The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance (NQAPIA) is gearing up for their first Midwest television ad launch of “Family is Still Family,” a series of multilingual public service announcements that will air on Chicago ethnic media television networks from Feb. 14 to Feb. 28.
Co-produced by the Asian Pride Project, the PSAs spotlight stories of Asian-American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) parents and their LGBTQ children as they take a stand to declare their unconditional love and support. Each PSA ends with a universal message: “After all, family is still family, and love is still love.”
“NQAPIA is really excited to launch our Midwest campaign to tell the story of Asian American parents — of love and acceptance that Asian American parents have of LGBTQ kids,” Glenn Magpantay, executive director of NQAPIA told NBC News. “The country is so divided right now, the hate is just so intolerable and we need to bring communities together. We need the support of our parents and families to be there with us.”
The multilingual videos will air 113 times on Crossings TV Chicago in Mandarin, Cantonese, Tagalog, and Hindi, according to Magpantay. The television ads are estimated to reach approximately 53,406 Asian households in the Midwest.
The “Family is Still Family” campaign has been a joint effort across several organizations including NQAPIA, the Asian Pride Project, Invisible to Invincible, and Trikone-Chicago.
The PSAs initially aired in San Francisco and Los Angeles two years ago. The campaign has also aired in New York. The goal is to continue to expand the reach of the campaign to a growing AAPI population in the Midwest, Magpantay said.
“We did not want to have some people overlooked and so we are working on the campaign and now launching this campaign at a press conference in Chicago,” he said.
The Midwest “Family is Still Family” campaign launch will kick off at a news conference hosted by NQAPIA scheduled for Feb. 16, which will feature testimonies from parents of LGBTQ children, including Joanne Lee, mother of Skylar Lee, a transgender teen who committed suicide in 2015 after a battle with depression; Ramachandra Balakrishnan, a father of a transgender child; and Aya Yabe, mother of a lesbian daughter.
“There is so much information about being gay, but so little information that is in Vietnamese or Hindi or Lao. We want to project a diverse face of the LGBTQ community and those who love us,” Magpantay said.
The goal of the PSAs is to bring communities together during a time of increased hatred and division, Magpantay added, noting a spike in the number of intake calls to NQAPIA since the Orlando Nightclub massacre, election, and inauguration.
“So many people are coming to us for help, support, and information,” he said.
Magpantay hopes the campaign will help promote understanding, safety, and bridge cultural divides that may prevent AAPI LGBTQ children from coming out to their parents, which can be particularly difficult in Asian families, he said.
“We hope that our campaign will promote that understanding of why we need to be safe and eventually also why we need to stand together in this difficult time,” he said.
While the PSAs are a step in the right direction, Magpantay feels that there is still more work to be done.
“Now more than ever we need the support of allies, we need understanding from others on our experiences and the discrimination and harassment, not only LGBT people face, but South Asians, Muslims, transgender people. It’s been a great response but it is not enough,” he said.
Amanda Ramirez is not letting her cancer diagnosis and treatment get in the way of her popular Instagram posts — the young Latina has developed a large and faithful following with her makeup and beauty tutorials.
With over 30,000 Instagram followers, Ramirez, 22 posts inspiring messages and pictures of her daily makeup routine before her chemotherapy treatments.
Ramirez says many of her Instagram followers are primarily women of color and Latina women, many of whom have told her that they wish they had played with makeup during their chemo treatments, and how much they admire her strength, she explained to NBC News.
Makeup has since become a liberating and integral part of her life. She has chosen to apply makeup before her chemotherapy treatments as an empowering statement and a chance to inspire other women to feel beautiful and strong in the face of looming uncertainty.
Ramirez is usually at the hospital for 2 to 3 days and has become a familiar face, even bonding and giving mini-makeovers to some of the nurses.
Before her cancer diagnosis, Ramirez says she would often receive an outpouring of support and Instagram direct messages from women who have thanked her for sharing posts about self-love and self-care.
“Prior to my cancer, I would get up to 20 direct messages a day from girls from all over saying that I helped them love their own body.”
Ramirez’s Instagram following has since doubled after news of her diagnosis and she is grateful to spread the message of hope and empowerment to women.
