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Interview with Drishti Pillai - National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum - United States

Updated: Jul 4, 2023

Dr. Drishti Pillai

On February 2, 2022, we interviewed Dr. Drishti Pillai. Dr. Pillai is the Research Director for the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) from New Delhi, India. Dr. Pillai traveled to the United States to receive an education from the Ohio State University where she earned her Bachelor of Science in psychology. She later studied at Emory university to receive a master’s degree in public health and health policy. Finally, Dr. Pillai earned her PhD in public policy from George Washington University.

Dr. Pillai is a member of the NAPAWF; the organization was founded in 1996 and focuses on six central issues: civil rights, economic justice, educational access, ending violence against women, access to health, and immigration and refugee rights. The organization works to give light and bring attention to social issues that API women face daily. Currently, the group is working towards addressing the education of reproductive health and helping to protect the voting rights of the API community. The NAPAWF has eight chapters nationwide, producing a newsletter for the API community to inform them about any social injustices that may occur in Washington and influence the API community.

Visit our "Organizations" tab to learn more about the NAPAWF

Gender Equality Statistics

The United States

Gender Development Index: .994

Gender Inequality Index: .204

Group Classification: 1, high equality in human development amongst genders

Largest Disparity: equal pay in the labor force for men and women


Interview with Dr. Drishti Pillai (Shortened Transcript)

Conducted by Stu Lun II, Josh Baniewi, and Brooke Sheely

Transcript edited by Stu Lun II, Josh Baniewi, and Brooke Sheely

Hannah Robinson

What was the process of moving to the United States like for you?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

It was a huge culture shift, I mean there's, of course, all the immigration related stuff which I’ll talk about later, but just from a cultural perspective. Having grown up in quite a conservative patriarchal South Asian culture and then moving to the United States as an adult, you've already acculturated at that point. There’s also a shift that all young adults experience as we moved from high school to college, so that shift from high school to college life and moving halfway across the world took some getting used to. Also, my parents couldn't move with me, so my sister and I both moved, but at the time you do certain financial constraints. This was right after the 2008 financial recession, so there weren't a lot of jobs, my parents ended up staying back so moving also meant saying bye to my parents and realizing that I would probably get to see them once a year, as opposed to being able to visit over long weekends. While it took some getting used to, I do feel like the US is my home now.

Lanie Parker

How has your education changed how you view society and women's issues?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

I'm very thankful for the education that I've had so far. I think the most important skill I’ve gained through my education is to be able to think critically. Being able to take an intersection and look at women's issues and how women's issues related to people of color and how the intersection of the two causes additional challenges. Just being able to think for myself and think critically, I really advocate that to my higher education. That's not a skill I got to develop going to school in India. Maybe that's changed since I've moved, but critical thinking wasn't something that was overly encouraged. The curriculum was harder and other ways so that's something I really credit my college education and beyond, for having developed that skill.

Interestingly, having an education also changed my view on education in general. Growing up, education was always seen as a way out. In many developing countries that's the case and you start to believe that if you get an education that's your way out of poverty that's your way into a better life, and it was only when I got further in my educational attainment that I realized that even education disproportionately impacts different people. For example, the burden of debt is disproportionately higher for people of color, women, women of color are disproportionately excluded from higher education spaces. So even my ability to criticize some aspects of education is a result of my education and for that I'm thankful.

Even realizing that I don't tell everyone I meet that, yes, education is the way out, spend a lot of money, come to America, go to college and you know your life is going to be set. I really encourage them to think about what they want from their education. Especially graduate school, people usually come to me for advice and now I no longer think that education is the way out. If you go to school, and you do a good job, it is your answer out of poverty. A lot of those are systems level changes that will not change, just because an individual goes out and does something. So, shifting my mindset from individual level changes to systems level problems and policy level problems is something that I have credit to my education.

Josh Fenn

How was your experience growing up in India affected how you view women's rights issues in America?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

When you compare the worst-case scenario, I would argue that it's still significantly more challenging for women in India as compared to women in the US. Some of the rights that some women in India, still have to fight for like the right to marry as an adult, the right to get an education, those are more prevalent in India. At the same time, I’ve always been conflicted with the US not having any issues. As someone who had never lived in the United States, I always

believed that if you get to the United States that's a golden opportunity and life is going to be good, no matter what. You know, the American dream, that you work hard, and everything is going to work out. That's something that changed why the worst-case scenario isn't as bad in the US, as it is in India for women.

