Season 4: Episode 11
Allison is an experience design manager at FTE, where she works with programs supporting young adults in discernment and grantee partners. She received her Master of Divinity degree from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology and is currently a candidate for ordination in the Presbyterian Church (USA). She also serves on the alumni board of her alma mater, Millsaps College, and on the board of Memorial Drive Ministries. Allison and her husband live with their daughter and two corgis in Atlanta, Georgia.
Patrick Reyes: Welcome back to another episode of the Sound of the Genuine. I am your host, Dr. Patrick Reyes. And on this show, we talk to religious leaders, practitioners, and scholars about how they find meaning and purpose in their lives. And today we have one of my favorite people in the world, a scholar, a practitioner, a facilitator, a former executive director, someone who is committed to anti-racism in their bones - Sandhya Jha, who is one of those people, when I met them, I knew this is a colleague in the arms for justice. I can't wait for you to hear this episode of the Sound of the Genuine.
All right, I am so glad you joined us on the Sound of the Genuine. And look, I'm a big fan of your writing, your podcasts - I've been on them - your public activism. I have a bunch of friends who've been in your workshops, who've known your work and that's all really cool, but I am curious about your origin story.
Take me back to your beginning. Who are your people? You know, who formed you? What brought you life when you were much younger?
Sandhya Jha: I love that because I always associate origin story with superheroes and I am very much in the camp of we do not need superheroes, we need all of us together to be the superhero that we need. That said, my father was a Hindu from a very small village in India, which is kind of unusual. My experience is most of the South Asians who make it to the US tend to be urban cause there are just different kinds of opportunities in urban settings, right? So he was unusual in that respect. My mother is from Scotland, you know, with the accent, right? A lot of people are like, yes, I am Scottish and they mean my great-great-grandmother or whatever. Her people are from a tiny little island, in fact, yes, swimming distance from the mainland on the west coast of Scotland.
So my parents actually met at a college dance. It really is like the original meet cute. My mom was at the teacher's college, my father was studying engineering at Glasgow Tech. According to my mother, the men stood on one side of the room and the women stood on the other, so you had a chance to decide if you wanted to dance with the dude before he got to you. But my father, not knowing the rules or pretending he didn't know the rules, came up from behind her and she didn't have a chance to think.
So very much love at first sight story in a whole bunch of ways. And a pretty radical relationship, right, cuz they met in 1964 in Britain when…this was a big deal for me to learn recently and I'm sad that I didn't know it sooner, but when I was born and I was born in Britain - Asians, which in Britain mostly meant South Asians, there were also some East Asians, but Asians identified as Black because all racially marginalized communities in Britain had a sense of solidarity. So they were mostly from commonwealth countries, so African countries, Caribbean countries, south Asia, and they had a sense of 'we are in this together.'
And that term "Black", at the time, meant all of those groups. I'm sad that I didn't know that and part of the reason I didn't know that is because over time Asians have tried to find ways to get more access within white society. Has not gone very well for them in their efforts, but I think that is part of why that solidarity term went away.
Also it's important to recognize our distinctiveness. But that notwithstanding, I was born in Britain. We moved to the States when I was a toddler. My dad got a job at Firestone Tire and Rubber Company, which gave him a chance to send more money back to the family in India. A lot of immigrant families, you know, they pool their resources to send one person to the west or to the states, in order to support the family back home. And my dad was the one who had the least to lose, right? He wasn't married yet but he was the one they could let go of. I grew up mostly in Akron, Ohio, which is a strange place to be neither black nor white.
When I was in first grade, my father took me to see the movie Gandhi, which was a big deal for me because I was in first grade and it started at 8:00 PM and it went for three hours. And when I told my friends that that's what had happened, none of them believed me cuz they didn't know movies started that late at night and no movie could be more than an hour and a half and animated, right? And that movie shaped me in a whole bunch of ways so that when in fourth grade, we studied Dr. King and I learned that he had been shaped by Mahatma Gandhi I was like, “Oh, this is one of my guys then.” Because no one that we had studied up to that point was one of my guys. And so I'm really grateful that I was kind of pointed in a direction, maybe in an unconscious way, by my parents to be like, know who your people are and your people are the ones who are fighting against injustice. And so that's probably a big chunk of why I do racial justice work today.
