Month: March 2015

Breaking Into One of Los Angeles’ Toughest Boys’ Club

Monica Luhar for NBC News Asian America – March 10, 2015

Head shot of Nisha Sembi by Odell Hussey photo courtesy nisha sembi

Nisha Sembi captures the sights, sounds, and memories from her Motherland through a can of spray paint and the pages of her tattered black book. For Sembi, the world is a blank canvas, offering her a chance to illustrate the stories of the oppressed – those who she says have been left out of the narrative.

As one of the only female South Asian graffiti artists in Los Angeles, the road to this form of artistry wasn’t an easy one.

“When you are a young woman of color with immigrant parents, there seems to be a very specific path you are forced to follow,” Sembi, 26, told NBC News.

Nisha Sembi covers her face with a red bandana before spray painting her next mural photo.ODELL HUSSEY
Nisha Sembi covers her face with a red bandana before spray painting her next mural photo.

Sembi, a first-generation Sikh American, was born and raised in Berkeley, California. Her mother was from Punjab, India. Her father, also Indian, was raised in Kenya. After an arranged marriage, her parents moved to California in 1977, in search of a better life for their family.

Their daughter’s foray into this art form wasn’t exactly what they expected.

“I guess I grew up with this pressure in a sense that at some point I would have to decide whether or not I would have to decide to be a doctor, lawyer, or engineer,” said Sembi. “I wasn’t interested in any of those things so I kind of was the odd one out of my family. I wasn’t passionate about any of those. I was always a creative person so it was natural for me to carve a path for myself with art.”

“Graffiti is a form of art that challenges authority and represents the people’s voice without any infiltration.”

As a teen, she was often engrossed in her notebook – doodling and tagging to pass the time. She developed her skill as a henna artist, practicing elaborate designs on friends and family, and eventually turning her talents into a professional venture.

Over the years, she continued to hone her voice and discover how she wanted to use it. Eventually, she began painting the blank canvasses around her, telling her own story on the city walls that surrounded her.

“In a society that constantly shoves advertisements down your throat, we become conditioned to believe whatever the media throws at us,” said Sembi. “Graffiti is a form of art that challenges authority and represents the people’s voice without any infiltration.”

Mural of Kartar Singh Sarabha entitled, "Our Name is Rebel," by Nisha Sembi.MANDEEP SETHI
Mural of Kartar Singh Sarabha entitled, “Our Name is Rebel,” by Nisha Sembi.
From Political Posters to Painting Walls

In high school, a classmate asked for her help designing a poster, advocating for the preservation of ethnic studies. Sembi picked up her first can of spray paint, and knew instantly that this would be her weapon of choice.

“I just kept practicing with spray painting. My pieces got bigger and more complex,” said Sembi. “I met up with new up and coming artists. My projects just grew from doing political posters to doing full color pieces and murals and then putting in political messages, and adding an Indian, South Asian twist to it.”

Sembi received instruction from the legendary graffiti king, Spie TDK. Sembi spent extra hours after school, refining her artistry, flipping through TDK’s graffiti blackbooks, and teaching herself to create thought-provoking murals that had a meaningful impact on society. It was the first time Sembi started experimenting with street art.

“It was a pivotal moment in my life,” she recalled. “I learned how powerful art can be in a social movement and how to communicate a message to the masses using guerilla art techniques.”

Nisha building with female graffiti legend LADY PINK at her studio in New York City.MANDEEP SETHI
Nisha building with female graffiti legend LADY PINK at her studio in New York City.

With TDK’s teachings as a backbone and pillar of strength, Sembi later went on to paint the Mecca of Graffiti 5 Pointz in Queens, New York, before it was destroyed and buffed, she says.

But it didn’t stop there. Sembi also met with versatile graffiti writers in India who taught her how to be resourceful and appreciative of the tools in front of her.

“I met up with graffiti writers in India that used liquid paint because they didn’t have access to spray paint,” she said. “Seeing people of all castes and classes honoring each other together in the same space was humbling and inspiring.”

It was in New Delhi where Sembi painted her first graffiti piece in the Punjabi language. Her goal, she says, is to return to her Motherland so she can receive instruction and study under an Indian sign painter.

“I see myself as another warrior of this culture – fighting a great battle to preserve our culture and share our story and style with the world”

Sembi initially saw her art as a movement and fusion of Indian culture. But in recent years, she says her art has slightly changed its course to serve as a tool for social and political change.

“As a South Asian female graffiti artist, I see myself as another warrior of this culture – fighting a great battle to preserve our culture and share our story and style with the world,” said Sembi.