“I want to humanize cancer —it’s so easy for people to kind of villainize it and not take it for what it is — it’s just a sickness. It really doesn’t have the power to make you feel a certain way unless you let it,” she said.
Months before she was diagnosed, the young makeup enthusiast made a spur of the moment decision to shave her head.
Little did she know that a spontaneous act would foreshadow and prepare her for a life-changing journey ahead that involved several chemotherapy treatments that did everything but fade away her growing faith and love affair with makeup.
“God really did look out for me. I kept my hair bald before I even had cancer,” Ramirez told NBC News. “I had awoken from my nap with the urge to cut all my hair off. I feel as though God compelled me to do it. I cut it all off, had a buzz cut, and months later I was diagnosed with cancer. I was prepared in a way.”
Ramirez was diagnosed with Stage 3 Hodgkin’s lymphoma in August of 2016, Yahoo! Beauty first reported. Two months prior to her diagnosis, had Ramirez fainted and suffered from bouts of vision loss. Later down the road, she discovered a lump on her neck and assumed it was a stress ball from working too many hours.
Ramirez says she chooses to focus on how much progress she has made instead of dwelling on negativity.
“My faith has grown immensely through my experience with cancer and I’m so grateful for all that God has blessed me with,” Ramirez told NBC News.
She always has her makeup purse with her containing all the products she considers essential: Maybelline primer, NYX matte foundation, Laura Mercier setting powder and some bronzer, concealer and fake lashes to finish the look.
Ramirez has said she first discovered a passion for makeup at 19. “When you look beautiful you feel beautiful,” she told Yahoo! Beauty.
Ramirez also views her Instagram page as an opportunity to stand up against the lack of representation of women of color and colorism in the beauty and media industries.
“I’m very about women of color because we don’t get represented in the beauty industry or in the industry in general. And if we are, it’s because we’re lighter or we look a certain way. The novelas we have, it’s always lighter girls with green eyes and blonde hair; it’s colorism at its finest.”
These days Ramirez often goes to chemotherapy treatments by herself, with makeup as a friend by her side.
“Being by yourself in a hospital room, it’s a lot. [Makeup] takes my mind off things. For me, doing makeup, it changes my perspective on everything. I’m no longer worried about being alone. I’m more worried about contour blending out correctly so I don’t look crazy. I’m worried about this highlight to make sure it’s poppin.'”
“When I do my makeup, it makes me feel happy and it gives me a reason to not worry. I can’t blend away the cancer, but I can blend away the contour,” she added.
Growing up in Compton, California, as the youngest of eleven siblings, Ramirez recalls that she was often bullied and suffered from low self-esteem all throughout elementary and middle school. Art and makeup offered a distraction and a chance to be fully immersed in something that made her feel beautiful inside and out.
“I got bullied my whole life for being bigger and that didn’t do anything except for making me realize, ‘it’s okay to be who you are.’ It took me so long to get to this point. When I had cancer I said, ‘I’m not going to let this ruin all these years of allowing myself to love myself.”
As she grew older, Ramirez refused to let the body-shamers and bullies get under her skin, she explained. Her experiences are something she carries forward on her Instagram page, urging people to speak out against slut-shaming and body-shaming.
Ramirez regularly visits her mother, who is at an assisted living facility. She didn’t tell her mother about her own cancer diagnosis until last month, she shared. “I didn’t want her to worry about me; she already does and I tell her all the time that I’m grown up, I can take care of myself, I don’t need you to worry. I’m her baby.”
Her mother survived breast cancer when Ramirez was a child. “As a mother she never wanted us to see her be weak — that’s a big part of the Latina culture. Mothers are very strong.”
Since her diagnosis, Ramirez said she has had to leave her job as a cashier at an airport kiosk.
“When people would come, I would always have my makeup done….If you look good, you feel good. If you see something nice, you’ll feel nice. I liked knowing that I’m uplifting them or telling them something. So having to leave work was really emotional.”
Ramirez has since set up a GoFundMe page titled, “Help Me Kick Lymphoma’s Ass!,” seeking funds for her cancer treatment. After she’s done with her treatments, Ramirez hopes to volunteer at a cancer research and treatment center and focus on plus-size modeling and building her brand.
