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July 14, 1999


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Convention brings out South Asian journalists in numbers

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Apoorva Mandavilli in Seattle

Gone are the days when every young person of south Asian descent aspired to medicine or engineering as a career goal. Gone too are the days when south Asians in America were content to simply be a part of immigrant tidepools and not have their voices heard by the mainstream.

From Peter Bhatia, executive editor of The Oregonian and journalist for 30-odd years, to S Mitra Kalita, a 22-year-old reporter at the Associated Press, from Rekha Basu, widely syndicated columnist at the Des Moines Register to Fred de Sam Lazaro of the Lehrer Newshour on PBS, South Asian journalists are making waves at mainstream newsrooms and television stations across America.

Just last week, South Asian journalists made their presence felt at Unity '99, the largest convention of minority journalists, held in downtown Seattle. More than 6,000 minority journalists -- members of the National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists, Native American Journalists Association and Asian American Journalists Association -- descended on the city in celebration of their diversity and strength.

Although the 70-odd South Asian journalists, many of whom are members of AAJA, were a small group at the convention, they built bridges to the other communities as they coordinated and led panel discussions, participated in workshops, won scholarships, recruited young journalists at the job fair and reported for the convention newspaper.

"What struck me is that there is a growing number of [South Asian journalists] in mainstream news organizations," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, professor of journalism at Columbia University and co-founder of the South Asian Journalists Association.

SAJA organized a toast one evening at Unity to allow South Asian journalists meet others like themselves and in many cases, to match faces to names on the SAJA mailing list.

Unity'99 is the largest convention of journalists in history. The second such convention (the first was in 1994 in Atlanta), Unity addresses issues facing journalists of color within the newsroom and without. This year, the 6,000-strong gathering was powerful enough to draw the civil rights leader Jesse Jackson and presidential contenders George W Bush, Al Gore and Bill Bradley as speakers.

South Asian journalists at the convention included Somini Sengupta of The New York Times, Rajiv Chandrasekaran of The Washington Post, Vani Rangachar of The Los Angeles Times, Nirmala Bhat of The Seattle Times and Arun Rath of National Public Radio.

Many South Asians who are at senior positions at mainstream publications were also at the convention. Peter Bhatia, Ritu Sehgal, assistant to the managing editor at The Miami Herald, Geeta Sharma-Jensen, book editor of The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Jai Singh, executive editor at were a few of the senior SAJAers who were at Unity last week.

"I was there as a recruiter for my paper," said Sharma-Jensen, who has been a reporter for nearly 25 years. "It was delightful to see so many desis in positions with very good jobs in journalism. When I started off in '75, there were very few South Asian journalists," she said.

"US dailies are [now] highly conscious of having diversity in their newsrooms," she said, referring to the rising number of journalists of South Asian descent.

S Mitra Kalita is one such young journalist. She started writing for publications at 13, was editor-in-chief of the Rutgers University publication, the Daily Targum, and at 22, has been a reporter with the Associated Press for a year.

"[Unity] was very empowering and reminded me of why I went into journalism and that my background is an important part of my job," said Kalita. Seeing minority journalists of many different backgrounds reminded Kalita of the importance of "having a voice not just for our own ethnic community, but also for other people that may not find themselves in the newspaper."

The number of young, second-generation South Asians like Kalita who are choosing journalism over more traditional careers is on the rise. According to Sreenivasan, the average number of South Asian students in the journalism program at Columbia University has risen considerably in the last few years.

Sreenivasan's graduating class, seven years ago, had three students; last year, 11 South Asian students graduated from the program. "It's a very positive thing that people are getting into non-traditional careers instead of the usual computer science, medicine and engineering," said photojournalist Seshu Badrinath, who took days off his job to attend web design workshops at the convention.

"As a photojournalist there is no sense of legacy in Indian photography," he said. "The predominant face of Indian photography, to give India as an example, is through the perspective of Westerners. I think we [South Asians] have a unique perspective so we need more photographers, writers, editors to come out" and participate, he said.

Badrinath was encouraged by the number of South Asian journalists he saw at the convention. "We had more than 50 people at the SAJA cocktail hour and I can only estimate that there are many more out there who just didn't hear about the event," he said.

Bharti Kirchner, Seattle-based author of such novels as Sharmila's Book, contacted the Unity office after receiving an e-mail on the SAJA mailing list. At Unity, Kirchner coordinated the panel called 'So you want to write a book?' for 80 journalists.

Kirchner was disappointed by the small number of South Asian journalists at the convention. Nearly 400 people were at the SAJA annual dinner held in New York to the only 70 or so journalists at Unity. "SAJA is a very good forum and Sree [Sreenivasan] is a good moderator. Things move well and we're kept well informed," she said. But, while South Asian journalists "need our separate identities, we also need to be a part of Unity," she said.

Kalita also stressed the importance of a link to a larger forum such as Unity for South Asian journalists. At large gatherings of Indians at her university, Kalita, who is of Assamese descent, said, "If you were not of Gujarati or Punjabi descent, no one knew how to identify with you."

At Unity, she said, she felt a sense of community because whether she was mistaken for a Latin or Native American journalist or as South Asian, she was "still a minority, still "an 'other' in the newsroom."

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