An interest in South Asian political history from her school days now inspires her to advance the legacy of those movements. Two recent posters depict Sikh American men holding up signs that read “Ekta,” and “We are the 99 percent” — a response to the Occupy Wall Street movement. She’s designed some tongue-in-cheek screen prints mashing Bollywood, graffiti, and “West Coast living” for a clothing line called “Kalakari.”

“I hope that my art work can inspire these ‘model minorities’ to break the mold and put their own stamp on society,” said Sembi.

Nisha poses in front of one of her pieces in New York City. MANDEEP SETHI
Nisha poses in front of one of her pieces in New York City.
L.A.: Mural Capital of the World?

By the 1980s, Los Angeles quickly became known as the “Mural Capital of the World,” according to Isabel Rojas-Williams, executive director of the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles.

But in 2002, Los Angeles placed a moratorium on murals, putting a dent on the creative arts community. In 2013, the Los Angeles City Council overturned the decades-long ban and clarified the regulations surrounding what is deemed as commercial advertisement and art.

Rojas-Williams was part of a team of advocates who helped push for the restoration of freedom of expression for muralists in Los Angeles and ultimately aided in the assistance of drafting a new mural ordinance.

Traditionally, men have dominated the world of muralism, Rojas-Williams explained.

“In the 1970s there were a few women creating public art in Los Angeles. Those women were barely accepted in the male mural world, so they really had to fight their way into those groups.”

“Nowadays Los Angeles is experiencing a change where females of all ethnicities are taking more active roles in public art”

Rojas-Williams — who previously served as an art liaison for the Asian and Pacific Islander American Committee during former L.A. Mayor Villaraigosa’s administration — says Asian American females have not been as visible in L.A.’s mural scene.

But she says that now, that fact is quickly changing. Asian American female graffiti artists are gaining prominence and leaving their marks. Rojas-Williams points out a slew of examples – including Lady Aiko, Shamsia Hassani, Hueman, and Erin Yoshi – who have all painted murals in L.A. over the past few years.

“Nowadays Los Angeles is experiencing a change where females of all ethnicities are taking more active roles in public art,” said Rojas-Williams, “and many are collaborating with their male counterparts in creating pieces that are reflective of the world we live in today, where men and women are seen as equals.”

"Brick by Brick" - a mural collaboration with Jasmin Sehra on Brick Lane, London. AMJEET SINGH
“Brick by Brick” – a mural collaboration with Jasmin Sehra on Brick Lane, London.
Word to Your Motherland

In an effort to connect South Asians to their families’ countries of origin, in 2012, Sembi and rapper and hip hop artist Mandeep Sethi, launched Word to Your Motherland, a series of visual and audio exhibitions connecting the diaspora to places of cultural origin. As part of the exhibition, Sembi helped to create a 90-foot mural in North Vancouver, Canada, currently displayed on the facade of a homeless shelter known as the North Shore Lookout Center. It’s currently one of the largest graffiti murals in the Lower Mainland, according to Creativa International.

“Our intention with the mural was to create a public art piece that depicted cultural elements of several Motherlands including Indian tattoo motifs, Haida art work, and of course graffiti,” said Sembi. “We wanted to depict the stories of our ancestors through traditional imagery and hip-hop.”

"Word to Your Motherland" - a 90-foot-high mural collaboration with 4 artists in North Vancouver, Canada.MANDEEP SETHI
“Word to Your Motherland” – a 90-foot-high mural collaboration with 4 artists in North Vancouver, Canada.

Sembi’s work has been featured at various solo and collaborative exhibitions across the globe: The Living Room Gallery in New Delhi, India; Our Name is Rebel: Images of Berkeley’s Radical South Asian Legacy and Art As Liberation in Berkeley, Calif; and Ofrendas: From the Bay to Mumbai, Smshbx Gallery, Oakland, Calif, among various others. Her murals and collaborations have been featured from L.A., to Berkeley, to all the way in Brick Lane, London.

One exhibit in particular resonates with Sembi: Puzzl3Peace, an exhibit that served as a tribute to Jusdeep Sethi, the late brother of prominent L.A.-based rapper Mandeep Sethi.

“As a first generation Asian-American, we have a very unique story to tell, and if we do not take ownership of it and document it, who will?”

“In hip-hop culture, when someone passes on, a graffiti piece is usually created in their honor. During the time of Jusdeep’s transition, nothing provided me solace but to paint in his name,” she said. “The art work I contributed to his show was a tribute to his legacy; a celebration of his life and radiance.”

