Meet Your Neighbors: Councilmember Ash Kalra
By bayareadesi team on 07 Jun 2011
Councilmember Ash Kalra earned his seat on the San José City Council in the November 4, 2008 election. He is amongst the first South Asian to hold a significant position in elected office. For 11 years, he worked as an attorney for the Santa Clara County Public Defender's Office representing indigent clients in Drug Court prior to being elected. He has also taught as a part-time professor at San Jose State University. Get to know Ash Kalra (the most eligible bachelor in bay area) as he talks to our team on all things bay.
Tell us a little bit about yourself.
I am a 33 year resident of San José having moved to California in 1978 from Canada. I was born in Toronto as my father was completing his Ph.D. in Aeronautics from the University of Toronto. I have one older brother, Vinay, who works at Oracle. He is married to Suman and they have a 4 year old son named Jashun. They live in Menlo Park. I went to public schools growing up, graduating from Oak Grove High School. I went on to graduate from UC Santa Barbara with a Communication Degree. I went to Washington DC for law school, graduating from Georgetown University. I am currently a Councilmember for the City of San José representing District 2 in south San José, having been elected in November 2008. There are approximately 100,000 residents in my district and approximately 1,000,000 in San José, making it the 10th largest city in the nation. I am the first South Asian to ever be elected to the San José City Council and the first one ever, along with Susie Nagpal who was elected to the Saratoga City Council at the same time, to be elected to any city in Santa Clara County. Prior to my election, I worked for 11 years as a lawyer in the Santa Clara County Public Defender’s Office, representing indigent clients in a wide range of criminal matters.
What inspired you to join politics?
I was never inspired to specifically enter into the political arena. However, from a young age, I was profoundly drawn to public service. I have always felt blessed that I was afforded the opportunity to grow up in one of the greatest places on earth, especially considering the sacrifices made by my parents and grandparents in order to allow me to live in America. I have always seen this blessing as an obligation to make the most of my life and to use as much of my energy to serve others as possible. I always consider the greatest measure of wealth my parents ever gave me, and one they were not as fortunate to have as they made decisions in their life, is the existence of options. I have always opted to choose service over personal wealth or other traditional measure of success and status. It is with that foundation and a keen interest in civil rights history, particularly as it pertained to American history through the 19th and 20th Centuries, which continues to inspire me in my journey.
You were amongst the 1st South Asian to reach such heights in politics, How does it feel? Can you tell us about your journey?
It is an enormous honor to be amongst the first South Asians to hold a significant position in elected office. Keep in mind, I represent the neighborhood I grew up in, which has less than 3% of the registered voters identified as South Asian. So, I grew up as someone with long roots in the neighborhoods in my district. However, I also understand the importance of being the first and the obligations that come with it. This journey has been amazing and I feel lucky to be one of many South Asians who have the opportunity to have influence on our community and to serve as a role model for the next generation of South Asian leaders.
Historically there were not lot of South Asians involved in politics, what is the reason for that and are your seeing a paradigm shift after your success?
For all of the right reasons, our parents’ generation pushed us towards the sciences. Not only have the sciences been held in high regard in our community, but they allowed so many of our parents to have the opportunity to experience the American dream. It is the sense of certainty and stability a career in the sciences can offer that had most of our parents pushing us in that direction. When I went to law school in the mid-1990’s, it was still a curious decision at that time. I do believe that we are seeing a shift over the last decade or so as our generation and the one that follows do not face many of the cultural and language barriers that made careers in the law, arts and finance more formidable. I also see that with the election of President Obama and a steady increase in the number of South Asians in positions of prominence across the nation through elections and appointments, we are starting to see a more common desire to enter into public policy. My hope is that individuals who choose to seek appointments or stand for election have the notion of public service as their guide and not any perceived benefits, celebrity or climbing in status.
How important is it for bay area South Asians to be aware of political / government system? How can it impact our everyday life like with grants, budgets, etc.