Every summer, Nikiko Masumoto anxiously handpicks the first organic peach of the season on her family’s farm, hoping the care and love the Masumotos have put into the fruit’s cultivation will bring a smile to whoever eats it.
“Picking the first peach of the summer feels like coming home,” Masumoto, an organic farmer at Masumoto Family Farm and performance artist, told NBC News. “That’s the beautiful feeling I hope people sense when they bite into one of our peaches or nectarines.”
Today, the 80-acre nectarine, grape, and peach farm in California’s Central Valley is a symbol of hope and resilience and a tribute to Masumoto’s grandparents, great-grandparents, and the approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans who were forced into incarceration camps following the signing of Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942.
The first 40-acres of the farm were purchased by Masumoto’s grandfather, Joe Takashi Masumoto, in 1948, a few years after the Masumoto and Sugimoto families were forced into the Gila River Relocation Center in Arizona.
Following World War II, Joe Masumoto came back to California and saved enough money to buy land and create a home for the next generation of Japanese-American farmers, Nikiko Masumoto explained.
“After decades of working the soil, he brought it back to life and it’s now this thriving organic farm that I am blessed and so honored to be able to work today,” she said.
Before the war, Masumoto’s family were farm workers, but anti-Asian immigration laws like the California Alien Land Law of 1913 made it difficult for Asian immigrants to own land in the state, Masumoto noted, comparing past restrictions to the recent executive order on immigration, which limited entry into the U.S. from seven Muslim-majority countries.
“The reality is that we have not learned anything from our history of exclusion…of letting fear misguide us,” said Masumoto. “The language and the framing of these new executive orders are just a repeat of the same type of racist hysteria that drove Executive Order 9066.”
Seventy-five years after the signing of Executive Order 9066, Masumoto continues to reflect on the strength and resilience of her jii-chan and baa-chan (grandfather and grandmother) and the many sacrifices her ancestors have made to preserve the legacy of the family farm.
“I get to literally live with those roots, the vines [my grandfather] planted are still thriving and growing and producing food on our farm and the power of that act is never lost on me — his resilience to really claim a place of belonging against all odds,” she said.
Masumoto hopes to continue to share her grandparents’ stories — and the stories of the incarcerated Japanese Americans — through her performance art and ongoing research focused on preserving Japanese-American memory.
“I can nourish [my grandfather’s] stories through my life performance and that same mentality is exactly what motivates me to farm,” Masumoto said. “There is a priceless richness hidden in the roots. If only we can be awake enough to make sure we nourish them to feed our future generations, that to me is the power of connecting the arts and farming.”
Growing up, her grandmother didn’t openly speak about her incarceration experience or the loss of her father — Masumoto’s great-grandfather — Masumoto said.
“As I understand it, her survival mechanism to get through camp was to bottle her emotions and growing up, we didn’t talk a lot about camp openly,” she said.
After an overwhelming visit to the site of her grandmother’s incarceration camp and seeing her grandmother participate in a second high school graduation ceremony in 2006, Masumoto created a visual storytelling piece, “Rites of Passage,” in which she compared her educational experiences with those of her grandmother, who finished her high school education at the camp.
“It wasn’t until I visited the internment site that I had ever placed my baa-chan‘s youth and life in a context similar to mine,” Masumoto said. “I couldn’t imagine being forced to be in a school that…is in a place that represents the antithesis of possibilities.”
Finding Her Calling
Growing up as the eldest child of mixed German-Japanese descent, Masumoto often contemplated the idea of success and what she wanted to ultimately pursue.
“Looking back, I think that I experienced what a lot of rural kids experience which is … there’s definitely success and job opportunities are almost always defined as somewhere else. Like success doesn’t live in rural America, success lives in metropolitan, urban America,” she said.
When Masumoto was in college, she had no intention of moving back home to help with the family farm.
“Like a lot of farm kids and rural kids growing up in the Central Valley, I completely was oblivious to the magic that was happening around me, especially on our organic farm,” Masumoto, who has now been working as a farmer for six years, said.
But after taking an environmental studies class at the University of California, Berkeley and delving more into her research on Japanese-American history in graduate school, she developed an understanding of the importance of farming and how she could combine it with her interest in performance art and Japanese-American memory.
“I came to realize one of the boldest, perhaps courageous things I could do with my life would be to come home and become the next generation to work the same farm,” she said.