For Sembi, Jusdeep’s passing solidified her belief to continue empowering other Asian American female graffiti artists to dispel cookie cutter stereotypes and forge their own creative destinies.

“Being an Asian American street artist is not something to be looked down upon by our community, but rather acknowledged as a talent passed down by our ancestors.”

“As a first generation Asian-American, we have a very unique story to tell, and if we do not take ownership of it and document it, who will?” asks Sembi.

Nisha with her work at her studio in Emeryville, Calif.JOEY MINTZ
Nisha with her work at her studio in Emeryville, Calif.

Follow @NBCAsianAmerica on Twitter and like NBC Asian America on Facebook.

First published March 10th 2015, 10:03 am


Ankur Patel Wants ‘More Teachers, Fewer Administrators’ & Could Be First South Asian Elected to LA Board of Education

Monica Luhar for The Aerogram — February 25, 2015ankurpatel3

The Aerogram does not officially endorse any candidate or organization in connection with this campaign/election. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and editorial purposes.

Tackling the nation’s second largest public school district is not an easy feat. In recent months, the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) has been under a microscope, criticized for its controversial $1 billion iPad initiative, followed by resignations from top administrators, and outrage over unsanitary classroom conditions and the need for immediate school repairs instead of iPads. Most recently, LAUSD agreed to reach one of the largest civil settlements in a sex abuse case that made national headlines.


As LAUSD braces to restore public trust, candidates like 29-year-old Ankur Patel, a native of the San Fernando Valley, is hopeful there will be more transparency and accountability in the education system.According to LA School Report, Patel is the youngest of six candidates running for a seat on LAUSD’s school board.

If elected, Patel would also be the first South Asian to serve on the Los Angeles Board of Education, LAUSD confirmed with The Aerogram. In the past year, three Asian-Americans have served on the board.

Some of the issues Patel hopes to tackle include reducing class size, providing effective teacher evaluations, enhancing the curriculum and instruction time, and diverting attention away from administrators — and instead, focusing more on teachers and students. We spoke with Patel, who formerly ran for Los Angeles city controller and has been regularly involved with the Neighborhood Council system, for more on his campaign promises for school board.  The incumbent serving District 3 (covering the San Fernando Valley) is Tamar Galatzan.

Local elections will be held March 3 for various city-wide ballot measures, city council, including the much-anticipated LAUSD School Board election.

What’s your connection to LAUSD? Have you held any previous related positions that inspired you to run for District 3? What sets you apart from other candidates? 

I was born in the Northridge Hospital and raised in the San Fernando Valley. My father immigrated from India in 1975 and worked odd jobs while finishing an engineering degree from Cal State University Northridge that helped him get a job as a rocket scientist. My mom immigrated in 1981 and raised me with a focus on getting a good education. I, along with both of my younger brothers, went to LAUSD schools for our entire K-12 education.

I haven’t had any positions with the LAUSD, but I have taught in South Korea, China, and most recently at California State University Northridge. I have also held positions as a Board Member, Treasurer, and Budget Advocate with the Northridge East Neighborhood Council.

What’s at the very core of your campaign, and what are some of the main challenges affecting District 3 that you hope you’ll tackle if elected?

At the very core of my campaign are high expectations for public education. We should have high expectations for our students, the district, and especially for our elected school board members. Wasting money not only on poorly planned large projects (iPad, MiSiS) has become such a regular occurrence that when smaller amounts of money is wasted it is taken for granted. I have heard so many anecdotes from teachers and workers at schools where decision makers have not listened to staff at the school and ended up wasting resources and time for marginal if any benefit for students — the crux here is that decisions are regularly made without taking input from the people who matter. 

What do you hope to bring to the plate at LAUSD? LA School Report mentioned that you’re one of the youngest of board challengers.

I hope to bring youthful energy (along with the ability to connect with students), fresh perspective, the ability to mend-broken relationships and build bridges, a thoughtful ear that wants to listen and take input from everyone willing to give it, an independent point of view that is not going to get bogged down in ideology but will focus on the students and the day-to-day of the classroom — I hope to be the kind of elected official and powerful voice that students need.


LAUSD has been in the spotlight for quite some time. Last summer, superintendent John Deasy ditched the $1.3 billion iPad plan which sought to equip every student in LAUSD with iPads. What are some of the lessons that should come out of this failed program? Were you in favor of the launch? What would you have like to have seen done differently?