Women are still systemically excluded from many spaces, they still face discrimination for inherent characteristics, for reasons that one shouldn't face discrimination: your gender identity, your sex, your sexual orientation, your race. Having grown up in India, it helps me look at things from different lenses of privilege, so there are things that I can look at where I can compare the lack of privilege that I experienced in the US, as compared to many other people. I can critically evaluate issues from that lens. There are other times when I understand just how privileged I am for being able to be in the space that I'm at which so many women in India don't get to be and so it's that relative privilege. While they're always going to be people who will have more advantages than you, there will always be people who have very few advantages and that's very helpful in order to keep a level head.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

How do you feel as a woman with a PhD when you arrive there? A woman who has been growing and learning about life here in the United States, can you see the differences between this society in that society?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

Absolutely, the differences are much more visible to me now. I'm sure they always existed but growing up in India, they didn't stand out to me because that was my normal, that was my daily life, but now when I come back after having spent so many years in a different country having acquired all this education, I think I feel a lot more frustrated sometimes when I'm in India. Now it's so obvious to me that these are instances of discrimination that is weaved into our everyday lives.

One example that stands out to me, which I was completely used to as a child was a lot of households in India prefer male children, this is not universally true, but this is true in a lot of households. I come from a family, where it's my sister and me, we don't have any male siblings, and growing up, people would often ask us do you have any brothers? Does your mom have any sons? Then we'd say no, they always would mention, oh sorry to hear that. That was somehow completely normal to me growing up, but now, when that same thing happens, I always stop the person and ask them why they feel sorry for the fact that we don't have any male siblings and there's no son in the household. It's interesting, a lot of people usually don't engage with me when I ask them why they think that. Sometimes it's led to some fruitful conversations and maybe some changing of minds, but I think though some of the inequities are much more obvious to me now when I come back. I'm much more empowered to speak out about them. That's not something that I did growing up, you have to know your place and you don't talk back, so now I don't feel those constraints anymore.

Elizabeth McVean

Did you face different types of discrimination, being a woman from India as you moved higher in your education in the US?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

I did, you know, when I first started during undergrad. I was in different regions and different types of schools for my different degrees, so this was when I was in the Midwest, I was at a state school, but I felt like the discrimination was more overt. It's also a factor of this was between 2009 and 2012 and we weren't having conversations about race. What counts as racial discrimination in the broad base that we have those conversations now, so being asked questions like “oh how's your English so good?” or “did you ride on camels in India?”, “did you have electricity?”

I was asked questions that didn't always strike me as something that would even count as discrimination, and I think that's just because as a society, we've moved. We've advanced a lot, and now we are finally having conversations about how uncomfortable that makes immigrants and people of color, so quite a bit of overt discrimination during undergrad. My master's was an outlier and I think it's because I decided, even though it was south Atlanta, it’s a very metropolitan city. Because my degree was in public health, it attracted students from all over the world, and that's what made a difference. I mean we had students from Asia from different countries in Africa, and even the American students, a lot of them had spent time abroad. That's what sparked their interest in public health, so they had spent a significant amount of their time either studying abroad or doing the peace corp.

I really did not face too much discrimination as part of my master's education, although yes, you're in Georgia so every now and then you'll hear stereotypes which are offensive, but not from the educational community because it's such a global community. I think the more you experience other cultures and see how other people live, the less likely it is that you have biases.

In my PhD the discrimination wasn't overt. I don't even know if it's intentional, but I often felt like I didn't belong in that space, because I didn't see too many people that looked like me or had the same background that I did. I was genuinely surprised by how many PhD students came from generations whose dad was an academic and I'm the first person in my family to even get a master's degree. I remember my first thought when I got into my PhD. Instead of feeling excited I wondered if the email had been sent by mistake because people like me, are not used to seeing stuff like that. It took me off, I actually emailed the person back, I asked them if it was a mistake, but I just sent something and then they responded, “we are so excited to have you”. In the PhD, the fact that there is no one really that looks like you, or that speaks to the accent that you speak with you constantly feel like you don't belong here and that affects your performance. It causes a lot of anxiety because you always feel like you have to try that much harder, just to be on a level playing field.

Abby Campa

How did the general and racial discrimination you faced differ as you traveled to different parts of the country?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

In Ohio it was much more overt I think within two weeks of moving to the United States, this was my first time ever being the United States; I was 18 at the time. Some person on the street, yelled at me to “go back to where I came from”, “go back to your country”, “you took our jobs”.

