“South Asians need to participate more in government and civic life”

Dilip Chauhan talks about his public duties, motivations, the community and how it is working with George Maragos

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Dilip Chauhan is a respected advocate and leader within the South Asian Community in New York.  His ability to unify parties from the corporate, political, civic, educational, faith-based, and humanitarian sectors, is phenomenal. Chauhan has distinguished himself as the ‘go-to’ person within the entire span of the community.

The US Congress recently declared November 12 as “Dilip Chauhan Day” from Sixth District in New York. His selfless actions, tireless advocacy, and numerous positive outcomes on behalf of individuals, businesses and organizations, makes him an ideal candidate for the award. 

Currently, Chauhan serves as Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos’ Director to the Southeast/ Asian American community.  In that capacity, he contributes to Community Relations Department, the constituent arm of the Comptroller’s office, which provides information and advocacy to residents of Nassau County, opens access to government services and business programs for women and minorities, and helps to increase responsiveness and resolve problems that impact the quality of life for individuals, families, and neighborhoods in the county.

As a community consultant for a number of prominent local and state political candidates, he helped create campaign strategies, coordinate appearances at high profile events, and create linkages to civic and faith-based constituencies.   The evidence of his efforts are evident through the business growth, increased dialog on faith and diversity, expanded opportunities at regional colleges, and the volume of persons who have been assisted in gaining access to government services and programs.

A past advisor to the Association of American Physicians, he was the Honorary Public Relations/Regional Outreach  Coordinator  for the well-known charity, BAPS, Inc.  He also served as a volunteer for the UN’s Millennium World Peace Summit.  While Dilip has received numerous awards for his service and contributions to the South Asian community, he maintains that the driving force behind his work is helping to increase opportunities for South Asians and other immigrant groups.

Chauhan is a first South Asian American to be recognized as Political Rising Star “40 under 40” by City Hall Political News. He has been an Advisor to “The Association of Indian American Physicians of Indian American Origin”. He was also the Chairperson of Gujarati Samaj of New York. Dilip holds a Bachelor of Science Degree in Electrical Engineering.

He spoke to our Tri-State Bureau incharge, Shina George.

Excerpts:

What does it mean to you when Congress-woman announced 12th November as DILIP CHAUHAN DAY?

It was such a sobering moment, I learned about this amazing honor from none other than Congresswoman Grace Meng herself. I have wanted very much to fill the gap between elected officials and our community, and this award suggests that perhaps I have succeeded to some extent. I am so pleased to receive this honor, rather simply overwhelmed. Receiving this award is such an amazing honor.

What made you transition from being an engineer to a public person?

The role of an electrical engineer is to see a problem; conceive a solution; build the parts or the whole mechanism to address the problem; and then install that solution in a practical, useful way. As an engineer, this is how I always think and process information. My engineering background provides the lens through which I navigate in the world. If a problem exists or if there is an opportunity for change or innovation, then I believe that there must be a way to find a solution.

Even while I was an electrical engineering student in Jaipur, I had a deep concern for the welfare of people whose voices, I felt, were not being heard. I would visit the nearby slums to try to find solutions for the alcoholism and smoking addiction that ravaged the local communities. I partnered with a local nonprofit organization to organize anti-smoking and anti-alcohol campaigns where more than 50,000 people participated. We spoke at over 30 schools and at many different venues. We even organized a similar campaign in the central jail. We added an AIDS awareness component and took the campaign to Akashvani Radio Station, the government’s television programs, and other media outlets. This was something that had never been done in India before. These activities that began when I was a student have a profound impact on me. It was then that I realized the power and necessity of community service.

What motivated you to get in public life

I am still very much a private citizen who is committed to helping my community, and helping public officials with their civic engagement with the South Asian American community. I believe that there is great merit to public life – that is serving as an appointed or elected official. One can do a lot with that platform. It is a way to help others, and for me, I see it as an avenue to help improve the South Asian community, advance immigrant causes, and make America a much better place.

Tell us about your formative years, early upbringing?

I had a great childhood in India. I am from Gandhinagar, Gujarat. I come from a family of five brothers. My formative years were spent under the guidance of very loving parents. I attended Swaminarayan Gurukul High School as well as public schools, where I was always selected for leadership positions. My father was always introducing me to the leaders and influential people he knew. He had a great way of connecting with people. I learned that from him.

Tell us about top public officials you have helped to connect with South Asian community?

I wouldn’t use the word ‘helped’; I prefer to use educate. I’ve had the privilege of educating many officials and political candidates about the South Asian American community. US Senator office,   New York City Mayor, New York State Comptroller, Public Advocate, Congresswoman Grace Meng, Congressman Don Donovan, Congressman Joseph Crowley, Senator Stavisky, Senator Jose Peralta, Senator Padavan, Senator Leroy Comrie, Assemblymember Ed Bruestein, Walter Mosley, Nily Rozic, David Weprin, Councilmember Eric Ulrich, and many more.

What have been your biggest challenges so far in community work?

There are many challenges; but voter registration and civic participation are the top two issues. For example, I reached out to a few very wellknown nonprofit organizations and religious institutions to ask them to participate in voter registration drives and other public forums. These are organizations that have more than 1000 members. The response was “We are not political.” So there is a challenge of educating the community about their duty towards civic participation, and how different that duty is from politics.

These same institutions have many members who need a lot of help with school admission; language translation; finding jobs; dealing with hate crimes; getting access to government services; accessing small business resources; and having basic local knowledge including about their local police department. After hundreds of their members reached out to me, for their need,  I believe their administrators understood the need for civic participation. I am proud that I helped some institutions become more engaged especially in voter registration and civic participation, but there is still a lot of work to do.