To further her passion for performance art and farming, in 2012, Masumoto started a community storytelling project called the Valley Storytellers Project where community members were invited to share stories about hunger in the Central Valley. Local writers then transformed the stories into original plays. She also helped curate and collaborated on an “art-guided bus tour” along Highway 99, which runs through Central California.
“When I’m approaching my performance work, I always pause and think about my grandparents because they not only help me feel a little less nervous, but they also help me get back to my roots, to the unseen powered strength that I feel like I’ve inherited,” she said. “I think about the performance as my practice of nourishing these roots.”
Farming together with her family has been a life-changing experience for Masumoto. In 2013, Masumoto, her father, Mas, and mother Marcy authored a cookbook featuring recipes and stories from the farm in “The Perfect Peach.”
In December 2016, Masumoto was invited to perform her one-woman show, “What We Could Carry,” at the White House. Her performance was based on the testimony given at the 1981 and 1980 Hearings of the Congressional Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians in Los Angeles. It was also the culmination of her master’s thesis degree at the University of Texas at Austin, where she focused her research on Japanese-American history.
“On the one hand I was completely honored and I felt this flowing of emotion because it’s pretty remarkable that a fourth-generation Japanese American could travel to the White House — one of the iconic representations of our government — and be able to tell the stories of my grandparents and my community.”
During her performance, Masumoto couldn’t stop thinking about her grandparents and her continued promise to never stop telling their stories.
“It was with a very complex emotional experience that I took in that event both as a call to renew my promise to my grandparents to never stop telling their story,” she said.
In 2014, Amanda Nguyen set out to “rewrite the law” on protecting the civil rights of sexual assault and rape survivors through the founding of Rise, a nonprofit consisting of a coalition of sexual assault survivors and allies working to empower survivors. Two years later, in February 2016, legislation she helped draft was introduced in Congress; seven months later, former President Barack Obama signed the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act into law.
For Nguyen, the fight to keep survivors informed of their rights and to prevent rape kits from being destroyed has been an ongoing one. Nguyen was raped three years ago in the state of Massachusetts, and although she had a rape kit performed, she discovered it would be destroyed after six months if an extension request wasn’t filed.
“Every 6 months, I have to save my rape kit from the trash by filing an extension request to make sure that it is saved. I live my life according to the date of my rape to ensure that my access to justice is preserved – 6 months from my rape, 1 year from my rape, 18 months from my rape. These are the dates that must swirl through my head so that I can one day seek justice,” Nguyen wrote on her GoFundMe page in August.
Frustrated and re-traumatized by a broken justice system, Nguyen met with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen to brainstorm legislation that would protect survivor rights on the federal level — the same legislation that is now law.
The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights protects the right to having the evidence of a rape kit preserved without charge for the duration of the statute of limitations; the right to be informed of rights, the right to a counselor, including the right to be informed no later than 60 days before the destruction of a rape kit, among other detailed rights.
Since the unanimous passage of the bill, it’s been the first time the word “sexual assault survivor” has appeared in federal law.
NBC Asian America spoke with Nguyen, who was recently recognized by Forbes as part of their annual “30 Under 30” feature, to talk about Rise, her speech at the Women’s March on Washington, and the continuing efforts to protect the rights of all survivors.
Congratulations on being recognized in “Forbes’ “30 Under 30” Law & Policy list. What was it like to receive that honor shortly after the legislation you helped draft — the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights — was signed into law?
I think the main thing I felt was just incredible gratitude to everybody who believed in these rights and in me. And [to be] recognized for the activism that not only I’ve done, but my team has done, it meant so much to me and to the community that we’re fighting for.
Can you discuss the process involved with crafting the language for the Sexual Assault Survivors’ Bill of Rights? What does the bill explicitly state in terms of equal protection and rights for all sexual assault survivors?
Honestly, at the end of the day, [it] came down to being able to share the voices of real people whose lives are affected by these rights and bring those voices directly to members of Congress. Obviously we had already written the language of the bill and when we talked about these rights we went in and then worked together with everybody and from different sides of the issues and we started coalition building.