The stuff that you sometimes hear in pop culture as satire happened to me within two weeks. I also really think it's not just the region, this was a time when unemployment was at such a high, there was a recession and often when stuff like that happens it's clearly a failure of policy. It's much easier for policymakers to use a scapegoat, so it's much easier to lay claim your job loss on an immigrant as opposed to fixing some of the systemic issues that exist in the economy. I faced a lot of that in Ohio.

One time someone sent me an email that was supposed to go to a Dr. Pillai, I wasn't a doctor at that time, and this was someone in the healthcare system. It was some billing related thing, so I got back to the person saying, well, “I think you have the wrong person I'm a public health student at the university.” I remember the person responded with “oh I'm sorry there's just too many of y'all out there”, so I would like to think that that was unintentional but those are instances where it’s offensive to say stuff like that. DC is largely liberal but, at least, where I live, and I live in a predominately immigrant neighborhood. I've experienced that these incidents are more numerous in such neighborhoods, and it might be because white people feel like the minority, maybe some of them feel like lashing out. Again, I moved to DC right at the beginning of the Trump administration, when there was a lot of anti-immigrant sentiment at that time, and it was very obvious.

It hasn't stopped, it's changed its forms, it's now been 10 years since someone yelled at me to go back to my country, but instances like this being told that everyone from your country is a doctor or an engineer or being congratulated for your House not smelling like Curry, that's got to stop, and you would think that the DC area would be different, but it's not really been that much better.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

According to your experience, do you think that it is more important to have that diversity, both gender, and ethnic diversity among the students or among the faculty? Do you find that one is more important than the other? What do you think about this?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

I don't know if I can see that one is more important than the other, because now I've had experiences on both sides of the table. I've been a student for basically all my life, but I also served as faculty this past semester; I was an adjunct professor at George Washington University in their Master of Public Policy Program. It may sound like a cliched answer, but I really think it's so important in both spaces. As a student you feel so much more comfortable when you see people similar to you. People who are part of my PhD cohort were very international; it was predominantly male, but it was people from all over the world: Mexico, Colombia, India, Korea, China. You just naturally feel like you belong because there's this shared immigrant experience. You also learn so much in spaces like that. I learned as much from my peers as I did from the actual curriculum just hearing the experiences they have, what public policies are like in other countries.

At the same time having a single professor that sort of looks like you, is so powerful, especially if that's not common. For me, I have had one woman of color professor in my entire academic career, which is over a decade long. She happened to be an immigrant from India, so I feel like

that was the first time in my life that I thought that someone like me could one day be in a space like that, until then, it was unthinkable, but when I saw someone that looked like me lecturing that spoke with the same accent I spoke. It was really powerful, that's why I decided to teach this past semester. I didn't want other students to go through the system, especially women of color, not seeing anyone that looks like them. It had a huge impact on the students because I treated them the same. I extended kindness, empathy, and trust, but it's just that some people are less used to having those things given to them. They end up being more thankful so that's why I like teaching.

I really cannot say what's more important, or why not both. You have highly qualified, skilled students who also come from disadvantaged backgrounds or communities of color, so why not make both your student body and your faculty diverse?

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

What are the most common stereotypes that you have heard as a woman, and how different are those from the stereotypes you have to deal with as an Asian American woman?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

In India a large one is feeling like a second-class citizen because you are a woman and that didn't have to do with race because we're all the same race in India, but just as a fact because you were not a boy, things were much worse.

In my last job before I took on the role of research director, I was a senior research associate focusing on quantitative data, so stats, math, and coding. Every single time, even though I think I was on more projects than any of my peers, the principal investigators for the project always forgot to introduce me as one of the members of the research staff. It wasn't intentional, I know because they profusely apologized, but that's another stereotype. I don't know why, but people have trouble relating to that a woman is good at coding. Somehow, they always assumed I was program management staff. Those are some general stereotypes and stereotypes about Asian American women. I discovered those after coming here because that was an identity that I didn't have until I came to the US. Until then, I was Indian or Indian American but seeing myself, more broadly, as Asian American that happened when I came to the US. That's very different from Asian countries. I think there are some really harmful stereotypes that exist for Asian American women. Terms such as “worker bees”, meaning that they're great workers, but we don't willingly take positions of leadership, which is not true. More and more API women are now becoming leaders; that’s what we do as an organization. We are training them to be leaders. That's one stereotype, another stereotype that's very true for Asian American women is that we don't experience bad economic outcomes. First of all, that's not accurate. And secondly, that also minimizes the struggles that not just our community, but other communities of color face, because it makes it seem that all Asian American women are on par with men, so what excuse do other races have?

