Interviewed by Samantha Joo
I had contacted Ms. Aarti Kohli back in April, 2017 to conduct an interview for the Platform workshops. She responded with a very thoughtful note, asking me to contact her back in 6 months. She was short-staffed at that point. Now, to most, this may have been insignificant. But for me, it was memorable. First, I never thought she would respond. Second, I didn’t think she would be so kind in her e-mail. I thought she would be too busy fighting for immigrants, refugees, and everyone else who needs help that she couldn’t be bothered to respond to a startup organization.
You see, ever since I started receiving mass e-mail from Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, I had developed a huge professional “crush” on her. I was impressed with the work the organization had accomplished under her guidance. And her press releases, oh my. She was able to make incisive observations supported by law and statistics that I didn’t think anyone could disagree with her. She knew how to use numbers and figures to her advantage. This is a skill that any researcher will tell you is rare but absolutely necessary for effective argumentation.
If I had her as a role model in my youth, I would definitely have pursued law as my late father suggested. I mean I took the LSAT and filled out these long applications to 3 schools (Harvard, Yale, and one other top school) to please my father. But with all the legal TV shows in the 80’s and 90’s, I thought all lawyers were liars and defenders of white-collar criminals who made a truckload of money (my youth was misspent on really bad TV). I was so grateful that I got rejected by all the schools. I couldn’t have been happier. However, Ms. Kohli is a different kind of lawyer; she was the nonprofit kind that fought for the oppressed (and therefore probably makes much, much less money than corporate lawyers). And of course, she was a manager, adviser, director, chair, etc. and is currently an Executive Director. So she is a lawyer and then some. But I have to admit that I am just awed by her legal background. Everything else is just a plus.
So when she not only replied to the e-mail but agreed to this interview, well, I was ecstatic. But I have to thank Emma Lee, the Executive Assistant, who was instrumental in making this interview possible. It wasn’t my personal charm that came across in the e-mail request but upon her recommendation that Ms. Kohli decided to take time to speak with me.
On the day of the interview, I was more nervous than usual. I was afraid I would sound stupid, or worse, incompetent. But Ms. Kohli was approachable, engaging, and most importantly, passionate about the people she serves. She transported me to her world, her childhood, her community. Since she was a lawyer, I thought she would appeal to me with her ability to argue. She definitely has a gift with words. But more than her ability to articulate a point which one expects from lawyers, it was her love for the community that struck me the most. Her brilliance stems from her sense of duty to the people she served. This was her charisma and why she is an effective leader. But don’t think that she had no-self or is sacrificing herself for the people. Assuredly not. Rather she knew her strengths and how to use them effectively for her community. How could one not respect such a woman?! My crush is unequivocally justified.
The interview was modified and edited to allow for smooth transitions. And most of my words were taken out to make me sound more eloquent than I was during this interview. The transcription was made possible by a quart of Fudge Ripple ice-cream, followed by coffee. Yes, it was one of those mornings.
Sam: The first question I have for you is: You know that moment, the “aha” moment that you have when you think, oh this is what I really want to do with my life, or did you always feel like this is what you wanted to do?
Kohli: Well, I always knew that I wanted to do something that benefited women and girls of color. And actually, I just had a deep connection. I was born in India.
Sam: So you are second generation?
Kohli: Sort of... I consider myself 1.5 generation. I came to the United States when I was 7 years old. I saw my parents struggling. I still remember the time when we didn’t have heat because the heat was controlled by the landlord. My mom had to go get some legal help in order to get him to get the heat on. So I just remember watching my parents struggle and seeing how at different moments having legal support had really made a difference for them. And I actually always thought that I’m gonna go back and work in South Asia. I want to work in the global South. Then it was actually my last year of college when we compiled a bunch of stories. I co-edited a book with some friends. Its called, Our Feet Walked the Sky (https://books.google.com/books/about/Our_Feet_Walk_the_Sky.html?id=R4NpAAAAMAAJ). And it was the stories of migration from the perspective of women and girls from South Asia and I realized that there is so much work to be done here in the US. I didn’t actually need to go to South Asia or a developing country in order to support human rights. That was happening right here in my backyard. And I thought law school would give me some skills, some technical skills, to achieve that.
