Shehn Datta serves as the political coordinator at the Ballot Initiative Strategy Center, her responsibilities include supporting the political team in building partnerships and relationships with stakeholders and providing technical assistance to allies.
Before joining BISC, Datta worked to elect the President in the 2008 and 2012 election cycles in North Carolina. In the intervening years, she attended the University of Oregon School of Law, focusing on international law and government services. Datta previously taught in public schools in the San Francisco Bay Area, igniting her passion for juvenile justice and advocacy.
She holds a B.A. in sociology and women’s studies from Mills College and a J.D. from the University of Oregon School of Law. She is a proud Californian, the daughter of immigrants, one of whom is a teacher, and an aunt to two amazing but silly nephews. Datta lives in Washington, D.C., where she enjoys discovering rooftop bars and reading novels in coffee shops.
Tell us about the work Ballot Initiative does:
We provide assistance to campaigns and progressive organizations in the life of a ballot measure, so that it can qualify all the way through election day. We provide tools for building coalitions and how to speak to voters about a qualifying ballot measure. This includes organizations or individuals that are passionate about certain issues and want to see discussion among voters.”
Have you done anything specific to target South Asian voters?
I have spoken to South Asian voters on campuses and the surrounding communities, but most of my activity has been within the progressive organization as a whole by keeping in touch with organizations such as SAALT, SALDEF and the Asian American Federation. This has helped me stay informed about what issues matter to South Asians and what makes a difference to our community as a whole.”
What kind of response have you received for trying to educate or recruit South Asian voters?
When you talk about issues, people are more open to talking about them because issues are something we can connect on more openly than we do with candidates. When we discuss candidates, we only get to part of the issues compared to a specific issue such as immigration reform. Many South Asian voters can agree that the immigration system has plenty of loopholes, which makes it easy to get lost in the process. This doesn’t always translate to the discussion of candidates since that focuses more on the individual than specific issues.”
Have you seen a difference in how people react in terms of age groups within the South Asian community? Are young South Asian Americans more likely to pay attention to issues or candidates?
Young South Asian Americans deeply care about political issues, and we see how certain issues can affect our families. In my household, my father pushed us to talk about politics, but in many families discussing politics is considered improper. Talking about politics makes a huge difference whether it has to do with specific issues or candidates.”
What can we do in the future as a community to drive people to vote?
Talking about why voting matters is the most important thing we can do. This applies to all communities and can get the wheel rolling in terms of educating others. One of my jobs in the past involved registering voters in churches, and then informing the same voters about upcoming elections. This is something we can start in our own religious organizations and by engaging people in civic participation. We can also educate non-citizens about how they can be helpful in the voting process. Another thing we can do is to speak with political organizations on campuses or South Asian organizations. Social media is another resource we can use to connect with others and engage them in the political process. We can’t complain about the political process if don’t participate in it.”
As we see more South Asians running for office, have you seen a greater turnout within the community? How does that help us as a community?
It makes a huge difference that more South Asians are running for office, which helps us be more visible as a community. We are more than just doctors, engineers, or those in the tech field. As a collective voice we can validate that we are Americans and can vote just like any other American. I have seen people in the South Asian community donate to opposing parties because they think it’s important to elevate South Asians to a platform where they can be vocal about representing the American community and the South Asian community. It’s okay to cross party lines when the motive is to engage more people within the community and create a platform for viable candidates.”
How does Ballot Initiative help voters navigate through the process?
We don’t directly speak with voters, but we provide organizations with tools regarding ballot initiatives and how to speak with voters. We act as the connecting tool between organizations and the voters. We help people build and foster coalitions to speak with one another. Since Ballot Initiative has a national viewpoint, we can see what kinds of measures are successful and how similar measures can be used in the future. This helps understand how different states have different challenges and what measures work in the process. We have resources such as pre-election reports available to voters that show what initiatives are happening in different states. We are always open to speaking with people and engaging our entire community. We have internships available for young leaders to speak about ballot measures across the country.”
Update: Shehn Datta shares a message about Election Day
Over the weekend my Facebook newsfeed was full of young Americans involved with “Get Out the Vote” efforts across the country. People posted pictures of themselves knocking on doors, encouraging others to volunteer for local candidates or simply just spreading the message of why voting matters in strengthening our democracy. As young Americans, we all have a reason to get up and vote on a candidate or ballot initiative, which matters deeply to us.
On this Election Day, I encourage you to find your reason to vote for a better tomorrow. Find the candidate you have support and faith in. Find the initiative that you believe represents what you care about or what would help better society for the people around you. We can only change this country for the better when we participate, and the best participation effort comes from getting out there and putting our votes in.
At the risk of sounding cheesy, follow Gandhiji’s teaching and “be the change you want to see,” by voting!
For more information, check out Ballot.org.
Rishika is in her last year of law school. She is a self-proclaimed coffee addict, foodie, and a news junkie. She has a deep love for politics, culture, religion, tackling misogyny, and sociology. When she’s not busy reading or drinking coffee, she enjoys watching horrible reality, and traveling.