It's interesting, but a lot of the wage gap data only counts people who work full time year-round. It's a skewed sample because Asian American women tend to be overrepresented in high wage full time jobs: engineers, lawyers, doctors. They're also overrepresented in low wage part time jobs like nail salon workers or food prep workers and those are people that are not even counted

when you do the calculation, so it's not really telling you the full story. And you're counting an entire continent as one instead of seeing how it's different by country, huge countries too. When you break it down by country of origin, you see that the disparities are huge, while some Asian American ethnicities earn more than white men there are more than a dozen that earn significantly less. The lowest earning ethnicity earns about 62 cents to the white male dollar. This is a stereotype that's been especially harmful because if you make it seem like no problem exists, then policy solutions will never happen because there is no problem to address.

Again, it individualizes problems that our systems disregard; it tells other communities of color that if you just work hard, you will raise the wage gap. Asians are used as the model minority, which is just harmful all around and it's not accurate. As a data person, I can tell you there are so many ways, you can slice and dice data to fit certain agendas and a lot of times that's what gets politicized.

Brooke Johnson

How difficult was the immigration process to come to the United States?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

It was a difficult and extremely long process. I mean it got started when I was a child, so I wasn't even aware of it. My dad's sister had come to the US 40 plus years ago and at that time, I don't know if the policy has changed since, you could sponsor a green card for your immediate family, so she sponsored one for my dad. If you're under 21 at the time, then your father gets yours, but this was when the process started. From start to finish, getting a Green Card took about 12 years. This process started when I was in elementary school, and I wasn't even aware. By the time we got our Green cards, I was about to finish high school, which allows you to work and live permanently in the United States, but you could not participate in voting. Other types of visas don't take as long, but then they don't offer the same rights. The immigration journey certainly didn't end even after coming to the US; you must live at least five years before you can apply for citizenship. And five years is 60 months, so if you studied abroad for a month, then in five years, that must be taken out. So, it must be 60 months, which means you cannot leave the country for five years. This is hard for immigrants to do because their families are in other countries, so, in reality, it took more like seven or eight years for me to move from my Green Card to acquiring citizenship via naturalization. All in all, almost 20 years of my life spent on this process.

Josh Fenn

How has the stop Asian hate movement over the last year affected the overall effectiveness of your organization?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

That movement has really helped our organizations and organizations like ours, because it's helped shed a spotlight on issues that we know have been happening for a while, but certainly issues that have gotten worse over the last two years, like one of you mentioned as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and somehow blame being placed on Asian Americans broadly in the US. It's not a problem that's new, but a problem that's gotten worse and finally there's more spotlight on it. Social media has so much power these days, so these things that trend on Twitter

often get to policymakers, we even had Congressional representatives reach out to us. You know, for a long time, if you asked me how I identified I would say Indian American or Indian before I became a citizen. I think this movement amongst Asian Americans galvanized us to organize as a unit and become very distinct communities, but you're stronger together so even for me it's been really two three years since I have started to view myself as an Asian American woman, not just as an Indian American woman. This is true for others as well, so really, it's strength in numbers. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, so having our voice heard through you know these hashtags and social media it led the policymakers to reach out to us, which led to us being able to advocate for things that we always advocated for, but now we have all these resources. Actually, our organizational capacity has increased, so you know, even though it was really disappointing everything that's happened in the last two years, it did give us the opportunity to put these issues front and center and get more resources so that we can continue to do the advocacy work that we do.

Juan Carlos Sola-Corbacho

What is the biggest problem that Asian American women face here in the US?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

I think one of the biggest problems is, and maybe I'm biased here because I come from a health background, but accessing healthcare is such a challenge, especially sexual and reproductive health. This is also true for India's sexual reproductive health too, which is a very taboo topic in South Asian communities and in Asian communities in general. It’s not something that you learn about at home, in fact through some of my qualitative research so many people told me that they didn't even go to a sexual reproductive health provider when they were on their parent's insurance, because their parents were suspicious. It wasn't until they either came to campus and they had access to campus where they don't take your insurance information, or some people have even paid cash even though they were covered by their parents' insurance just because they didn't want their parents finding out that they went to see a sexual health provider. So, I think access to health care in general is a big issue in America for everyone, but it's worse if you're from a community of color if you experience limited English proficiency. Many Asian immigrants, depending on where you immigrated from, experience limited English proficiency so again, that makes it so much harder to navigate the healthcare system. As someone who has a PhD in health policy, I still don't fully understand what my insurance covers. It's so confusing, so I can only imagine what other people face, and I would say, access to health care in general is not as big of a problem in India for women or for anyone, as it is in the US, interestingly, because the costs are sky high.

