Satyagrah Souls: Indian Americans Making A Difference

Sameena meets with voters and collects petition signatures to secure her place on the ballot for the primary election on March 20, 2018
Rishi Kumar

SATYAGRAH SOULS is a monthly political series presented by Silicon Valley’s community leader, Saratoga Councilmember Rishi Kumar, in highlighting the community involvement and success of Indian Americans in the United States. This series seeks to inspire us in giving back to our local community. We Indian Americans are going through a transitional evolution, as we get entrenched in a new world, embracing new culture, exerting zealous work ethics, supporting the American economy as entrepreneurs, high tech geeks, doctors, lawyers and more.

We are definitely imposing the positive intentions and good citizen values upon this fantastic country and making a huge impact. But can our involvement run a bit deeper with issues near and dear to our hearts, perhaps within our local city, or with the local public school that our children attend? Do we sometimes hear our conscience imploring, “Am I doing enough?” Yes we can get involved just a bit more, push our comfort zone and enhance the learning and impact our involvement.

Our involvement can simply start with developing a healthy curiosity in our local community, instead of being ‘busy’ bystanders. Once we get involved, we will quickly discover, how easy it is for us to make progressive change happen and how receptive everyone around is, to leverage our skills for it. There are leaders waiting to be discovered, why not “me”, by taking that first step?
The give-back experience can be freeing, energizing – personally rewarding and transformative at the same time. There are many who have made their mark in doing just that. With this monthly series, we want to highlight these SatyAgrah souls who are showing us the path. Here is a SatyaGrah soul, who has found the calling:



Democratic candidate for US Congress, 5th District of Illinois

Sameena Mustafa

Sameena Mustafa has been lauded for her long history of leadership and service to her community in the Chicago Tribune, Chicago Sun-Times, Chicago Reader, and WGN Radio. She was selected as a 2017 National Leadership Academy fellow by the Asian Pacific American Institute for Congressional Studies in Washington, D.C. for current and future candidates for public office. She recently served on the Host Committee of the United State of Women/Galvanize, a 1000-person summit chaired by Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen, and emceed Keith Ellison’s sold-out DNC chair campaign rally.

In addition, she has served on boards at the YWCA, United Way, and the Chicago Community Trust and held volunteer leadership roles in Chicago Cares, Cabrini Green Youth Programs, Northwestern Club of Chicago, and the National Association of Asian American Professionals.

Sameena believes strongly in civic engagement and organized a 200-attendee forum on how to elect more women and people of color in partnership with the ‘On The Table’ program at the Chicago Community Trust, leveraging her relationships with League of Women Voters, Reclaim Chicago, Indivisible, and the Civic Lab. She currently serves on the Sounding Board, an advisory board for Chicago’s National Public Radio affiliate, Chicago Public Media/WBEZ/Vocalo, and the Advisory Council for Chicago Women’s Health Center, a feminist health collective.

Professionally, she acts as a tenant advocate for privately-held entities and nonprofit organizations as a commercial real estate broker. After beginning her career with CB Richard Ellis, she became the youngest member and top producer at a boutique woman-owned firm. Prior to real estate, she excelled in product marketing at industry leader, Rand McNally, where she helped develop its 5-year strategy. Early in her career, she blended her passion for the community and leadership skills as the clinic manager for Planned Parenthood’s Austin location, an area greatly underserved for reproductive health.
Sameena is also an actor, stand-up comedian, and writer. She has been featured in videos by The Onion and performed on world-famous stages like New York Comedy Club, The Second City, Laugh Factory, and the Biograph Theater. A graduate of Northwestern University, she is also a published poet and essayist. In 2017, Sameena founded Hand Her the Mic, an organization dedicated to empowering women of color through comedy workshops, forums, and performance opportunities. In 2014, she cofounded Simmer Brown, a stand-up comedy collective, which has received praise for its commitment to diversity and successful run of shows. The Chicago Reader included Sameena as one of the best of Chicago comedy for 2016.

Special thanks to Shayra Sethi for this profile coverage


Creating space for women of color to thrive

What motivated you to run for the US Congress, representing the 5th District of Illinois in 2018? How did this interest come about? What do you see as your strengths and experience in this election run?

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Sameena extends gratitude to US Senator Cory Booker (D-NJ) for supporting Medicare For All at 2017 reception in Chicago and poses for a selfie

Having been born and raised in the US, I have worked in the business, nonprofit, been on boards, organizations and have been integral part of the community. As 2016 elections were approaching, the concern was that the outcome will not be in favor of the community I was representing. Due to the loss of Democratic Party at all levels; incoming leadership was far removed from ground reality. I felt that it was time to have leaders in the office who relate to the community and are aware of policies that are beneficial for the real people. When it came time, I stepped up to represent the community. This was a motivational factor for me to run for congress.

