“When we came to America we faced severe poverty ... My activism is connected to my family and my lived experience. Between experiencing poverty, being an immigrant in this country, learning English, struggling with English, and having parents who struggle with English, it helps me to recognize that the bare minimum is not provided for folks to even begin to have a dignified and humane living.”
Amira Chow (C ‘22) was born and raised in Bangladesh. When she was in middle school, her family immigrated to the United States and called Los Angeles their new home. She recalls filing her family's tax returns and paying electricity and internet bills as young as the sixth grade on account of her parents' limited English proficiency. A similar vigor and determination brought Amira to Penn, where she majors in Urban Studies and Political Science with a minor in Urban Education, all while pursuing a Master's in Social Policy at the School of Social Policy & Practice. With this in mind Amira has dedicated her undergraduate years to relentlessly advocating on behalf of those historically marginalized by what she sees Penn as—a white–dominated political space.
At the heart of Amira’s Penn experience is activism rooted in the causes of working people. She's furious at Penn’s apathy towards its West Philadelphia neighbors. "Penn has extracted and devastated West Philadelphia, from using eminent domain to get rid of black homeowners and community members, to not giving them reparations, to not paying PILOTs (Payments In Lieu Of Taxes)," she says.
Her deep and palpable sense of justice led her to become involved with the campaigns of Police Free Penn. “I began joining my friends [in Philadelphia] over the summer and protesting as the demonstrations were going on after the murder of George Floyd," Amira says. "I became involved with key organizers in the group to raise awareness, share resources, and get more folks introduced to their work. We organized a demonstration in front of Penn Police headquarters over the summer.”
Prior to her entry into Police Free Penn, Amira had already been involved with Penn Community for Justice. As a member of the community mobilizing arm, she builds coalitions, publishes and writes Op Eds, and helps different Philadelphia communities connect with and learn from one another. Yet the activist is known most widely by her leadership position in one of Penn's most influential clubs, Penn Justice Democrats. She was one of the founding members of Penn for Bernie, which transformed into this club during the primary season.
“Penn for Bernie was the number one most organized student group in Pennsylvania, and eighth most organized student group in the nation. We had over 200 members in by the end of our time here. We got to go to New Hampshire with over 40 Penn students, and a Japanese national news station made a mini documentary about our activism,” she says.
The heart of Amira's activism, however, stems from her identity as a Bengali woman. Frustrated with the portrayal of Asian Americans as apolitical in mainstream media, she created Penn’s premier and only non–partisan Asian and Pacific Islander identity–based political affinity group, Penn AAPI Politics. AAPI has since brought a litany of speakers to campus, hosted demonstrations, and participated in intimate discussions with other campus organizations. AAPI also collaborates with many other community–based Asian American organizations in Philadelphia, assisting with everything from voter engagement and registration to mobilizing the Asian American community to fill out the census.
Another central pillar of Amira’s undergraduate career is her research, which focuses on adult literacy in the United States. Over the summer, she had the opportunity to research prison literacy, allowing her to speak with many formerly incarcerated Americans. She explains that literacy can be a source of liberation for those in the prison system. Amira has since put her research into practice, obtaining a teaching certification in English as a Second Language (ESL) through Penn GSE and teaching adult learners at the Community Learning Center weekly.
When asked what she hopes for in the next five years, Amira's answer is simple. To see true progress, Amira wants Penn to take accountability for the damage they've caused to West Philadelphia's marginalized communities. What does this look like? Defunding the Penn Police, divesting from fossil fuels, and committing to paying PILOTs, which would fund West Philadelphia's public schools.
“I want [Penn] to recognize what their politics are and how much [of] it is rooted in a pro–corporate and pro–status quo sort of politics and how much their politics are actually harming the same people that they claim to care about,” she says.
Amira has another hope, too. Throughout her immense success and unwavering activism, she has never worked after 9 PM. She doesn't check notifications after this time but rather uses those sacred hours to journal, meditate, and embrace solitude. Ultimately, Amira urges Penn students to recognize the importance of rest.
Amira's life philosophy? “Rest is an act of resistance. Rest is revolutionary. Rest is radical, and our bodies deserve [it]," she says. "Unfortunately, what I’ve seen at Penn...is a belief that rest is lazy and not competitive enough...In reality we need rest in order to be critically engaged."
After Penn, she hopes to take a year or two to escape the U.S., then attend law school and dedicate her career to continue fighting for the causes of working people. As always, the Penn junior looks to the future: “Real social transformation can only happen when we build robust multi–racial coalitions to challenge power and bring down systems to create anew. I plan to dedicate my career and efforts to building upon this people–powered cause for justice."