Elizabeth McVean

If you had to pick one issue that the NAPAWF advocates for, which one do you feel the most drawn to?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

Sexual and reproductive health access and adding more education around this topic. A lot of the qualitative research we've done recently focused on this issue and it starts all the way from not being able to discuss these topics at home. Some people who grew up in very, very conservative

Asian households mentioned that their parents exempted them from learning about sexual education in school. They literally went to college as adults, not knowing anything about sexual and reproductive health. This impacted how they were treated by their healthcare providers. Many said they faced discrimination, or the provider straight up told them that they thought they were lying because they were an adult who didn't know things that are supposedly basic for Americans, but it's a matter of culture intersecting with conservative values. For men, I would advocate for more comprehensive sexual education and destigmatizing topics, particularly among Asian American and Pacific islander families, making sure there's no stigma attached to it.

I also think advocating for better provider training would be helpful; providers should be a little sensitive to the fact that there are all these cultural norms that influence how much sexual and reproductive healthcare knowledge people have, and not having access to these basic forms of healthcare is such a huge issue. Access isn't always as simple as having or not having insurance. Even for people that have insurance, they might not feel comfortable talking to their provider; they might not have any background knowledge, so they feel hesitant. That's an all-around issue for sexual reproductive health, training for API families, or culturally appropriate training for providers, having policymakers spend more resources so that there's better access in the Community.

Hannah Robinson

What advice, do you have for our generation in working against the sexism that so many women face?

Sterling Soto

What advice would you give a woman who wants to stand up for herself and her work environment?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

I think I can answer both questions at once, but for both, I'll talk about it from a racial perspective, but this is also true in general. Setting boundaries for yourself is so important, whether you're in a workplace or even knowing where to draw the line between your work life, and your personal life. Even in your personal life, knowing how to draw clear boundaries in the different relationships that you pursue. I always thought that if I said no to something that meant that maybe I wasn't skilled enough to take it on. Or that I was apathetic towards it, when it was neither, but I think sometimes you just need to say no to take care of your own mental health.

Being your own best advocate is so important, it's very important to find allies in the movement but also feel free to advocate for yourself. I always tell women of color that we shouldn't apologize so much. I think I used to apologize unnecessarily, so just being very intentional even about the words we use is so important. And as far as this is concerned, I think it's better to be proactive rather than reactive. There are things you can do before you join a workplace; connect with some of the employees through LinkedIn and ask them how they feel about the place they work at. Usually during the interview process, the interviewer always asks you if you have any questions, so I always ask what's one thing you love about this place? Or what’s one area where there's room for improvement? These are some things that you can look at even before you

enter the workforce and then, when you're in that workforce, yes, being intentional about the words you use.

Kate Moorman-Wolfe

What is the best thing our age demographic can do to support and advocate for these global issues?

Dr. Drishti Pillai

I think the more that we can all educate ourselves on these issues, and I don't just mean formal education, really from any channel that you can find; it can even be interactions with people who come from a different Community than you. It can be trying out food from a restaurant with food that you've never tried before.

Also, some action steps you can take include getting involved. There are so many local community-based organizations that are doing good issue-based work in the field. Get involved however you can; whatever is the best use of your time according to you, whether that's direct involvement or not. I know so many organizations that are constantly looking for mentors or people who can mentor minority high school students.

Depending on what issue area it is that you're passionate about, find a local organization. Find a local nonprofit that's doing this because, as the name suggests, they don't do this for a profit. They're usually under resourced.

In addition to that, in the long term, it's good to volunteer, especially when you're in college. It's such a good experience, but if this is something you want to do in the long term, or if this is something you want to make a career out of, then in addition to thinking about what issue area you're most passionate about, think about what the best use of your skills is. In that area for me, on the ground activism wouldn't have been the best use of my skills or my interest, so that would have been an utter mismatch. I knew that I wanted to amplify the voices of APIs; I wanted to amplify the voices of immigrants, and the best way that I knew how to do that was through data. Doing so, you end up in a place where you love what you do. You're using your skills to their fullest extent and that's a very satisfying feeling.

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