I oppose the LAUSD’s iPad program. Instead of spending millions of dollars to get electronic devices into the hands of our students, we need to make sure our students can read and do math. But the details of the iPad program, including the misallocation of bond money that was supposed to be used to address the $40 billion in needed construction backlog on our schools, shows that the program was built misallocating funds from the start. 

Throughout the program, enough important questions weren’t asked, but when they were, they were not answered. The incumbent, Tamar Galatzan, was the most enthusiastic supporter of the iPad program and also pushed for the removal of Stuart Magruder, a good watch dog, for asking tough questions. Galatzan basically pushed forward the program even though it was not ready, which is still wasting millions of dollars, and then moved to censor criticism of the program. 

[Reporter’s note: The Aerogram reached out to Tamar Galatzan for comment via email, but did not receive a response. In May, the Los Angeles Times reported that Galatzan “opposed Magruder because he overstepped his role.” Magruder was a vocal opponent of the iPad program.]

The program’s ongoing costs were not thoroughly, or even briefly, considered; it appears that the program was planned out for only three years. However, there were additional administrative costs including the hiring of 55 instructional support staff to help teachers utilize the iPads. Along with the iPad program, we have to consider the $100 million that was paid for the software, which was not ready and poorly designed as well. The US Department of Education, in January, issued a “damning report” on the management of the program. This is all without even mentioning the FBI the federal grand jury investigation the program. 

Technology can be nice and helpful, but the sheer cost paired with the marginal benefit is not fundamental to our children’s education. Also there are much more efficient ways to help students utilize and understand technology, such as supervised computer labs. We have libraries on school campuses that are open for only 3 hours a day, the library can be retrofitted with computers and technology and be turned into a more productive space for a fraction of the cost.

The fact that the iPad program was poorly executed while thoughtful criticism was met with hostility is another reason that this particular program should be rolled back.

In the L.A. City Controller race, you refused to take campaign contributions. Why? And are you taking contributions this time around?

I refused to take campaign contributions because it is the position that is supposed to follow the money. The line I used repeatedly was “corruption has become institutionalized through lobbying and campaign contributions. So I refuse to take any money from anyone.” This campaign, I am taking contributions. As a matter of practicality and running a serious campaign that needs resources to contact likely voters.

What type of experience do you bring to the forefront at LAUSD? Your campaign page notes that you taught English to young children in South Korea. What did you take away from the education system there, and what would you like to see replicated or emulated here?

I bring broad experience with a global perspective on education to the forefront at LAUSD. Even with that, I learned that the day-to-day of the classroom, regardless if the classroom is in Seoul or Los Angeles is centered on the teacher-student relationship. Just as important is the need for students to understand why they are learning and the context of their education — this is what can engage students with their education and commits them to learning. Child-like curiosity needs to be nurtured not taught out of us through rote memorization and standardized tests. Education is often based in cultural values, which means we need broad shifts in the way we view public education in Los Angeles to reach the kind of public education system our young people deserve. 

Assemblymember Luis Alejo recently introduced AB 101, a bill that would require the State Board of Education to adopt standards and provide quality courses in ethnic studies. What are your thoughts on the push to enhance and diversify the curriculum at LAUSD?

I support the idea that the diverse history of the world should be represented in our public education system. History is often not taught objectively, and multiple points of view are rarely fairly and equally presented to young people. Again, in a diverse global metropolis like Los Angeles, I think it is important for our youth to know how and why we got to this point — it gives context, purpose, and meaning to their education.

ankurpatel3Some of the issues highlighted in your campaign include reducing class size. What is your ultimate vision for creating a more effective and a long-term sustainable plan that is mutually beneficial for students and teachers?

An effective long-term sustainable plan has to start with the fundamentals of education and the teacher-student relationship.

You recently quoted, “We can’t have 40 students in a class, pay our teachers poorly, and expect good outcomes.” What is the message behind this? And how do you hope to address these issues if elected to School Board?

The message here is that our resources aren’t going to the classroom. Too much money is spent on central district administration — over the last 8 years, the number of students and teachers has decreased, but the numbers of administrators has increased. LAUSD receives over $10,000 per student per year, so in a class of 40 students (the average middle school and high school class size) there should be $400,000 supporting those students’ education.

 The fact that we pay our teachers relatively poorly compared to neighboring districts and have larger class sizes drives good teachers out of the district and demoralizes many of the teachers that have my respect for taking on such a difficult job.I think the best way to address the need to refocus resources back into the classroom has to be centered on budget transparency and accountability.

