Ashwini (Ash) Prasad is a South Asian Indian immigrant born in Fiji Islands, raised in Calgary and Vancouver, BC, who now lives in Portland, and author of How to Write Inclusively: An Analysis & How To Guide. Equity and justice are her pillars as an anti-racist educator and screen writer.
Although Ash describes her childhood as not entirely happy, she greatly appreciated the sense of community and belonging she had in her family. Her life and world view changed during her senior year in college when she took a class called “Ethics of Diversity,” which addressed the philosophical harms of injustice. She shares more about the class in this Oregon Arts Watch article. It made her realize she wasn’t as privileged as she thought she was and it made her view the world in a completely different way.
Ash used what she learned as the basis for her first of her three master’s degrees. For her thesis, she built a portfolio course for college students to learn about the philosophical and sociological harms of oppression.
Then she thought she might like to be a philosophy professor. During her next master’s, she studied the intersections of the nonviolent movement in the Hindu religion. Then she capped it off with an MBA to allow flexibility in her career path.
Building her career as a senior consultant, she worked in finance, IT, health care, and the public and private sectors. But her heart has always been in her anti-racism work.
When she felt stifled in her career, she began looking for a way to stretch her creativity. She decided to look at the South Asian influence in the United States. When she started researching the history of Oregon, she learned that South Asian Indians had settled in Astoria 100-125 years ago. Realizing that she didn’t know this history really upset her.
“I also learned about the Sepoys, soldiers who were fighting for the British in World War I and also being colonized by the British. There were 1.3 million South Asian Indian soldiers who fought for the allied forces. 73,000 died, and 400,000 were Muslims. So what a contribution they’ve had to the world we live in today. But what do you see, when you see a war movie today? We only see one perspective.”
I too recently discovered the history of South Asian Indians in Oregon, specifically about riots against Indians in St. Johns, as I shared with Ash. You can learn more here.
Learning this history set her path to becoming a screenwriter.
“Because media is so influential, and I want what I watch on the screens to be diverse...and I want to tell these stories. I want to tell the stories of people who’ve been forgotten or erased from history.”
Ash reflected back on her childhood, when teachers encouraged her to sing and act but she didn’t pursue those paths. Now she looks back and wonders why she didn’t pursue those opportunities. Being a screenwriter might be her way to make her mark.
Screenwriting gives her an opportunity to take her inclusive equity lens and help others be inclusive in their storytelling.
When she saw there weren’t any books about how to write inclusively, Ash decided to write a book, How to Write Inclusively: An Analysis and How-To Guide, exploring and explaining why inclusion is important for the arts, media, entertainment, and publishing areas.
Ash notes that it’s more than hiring a chief diversity officer—it’s about hiring people in all roles, cast and crew.
“My sincere hope is that media will listen, because we want content with diverse characters.”
We talked about examples of scripts that got it right—she likes “Sense 8” on Netflix, which Ash explains is about radical empathy, includes a diverse cast, and is written by trans women. Of course there’s “Black Panther” and Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” and “Us.” Others are “The Half of It” has a Chinese woman as the lead and a lesbian love story; “Money Heist,” and “Dark.
“I never saw myself until ‘Never Have I Ever’ on Netflix. It was comedic, representative, and I could see myself at 16.”
I raved over the “One Day at a Time” reboot with Latinx characters, and a mom who’s not only a veteran but also has a lesbian daughter.
Ash emphasizes that true inclusion goes far beyond what we see on the screen.
“How are we hiring the people who do the work to get things to our screens? Who has access to producers, who is in the development process, how are the people who are in the production, who are there, who’s the authority when changes are being made, who are we marketing it towards? Where are the points of contact where bias can come in?”
Hollywood has plenty of examples of problematic movies and TV shows, such as the transphobia in “The Silence of the Lambs” and “The Crying Game.”
Although Bollywood is far more diverse, there’s a lot of colorism. The leads are usually light skinned, while dark-skinned people play one-dimensional villains. That happens a lot with Black people in American movies.
“It’s fine to have a villain or antagonist on our screen. It creates conflict, and we have a need there. But how are you writing that person? Are you just giving them a one-dimensional character...or are you telling the human story about why they do what they do and what their influences have been so that your audience can build empathy and understand why they’re doing what they’re doing...and that is where a lot of our media fails...because it ends up being these caricatures of people, and it just perpetuates anti-Muslim sentiment. Media is powerful, and it influences us.”
I asked Ash what it’s like to be a brown person in Portland right now. She said that ever since the 2016 election, she has become hyper-aware of people looking at her and feels scared of people who carry the American flag.
Having both worked in the corporate world, we talked about the similar issues there and the need for organizations to do better to create atmospheres of belonging.
“Are we creating safe spaces? Are you allowing that if someone has a complaint, something will be done about it? Unsafe environments create continued trauma.”
She shared that Chadwick Boseman got fired when he started asking questions about a stereotypical Black character he was playing on a soap opera.
“I have never felt like I belonged in any of my roles, whether I was a full-time contract or external consultant. I’ve never felt like I’ve belonged in an organization, and that needs to change.”
Organizations that spout diversity talk without having clear, safe paths for escalation and a sense of belonging are just being performative.
“I don’t recall any single leader that I’ve worked for who has said to me, how are you doing? What can I do for you to feel safe in this environment? They’ve said to me, what do you need for success? No one has ever said how can I help you feel safe. These are the words we need to be using.”
The story of grit and resilience inspiring Ash is about her ancestors. Ash’s great-grandparents were indentured servants to the British. When the British colonized Fiji, they took her Indians like her great-grandparents to Fiji to work the land. Her grandfather was born in a boat on the way to Fiji.
“I think about what they went through...I can’t imagine getting on a boat as a pregnant woman. That’s where I come from. But a lot of my family history was lost in servitude and colonization.”
One of her grandmothers had her first child at 14. She’s ever conscious of what they went through so she could be in this position now. Her ancestors didn’t have the choices she has now.
“I have three master’s degrees, and my sister is a Ph.D. The world we’ve been able to create just two generations later is really amazing. It’s my homage to thank my ancestors.”
You can find more information about Ashwini, including her e-book about inclusivity and her coaching and facilitation services, on her website. After I interviewed her a few months ago, Ash decided to launch her own podcast, “Inclusive Storytelling,” in January. Watch her website for more details. "You inspired me to start the podcast," Ash said. "I am grateful for your push!"
Next week I continue my focus on equity and inclusion when I interview my friend Joy Fowler, who is the diversity & inclusion program manager at the Port of Portland. I met Joy after we both gave birth to boys born at 24 weeks and we were volunteering for Legacy Emanuel’s NICU Family Advisory Board. Her beloved son, Amir, died in 2012. She and her husband Allen founded a foundation for special needs children in Amir’s honor, A MIRacle Foundation, Inc.
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As a podcaster for justice, I stand with my sisters from the Women of Color Podcasters Community. We are podcasters united to condemn the tragic murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and many others at the hands of police. This is a continuation of the systemic racism pervasive in our country since its inception and we are committed to standing against racism in all its forms. #podcastersforjustice
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