We started from a very personal place. I conceived the idea of the Survivors’ Bill of Rights when I encountered a broken criminal justice system. But it really was when I walked into this waiting room in my local area crisis center and I saw there were so many people there and I realized my story is not my own. I knew I had a choice: either I can accept the injustice or rewrite the law. And one of these things is a lot better than the other, and we rewrote it and we did that by researching, making sure we had all of the facts, the legal precedent, the economic regressions.
When we went into Congress I never had any questions. We would have an answer to it, and if we didn’t have an answer to that question, we would research it and turn it around very quickly. And then we also [introduced a] coalition bill — with that, I mean we worked with everybody across the aisle and also with law enforcement, with innocence groups, and again, most importantly, we brought the voices of people whose lives have been affected about this or care deeply about it and we showed how this is important.
You were invited as a speaker for the Women’s March on Washington. What was that experience like witnessing solidarity among strangers and marching alongside women and men fighting for access to health care, reproductive and equal rights? What were some of the main points you sought to carry forward and highlight in your speech?
The main thing I wanted to tell people is that they are not powerless. And that no one can make us feel invisible when we demand to be seen, and for any survivor and ally who’s listening, that they’re not alone. One of the most powerless things that could happen to anyone is rape and Rise is a group of rape survivors and allies who put together and organized and then convinced the entire U.S. Congress to — on the record — vote “yes” for these rights.
You delivered an empowering speech during the Women’s March on Washington which emphasized the message of hope for survivors and a call to action. What stuck out to you during the march?
It was so moving to me to give that speech and then also be with people and march with people in that way. For somebody who remembers still so vividly the despair and the loneliness of walking out of the hospital after I had been there for six hours to go through the rape kit and then to be on that stage and share the story of justice and hope and change with hundreds of thousands of people — I can’t even totally describe to you what that means. I’m still trying to process it.
You know what was interesting? I had noticed that when I said on stage, “I’m a rape survivor,” [people] cheered and I thought that was strange but then I realized afterwards it was people who identified as survivors themselves sharing in solidarity, and that was really powerful to hear. But after the speech as I was marching with people and talking to people, it was just so hopeful. It was a scene of support, love, and solidarity and all of us taking refuge in our shared humanity.
You had mentioned in the past that you were determined to help rewrite the law after dealing with a broken criminal justice system. Can you share some of the hurdles and personal challenges you faced in ensuring that your rape kit would not be destroyed in the state of Massachusetts, where your case took place?
I think one of the biggest things was getting politicians to care. When I started this, nobody knew who I was. I was a rape survivor who’s trying to push for these rights and there were politicians who would literally tell me to my face that they had other issues that were more important, that they didn’t care, that they had a campaign to worry about.
I watched my own civil rights be debated upon its political feasibility for the benefit of the politician. What has helped me is realizing that, first of all, we’re on the right side of history. That this is still important and it’s for millions of people who need it. Every time that I do an interview, every time, there are survivors who read it and reach out and tell me how much it means just to see the issue being talked about and then further how much it means to have hope and that’s something that at the end of the day we were able to showcase to people in power.
These are not only numbers — human lives are attached to it. And to bring people and showcase their stories and its impact was really powerful.
In your research and in this ongoing fight, what did you discover in terms of the lack of standard procedures for survivors? What did you discover in terms of the loopholes and hurdles facing sexual assault and rape survivors?
The rights that were affected was untested kits being destroyed before the statute of limitations. Before the law was passed in Massachusetts where my case is, there was no way to actually extend it. And so I started researching what my rights were and I found, across America, there were these civil rights in [certain] states. Justice depends on geography. Had I been raped in say Texas, where they have this right, then that wouldn’t have happened to me. And these survivors in a few different states should not have two completely different sets of rights.
And so that’s what spurred me — along with realizing there are so many people that are waiting — to start Rise. And there are obviously other rights that are in the bill and not all of the rights pertain to my case.
I sent out an email, and I said this to everybody I knew — I said, “Could you help me write a Survivor Bill of Rights for the state of Massachusetts?” Through research and through best practices to survivors and the issues that we are facing, we took the most non-controversial one, that everybody agreed on, and put it together. That became the most common sense bill and that’s how we were able to pass it unanimously through Congress.