Tell us about one thing you want South Asians to focus on and why?

There are many wonderful, unique things about our community that I love and appreciate. We can keep those wonderful traditions and customs that make us unique; but we also need to learn more about the larger community. We need to participate more in government and civic life.

How has it been working with Mr. George Maragos?

I am grateful to Nassau County Comptroller George Maragos for giving me the opportunity to serve him and his constituency. In addition to the fiscal duties, Comptroller Maragos does so much to inform the public about financial issues and also to take advantage of business opportunities. Part of my responsibility as Director of Southeast/ Asian Affairs is to connect the office with diverse populations. I would encourage members of our community to take part in government resources which are available to them. They can contact the comptroller’s office if they need information about Minority and Women Business (MWBE) certification; wastage of government funds; or if they see any irregularities

What is that you see in him that has attracted you to take fulltime assignment with him?

Mr. Maragos exemplifies what is really good and honorable about public service, and it is exciting to see that up close every day. In my role as Director of Southeast/ Asian Affairs, I try to be helpful by introducing him to the leaders and members of the Southeast/ Asian community. He is genuinely interested in getting to know and understand our culture and our needs as citizens. That is admirable.

Do you think if elected George Maragos will build strong relationship with South Asians?

If I base my judgement on what he has accomplished as a current elected official, I think he will be excellent as Nassau County Executive. I believe he will keep strong relationships with all minority Communities, including the Southeast/ Asian American Community. Also, he comes from a business background, so he understands the benefits and challenges business owners face. He also views himself as someone with strong immigrant ties, so he knows the challenges Southeast/ Asian Americans face. Most importantly he is accessible and knowledgeable. He is a symbol of two most important traits a public official needs, “Integrity and Experience”. He will make a great County Executive.

Do you think South Asians are ready to fight elections?

That’s a great question. Nationally, we had two prominent Indian-American state governors; recently five Indian-Americans won Federal level election. South Asian-Americans make up only one percent of the total population, but we have grow our representation in the political arena. We need to keep being civically engaged and politically connected.

What do think about young South Asians? Is politics a good field for them?

As you can see, over the last few years there are many young members of the South-Asian American Community who have shown an interest in politics -thanks to coverage or advocacy by the South Asian Media and different nonprofit organizations, Political Organizations, for giving them internship opportunities with different elected officials locally as well as in Washington, A couple of young South Asian candidates also won local state and Federal level elections (like Assemblyman Raj Mukherjee of New Jersey, Ro Khanna in San Jose, CA among others). I think we will have many more candidates in the future elections.

What do you think of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

You know my relationship with Prime Minister Modi is very cerebral. He is someone I admire greatly. He is doing a great job as India’s leader. During his last visit in September, I had the privilege of meeting with him and talking to him about opportunities and challenges facing the NRI Community of the United States.

You have worked with several politicians and most have been successful. How did you help them?

Again I won’t use the word’ helped’; but I prefer to use educate. Our elected officials had no idea about the needs of the South-Asian American community. During my interactions with a few elected officials in early 2000, I was so shocked to see that they had no idea about South Asian Americans and the issues we face. I had to brainstorm and after in depth research, I prepared a presentation entitled “ Gateway to South Asian American Community”. The presentation outlined cultural issues; faith-based matters such as food restrictions; and, greetings in different languages. Surprisingly, when something happened (bad or good) in the South Asian Community, I got calls from elected officials asking, “Dilip, what can I do? How can I help?” For example, as you know on August 2012, there was a massacre at the Sikh Temple in Wisconsin. Within a day or two after the incident, I received a call from Senator Chuck Schumer’s office. They asked, “Dilip, can Senator Schumer join a prayer meeting or be in solidarity with the Sikh People during this difficult time?” In a matter of a few hours, I was able to coordinate with the local Gurudwara and the next morning we had a press conference and solidarity prayer meeting with the Senator.

Also, as a co-founder of NYC Diwali Celebration, I advocated for a school holiday in Eid as well as for one on Diwali Day. I was one of the advocates for parking suspension on Diwali Day, Include different language assistance during the time of election, There is much more advocacy needed by the South Asian Community, however, on matters that pertain to our issues

In my early advocacy days, it was difficult to get appointments with elected officials; but when I mentioned to them there are 120,000 Physicians of IndianAmerican origin around; 90,000 convenience stores are owned by Indian-Americans; 22,000 motels and hotels are also owned by Indian-Americans, then they wanted to learn more. It was my job (and it continues to be my pleasure) to inform and educate them about the many positive and amazing things about our community.

 How does your family cope up with your demanding schedule?

That’s a good question. What I have learnt from my Guru Pramukh Swamiji Maharaj and Mahant Swami Maharaj  is that happy family comes first. On that note we do Ghar Sabha (Home Prayer Assembly) twice a week – where we all sit together and discuss ongoing matters pertaining to our family, personal achievements, reading of scripture, some good video, etc. But I am having a good understanding about time management.. Generally I believe If you want to achieve something you have to sacrifice something; but I always keep my family as my priority. Why? Suppose I am helping so many other families, but my family is not happy with me? Then, there is no meaning. No doubt its tough, but I have learned to be very good at time management! Generally, we also try to have dinner together, if not every day but surely a few times a week.

Are you enjoying your work and why?

Yes, I enjoy my work immensely. I don’t say its work; I say its service. I am able to  help so many of constituents and members of our community. As well as every day I am learning about what it takes to meet and help people where they are. It is fulfilling work.

 Where do you see yourself in four years from now?

I know for sure that I will be in public service. I do not know what form that will take; but it could be as an elected official or working for an elected official where I can make a difference in people’s lives.