The American Dream. It sounds so cliche and outdated to say that. People get cynical and snarky about that phrase these days. People who talk about pursuing that dream can be looked at as naive or simplistic.
For Yogesh Chawla that dream was never simplistic. It was what his generation and dozens of generations before him longed for, worked for, fought for and, well, dreamed about.
Standing on a bridge over the Yahara River and looking out at the water can evoke images of those dreams. When Yogesh stands there in one of the most progressive neighborhoods in Madison, he thinks about what that Dream used to mean when he was a child.
When his parents moved to the United States, his mother was still pregnant with him. The doctors warned her against the trip. But she wanted her son to be born in America and have all the advantages that would provide him.
“We had the American Dream in our hearts,” Chawla tells Madison365. “We had strong support from our civic institutions like public education. That American Dream we had is slipping away. I can see it slipping. We were taught that if you work hard and help your neighbors, opportunity will be endless for you. I don’t think that is the case anymore. I don’t think that American Dream is available to everyone in Dane County right now.”
Changing that dynamic is one of the core reasons Chawla is running for a seat on the County Board representing District 6 in the Atwood area. The incumbent, former County Board Chair John Hendrick, is not running for re-election. If elected, Chawla would be one of only a few people of color on the board and would be the second Indian American to serve on the board.
Chawla looks at the economic disparities involving people of color especially and thinks that making headway on those issues will rekindle the fire of the dreams many grew up taking for granted.
“I think it all comes down to economic opportunity,” he says. “We have a large community here. People want to work, they want to have economic opportunities. They want to have family-supporting jobs. Dane County has been working hard at providing workers with a living wage. But I think affordable housing and more family-supporting jobs are what’s needed.”
The lack of opportunity for people of color, even with college education, is staggering in Dane County. The Madison area is home to some of the worst racial disparities in the nation. The Madison School District struggles to have equal representation of people of color on school boards and involved with school-related decisions. The Dane County Jail and Wisconsin prison system at large is home to the most prisoners of color per capita in the country.
Chawla, who has a background in collecting and analyzing data to provide for Sherrif’s departments, says that we have to look seriously at our jail population, the reasons people are in jail, and what solutions can be offered other than jail. He says that will help boost the local economy and help stabilize communities that have been tossed to the side perhaps.
“We’re about to build a new jail at the price tag of $76 million,” Chawla says. “We need to analyze what our public safety needs are and (ask), can we divert people from jails? Can we have deferred prosecution programs for youth that helps them reintegrate into the community? I think we need to have those types of questions answered and then provide those answers to the community.”
Restorative justice and prison reform are important for public safety, Chawla says, but the collection and analysis of that data has to signal more than just the tackling of racial disparity issues in corrections. It has to signal an openness to work with the public and have public discourse about what the community truly needs.
“I think people are ready for transparency in Government,” he says. “People are ready for the Government to provide information for all the community. I think we need data behind decisions and not just the government saying ‘this is what we need’. So I think if you have data it brings us back to what is key here which is transparency.”
One of the issues Chawla is glad that people are getting on board with and more transparent about is the issue of lake pollution. The area around Lake Monona and the Yahara River is a beautiful stretch of Madison. But, Chawla says, it’s also threatened by phosphorus and other farm-related pollution that he says will be one of his biggest priorities as a member of the county board.
“We really value our lakes in Madison,” he says. “We need to work with the farms upstream from our lake and reduce the phosphorus that gets into the water. I think what we need to do is partner with our farmers. A lot of farmers are looking at more sustainable and healthy ways they can farm. In only a few cases we have farms that aren’t interested in being co-operative and in those cases I think that’s when we have to use regulation. We shouldn’t be afraid to do that. But first and foremost we need to partner with them. Even if we did not have one more drop of phosphorus coming into the lake there is still enough that it’s just sitting there. We need to get that phosphorus out of there.”
Chawla says that cleaning up the lake water pairs handily with the issue of renewable energy, which he says Dane County has made a lot of important headway on recently. He would like to see more usage of solar energy and geothermal around Madison and says that he supports programs that provide credit to people who use solar panels.
As a citizen, Chawla has spent years knocking on doors and canvassing the neighborhoods around his district. In each of those cases he was helping campaign for other politicians and candidates. Now that he’s going to be doing it for himself, he hopes all those years of becoming a familiar face will count. He also feels like he’s in touch with the residents he lives around and understands the needs people have.
“We really need to look at job opportunities that are out there especially for the youth if we want to deal with economic issues and disparities,” Chawla says. “We can look at some interesting models like the co-op model where workers have some ownership stake. The Madison Public Market coming up will have a food processing center. We’ll have the opportunity to have really creative youth training. To teach young people business skills and organization skills. But jobs have to be family-supporting jobs with benefits.”
Advancing economic opportunity, especially for youth, brings everything full circle. Cleaning up our lakes and using more affordable energy models paves the way for communities to be more progressive. Filling those communities with more affordable housing that looks nice could bring a more diverse racial crown to each neighborhood around Madison.
One of the things Chawla noticed moving to Madison from New York City is how segregated the city is. Pockets of poverty are all in one place. African-Americans seem to be all in one or two places. Same with Hispanics. Everything is very sectioned. It plays into the disparities Chawla sees but also goes into a deeper sense of community.
That deeper sense of community is what houses the American Dream he grew up with in his heart.
“Our neighborhoods are actually pretty segregated,” Chawla says. We don’t see diversity in neighborhoods. Our communities are kind of separated. In District 6, we have some diversity but there’s not much. You go to other neighborhoods like Darbo-Worthington and you see that poverty gets clustered and we’re all sort of disconnected.
If we can provide high quality affordable housing spread out through neighborhoods it will make it so we have different people living together in the same neighborhood. We’ll have a diverse community that resolves the issues of racial disparities because races will have contact with one another.”
The challenge is how to fit it all into a budget. Chawla wants to see us prioritize human beings in upcoming budgets, not just run-of-the-mill fiscal things.
Chawla already enjoys great levels of support throughout the community. Now, he wants to channel all of that into becoming a candidate who represents the future of a more diverse community with more opportunity.
On October 28 at Mickey’s Tavern on Williamson Street, Chawla will have a campaign kickoff party culminating in a photo shoot on the Yahara Bridge with all his supporters. Anyone and everyone is welcome and, with his wife and daughter, as well as his dog Atwood in tow, Chawla looks forward to shaking every hand.
“I will work hard to meet each and every voter and to be their advocate and understand what their needs are,” Chawla says. “My time is now.”