Change.org and Rise partnered with Funny Or Die last year on “Even Supervillains Think Our Sexual Assault Laws Are Insane,” a video informing the public about the lack of comprehensive sexual assault laws using “supervillains” as characters. What was it like to turn to comedy as a way to shed light on a deeper issue and to really get people to take action?
Humor has a way of talking about difficult subjects without making it difficult. Humor opens up people to listen. Being able to talk about a difficult subject like sexual assault and rape, and use humor, was so helpful for us because it is a difficult subject to talk about. But because we were able to use these comedians to talk about how absurd these laws are, people were able to understand it.
You previously interned at NASA. What’s your next ‘mission’?
I really do want to discover an exoplanet and I am planning to do that at the same time as running Rise. And I do want to be an astronaut. One of the most powerful things for me is having mentors —one of my mentors, he was in the NFL before he became an astronaut, and now he’s going out and speaking about education [and STEM]. And he told me about his love for being able to do whatever it is you want to do. And when I told him I wanted to do Rise, that he would always be there for me wherever I am.
What can we expect in the coming months from Rise?
We need people to join the movement and by that, I mean anyone can. The strength of Rise has been a diversity of people who have been a part of our team. That means socially, economically, and professionally. If you are a comedian, you can be a part of this. If you’re an artist, you can be a part of this. You don’t have to be a lawyer to help pass these civil rights.
And we are now focused on creating a model of millennial advocacy. People can come to Risenow.US — we will have a platform where you can type in your address and type in how much time you have in that day. Say you have 30 minutes and Rise will give you tasks to do for 30 minutes so that you can contribute from wherever you are and whatever time you can give to the cause.
I really want people to understand that they are not powerless and they absolutely can make a difference in this country. In 2016, a group of young people did the impossible. We got Washington to unanimously work together and we did this in record time. A lot of social justice bills take 10-15 years, and .016 percent of bills are passed unanimously. [The Sexual Assault Survivors’ Rights Act was signed into law seven months after its introduction.] The way that it’s done is because people are passionate and people share their stories and again we were able to have such support and unanimity.
What I think is really special about what’s going on is not only are we fighting for these rights, but we are able to do this and do this again and again, not only on the federal level…we passed on the federal level and Massachusetts, Oregon, and Washington and Virginia have also passed it too. But now as we are gearing up in 23 states, and if we’re able to do it again and again even more, what we’re creating is a model and that model can be used for other issues, too.
The last thing I want to say is that I’ve heard from a lot of [Asian Americans] about what it means to them to be in activism. I’ve heard from so many people — Asian Americans — about their own personal stories, and I am often the only person of color in meetings and I am honest, but I’m also proud that the Rise team makes a conscious effort to be diverse…and that’s how I think it’s evolving for all communities and empowering everybody to be in the room where it happens. Representation matters.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
When Minita Gandhi wrote her one-woman show “MUTHALAND,” she initially left out the story of her assault in India; but after the first table read of the play in 2015, the same year the Indian government banned the BBC documentary “India’s Daughter” — which told the story of a brutal gang rape in New Delhi that resulted in the death of a medical school student — she realized she couldn’t stay silent.
“We were having our first table read of the show and I had put together all these stories and I was skating over the assault. The assault wasn’t part of the play,” Gandhi told NBC News. “I thought I was healed, but I didn’t realize it….I’ve always been a strong advocate against victim shaming and I realized that I was silencing my own voice about the assault because there was a part of me that felt like I was ashamed.”
In “MUTHALAND,” Gandhi plays the role of herself and the man who sexually assaulted her during her 2009 visit to India for her brother’s wedding. Writing and performing the play has been a difficult, but empowering, experience for the 38-year-old Chicago-based actress, who says she was ready to move forward and tell her story of resilience and faith.
“I was at a place in my life where I had a story in me that I felt compelled to tell. So I told it,” she said. “I had come to a point in myself as a woman and as an artist where I felt squished by the constraints of what society was telling me I could be and what I could and couldn’t talk about, and I had to break out of it.”
Gandhi says “MUTHALAND” is autobiographical and largely influenced by her family, and her upbringing and experience of being a first-generation Indian-American woman.
The play, which Gandhi describes as a “complex, dark comedy,” explores coming of age themes and failed romances to cultural and generational divides, as well as grappling with one’s identity.