Patrick Reyes: I mean, I see you having that imagination as a young person. When you enter into, maybe it's youth or young adulthood, and you start thinking about, what do I do with this? Like, I know that this is a call, this is something I should be doing. What did that look like practically? How did you, pursue that in education or in work?
Sandhya Jha: It's funny cuz if I'm trying to show off, I will say my first job out of college or I took the job while I was still finishing college, was in a congressman's office, I sound very posh and very impressive to a certain set of people when I say that. But you know, when I was 18, I went to the Martin Luther King Day event at the Akron Public Library. The speaker was introduced by the congressman from Akron. You know, white guy, didn't know anything about him. And the speaker, Black woman, was talking about health inequities in the US. And she said, "Maybe our congressman could tell us something about that." And you could tell she was trying to do a little bit of a "gotcha" which I don't blame her for, because Congress was BS when it came to addressing health inequities or any inequities. So she was right to be like Congress is a problem. And he stood up and he was like, “You are a hundred percent correct. There is a 10-year life expectancy difference between this zip code and this zip code in the same city. It is not acceptable. Here's what we need to do about it.”
Immediately after the event, I went up to him and I was like, I wanna work for you. And he's like, here's my card, here's the person to talk to. And I spent, you know, the next three years interning for him. Like, so I would work my minimum wage job and then go and put in some hours in his office – because someone who got that? And as I learned later, he had been a tenacious fighter for workers' rights.
He had been really important in the fight to make Martin Luther King Day a federal holiday. So in some ways, that was part of where my movement commitments emerged was seeing somebody who was in an important elected position being like, yeah, what's going on here is some BS and here's what we need to do. Yeah, so in Oakland, people are horrified that the starting of my activism career was not just in government, but thinking that one of the two political parties could make a difference. Cuz In Oakland that is not how we see things . If I wanna show off to certain people, I will say that. In Oakland, I try to avoid mentioning it as part of my cv, because it will make people innately suspicious, right? And for a very good reason.
Patrick Reyes: You operate in the faith space, faith sector as well. Tell me a little bit about where that comes into all of this. I mean, not just the political and the activism, but there's also kind of a religious component to some of your work.
Sandhya Jha: Absolutely. And I mean, that's why it makes sense that the people who set me on fire were Gandhi and Martin Luther King, right? And then by the time I was in high school, Malcolm X came out and like every self-respecting person of my generation, I saw every Denzel Washington movie ever made. And so like learning about Malcolm X and discovering that he was a deeply religious man...you know, these religious leaders who were also engaged in the struggle for justice, of course they were the ones who shaped me. Like I said, I grew up in an interfaith household and there are a lot of problems with Hinduism. I'm from the Brahman cast, there's all sorts of ways in which Hinduism is used in very oppressive ways. One of the beautiful things about a version of Hinduism is its spaciousness and the idea that, you know, there is room for Allah, there is room for Jesus, there is room for all of them to be sacred in this pantheon of deities that help us understand the one divine presence. So, I was raised in that kind of context and with a mother who wouldn't have married a Hindu unless she was like, yeah, all the faiths can contribute to good and all of the faiths can do bad. So that had a lot to do with where I show up in the movement. And I gotta say, and this horrifies some of my lefty friends, Jesus has been my best friend since I was three years old, and that really hasn't changed. My relationship to religion is not uncomplicated. My relationship to Jesus is very simple. And I understand God as a liberator and I was really lucky to grow up in a church with a pastor who would never have used that language, but functionally was the one who over and over pointed out how in the Bible, God consistently shows up for poor people and that we need to do the same thing. So I think that had something to do with it.
And so actually when I started realizing that I wasn't getting to shape change in the ways I wanted to in Congress, I went and worked for an organization called the Interfaith Alliance, which was fighting for religious liberties for religious minorities. And back in the nineties that was pretty, pretty significant work. We were trying to stand up against this organization called the Christian Coalition that was trying, and I think in some ways was successful in saying, not in these words, but America should be a theocracy, and there is only one way to be religious and that is to be conservative.