Sameena, you have worked on issues/needs of women and children, associated with organizations like Chicago Women’s Health Center, Chicago Cares, YWCA, etc. Can you share your insights and learning and how they are helping you today?

I started to volunteer very early on by working with organizations that help women and girls like Apna Ghar with national reputation. I had an opportunity to work with the clinic where patients relied on government funding. Subsidies offered were important for primary and health care services in real time. Agencies I have worked with recently like Chicago Women’s Health Center, and Rape Victim Advocate, etc. All these relied on either donations or government funding or mix of two. I have worked with management of these organizations to understand their needs and how they manage the overheads like staffing, salaries, rents etc. Being involved with these organizations has given me invaluable experience to understand needs at the tactical level and design effective policies for the support and benefit of these organizations.

“Hand Her The Mic”-Sameena founded this organization to empower women of color through comedy workshops and performance opportunities. What have been your achievements through this organization and its commitment to the community?

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Sameena meets with voters and collects petition signatures to secure her place on the ballot for
the primary election on March 20, 2018

To give some background and context, I produced a show called Simmer Brown. I came across the fact that it was difficult to find women of color who could perform. In conversation with other producers, I thought about creating an environment that is safe for women of color to perform. I conducted a first workshop in Hyde Park, Chicago and got great response with representation from Black, White, Latino, Muslim and Asian women; a good mix of women. One of the attendees from the University of Chicago Medical Center started an employee resource group for women of color, inspired by our workshop. This served as a resource for women who were being passed over for promotions etc. The concept of representation and thinking of how do we create the space for women of color to thrive and network is the one that inspired the attendee. My hope is that women who have been part of the resource group will have access to information on their fingertips. I believe that comedy is the relatable way to express your values confidently. A way to communicate your abilities and achieve goals by having confident expression.

What is the priority list of issues that you are seeking to take up for your district?

1 2Issues I am focusing on are in three areas – economic justice, human rights and political reforms. Touching upon economic justice, issue at hand is healthcare where access to healthcare is under threat. There are two bills, one in Congress and the other in Senate that are proposing Medicare to all. To me that is a very important policy change that’s not only is the healthcare decision but affects the reproductive choice. Without access to healthcare, access to reproductive choice will not exist.

Next area is related to human rights where women’s rights are human rights. My concern is that some of the civil rights based fights fought are being overturned specifically in the areas of LGBT. I also see that as an opportunity for coalition of groups to come together on issues like immigration, religion, gender expression. They can voice together on discrimination issues regardless of what form it takes and fight back. On political reforms, we saw in 2016 elections the impact of voters’ oppression. Purging voter rolls, enough places/machines to vote etc. are areas of concern. An area of my interest and part of democracy where we should have access to place not only to vote but make it count.

How relevant/important you feel it is for the Asian-American women community to be involved with initiatives like women empowerment and be involved with developing and contributing to non-profit organizations working towards women and children issues?
It is imperative that Asian-American women must be part of the movement for gender, racial and economic justice. We can’t rely on myths prevalent in the communities like model minority, good immigrants etc. We need to break away from stereotypes and build coalition. These myths and stereotypes perpetuate and make one community go against the other. This is unproductive and way is to have representation/involvement so that there is an understanding of being united and togetherness.

I am all about progressive movement and California is in the forefront with many initiatives. I feel that in many ways California models with good policies and movement building. I am looking to replicate national movement in my work that represents values of the system. Representation aligned with the value of the district is the essence of my being in this field.

Friends, this was an interview with Sameena Mustafa. We wish her the very best with her Congressional run and beyond.

Dear Readers, Do you have a story to share? We invite you to introduce us to folks in your community who are making a difference – we would love to profile them. Are there similar stories you are familiar with locally. The ones who helped address a simple issue in the community to make life a bit better. Perhaps someone you know decided to make a run for school board, was appointed to the planning commission. Provide us your insights on Indian Americans locally and nationally who are making things happen. These perspectives will help construct roadmaps for our community to empower ourselves, to hopefully ignite a desire in all of us to represent our local communities as doers, leaders, establish and entrench ourselves in this glorious country of America and help make it a better place


ABOUT RISHI: Rishi is an elected city councilmember in Saratoga, CA and politically active in the state of California, as a board member on a few state and national political organizations. He continues to follow his passion for community service, seeking to provide services to his constituents cheaper, faster and better, in his passion to make a difference. Rishi has diligent service, responsiveness, community outreach and engagement a key focus for his political leadership, be that strong independent voice. As Silicon Valley’s community organizer, Rishi is host of many social, educational, cultural community events, many of which are free and always inclusive usually addressing a need or a cause. Rishi’s day job is as a Silicon Valley hi-tech executive but his zeal for service effervescent. Rishi is also the President of the Bay Area Indian American Democratic Club ( whose charter is to further the interests and values of Indian Americans, work towards political empowerment and advance ethical standards in the political system. You can reach him via his website



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