Rinku Sen

Rinku Sen

The main­stream media – and may I say also much of the alter­na­tive media – has no idea how racism works struc­tural­ly,” says Rinku Sen, co-author of the new book The Acci­den­tal Amer­i­can, which argues for a more open immi­gra­tion sys­tem. So any race cov­er­age is always about what some­one said about some­one else.” 

Sen, pub­lish­er of Col­or­Lines mag­a­zine and pres­i­dent and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Applied Research Cen­ter, spent 12 years on the staff of the Cen­ter for Third World Orga­niz­ing (CTWO), a nation­al net­work of orga­ni­za­tions of col­or. She has writ­ten wide­ly about immi­gra­tion, com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­ing and women’s lives; in 1996, Ms. Mag­a­zine named her one of 21 fem­i­nists to watch in the 21st cen­tu­ry. In These Times inter­viewed her ear­li­er this year.

In 25 words or less, what makes you so spe­cial? (Keep in mind that humil­i­ty, while admirable, is bor­ing.)

I can talk to any­body about any­thing, from the mort­gage cri­sis to trash TV. And I do. 

What’s the first thing that comes up when your name is Googled?

The Applied Research Cen­ter, the think tank where I work. We are build­ing the nation’s mul­tira­cial, mul­ti­dis­ci­pli­nary, mul­ti-issue home for racial justice. 

Shame­less­ly plug a colleague’s project.

The Transna­tion­al Insti­tute for Grass­roots Research and Action is doing amaz­ing work. Its founder, Fran­cis Calpo­tu­ra, was my co-direc­tor at the Cen­ter for Third World Orga­niz­ing for ten years, and he’s a bril­liant orga­niz­er. Fran­cis has built Mil­lion Dol­lar Clubs across the coun­try, com­prised of immi­grants who use the mon­ey trans­fer sys­tem to sus­tain their fam­i­lies back home. These Clubs aim to reform that sys­tem so that a por­tion of remit­tances will be chan­neled into new fund­ing for com­mu­ni­ty devel­op­ment projects both here and in send­ing coun­tries. Their boy­cott of West­ern Union, from whom they demand low­er fees and com­mu­ni­ty rein­vest­ment, has attract­ed cus­tomers and share­hold­ers alike. TIGRA under­stands that love of fam­i­ly ties togeth­er transna­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties – the mon­ey trans­fer agen­cies under­stand that too, and the bat­tle is on for who will get to keep and define the use of that wealth. 

Describe your politics.

I’m a race woman, so that’s the first lens I use. Since race is a part of most things, I see myself as an eco­nom­ic pro­gres­sive, a fem­i­nist and sex­u­al liberationist. 

Come up with a ques­tion for your­self and answer it.

What’s the most excit­ing project you’ve worked on late­ly? I’ve got a new book out with Fekkak Mam­douh called The Acci­den­tal Amer­i­can: Immi­gra­tion and Cit­i­zen­ship in the Age of Glob­al­iza­tion. We argue that a more open immi­gra­tion sys­tem would make things bet­ter for every­body, using Mamdouh’s own life sto­ry and his expe­ri­ences build­ing the Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ter of New York to prove it. [Editor’s note: Read an excerpt from The Acci­den­tal Amer­i­can in this Col­or­Lines arti­cle.]

In addi­tion to new immi­gra­tion pol­i­cy, we also have to fin­ish the job of cre­at­ing a fair glob­al­iza­tion, by head­ing toward transna­tion­al labor, tax, social wel­fare and gov­er­nance sys­tems. That’s the only way to break the cycle where peo­ple from poor coun­tries are forced to go to rich coun­tries where only their labor (not their pol­i­tics, cul­ture, or oth­er expres­sions of full human­i­ty) is wel­come. In the book you see the NYC immi­grant work­er com­mu­ni­ty grow until it includes all Amer­i­cans, while in the Con­gres­sion­al debate, the image of Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties shrink. 


Name a jour­nal­ist whose work you read reli­gious­ly. Why?
Gary Younge [New York cor­re­spon­dent for the Guardian and con­trib­u­tor to The Nation.] His report­ing hits hard, and his writ­ing is nuanced. Wish I knew him. 

What social net­work­ing devices do you use (Face­book, MySpace, Digg, Del​.icio​.us, etc)?
I’m ashamed to say that I’ve just got­ten hip to Linked In, which my assis­tant man­ages for me, and I guess I’ll be Face­book­ing soon. 

Pick your 5 favorite web­sites and tell us why.
Racewire​.org [Col­or­Lines‘ blog], so I can see what my own peo­ple are saying. 
YouTube​.com, because its often funny.
Inde​pen​dent​.co​.uk, so I can track my cousin Kim Sengupta.
NYTimes​.com, because I have to. 

