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Rinku Sen on The Accidental American

On June 5, 2009, I had the honor of interviewing Rinku Sen -- president and executive director of the Applied Research Center, publisher of ColorLines magazine, and author of The Accidental American: Immigration and Citizenship in the Age of Globalization. In this, the first segment of our interview, we spoke about the real people and incidents that served as the inspiration for The Accidental American.

SG: Your previous book, Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy, was commissioned by the Ms. Foundation. How did you come to write The Accidental American?

Rinku Sen: Actually, the two books are related in an interesting way.

[Ms. Sen then explained how, in September of 2002, Saru Jayaraman, a political activist and organizer who appears in both books, invited her to visit the Restaurant Opportunities Center in New York, where Ms. Jayaraman served as co-director with Fekkak Mamdouh, who became the co-author of The Accidental American. Ms. Sen also met the rest of the Center's staff.]

Rinku Sen: Right away, I had this connection to them. You could sort of feel how they were emotionally connected to each other. I tried to capture the feeling in the book. These were people who had been through something terrible together [enduring the deaths of friends and losing their jobs in the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center] and were trying to make something beautiful out of that horrible event that had happened to them. They really understood that in order to heal from their sadness they had to have hope and optimism and solutions; they had to have change. I could see that they got that hope from each other.

Immediately I knew that there was going to be a really interesting story there, even though I didn't know what exactly would happen. From the fall of 2002 till the spring of 2008, I was with them a lot. I went to all the meetings, and they gave me access to all the documents, and I went to their actions and demonstrations, and that's how the book came to be.

As an activist and as a journalist, I'm really interested in what makes people become progressive organizers. How, after an event like September 11th, can some people become anti-immigration activists because that's what they think the solution is, and others become labor rights and immigrant rights activists. I think it's the leaders in those situations [e.g., Mamdouh and Saru] who help folks make that positive transition after a terrible event.

***The second half of my interview with Rinku Sen concerns immigration policy and will be the topic of an upcoming article.


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