness amongst South Asian.”

Posted March 25, 2024