So the Interfaith Alliance was amazing cuz I was surrounded by religious leaders of all faiths who were activists, and spiritual leaders, and often also academics. And the idea that, you know, the intellect and the heart and the hands and feet could all be part of the work mixed up together was so good for me to experience cuz it got me ready for seminary. I had known since I was about 18 that I was heading there. In fact, when I interviewed with Congressman Sawyer, he's like, where do you see yourself in five years? And I was like, I wanna serve the people of Akron, and then I wanna go to seminary, which was terrifying to him as a Presbyterian. But that's what led me to, led me to seminary was this great modeling by Jewish and Muslim and Christian and Hindu and Buddhist leaders who were like, you can fight for justice, you can be deeply engaged in spirituality that is radically inclusive, and you can have the life of the mind.
Patrick Reyes: I mean, when you say that now, now I'm curious about seminary because, all of your interests and work to this date is, at best, an elective at every seminary across the United States. So tell me a little bit about going to seminary. I can't imagine it was like you walked in, like all these things I've been doing, this is the place that's going to feed all of this.
Tell me about that experience of kind of moving from this activism, this work that changes material lives to, I mean, as you just described it, kind of the life of the mind.
Sandhya Jha: Yeah, and I went to a place that was just obscenely reveling in the life of the mind, right? There's no worse place for only the life of the mind going on than where I went to seminary. But what was really beautiful is it was also a school that was assiduous about bringing in a student body of people who were dedicated to change work.
You know, one of my classmates had worked in a Buddhist monastery in Thailand before coming there. One of them had helped run the Girls and Boys Club of St. Louis. One of them had helped the Mayan people of Guatemala navigate a post-civil war truce with the military people who had created all of the trauma. One of them had been working for this radical organization that was a church and also a social service center, and also a medical support system in Evansville, Indiana. They were all also change makers, some of whom were like, I did that and now I need a break and some of whom were like, oh, this is a very conflicting space because I know what matters.
It was compounded by the fact that I had been working on religious liberty issues for religious minorities for the vast majority of my adult career at that point. And I started seminary five days after 9/11. And this is my community that's under attack cuz it turns out Americans can't tell South Asians apart. You know, it's not like Hindus didn't get attacked. Sikhs got attacked worse than other communities. Plus, South Asian Muslims are South Asian. Those are my community. And it turns out, you know, minoritized communities are my community. So we were very much under attack. It was a very terrifying place.
The rhetoric that was coming outta the White House was crusade, literally crusade language. And so there was a whole bunch of me in that first year that was like, “is this where I'm supposed to be?” And it was largely that I was surrounded by classmates who were from that same level of commitment that we could navigate our struggles. And Chris Gamwell was one of the theological ethics professors when I was in seminary, and he taught the intro for ministry students class, The History of Public Religion. And he had worked on Dr. King's Chicago campaign when he was a young pastor. And while he was a revered theological ethicist, with an expertise in Niebuhr and Whitehead, he was vaguely shocked that all of us were like, “tell us more about that campaign.” Because I don't think people were interested in that part of him.
And I don't know that he had always thought about the fact that the work he did now, was a direct result of the work he had done then. So he was actually a huge gift to me, having somebody who was deeply committed to the life of the mind, who had been a part of what I consider to be one of the most heartbreaking, but also one of the most important campaigns in Dr. King's career. That was a really big deal.
Patrick Reyes: So where do you take this education, this life of the mind in this barely post 9/11 reality? What starts to cultivate in you and your imagination about how you might serve the community, your broader communities?
Sandhya Jha: Yeah, you know, initially my thought was I wanted to do urban pastoral ministry. I wanted to help grow a dying church into a thriving church. I kind of had traditional church growth imaginings. I'm from a denomination that participated in some horrific stuff around frontier. In fact we're a frontier tradition in a lot of ways. And we were the poor folks that the rich folks sent out to colonize the land. We saw it as homesteading, but we were stealing land from indigenous... The government had stolen the land, we were protecting it from the people it belonged to. And because we never investigated what that meant, it positioned us to participate in white flight in the fifties and sixties because we were still frontiers people, in not the positive sense of that word. We were still colonizers. And so the idea of being invested in community in the midst of struggle wasn't actually part of our DNA.
And so my denomination had a lot of largely abandoned urban churches, many of our struggling churches were in urban centers, and I thought there was something really exciting about that possibility of transforming it into a liberatory church in all sorts of, you know, traditional Sunday worship, choirs with robes, all of that. And I ended up at First Christian Church of Oakland, which had been a thriving church of about 1500 members in the 1940s and had begun to integrate in the 1950s. And because of white flight, because of disinvestment in Black urban communities, because of the crack epidemic and the just horrific ways of policing, by the time I got to that church in 2006, it was 10 people in worship on a Sunday and almost all Black. Because all of the white people had left for churches in the suburbs. In fact, that church founded two white suburban churches, which is where a lot of the members went.