It is extraordinarily important for all residents, South Asian or otherwise, to understand how government works. Since we tend to be an educated bunch and stay on top of current events, South Asians may have a better grasp of national or maybe even state politics than most. But, like the majority of the population, I do not believe we have a great understanding of what happens at the local level. The decisions made by cities, counties, school boards, water districts, and the like have a dramatic impact on our quality of life. I believe it is our obligation, particularly for those of us who were born here or chose to become naturalized citizens, to educate ourselves on what we can do to make our community a better place in which to live. And, it literally starts with the neighborhood you live in.
Can you tell us a little bit about local community projects that you are personally spearheading in San Jose?
There are a number of projects I am trying to get off the ground here in San José. One involves increasing volunteerism in our community. Particularly because of the challenging fiscal times we are in, it is more important than ever for the community to come together to help those in need and to work together to beautify our neighborhoods. Another initiative that has been an ongoing process since I was elected into office is to work tirelessly at empowering our local neighborhoods to organize and work together to tackle challenging neighborhood issues. I also work to promote healthy living by focusing on eating a healthful diet and exercising as well as working with a local nonprofit to help have gardens planted in yards of working class families.
San Jose has been one of the top cities to encourage Green initiatives, can you tell us a about them.
The city of San José has a 15 year Green Vision which commenced in 2007 that focuses on environmentally friendly goals which also help to promote job growth. Some of the goals include the planting of 100,000 trees, creating 25,000 jobs in the clean energy sector, and converting 100% of our city vehicle fleet to alternative fuels. Additionally, San José is very aggressive in seeking out global leaders in clean tech as well as budding entrepreneurs and we were named the top city in the nation to start a clean tech company by Business Week. We also promote transit oriented development to get people out of their cars and on their feet, bicycles and buses.
Can you talk about the entrepreneurship and education issues in San Jose?
If the Silicon Valley wants to maintain its position as the center of global innovation, there is no doubt that we must be able to attract the top talent in the world. However, we must also be able to produce home grown thinkers that possess an entrepreneurial spirit. Our education has failed so many of our young people. I hope that we begin to put a greater emphasis on educating all of our youth in the years to come. Furthermore, the technology sector does not represent the demographics of our community. It is up to those who are progressing well in Silicon Valley to find ways to lift all communities up by supporting our public school students with the wealth that too often does not reach neighborhoods in our very own backyard.
What are challenges are you facing?
As an elected official, there are numerous challenges I face on a regular basis. Currently, the fiscal crisis our nation has been enduring has hit municipalities particularly hard. I try to find the balance of dealing with issues of long term debt and short term deficit with the need for us to provide quality services to our residents. It is particularly challenging dealing with these issues when some of the details are very complex, yet, nuanced positions are unfairly generalized with sound bites that do not always convey a complete picture. My schedule also presents a challenge for me in a practical sense. Keeping up with my goal of being accessible and engaged with the community leaves little time for much else. In over two years, I have yet to take a vacation and only have a day off on very rare occasions.
What does future hold for you?
I am not really sure in the long term. For right now, I do plan on running for reelection next year for another 4-year term on the Council. Beyond that, I cannot say for certain I have a definite plan except that I know I will continue in public service in some meaningful capacity.
How do you get more young people involved in local politics?
Young people are not so hard to attract to community initiatives. The challenge is keeping them engaged in community service as a lifestyle regardless of what field they go into. We already know that younger people have a generally dismal record of showing up to vote. This must change, especially since most of the decisions made by elected officials or pushed through ballot initiatives have a disproportionate impact on younger generations as they have to live with the choices made for many years.
Do you feel local “desis” have been supportive?
Local desis have been extraordinarily supportive of me in the couple of years I have been in office. It’s actually quite overwhelming at times how much love I get from the community. It makes me want to continue to do everything I can to support organizations and groups that help to promote the South Asian culture. That is why my schedule is always very busy. In addition to attending events and meetings pertaining to my work as a Councilmember in San José, I also try to attend as many South Asian events as possible to show support for the community.