Sam: So it was on-going process. It was not a one-moment that you personally experienced that led you in this direction?
Kohli: It was a slow realization. But there were moments. We got involved with Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA - http://www.aiwa.org) which is a group here in Oakland. There were garment workers who were involved in the Jessica McClintock strike and labor rights for Asian garment workers. I was actually an undergraduate at Berkeley, with a group of other young women. We would support the actions of AIWA and participate in activism. That was another moment that really sticks in my mind. There are immigrant workers here who didn’t have access to fair wages, just basic labor rights. All of that led me to go to law school. And when I was in law school, I actually tried different areas. So one summer I did criminal defense. But as it turned out, I ended up taking immigration law my last semester of law school. And I just fell in love. The entire course was so relevant. I feel like immigration law and history has defined my family and impacted so many of the families in the communities that I’ve lived and worked with.
Sam: It’s interesting we had similar experiences but I entered into the US illegally and then became a citizen later. I came to the US about the same age. I didn’t know I was undocumented because I was too young. I sort of remember us trying to avoid the law but I never really understood why we had to run away all the time. It was not an easy experience, very painful at some points…
Kohli: I want to know more about your experience later! I got politicized at UC Berkeley. They had a really amazing Asian American Studies program and there we learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment. All this stuff that in grade school was never emphasized or even talked about.
Sam: And I think it should. This speaks to our education system. I grew up in Colorado most of my life and I didn’t have an Asian community. So I was not active. During my college education, graduate school years, I didn’t know what it meant to be Asian. And only later in my life, it dawned upon me that I am Korean, I am Asian. It is sort of consciousness that made me go in the direction that I am going on right now.
The second question I have, in doing this work, what is the most gratifying aspect of your work?
Kohli: Easily, it really has to be when we make a change in someone’s life. When we actually can get them what they need. The diversity of our work is pretty amazing. We have restaurant workers who are being underpaid, they don’t get a raise, lots of wage theft. Just making them whole. Actually giving them resources and letting them know that actually it’s really okay to stand up for your rights. That’s super powerful. We also have really serious cases where we had a US citizen of Yemeni descent who had his passport taken away by the US consulate when he was in Yemen and couldn’t travel back.
Sam: But why?
Kohli: Because they forced him to sign a false confession saying his name was not his real name. It was like you’re in this world where, how do you actually prove that you are who you are. Does the US government have the power to take away your passport without any due process and that way you could never come back to this country. That’s craziness.
Sam: It is. How do I prove who I am?
Kohli: We filed for special travel papers from the State Department. We filed a case on his behalf in the federal court. These are compelling cases where all of our rights are at stake. It’s not just this one person; it’s everyone who is a naturalized citizen.
“It’s not just this one person; it’s everyone who is a naturalized citizen.”
Sam: You deal with individual cases but these cases have huge political implications. Because I could use that as a precedence to argue for other cases (not that Ms. Kohli, the lawyer in this conversation, needs to be reminded of this). It's that change that you make in a individual’s life that really impacts you.
Kohli: Yes. We do this work for the community. If we’re not actually being impactful in the community, then what is the point? The whole point is we’re here not for our egos and not for some …
“The whole point is we’re here not for our egos...”
Sam: Absolutely! You’re in the wrong field … If you’re wanting to make a lot of money and make a name for yourself, you’re not in the right field.
Kohli: No. No one does it for the money.
Sam: Actually, you sometimes have to give your own money to do this work.
On to the next question. You fought for a lot of cases but you probably came upon a lot of disappointments in life. How do you deal with the stress?
Kohli: Yeah, its been hard. This particular year has been one of the hardest years in my career. The attacks on the community have been relentless. You only have so much control. I think I deal with the stress by actually being in the community with my colleagues, my friends and my family and being together with people and reminding myself that there are actually good people in the world. I need that reminder that I am not alone. And I know that I am not. And that is actually what keeps me sane.
Sam: You’re in California; you’re in SF, one of the most liberal cities in the US. And having talked to other people, they don’t have that community.
