- The progressive-minded social worker is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Seema Singh, Knoxville, Tennessee, City Council Member (3rd district), and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the largest left wing organization in the country, is looking forward to a more unified nation under the new dispensation. “I hope we can put this divisiveness behind us and work together to build our economy,” she says optimistically.
A left leaning, progressive-minded social worker, Singh was drawn to local electoral politics after she heard Vermont Senator and former presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ campaign speeches. When Donald Trump got elected, his words of division impelled her to run for office. She won and has been a city council member since early 2017.
Born in Varanasi, India, Singh moved to the U.S. when she was two, as her father, Ram Naresh Singh came on a Fulbright scholarship to New York’s Columbia University. He later settled in Knoxville to teach social work at the University of Tennessee. “I just followed in his footsteps when I took up social work,” she says. He passed away 15 years ago.
Yearning for Independent Thought
Singh says Sanders can be credited with bringing the organization to the attention of a large number of Americans. However, she doesn’t like to be confined to the straitjacket of organizational ideology and prefers to keep her independence. For this reason, she says, “DSA does not feel like a perfect fit as I don’t like to go down a checklist and toe their line on every issue. I’d rather avoid the trap of ‘you are either 100 percent for us or you are against us.’”
Singh feels there’s something Indian about this yearning for independent thought that we value. “We often see things differently, coming from the Third World,” she says. India gained independence as recently as 1947 and she said she grew up on stories about family members and friends that were freedom fighters. Stories of non-violent resistance and going in and out of jail inspired her, especially the tales of the Rani of Jhansi.
Her family is Kshatriya and though she admits that the caste system is immoral, she takes pride in these stories of valor.
She sees parallels between Modi in India and Trump in their “us and them” divisiveness and authoritarianism. In admiration of the ongoing farmers’ agitation, she says, “That kind of activism in India, one that becomes a matter of life and death, simply floors me.”While she is independent and open-minded, divisiveness of all kinds distresses her.
Within the Democratic Party, the schism between the conservatives and the progressives prevents members from coming together to work for the common purpose. She worries most about factionalism in the left movement.
“We have been getting into such specific identity politics that it seems to become more difficult to move together” she says. For example, she says, Black Lives Matter (BLM) includes all people of all colors working together. “Unfortunately, some hear it as ‘oh, so my life doesn’t matter?’”
Rather than being a unifying statement for so many that have struggled for so long and are still struggling in this country, BLM is being heard as divisive, she laments. “There is a lot of suffering and oppression to go around, we cannot begin comparing our suffering to each other’s suffering as a contest,” she says. “This ends up dividing people that should be working together for a more just economic system together to tackle the huge wealth gap that exists.”
Being Brown in Politics
What does it mean to be brown in politics today? One of Singh’s favorite things about being brown in politics in Knoxville, where she grew up, is providing a bridge between cultures. She had heard that many constituents hesitated to call her because her non-European name is too unfamiliar to many Americans; they wonder if it’s a boy’s name or a girl’s, or if she speaks English. She can relate to them when she sits at their kitchen table to discuss their issues and then it turns out she has the same concerns and experiences.
In her town, Christianity is the norm and there are a lot of churches. There are other religions too, but do not have a very large public presence. “I like to educate about Hinduism, Buddhism, Unitarian universalism and secular humanism, that these belief systems have morals and values and a place here,’”she says. Changes are coming, she admits, but remembers when she was growing up, quite a few people would tell her that she needed to change her religion so she wouldn’t go to hell.
Singh says Indian Americans seem to be in all aspects of American life these days. In business, as entrepreneurs, in politics, including the vice president Kamala Harris, artists, musicians, in the medical field and in academics. “Still, every step of the way we’re trying to figure out where we belong, where we stand united and also as individuals; as recent immigrants and as those who have been here for many generations,” she says.
Diverse Family History
The melting pot that is the U.S. is, is reflected in her family, she says. Her mother remarried a White American man with a very large extended family from a rural county of Tennessee. Singh married a Puerto Rican man. On New Year’s Day, her family honors the tradition of eating black eyed peas and rice, but it’s black eyed peas Chhole style and puris, she points out.
She speaks more about her family. “My American stepfather is a retired journalist. He was on the local radio station, the Rock ’n Roll radio station which was uber-hip,” she says.
Singh divorced her husband not long after she assumed office. She said statistics show that 75 percent of women who get elected to office, get divorced as it changes the power dynamics within the relationship. “It is much easier for us women to follow our husbands around,” she says. As a city council member, Singh says, “It s a great feeling when we women can start speaking and be heard. My wish is for every Indian girl to have this opportunity to speak and be heard.”
Singh’s background is in social work and psychology and she is currently working on domestic violence offenders, engaging with their education, self awareness and developing coping skills. To stop the cycle of violence, our justice system needs to focus on rehabilitation and preventive public safety instead of jailing and incarceration after catching them in crime.
Over everything, Singh says, “we have to still continue stimulating the economy and focus on economic development, tapping on altruistic capitalism is important as the super rich are not paying taxes.” According to her, giving back to society should be a source of pride, “rather than have us looking for loopholes to avoid paying taxes or doing charity only to get tax benefits.” Everybody has a foundation for charity these days, she laments. “We need to ask, are you a part of society and a patriot or are you just dealing?”
Alpana Varma worked as a Research Assistant at the Delhi University and then as a journalist for over 10 years for several leading Indian national dailies. After leaving India for Europe, she has been working as a teacher, translator and freelance writer and editor. She lived in Mexico briefly where she worked in intercultural communications. Currently she is based in Miami.