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The Reinvention of Edison: Mayor Sam Joshi Wants to Be a Bridge Between the Township’s Generational and Ethnic Divides

The Reinvention of Edison: Mayor Sam Joshi Wants to Be a Bridge Between the Township’s Generational and Ethnic Divides

  • The first South Asian American and the youngest to be elected to the post, the 32-year-old is confident that his experience as a councilman and his insights into the municipality and its governance will help him lead the town he was born and raised in.

On New Year’s Day, when Samip “Sam” Joshi was sworn in as mayor of Edison, New Jersey, the town named after the greatest inventor of the industrial age, it was symbolic of the reinvention it has gone through over the past three decades. The 32-year-old Indian American was born in the township at a time when it was a hotbed of racist attacks against Indian immigrants who were just making their presence felt in a town that was almost 80 percent white. 

It was a time when Asian Americans, and Indian Americans in particular, were seen as disruptive to the way the township had been since it was founded in 1870 (first incorporated as Raritan Township, it was renamed as Edison Township in 1957). The new immigrants were considered outsiders, and as they began establishing businesses across the township, they were subjected to racism and hate crimes, especially by white teenage gangs. 

Gradually, the demographic shift began to change the dynamics in the township. The Asian American community grew exponentially. Currently, with over 100,000 people, Edison is the sixth most populated city in New Jersey. Asians make up the largest racial/ethnic groups in the township at 53.6 percent, according to the 2020 Census data.

However, the Asian Americans in the township are not monolithic. They represent a mosaic of cultures, religions, ethnicities and harbor their own prejudices and practices imported from the respective home countries. 

Joshi has been able to transcend these divisions and become the mayor of the town he was born and raised in. But the young politician believes that it was not his ethnicity that got him elected as the first South Asian and the youngest to lead the township, instead, it was his knowledge and familiarity of the township and its governance. He aspires to be a bridge, not only between different ethnic communities that call Edison home, but different generations as well. He understands the values of what his parents came to this country with, but at the same time, he’s “an American first.” 

Joshi spoke to American Kahani just days after his inauguration. He was still in the middle of setting up his office. Dressed casually in jeans and a black turtleneck, he looks like any young Indian American, but when he starts discussing his vision and plans for his hometown, he transforms into a passionate public servant. 

Joshi believes that to go further, every community must understand that there’s a bigger picture. People “have to realize that their goals, aspirations and expectations cannot be limited to their own identity,” he says.

Proud of his township’s diversity, he says the latest census numbers are significant as it goes to show that Edison is a popular destination for every culture and background and is welcoming as a community. “That is something to be very proud of,” he says. “And that is where I am just happy because I get to lead this town for the next four years and I look forward to it.”

As mayor, he wants to create a balance and make sure that every community feels represented. “That’s my job,” he says. “I want to make sure no one feels they are left out. And that’s what I am going to strive to do.”

Coming Full Circle

On January 1st, Joshi came full circle. He took the oath of office at J.P. Stevens High School, his alma mater, in front of his family, friends and township employees. “It was very symbolic,” he says.  

It was here as a 14-year-old freshman that Joshi got his first internship at the township office. His familiarity with the system as well his work with some of the past mayors and current officials and staff is the main reason the new mayor doesn’t think he has to familiarize himself with the task at hand. “My first internship was in this building at age 14, and every year since, I have worked directly with five of the earlier mayors, and they’ve all seen me grow up.” 

It’s also the reason he had a smooth transition. “The difference between a newcomer versus myself, even though I am new to this role, is that when I walked through every single department, there was either an employee I had worked with or interned with,” he recalls. “I think because of my history in this town, politically, and in government, the transition has been very easy and seamless.”

Joshi with his parents.

Joshi was the youngest to serve on the Fair Rental Housing Authority and the Zoning Board of Adjustment. He was elected as an at-large Council member at 27 years old, making him the youngest elected official in Edison’s history. Since joining the Edison Township Council in 2017, Joshi has worked to keep taxes low, help women and minority-owned businesses get on their feet, and promote green energy throughout the township.

The Age Factor

Joshi looks at his youth as an asset than an impediment. During his campaign, he had the full support of many ethnic communities, including Indian Americans, who were united despite their diversity and differences. His youth played a huge role in rallying ethnic, cultural and generational support, he says.

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He believes electing young leaders has a lot of advantages, as they bring new perspectives. That’s why he is committed to motivating the youth to pursue public service careers. During his years as a council member, Joshi launched “one of the largest internship programs.” And this year, as mayor, he promises that the internship program will “be even better.” He says he’s hoping to have “a couple of hundred students, all from Edison exclusively.” He said he wants the youth to know that no matter what their career is, they can learn straight from the Edison government. 

He is encouraged by the changes he observed on the campaign trail. He saw a lot of youth come out to support him, curious about his run and their involvement in his campaign. He feels he was a catalyst in that transformation. “My priorities, my goals, and expectations are based on the U.S. national government and political system.

Not shy to note the difference in thinking he says: “I have one view of how policy should be dictated and expectations should be managed and I think oftentimes elders have another viewpoint.” And although he acknowledges that “the elder population had laid a foundation for me to be able to succeed,” he adds that “throughout last year I learned that they have done their work, now it’s time for another generation to move in.”

The Indian American Community

The lifelong Edison resident understands the dynamics of the Indian American community in his town — the economic and social disparities and the religious and political polarization within. But he believes that to go further, every community must understand that there’s a bigger picture. People “have to realize that their goals, aspirations and expectations cannot be limited to their own identity,” he says.

On the campaign trail, Joshi faced the divisions between the Indian American and other South Asian communities. He was always asked what he would do for a specific community. “Our responsibility is to ensure that we are doing the best job and we are making society better for everyone,” he says. “I think everyone needs to give each other the benefit of doubt, everyone has to look toward the bigger picture, everyone has to go beyond the scope of what they know of their own identity.”

To that end, the young mayor cannot stress enough the importance of voting and the need for civic and political engagement. “There is not a single soul that does not get impacted by the decisions that government officials make,” he says. “When you change the word politics and replace it with public policy, everything becomes relevant — from what you eat, to what you consume, the car you drive, clothes you wear — whether you choose to pay attention or not.”

Some of Joshi’s biggest and immediate challenges include the COVID-19 pandemic, sewer and water problems, the township’s bridges and roads. “The township has remained stagnant in terms of infrastructure and goals for nearly 20 years. I want to make sure that Edison is on a strong footing and that’s why I am here,” he says. Yes, he has the chance to reinvent Edison as a city of the 21st century.

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The viewpoints expressed by the authors do not necessarily reflect the opinions, viewpoints and editorial policies of American Kahani.
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