Kohli: We’re very lucky. I don’t take that for granted at all. I lived in Virginia, I lived in the Midwest, I know that there a lot of .… But I will tell you. We have a hate crimes tracker and we’re not immune. People in SF and in Berkeley and Oakland, they’ve been told, “Go back to your country!” All different kind of Asians. South Asians, East Asians, and whatever. That kind of hate has no boundaries.
Sam: (I brought up a personal example that was probably irrelevant). Looking back, is there someone you looked up to as a role model?
Kohli: I’ve been fortunate to have a lot great role models in my life. I think, really starting with my own mother who was an amazing human being. When she was 16 years old, she became a teacher to help support her family. My family were refugees because my grandparents and parents were born in British India and what is now Pakistan. When the British divided India, they had to move because my family was Hindu and had to move to India. So they left everything. They lost everything. And it happened to people on all sides. It didn’t happen only to Hindus. It happened to Muslims. The family was impoverished and she helped support the family. When my dad got a visa to come to the US, we were very lucky. The whole family was able to get green cards. He said, “I’ll go. I’ll support the family. I’ll get a job. You stay with the kids.” She was like, “No, we are all going. We’re all going to do this together.” She was a teacher in India and she came here and she got a different degree. She was one of these people who was fearless. She’s the one, like, if people needed help in the community, they’re going to go to her. She’s the one if she is watching something happens, someone is getting mistreated, she’s going to be the one to speak up.
Sam: It's amazing. I think women, more than men, are flexible and more willing to change rules in order to get their ends accomplished. My mother is similar. They’re survivors, period. And they will do almost anything to help their families.
Kohli: And for my mom, its not really just about the family, she thought about the community. And that was a great role model for me.
Sam: That is an excellent example. I don’t have any role models except for my mother because I grew up in a predominantly white area.
One final question. Not just as a stress reliever, but what do you do for fun? Just to get away from everything.
Kohli: I love dancing, watching movies, just kind of escaping. I love to travel. I haven’t traveled in a while cause this past year its been impossible. So much work. But I love to travel, meeting new cultures.
Sam: Back to that dancing?! The dancing. What kind of dancing?
Kohli: I love bhangra, Punjabi Indian dancing. Actually, I like salsa too.
Sam: Are there classes for Indian dancing out there or did you just learn from your family?
Kohli: I learned at weddings, from family. Now, they have these Indian Bollywood dancing exercise classes.
Sam: I think you need this outlet … Since you are dealing with your community, I think the stress is a little bit more personal. Its not like losing a million dollars, its actually someone else’s life on the line.
Kohli: That is the part that keeps me up at night. For sure.
Sam: Its always nice to see the personal, the part that allows you to get away and not feel guilty about it.
Kohli: I absolutely do think it’s really important to have a balance and not be working all the time. I really encourage that in our staff. I think this year, we’ve all been challenged in our ability to take a break. We feel guilty in taking a break. But it’s actually important for sustainability. You can’t sustain this if you don’t take a break.
And that is where our conversation ended.
How could one not admire a woman who fights the evil powers by helping individuals in her community while dancing the night away? She is a real-life superhero which is better than Wonder Woman because she is not contained within the walls of the TV screen but is fighting on our streets for social justice, for you and for me.
Aarti Kohli landed in Queens, NY as a seven-year-old with her family and saw first-hand what it means to be a struggling immigrant in the U.S. She is currently the Executive Director at Advancing Justice-Asian Law Caucus, the first organization in the country to represent and promote the legal and civil rights of Asian and Pacific Islander communities. At Advancing Justice-ALC she oversees key program areas including National Security and Civil Rights, Immigration, and Criminal Justice Reform. She also helps guide the state and national policy work of the Advancing Justice affiliation with partners in LA, Chicago, Atlanta and Washington DC. Formerly, she was the Director of Immigration Policy at the Warren Institute at UC Berkeley School of Law where one of her key projects involved creating an intensive immigration seminar for professional journalists. Prior to her work in California, she worked in Washington, DC, as Judiciary Committee counsel to Congressman Howard Berman (D-CA) and as Assistant Legislative Director at UNITE union where she lobbied on behalf of low-income garment workers who were primarily immigrant women.