What’s a mis­take the main­stream media always makes that real­ly gets under your skin?
The main­stream media – and may I say also much of the alter­na­tive media – has no idea how racism works struc­tural­ly, so any race cov­er­age is always about what some­one said about some­one else. So bor­ing and not the point. Reporters know how to look for pat­terns, but some­how they go blind when those pat­terns are racial. 


What’s one piece of leg­is­la­tion (state or nation­al) you’d like to see passed right now?
A broad, inclu­sive legal­iza­tion for undoc­u­ment­ed immigrants. 

What’s one piece of leg­is­la­tion (state or nation­al) you’d like to see defeated?
I’d like to see the four anti-affir­ma­tive action bal­lot ini­tia­tives (Ari­zona, Col­orado, Nebras­ka and Mis­souri) defeat­ed, but I’m not hold­ing my breath.

My polit­i­cal awak­en­ing occurred when…
When I was 17, two of my col­lege friends tried to get me to go to a racial jus­tice ral­ly on cam­pus. When I wouldn’t com­mit they told me that I need­ed to grow up. I wasn’t a girl, I was a woman, and I wasn’t a minor­i­ty, I was a per­son of col­or. So I went and my whole life changed. When you need a kick in the ass, who bet­ter than your best friends to pro­vide? I wrote about this inci­dent in Are Immi­grants and Refugees Peo­ple of Col­or?.” After­ward, one of those friends said she was struck by how self-right­eous she was in those days, but then thought it seemed to have had a good effect on me, so maybe self-right­eous­ness wasn’t all bad. 

What do you think makes for an effec­tive activist or polit­i­cal cam­paign? Can you name a cur­rent one that you admire?
Speed, dis­ci­pline and open­ness to new ideas. I admire too many to pick one. 

Are you involved with any inter­est­ing forms of activism? Could you tell us about any of these projects?
I respect the mod­el of the Restau­rant Oppor­tu­ni­ties Cen­ter of New York. I see it as a hybrid, which I believe most suc­cess­ful polit­i­cal orga­ni­za­tions are these days. They do cor­po­rate cam­paigns, indus­try research, polit­i­cal edu­ca­tion, work­er train­ing, leg­isla­tive work, coop­er­a­tive devel­op­ment and orga­niz­ing of high road employ­ers. Not all by them­selves, of course, but they under­stand that they need a com­pre­hen­sive strat­e­gy in order to get things done at scale. 

How can oth­ers get involved?
Eat at Col­ors Restau­rant in NYC, 417 Lafayette St., or call ROC­NY at (212) 343.1771 to volunteer. 


How do you get around (bike, pub­lic trans­porta­tion, car)? Why?
I spend an hour each way get­ting to and from work on the sub­way. I don’t own a car, part­ly because it’s dif­fi­cult in NYC, and part­ly because I seem to attract acci­dents. Bet­ter to be walking… 

What local media do you depend on?
New York mag­a­zine to see what the elites are doing, and the Dai­ly News to check in on every­one else. 

What’s the best piece of advice some­one gave you when you were young?
Don’t bad­mouth any­body, it doesn’t make you cool­er,” when I was in 6th grade. And lat­er, when I was about 20, Ears open, mouth shut.” 

What are five things you can’t live without?
Do peo­ple count? My jour­nal, TV, lip balm, my assis­tant and my family. 


What’s the last, good film you saw?

What is the last, best book you have read?
I loved read­ing these two books one after the oth­er: The Known World, by Edward P. Jones, and The In-Between World of Vikram Lall by M.G. Vas­san­ji. Both are about the respon­si­bil­i­ties of peo­ple who occu­py society’s mid­dle rungs. 

Guilty tele­vi­sion watch­ing pleasure?
TV offers many plea­sures, and I nev­er feel guilty. Lost,” ER,” The Appren­tice” top the list. Sex and the City” reruns have been great – the ear­ly years are hilarious. 

What trend in pop­u­lar cul­ture do you find the most annoying?
Super skin­ny women and, even worse, super skin­ny men. 

—Octo­ber 82008

Rinku Sen is the pres­i­dent and exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Applied Research Cen­ter and the pub­lish­er of Col­or­Lines mag­a­zine. She is the author of Stir it Up: Lessons in Com­mu­ni­ty Orga­niz­ing and Advo­ca­cy and The Acci­den­tal Amer­i­can: Immi­gra­tion and Cit­i­zen­ship in the Age of Glob­al­iza­tion.
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