We have to be able to follow the money, and not just a broad “we” — the teachers, parents, and students at a particular school should know how much money is supposed to be getting into their classrooms and then have avenues to follow up and ask questions, get receipts, and hold decision makers accountable. 

What are some of the challenges facing District 3

In this particular district, a more affluent one relative to the rest of the LAUSD, many schools are in a struggle for autonomy — but I think that is a problem that many schools across the district face as the district has a top-down culture. As the district has 360,000 registered voters and 132 campuses with 149 schools — the problems we face are similar to the broader problems in education from overcrowded classes to underpaid teachers who are regularly given new orders to follow that might not be best practices or compatible with their particular students.

Individually, some campuses have had problems with program like breakfast in the classroom, transportation and traffic issues, and the lack of materials in classrooms — but with such a large district spanning so many different communities, the general problems are the same, but individual campuses will have different day-to-day challenges ranging from behavior issues with certain students and not enough counselors or psychiatrists, to bad food in the cafeteria.

In a nutshell, how would you summarize your campaign? It seems like you’re determined to conquer a variety of hard-hitting topics ranging from class size reduction and empowering teachers — what else do you hope to address?

I am running a pragmatic campaign that is focusing on the basics of education and civic participation that can build a strong foundation that can lead to the implementation of big ideas and eventually reimagining public education in Los Angeles.

 * * *

 Ankur Patel can be reached via Twitter @VotePatel and Facebook.

Monica Luhar is a digital producer and freelance journalist in Los Angeles. Connect with her via Twitter: @monicaluhar.

Bill Seeks to Improve Futures of Young Boys and Men of Color

Monica Luhar for KCET — February 4, 2015

In the wake of the Michael Brown and Ezell Ford shootings, California lawmakers are urging for the need to close barriers that continue to exist for young boys and men of color.

A newly introduced state bill would create one of the first ever interagency task forces in California to improve outcomes for young boys and men of color. AB 80 was introduced by Assembly member Nora Campos (D-San Jose).

“We must bring all the key agencies together and have a systematic discussion on what’s preventing our men and women of color from thriving. AB 80 is the vehicle to make this happen,” Assembly member Campos told KCET in an email.


With the introduction of the bill, Campos hopes to tackle deadly use of force by law enforcement as well as the educational shortcomings and income inequality facing low-income, immigrant, and LGBTQ communities in California.

“This would start productive conversations between the public and law enforcement, which will bring communities closer and help ease the tensions we see today,” said Campos.

The 21-member task force would consist of members from the Legislature, as well as various state agencies including the Employment Development Department, UC offices, and Cal State University offices, according to legislative director Erasmo Viveros. The task force would focus on education, law enforcement, jobs, human services, among other fields. It would conduct a study and then propose recommendations, goals, and policies.

The bill would also align with President Obama’s federal initiative, My Brother’s Keeper, which aims to enhance opportunities for young boys and men of color nationwide.

Similar bills introduced in the last legislation session included Assembly member Steven Bradford’s AB 914, which failed to pass.

AB 80 would also serve as a way to closely examine policies that are not working, explained Campos.

“For almost a decade, we have focused on cutting programs that served our most marginalized communities, all for the sake of balancing the budget,” said Campos. “Well, California’s future prosperity is now in danger. Now is the time to start chopping away at the policies that prevent our young people of color, and therefore all of California, from succeeding,” she added.

Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer, recently elected as chair of the California Legislative Black Caucus, believes that the creation of the task force will help create solutions to systemic problems that serve as impediments for boys and men of color in California.

The NAACP reports that African Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites, and constitute nearly 1 million of the total 2.3 million incarcerated population.

“Across California, boys and men of color continue to face serious impediments to success, as evident by the percentage of those who graduate high school, attend college, obtain employment, and are incarcerated,” Assembly member Reggie Jones-Sawyer told KCET in an email. “AB 80 takes a significant step forward to addressing these issues, by convening a task force of leaders across the state to create solutions to these systemic problems,” he added.

Debra Watkins, founder and executive director of California Alliance of African American Educators, believes more steps need to be done taken to address the education and opportunity barriers facing young boys and men of color. It starts with early education and STEM (Science, technology, engineering, and math) programs to help young people of color succeed.

“What’s needed is long-term scaffolding of their success, just like what we’ve done with our STEM program up here [in Northern California],” said Watkins. “And that’s where you don’t just drop resources on kids and expect them to navigate the system by themselves. No. People basically have to co-parent and stay with them and make sure they don’t fall through the cracks,” she said.