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Commencement profile: Her work to amplify South Asian voices has mobilized hundreds at the polls

May 1, 2024 By Doug Erickson
A woman smiles at the camera and leans against a wall.

Chandra Chouhan serves as executive director of “Chup! Go Vote,” a nonpartisan civic organization that works to get South Asian voters to the polls. Photo by Doug Erickson

Raised in a household keenly attuned to politics, Chandra Chouhan says she was surprised to discover that her family was something of an outlier among her South Asian high school friends.

“Growing up, a big part of my life was watching the news, talking about issues at the dinner table, and seeing my parents vote,” says Chouhan, of Brookfield, Wisconsin. “But that wasn’t the case for many of my peers.”

Chouhan, the daughter of immigrants from India, was further dismayed to learn that the South Asian vote in the U.S. is historically lower than many other demographic groups. From that, she developed a vision: a nonpartisan organization dedicated to mobilizing South Asian voters.

“This isn’t about who you are going to vote for — there are plenty of organizations to help you figure that out,” says Chouhan, who will graduate this spring from the University of Wisconsin–Madison. “I wanted to focus on the first step: how to register and how to vote.”

During the summer of 2022, Chouhan brought together four other UW–Madison students — Khush Patel, Abhita Chakravarti, Suvir Grover and Lekha Kachoria — and founded “Chup! Go Vote,” a nonpartisan civic organization “aspiring to amplify the voices of South Asians across America.” Chouhan serves as executive director.

“Chup means ‘shut up’ or ‘be quiet’ in many South Asian languages,” Chouhan says. “Through our name, we want to emphasize the importance of just showing up at the polls.”

Ahead of the 2022 midterm elections, the organization mobilized more than 500 South Asian voters on UW–Madison’s campus and an additional 1,000+ South Asian voters across the country, Chouhan says. (“Mobilized,” in this sense, meant either providing people with a pathway to voter registration or helping them figure out where they needed to vote.)

The organization did this in a multitude of ways. Often, it meant working with existing groups that specialize in specific areas of civic education and delivering their resources to organizations with substantial South Asian participation and membership.

“For example, we worked with an organization called Chalo Vote to create a one-page, nonpartisan Wisconsin voter guide covering information on voter registration and different methods of voting and translated this guide into Hindi and Punjabi for potential eligible voters with language barriers.” Chouhan says. “We strategically distributed these at places of worship, which are core community spaces for many people in the diaspora, knowing that we would find the most individuals with a need there.”

The organization also partnered with the Desi Dance Network, a large national organization that facilitates Bollywood-Fusion dance competitions at colleges around the country, to create a civic engagement educational requirement for its 3,000+ participants.

“Instead of reinventing the wheel, we worked within existing community groups to widely educate people and make an impact,” Chouhan says.

The group’s biggest accomplishment to date is just unfolding, Chouhan says. “Chup! Go Vote” is making a total of $10,000 in grants available to South Asian student organizations across the country for civic education initiatives at roughly 20 universities. The money is coming from other nonprofit organizations that are interested in doing targeted outreach on college campuses, Chouhan says.

“These are organizations that traditionally struggle to connect with and mobilize young people,” she says. “We stepped in and said, ‘We’ll do that! We just need the money.’”

Chouhan is earning a bachelor’s degree in global health and international studies and has long-term plans to attend law school. During her time at UW–Madison, she helped to create the South Asian Civic Alliance. The alliance brings together more than 15 campus organizations to collaborate on voter outreach events and issue statements of solidarity in addressing incidents harmful to the South Asian community.

“Through this alliance, we are able to educate more people and bring the diaspora together as one united community working towards amplifying each other’s voices,” Chouhan says. “I’ve found this to be one of the most rewarding contributions I’ve been able to make, as it directly impacts our Madison community.”

Junior Khush Patel, one of the co-founders of “Chup! Go Vote,” says Chouhan has done a phenomenal job of fostering community engagement across a vast array of South Asian initiatives.

“Chandra is a born leader,” says Patel, a neurobiology major from Racine, Wisconsin. “She is extremely passionate about the work, which explains the amount of drive she has to expand our horizons. She has an energetic personality that has catalyzed our network beyond Wisconsin.”

Chouhan also served this past year as a fellow for the Center for Interfaith Dialogue on campus, aiming to foster a more inclusive campus culture.

“Chandra has been a first-rate interfaith fellow,” says Ulrich Rosenhagen, the center’s interim director. “She was always bubbling with ideas, ready to connect with people, and also putting in the hours to make sure our events became a success. She told me she wanted to dispel division and ignorance through awareness and acceptance, and she worked to realize this vision with dynamism and grace.”

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