Has being a South Asian affected you in either good or bad way in achieving your goals? Do you feel being in the Silicon Valley accelerated your career goals?
It’s hard to determine how being a South Asian has affected me in getting where I am today. I do not define myself through a South Asian lens, however, I do know that much of my value system and cultural upbringing was grounded in my South Asian heritage. I feel that it has been helpful for me to be South Asian because I embrace it in a manner that allows me to very clearly be an individual who cares about the entire community and still have an affinity towards my heritage. I do not believe any of my goals were accelerated by me being South Asian. While campaigning, I felt it was important to go to extreme lengths to knock on doors and introduce myself to residents so they new me for who I am and not based upon on any stereotypes or preconceived notions. Now that I am an elected official, I do believe I get more attention than I personally deserve simply because I am one of a few South Asians in my field. I try to take that as an obligation rather than a burden or personal sense of pride.
Apart from work, are you involved with any other organizations / non-profits? If yes, can you tell your involvement with them?
As part of my work on the Council, I serve on the Community and Economic Development Committee. Additionally, I am on the Board of Directors for the Valley Transportation Authority, CalTrain, the Bay Area Air Quality Management District, and the Association of Bay Area Governments. I also serve on the Boards of Sacred Heart Community Service and the Housing Trust of Santa Clara County. I help with numerous non-profit organizations throughout the Bay Area by recognizing their efforts, assisting in marketing and fundraising, and participating in their events. Over the years I have served on numerous non-profit Boards of Directors.
How can bay area locals get involved in community projects?
There are countless ways to get involved. I suggest people start with what they are most familiar with and find areas of interest. If you enjoy the arts, find a non-profit arts group to volunteer for or help with fundraising. If you are passionate about the environment, there are numerous organizations that help to beautify the community or educate people on important issues. The two suggestions I would definitely have is do something very local. Whether it is for a neighborhood association where you live or a local school, get connected to your community. And, get outside of your comfort zone. Do not exclusively volunteer for organizations that benefit the South Asian community or in which all of the volunteers are South Asian. Expand your wealth of experiences and find a variety of causes to learn more about.
Favorite places to eat? Activities? Places to go?
We are lucky to live in such a diverse community with ample options to experience other cultures, especially their food! I love a wide variety of food. There are dozens of places that come to mind in San José, a small sample of which include Falafel’s Drive-In, Pho 69, Taqueria San José, Morocco’s, Jewel of India, Hanuman and Mandarin Gourmet. There are also a number of food trucks to choose from, including MoGo BBQ, Treatbot and Curry Up Now. If I were to hang out with friends, in addition to Santana Row, you may find me at Azucar Lounge, Single Barrel, Koji or Kaama Lounge, or bowling at 300 and movies at Camera 12 or Oakridge. Once in a rare while, even karaoke at 7 Bamboo. There are events all year round in San José, including the Jazz Festival, the Mariachi Festival, Christmas in the Park and free music on Thursdays through the summer at Music in the Park. If you have children, San José has Happy Hollow Park & Zoo as well as the Children’s Discovery Museum. If you have not been to San José, you have to check it out!
If you had one piece of advice for South Asians, what would it be?
I do not know if I am in any position to give advice to South Asians as a whole. However, one piece of advice I would give to people in general is to not take what you have in life for granted. I really believe most people would be thankful for living in the Bay Area and to show gratitude one should find ways to make your community an even better place in which to live.
How can people learn more about you & stay connected to you in future. Please share your FB, Linked, Twitter information.
I do have a Facebook fan page. My personal page is almost at the limit, but I do have some space left. Both of my Facebook pages are Ash Kalra. I also have a twitter account of Ash_Kalra and you can find me on Linked In as Ash Kalra as well.