Gandhi’s debut play is also in large part a “love note” to her parents, who have supported her through life’s journey. “By the end of the play I realized how aligned our values are and how everything they have tried so hard to teach me has really come out of love and peace,” she said.
The play, which uses few technical elements, begins with two suitcases and ends with the symbol of her father’s old suitcase, which he carried with him during his first trip to the U.S. in the ’70s.
Years ago, her father had used a Sharpie to etch the words, “When I die, discard this bag if you like, until then it stays” on his suitcase. That phrase prompted Gandhi to learn more about her family history and dig deeper. It was the first time Gandhi was able to sit down and candidly ask her parents about things she was not able to ask them before: arranged marriages, sex, dealing with in-laws, and what it was like to be in this country.
“I wanted to show the parallel of that with my life and how we carry our heritage, and carry our family history always whether we realize it or not,” she said.
‘Painful, Beautiful, and Transformative’
In 2009, during her visit to India for her brother’s wedding, Gandhi attended a meditation retreat in order to learn more about her religion and stay spiritually connected to her birthplace.
But at the time, her parents thought it would be unsafe for Gandhi to travel alone. Gandhi disregarded her parents’ request and decided to travel to a meditation retreat recommended by a family friend.
“It was bare bones, in the middle of nowhere, where you were on a strict diet, no alarm clocks,” she said. “And that’s something I wanted, very ayurvedic. I felt very safe there and open and I felt spiritually, like I was on the cusp of a breakthrough.”
A few days into the retreat, Gandhi says she was assaulted by a doctor who led regular morning yoga sessions. Shortly after the assault, Gandhi began to associate the country with a sense of darkness.
“I think what I hated is I hated the truth of the level of misogyny that does exist there, but the truth is it exists everywhere. At the time, I had assigned it to India, because the assault had happened there,” she said.
Years later, Gandhi was ready to tell her story — one of hope, faith, and forgiveness — on stage.
“Writing ‘MUTHALAND’ was painful, beautiful, and transformative for me,” she said. “I will also never forget that moment. Because I questioned my own sanity in that moment. […] That was the moment I learned strength. That was the moment that I was there for. I don’t know where it came from but I stood up and spoke. And I spoke for myself, for my mother, for all the women I knew had never been able to speak because we had been gagged with the pervasive culture of silence. In that moment I demanded justice.”
Gandhi says the assault is just one part of the story.
“To me, the play is not about the assault. It’s about all of the things leading up to it,” she said. “The reason I have shaped it that way is because I really wanted to make a point that just because someone’s been through a traumatic event, that doesn’t define their whole being.”
Using Art as Activism
Once the decision to incorporate the details of her assault into the play were made, it became difficult, but necessary, to recreate certain scenes in order to continue the conversation about sexual assault. At the time, Gandhi told her dad she was in the process of putting together her first play. Gandhi experienced feelings of anxiety, wondering what sort of reaction or painful triggers it would inflict upon her South Asian family if she decided to put her story out there for the world to watch.
“My siblings could be hurt, my cousins could be hurt, there was also the feeling that somehow this place in India was going to know that I wrote about what happened and come after me in some way,” she said.
Gandhi remembers the moment when her father had asked if she was going to write about what had happened to her in India. “He got quiet and said, ‘Are you going to write about what happened? I don’t think that’s a good idea, don’t do it.’ And then my heart broke.”
She got off the phone, feeling discouraged at first, but then empowered. She then sent her father an article about women protesting the ban of “India’s Daughter,” which led him to change his mind.
“[My family] realized that writing about it and sharing about it might be good for sharing it to the world. They knew how much women’s rights and activism is important to me,” she said.
As an actress and female actor of color, Gandhi notes that there hasn’t always been a lot of great characters with great depth that she’s had the opportunity to play. But she believes that it’s changing, and says she hopes to be part of a movement to continue to enhance the visibility of more diverse voices in theater.
“What I learned through ‘MUTHALAND’ is that I can be part of the revolution of creating more diverse voices, more dimensional characters for women and people of color, and I’m really hungry to do that for myself and others,” she said.
