Manjusha Kulkarni is Executive Director of the South Asian Network (SAN), an organization dedicated to advancing the health, empowerment and solidarity of persons of South Asian origin in Southern California.  Founded in 1990, SAN is one of the oldest South Asian American community-based organizations in the nation.  Through her work at SAN, Manju has advocated for effective policies and practices related to health and health care access, civil rights and violence prevention. She oversees management of staff and programs, strategic planning, financial operations, and fundraising efforts.  On April 24, 2014, Manju received the White House Champions of Change award for her dedication to improving health care access for South Asian Americans.

Manju received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science and a Certificate in Women’s Studies from Duke University and a Juris Doctor degree from Boston University School of Law.  After graduating from college, she worked at the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Attorney General’s Office in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama.  While in law school, Manju clerked at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund (MALDEF) and the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Los Angeles, California.   Manju reflects, “At the Southern Poverty Law Center, I conducted legal research to challenge district-wide voting to dilute the black vote in Alabama; at the ACLU, I sought redress for Japanese Latin Americans abducted by the U.S. government during WWII; and at MALDEF, I helped to craft legal arguments to secure in-state tuition for undocumented students.  The opportunities I had at SPLC, the ACLU, and MALDEF cemented my desire to pursue public interest law and specifically to work in the realm of civil rights.”

She asserts that the choice that most defines the woman she is today is her decision to pursue public interest law.  “Pursuing public interest law enabled me to continue working as a lawyer when my children were young, allowed me to work on issues about which I was passionate and offered a number of leadership opportunities not readily available to women in other parts of the legal world.  In my experience, public interest law firms and non-profit organizations have generally had more reasonable work requirements than law firms, requiring only forty hours a week rather than the sixty or so expected at private firms.  Additionally, public interest firms often allowed part-time work and offered generous parental leave; law firms frowned upon reduced hours or maternity leave beyond a few weeks.  For that reason, many of my female friends and colleagues at law firms left their jobs and often their careers in the law after having a child.  I was fortunate to continue working as an attorney after the birth of both my children.  Upon the birth of my first child, I took off three months, working full-time, but only 40 hours a week, afterward.  After my second child was born, I managed to secure six months off, after which I moved to a 70% schedule, working less than 30 hours per week, 5-6 hours per day.  Moreover, my time off and subsequent schedule change had no impact on my ability to advance within the organization.  Within a few years, I was promoted from Staff Attorney to Senior Attorney alongside my colleagues who had worked full-time while I was working part-time.  Working in the public interest realm also enabled me to work in the areas of law about which I am passionate—to advance civil rights and to work to eliminate [some of the adverse consequences of] poverty.  I have been fortunate enough that my work has had impact—sometimes substantial.  In one instance, a single line I strongly recommended be changed in state health care regulations allowed fifty thousand children in California to obtain health insurance for which they previously did not qualify.  Finally, the opportunities for success in public interest law were more numerous than in corporate law firms.  In public interest law, I saw other women and people of color move up the ladder in ways they would have been unable to do so on the corporate side.  In my first position upon law school graduation, I was able to advance very quickly within the Office of the Civil Rights Monitor, joining the management team while still in my twenties.  Similarly, as Senior Attorney at the National Health Law Program (NHeLP), I was able to access numerous leadership opportunities, including invitations to speak at large conferences, draft legislation at the state level and write appellate legal briefs.  One such brief, early in my career, was presented to—and ultimately persuasive in— the California Supreme Court.  Based upon these experiences and the expertise I developed as a result, I was hired to lead the South Asian Network.”

Manju identifies Peggy Saiku as a role model.  Ms. Saika is the past president/executive director of Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. Prior to that, she was the founding executive director of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN) and earlier, was executive director of the Asian Law Caucus. She is a co-founder of the Asian Women’s Shelter, Asians/Pacific Islanders for Choice, the National Asian Pacific American Legal Consortium, and the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.  She was the first Asian American appointed to the Alameda County Commission on the Status of Women. She served on the advisory council of the National Institute for Environmental Health Sciences and was appointed by President Clinton to the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.  Ms. Saika was born in 1945 in an internment camp in Arizona.  Manju describes her impact as significant.  “I have known Peggy for almost a decade and have known about her for almost twenty years.  She has been a role model because she has long been an activist for racial justice and gender equity.  In her 40+ year career, she has worked to improve the lives of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders (AAPI) in her community, the state of California, and in the nation.  In her various leadership positions, she has sought to address racism, sexism, and xenophobia and to uplift the experiences of AAPIs, especially women, in seeking policy solutions. Moreover, while building an Asian American movement, Peggy has also sought to advance a broad anti-racist, feminist, class-conscious social justice agenda, all while being married and raising two kids.”    

Manju offers this advice to incoming Duke women: “Be confident and speak your mind.  Like your male classmates, you are bright, intelligent and fully capable of meeting the challenges a Duke education will offer.  You should not be intimidated by your male peers’ bravado or swagger.  You should exude confidence in and out of the classroom.  You have a great deal to offer your college, your community, and the world!”

More about SAN:

The South Asian American community SAN serves consists of individuals of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Nepalese origin.  Our clients speak dozens of languages and dialects, including Hindi, Bangla, Nepali, Punjabi, Gujarati, Urdu, Tamil and Marathi.  They include multiple generations of immigrants and U.S.-born individuals, as well as persons of varying levels of income and education.  SAN prioritizes providing services and conducting advocacy to the most underserved and disadvantaged members of the South Asian community, including community members who are low income, undocumented and under-documented, survivors of domestic violence and trafficking, LGBTIQ persons, elderly, women and children and persons with limited English speaking proficiency.

SAN’s work is organized across three programmatic units.  The AWAZ Voices Against Violence unit is committed to the health, safety and empowerment of survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault.  The Civil Rights Unit focuses on citizenship attainment, civic engagement and leadership development of members of the South Asian community.  The Community Health Action Initiative (CHAI) works to ensure access to quality health care services.  Together with the community, the SAN board and staff have created multilingual, culturally appropriate approaches to community outreach and education, provision of direct services, civic engagement and policy advocacy in the focus areas of public health, violence prevention and intervention, hate crimes, discrimination, immigration and civil rights and civil liberties.  Over the past decade, several thousand South Asian Americans in Southern California have benefitted from one or more of SAN’s diverse services.

Our staff and board of directors are most proud of the following:  a) the social justice framework which guides all of our work—enabling us to envision a more just and equitable world, not simply a world where charity is offered to people to meet their most basic needs; b) our efforts to engage in prevention as much as service provision in our three focus areas; and c) our success at incorporating diversity of the South Asian community within the board, staff and volunteers as well as community members and clients.