That in and of itself is kind of a heartbreaking story. What was interesting is I came in, you know, guns blazing. I was ready to do the transformation. I was ready to drag them kicking and screaming into this work. I was gonna do congregational transformation with them, even if it killed them and me. And it nearly did. I'm exhausting. So I think, about a year in, I invited them to figure out what it was that they got out of that church and what it was they wanted to contribute to the neighborhood. And the thing they talked about was peace in the midst of violence. And it was the first time I realized, oh, the thing that we have in common is we've all lost people in the streets or been victims of gun violence or lost people to the drug epidemic. We know violence. This is a thing that we all share and we long for peace. Now we didn't have a lot of energy to create something from scratch, so I began to experiment with what would happen if we started volunteering with some of the best violence prevention organizations? And we started building relationships with them. What would happen if we only rent our space to organizations that are contributing to ending violence in Oakland? And we started having some pretty amazing organizations wanna move into the building.
And at a certain point we asked the organizations that were doing mindfulness and meditation, direct service, political action, culture change work, all of which contribute to peace - would you be interested in this becoming kind of a hub for anti-violence work? Peace work? Would you be interested in being able to connect with each other and build each other up because this is high burnout work? You know, long story short, that's how the Oakland Peace Center was born. So First Christian Church of Oakland converted their space into a collective for about 12 nonprofits in the building, but 40 nonprofits overall with that shared mission. And the church continued to worship there while the building began to be repurposed.
The plans at this point are to completely rehab the building so that it's accessible and so that it's beautiful and restored, and to build affordable housing on the parking lot - to be a part of contributing to homefulness in the midst of the gentrification crisis in Oakland.
Patrick Reyes: It's happening right there in that neighborhood. I'm curious about, like as you've been doing this work for a long time, you expand beyond the Oakland Peace Center as well. So you have both kind of a local hub of networking, of extreme activism, capacity building for these organizations - how do you balance that with your kind of, I'm gonna write, write books, I'm gonna do podcasts, I'm going to do national organizing and workshopping? Tell me a little bit about that shift from this hyper localized work to kind of a national scope.
Sandhya Jha: It's funny because I often describe my career as a career of devolution cuz I started working for Congress and then I worked for a national lobbying organization and then I worked for a regional church. I didn't get into the details of that but a middle judicatory and then I moved to a local church. Any work I do nationally, whether it's for my denomination or often other religious groups and occasionally secular nonprofits, my cache comes from the fact that I am grounded in Oakland.
My cache comes from the fact that I am in committed work with the people of my community. Even national organizing needs to have local roots. We need to be embedded in a community, I think, in order to do any good organizing work. It's funny cuz I don't think of myself as a national person. I think of myself as a local person who, because Oakland has so much to offer, sometimes functions as an ambassador for the best that Oakland has ot offer. I gotta say, being an executive director of a nonprofit during the pandemic - because I eventually became the ED at the Oakland Peace Center and this amazing pastor took over for me at first Christian Church of Oakland - Being an ED during the pandemic was really hard.
I was part of an exodus of - at the time I would've identified as a woman of color, I identify as a person of color - there was an exodus the end of 2020 and through 2021 of women of color saying I've been holding this together with sheer force of will and have gotten pretty abused in the process. I don't think I have the bandwidth to keep doing that. There were a lot of Black women in particular who were part of my cohort of discernment in that season who were like, it's time for us to actually get treated with the dignity we deserve. We still love the movement, but we maybe don't want the movement to extract everything from us. So towards the end of 2020, I stepped away from the Oakland Peace Center and began consulting; Diversity, equity and inclusion, anti-oppression consulting with religious organizations, nonprofits, institutions of higher education, even a tech company or two. And part of that was running that nonprofit had taken an awful lot of who I was.
One of the pieces of advice I give to young movement people is, ‘give the movement a whole bunch cuz it’s important, but always be aware, the movement will never love you back. So make sure that you’re getting love as well. And sometimes that means rolling back your movement work so that you can thrive. So I think that was a little bit of what was going on for me, but also after the murder of George Floyd, one of my friends pulled me aside and said, “listen, anybody can run a nonprofit,” which isn't true but that was what she said, and she was like, “we need you to actually do what you're good at. All of the black DEI consultants are stretched well beyond capacity.
