Sandra Price, the ACLU of Michigan’s new Manager of People and Culture, came to America from India with her parents and sister at the age of 5. Even as a kid living in New York city, she had a deep appreciation for the cultural diversity America provided. As part of our Asian American Pacific Islanders Heritage Month celebration, we talked with Sandra about her experiences and how they have shaped her life thus far.
Q: What was it like for you coming to the US as a child?
A: Being uprooted was difficult as I was extremely close to my grandparents. We were able to stay close by weekly calls using a calling card. Thank goodness there’s WhatsApp now! I still go back to India as much as I can to see them.
Q: What are your first memories of being in the U.S.?
A: I came from South India, specifically the city of Chennai, so the weather there was much warmer all year round than the NYC. I remember playing in snow for the first time and refusing to wear gloves, because even as a kid I was pretty strong-minded. After a few minutes my hands felt like they were burning because they were so cold. I also remember trying pizza for the first time, and absolutely hating it. Now, I thoroughly enjoy a good slice or three.
Q: What was school like?
A: Elementary school was quite difficult. I was the youngest in the class and was not aware of some cultural norms. That gave them an opportunity to take advantage of me in some ways. I remember being told to flip the teacher off and doing it because I had no idea what it meant and thought it was a moment to create camaraderie. It surely did not create camaraderie and I got in trouble, at school and at home. This brought about an important lesson from my mom, teaching me to focus on school and staying clear of “cool kids’ shenanigans”. I took this advice with me well into high school and college, ultimately allowing me to create relationships with authentic and genuine people, who are dear friends until today.
Q: Do you think growing up in NYC provided you with an interesting vantage point?
A: 100%. As a kid, when we first moved to this country, we lived in a part of New York City – Queens – that was really diverse. Being exposed to so many different cultures allowed me to have a well-rounded experience, one that was rooted in learning and embracing differences. I believe, for me, growing up in NYC was a privilege.
Q: Could you share your experiences growing up in NYC as an Asian-American?
A: I didn’t consider myself Asian. I know that’s the box I have to check off for race, but I truly didn’t identify as Asian. I identified more with the term Desi, which is defined as a person from India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka or Bangladesh. Growing up in NYC, I was racially ambiguous. I'm sure my complexion, my accent, and my last name (my maiden name is Fernando) contributed to this; . Others approached me differently based on what ethnicity they thought I was, usually what they were most familiar with. If they thought I was Latina, they approached me speaking Spanish. If they thought I was West Indian, they usually spoke patois. If they had no idea where I hailed from, they usually just asked, which was a good ice breaker. Regardless of who it was, most of the conversations always ended in "No way!, You're Indian?!"
I always wondered if it was important for me to share it, to let people know where I'm from, so that they'd feel more comfortable or for them to feel connected or just because they were curious. I don’t think I ever figured that out but I know it was definitely something important that needed to be shared. When I was younger my family was very connected to an Indian community but as I grew older, it dissipated. Now, my community consists of friends with ethnicities from all over the world. I attend parties (Fetes) with my friends and there is always a moment where the DJ screams "wave your flag." I assure you, these flags are the size of a handkerchief, not the size of the ones at City Hall! I've never waved my Indian flag, because I don’t think to pack my flag for a party, but when you're in that moment where people with different nationalities are all waving their flag, there's a sense of connectedness and community that I've never felt anywhere else.
Q: Given all that background, along with your academic achievements, it’s not surprising that you were just promoted to fill the newly created position of Manager of People and Culture. Could you describe what the new job entails?
A: The position is focused on furthering our commitment to equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging (EDIB), devising and refining policies, and evaluating, implementing, and coordinating certain human resources activities, programs, and processes.
Q: Thoughts about taking on such an important job?
A: It is a really exciting opportunity and also, a big undertaking. I want to be able to live up to the expectations. This organization puts a lot of thought and effort into how it approaches EDIB issues, and creating this new position is a deepening of that commitment to create an environment that is comfortable and supportive of everyone who works here.
Q: Before moving into this newly created position, you were an administrative assistant in our operations department, making sure everything ran smoothly around the office. What motivated you to come to work here in the first place?
A: Before I left for Japan in 2017, Trump had won the presidency and that shattered my world, in a way. I kept up with much of the news while in Japan and noticed that this organization called the ACLU kept suing the Trump administration. This piqued my interest and so I began to closely follow the organization and their work on social justice. When we began planning for our return to the US in 2018, I began my job search and Indeed alerted me of an Operations Administrative Assistant position at the ACLU of Michigan. I thought, well isn’t this ironic! I emailed the director of operations (while I was still in Japan, no less) and four and half months later, I started at the ACLU of Michigan. Seeing the commitment to social justice in all the work that people do here confirmed that the ACLU was the right place for me to be.
Q: Are there any movies you would recommend during AAPI month?
A: I remember this movie called Mississippi Masala. It was about an interracial relationship between an Indian woman and a Black man. It was relatable because I was having a similar relationship. While the movie exhibits the struggles of an Indian woman dating outside of her own community, I was lucky to not experience those same struggles. I married my then boyfriend and it’s really been a beautiful union. Our families meshed pretty well and were very accepting of our relationship. We now have a daughter, who is 2 years old, and we are learning how to raise her with the different traditions of each of our heritage. Another show that is spot on for the perspective of an Asian American living in America, specifically a Desi girl, is the Netflix series Never Have I Ever.
Q: Do you have a motto or favorite saying?
A: I have a really close relationship with my father-in-law. He’s always guided me and given me wise advice. He taught me the saying: “You win some, and you learn some.” When things don’t turn out as I planned or hoped for, I don’t think of it as losing. Instead, it is an opportunity for me to reflect and to learn from the situation. It reshapes your perspective for the many circumstances in life.