“MUTHALAND,” which was initially workshopped and developed at Silk Road Rising Theater, has since appeared at various festivals and conferences, including the 5th National Asian American Theater Conference & Festival hosted by the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, and the Statera Foundation for Women in the Arts Conference. Its official world premiere — which will include full technical elements, along with a team of designers and press in attendance — will be held at 16th Street Theatre in Berwyn, Illinois, from Sept. 1 to Oct. 8, 2017.
“If I can use my art as activism, that’s why I got into theater,” Gandhi said. “For me, storytelling is my way to help make change in the world. Years later it’s finally come full circle through this play.”
Instead of throwing a large, traditional wedding, Poonam Kaushal and Nishkaam Mehta are donating their wedding funds to help fight child hunger.
In the midst of planning their wedding in 2016, the Los Angeles-based couple couldn’t ignore the devastating images and heartbreaking stories of the tragedy unfolding in Aleppo and across the globe.
“What truly resonated for me about this was seeing the images of kids suffering,” Mehta told NBC News. “Once we got engaged, we started talking about the future and thinking seriously about kids. In this day and age, we cannot have kids who go hungry, so I felt very passionately about what was happening there.”
The couple first met at the University of California, Irvine, in 2003. After a decade-long friendship that blossomed into a deeper relationship, the two got engaged last year.
With careers in pediatrics and technology (Kaushal is a pediatrician, Mehta works in the tech industry), the two decided to use their backgrounds to contribute to their shared advocacy for fighting child hunger in impoverished countries.
“When I would [volunteer in] these regions and [see] the impact that limited nutritional resources have on a child’s potential — not just on their health, but even their academics, it’s tied into so many things. Seeing that has always left an impression on me,” Kaushal said.
After researching several charity organizations, the couple launched #MillionMealsForLove, a 30-day campaign on the United Nations World Food Programme’s “ShareTheMeal” app. Their goal: to provide a million meals to schoolchildren affected by Boko Haram violence in Cameroon by February 14, the same day Kaushal and Mehta will officially tie the knot in a civil ceremony.
“For us, on that cause, it was natural for us to somehow incorporate it into our wedding. We realized that if we could maximize that donation and effectively replace the idea of a traditional big wedding, it immediately felt right,” Kaushal told NBC News.
In addition to the 40,000 meals the couple have already donated from their wedding funds, Kaushal and Mehta have reached a goal of 97,334 meals, as of Feb. 3.
According to ShareTheMeal, the United Nations World Food Programme provides annual food assistance to nearly 80 million people in 80 countries, and 90 percent of the donations go directly to WFP operations. With the tap of a button, users of the ShareTheMeal app can directly donate meals to children in impoverished countries; a donation of as little as 50 cents can help send an emergency meal to a child, according to WFP.
“In my mind, there is no conceivable reason that a child should go hungry,” Mehta said. “It’s within our reach to make an impact and what’s needed — especially in these times — is for us to think beyond ourselves and reconnect with our shared humanity and what is going on globally.”
The couple notes that they did face a challenge early on when conceiving of the campaign: explaining to their families they wanted to simplify their actual wedding ceremony and put their focus on a charitable cause instead. A traditional South Asian wedding is not just about two individuals getting together, the couple explained to NBC News, but rather, two families marrying each other.
“As we explained the cause…they actually saw why we were so passionate about replacing this with our traditional wedding and feeding as many kids as we can,” Kaushal said. “We’ve taken the spirit, the community of a traditional Indian wedding and energy and we’ve put it into this campaign, which has been encouraging.”
Mehta added, “Indian weddings are a way to bring two families together, and with this project, what we found is that it’s really not just brought me and Poonam together, but our families closer together. We are working toward a shared goal and this really worked as a catalyst, not to just bring us together, but two families together.”
Without the stress of preparing a wedding, Kaushal and Mehta says this unified act of going beyond themselves and donating to an important cause has strengthened their bond as they prepare to exchange vows.
“We are working on a common shared goal, and that’s essentially a marriage,” Kaushal said.
Going forward, Kaushal and Mehta hope they can come back to this act as another starting point to celebrate milestone birthdays and anniversaries in an impactful way.
“We want to continue to go back to that notion that, given a milestone, whether it’s our first child, what is it that we can do at that moment? Can we do something more modest? And do it for somebody that needs it more than us?” Kaushal said. “Even if you don’t have money, a dollar goes a long way in many of these areas. It’s something we want to pass onto our kids.”