They cannot take on anybody, anybody else.” She was a communications consultant. She was like, “I cannot recommend a white DEI consultant to my clients. I just can't do it in good conscience.” And so she was like, “we need you to do what you're actually good at.” Cuz I had already been doing anti-racism work for my denomination for about 15…more than 15 years at that point.
I was nudged into that pivot and it ended up being really good for me. Which meant that while my first four books were crammed into the nooks and crevices of my life, you know, the workday might end at nine o'clock and then I would write for an hour and a half - the book that I've just come out with is the first time I've actually had the space to delve deep, to write, to think, to create wisdom circles where we could wrestle with the concepts together. This is the first time I felt like a writer instead of an activist who squeezes in a little bit of writing on the side. And that's pretty exciting.
Patrick Reyes: And we'll have for the listeners the link to all your work and to that new book. I was lucky enough to get an advanced copy and read it. It's just…you got a gift in writing.
Sandhya Jha: You were so generous about it. Thank you so much.
Patrick Reyes: I mean it is a gift. So this is my last question. I ask every guest who comes on here, you know, how much of this, your life, your sense of call, purpose, serving, communities comes from kind of an internal drive? Maybe it's a relationship with the divine, you mentioned your relationship to Jesus. You know, that's very simple. How much of it's tied to that and how much of it is tied to these relationships in community, as you said, grounded in a local space and a local people?
Sandhya Jha: Somebody said, we make a mistake when we think that our relationship with God is, you know, a vertical one. Me to God. And we make a mistake, and forgive me my Quaker friends, we make a mistake when we think that God the divine is located solely within ourselves. The divine is located between ourselves. And so for me, community and the sacred are inextricable. Don't get me wrong, community will break your heart. We bring our trauma into our work and the more vital and urgent work we're doing, the more trauma shows up in those spaces…if we're doing it right. And that is a puzzle I am, along with a number of my colleagues, trying to untangle. In fact, I'm part of a cohort with the Fierce Vulnerability Network, and that is one of the primary things this national network is puzzling through is how do we do less damage to each other in the movement for justice? So that is real, and I really do experience the sacred in community.
Now, that might be a tell that I'm an extrovert, because I get my energy from other people, which puts me in like a very small minority of pastors. And I have theories about why, but we don't need to talk about that. You know, I suspect some of the folks who listen to this are Enneagram nerds, and I'm an eight on the Enneagram, which is the disruptor, the challenger, the power type. The Oakland Peace Center staff had somebody come in and do some Enneagram work with us, and he said the Enneagram can be most helpful when we recognize it is about the thing that makes us safe. So good organized structure makes a one feel safe. Being seen and valued is what makes a three feel safe.
When the community is thriving, that's what makes an eight feel safe. And so I think there's also something innate in me. But also I'm Asian. The Bible was written by Asian people and for me that means the Bible is actually an instruction manual, and it's more complex than that, for how to be community with each other because both culturally and religiously, the Christian and Jewish and Muslim faiths, which are shaped by those cultural values, all three of them are oriented around how community shows up for each other. So I think that's why the sacred, for me, shows up in community. It's cultural, it's biblical, and it's what makes me feel safe.
Patrick Reyes: I appreciate it. I appreciate you doing the work and reminding us that this work is hard work, hard work in community. If you're doing it right, it is full of that and that you've been living into your many calls. from writer to organizer to nonprofit leader. It's just a gift to be in your orbit.
So appreciate you. Thank you so much for being on the Sound of the Genuine. it's a true gift to talk to you.
Sandhya Jha: I am so honored to get to be here. Thank you.
Patrick Reyes: I want to thank you for listening to the Sound of the Genuine and Sandhya’s story. And so you can go and check out Sandhya’s books, we'll have links in the show notes to their publisher, Chalice Press. But I also want to encourage you to visit their page, support them. They're about to begin a PhD journey.
And for anyone who's familiar with the Forum for Theological Exploration and our work since 1968 to support scholars of color. This is important to support a woman of color in their work for justice. I want to thank my team, our executive producer, Elsie Barnhart and @siryalibeats for his music. And I hope you find the Sound of the Genuine in you.