Indian Americans in Lexington pulled off a historic victory last week — something not to be said lightly in a town known for historic victories. People of South Asian origin accounted for about 5 percent of Lexington’s population in the last census, but now that local election results have been certified, they make up about 10 percent of the local government. Last week, 10 new Indian American candidates were elected members of the Lexington Town Meeting, which has met for more than 300 years to enact local laws and decide how the town spends its money.
As an Indian American living in Lexington myself, I wanted to find out just how the community had pulled this off. Indian Americans are also referred to as South Asians — a more inclusive term to reflect roots in countries including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal — or, the preferred term among ourselves, “Desis.” There are plenty of communities in America with bigger concentrations of Desis than Lexington. But Upendra Mishra, who runs the newspaper and website India New England, said none of them have anywhere near the level of engagement and representation we see in Lexington.
“What Indian Americans in Lexington have done, it is absolutely stunning," Mishra said. "No other town has done what Lexington has done in the United States.”
What’s happened here is not an accident. Many people were involved, but the one name everyone mentions is Narain Bhatia, an Indian American who’s been a member of the Lexington Town Meeting for nearly 20 years.
Bhatia has lived in Lexington since 1973 and said last week’s election results are a dream fulfilled.
“I have always wanted Indian Americans [to] get into the town governance, because we are otherwise seen as foreigners,” he said.
Over the years he watched the South Asian community in Lexington grow, expecting to see more join him in the town meeting. But just a few years ago, there were only two Desis in the town meeting, Dinesh Patel and Bhatia. It seemed the other local Desis needed a “big push,” Bhatia said. “So, we created an organization called GIG: Getting Involved Group," he explained. "The purpose of that primarily was what you see the results of: namely to bring, into Town Meeting, people of Indian origin.”
The Getting Involved Group encourages community involvement across the board, but on the political side they’ve worked to recruit Indian Americans to run for positions and developed a crash course in local campaigning. All the candidates I spoke with said that GIG and Bhatia were crucial to their success.
“He’s a very generous person in terms of giving his time and advice, and he sort of mentored all of us,” said Deepika Sawhney, who won two seats in this election. She’s now a member of both the Town Meeting and the Lexington School Committee. Sawhney said the GIG meetings taught her the value of old-fashioned campaigning, through mailings, signs and personal connections.
“That has a huge impact because suddenly you know you're tapping into local networks, and those friendships may be much stronger than friendships on Facebook or some other social media,” she said.
The social networks have also been crucial for recruiting and campaigning. Ravish Kumar, co-president of the community group Indian Americans of Lexington, said his group does “a lot of work trying to get Indian Americans to be part of the community.” (IAL sponsored the Getting Involved Group, and Kumar is also a Town Meeting member.) Every fall they put on a massive Diwali celebration, “our signature cultural event.” It's also one of the group's biggest recruiting ground for our Town Meeting members. "We set up a stall, people come and ask questions," said Sanjay Padaki, a Town Meeting member. "We get a lot of people to sign up.”
The Desi Town Meeting recruits are all people who are already deeply involved in the community. Sawhney had spent years volunteering in the schools, and leading the Lexington STEM school clubs. Padaki put in time with the Lexington School committee and helped with the Lexington 300 celebration in 2013. He ran into Bhatia at a candidate forum a couple of years later, where they were discussing the best candidates. “He said, ‘Well, you seem to be very interested in this, you should run for town meeting.’ I said, 'Yeah, I thought about it, [maybe] one of these days.’ He said, ‘No, no, you should do it! You just have to get the nomination papers.’ I said, 'Yeah, I'll do it, maybe tomorrow.' He said, 'Let's go now.'” Padaki laughs as he recalls Bhatia physically escorting him to the town office to sign up.
Filing nomination papers is one thing but winning in such big numbers required more than just the support of other Lexington Desis. And that might seem like an uphill battle: Conventional wisdom would surely hold that the older, whiter residents of Lexington would be more inclined to vote for familiar incumbents whose names they don’t have trouble pronouncing.
That’s exactly why IAL and GIG recruit these individuals who are already deeply involved in the town — names and faces already familiar from volunteering with the school and library, the annual Patriots Day festivities, and everything else that makes Lexington what it is. “They've started understanding that we are just like them. We are part of this this fabric,” said Kumar, who in addition to heading IAL is also a Lexington Town Meeting Member and another of Bhatia’s recruits. “We cannot be separated out."
All the Lexington Desis I spoke with also gave a lot of credit for acceptance to old Lexington itself. “The town is very welcoming,” said Kumar, noting that local officials never turn down invitations to meetings and celebrations. “Over the last four or five years, we’ve worked very hard to create roots in this town. The voters don’t know much about the Town Meeting, but they’ve seen the things [we] do”
It’s a model other communities are looking to replicate. Recent Getting Involved Group meetings have seen interested attendees from Ashland and Arlington, two other Massachusetts neighborhoods with big Desi populations.