Shaun Jayachandran - former basketball player, teacher, administrator, coach, and now, CEO at the international nonprofit Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy India, which brings student athletes from the U.S. to a program in India aimed at encouraging students to stay in school through teaching pillars of growth through athleticism and basketball - is 6'4" tall, has a shaved head, and is often mistaken for a lot of things other than what he actually is: nonprofit CEO, basketball coach and player, teacher, and a person of South Indian and Canadian background. Here, he shares his thoughts on seeing India in a new way, representation, finding connections with other scholar athletes, and one thing he wishes he'd had growing up...
Tell us a little about the work of your organization.
The organization is called Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy. It works towards changing the pathway of low-income, marginalized students in India, by engaging educators and schools, to participate in a program designed to teach leadership, gender equity, and critical thinking.
The program emphasizes attendance and completion of school and connects lessons to the students’ education, community, and family.
What are some other things you've done?
I'm also an educator - I've taught chemistry, and worked in admissions, coached varsity basketball and football, and led diversity initiatives while I created and grew Crossover. I've also given a TEDx, spoken at schools, written, been honored and recognized by the Philadelphia 76ers, and participated and presented at Indiaspora Forum.
Having grown up as an Indian kid in Canada, then in the United States, what is the experience of doing this work in Chennai?
Going back to India and seeing it through MY own lens -- a lens of Basketball -- has changed my perspective on India. Growing up, you think about India, and see India through the lens of your family's perspective. What your parents tell you and think creates a very insular view of India, especially when they don't really want you to see the negatives of their country.
And going there now to do this work, you see a lot that can be jarring, but also empowering. Our volunteers have a similar experience, and I've worked to develop a secondary curriculum for our Desi volunteers, so they can think through what it's like to see India through their own lens.
Seeing it [India] through your own lens can be empowering. This last trip was particularly remarkable, because it was the first trip where all of our student volunteers were Indian American (that's huge, considering when we started it was 90% Caucasian volunteers).
What's something unexpected your volunteers gain from their experience?
A lot of our volunteers haven't ever had the experience of making friends who have the same exact slice of background and stories as them. But these volunteers, they find this perfect connection in each other. They have the same Uncle/Aunty kinds of stories. We had these three amazing young women, a Harvard Graduate, a Stanford Graduate, and a rising junior at Brown (Shilpa Tummala, Kiran Lakhian, and Shayna Mehta) -- and these three girls who had never met before, the three of them basically became best friends. All three played Division I basketball and were groundbreaking. Yes, they're truly spectacular scholar-athletes, but they also have this common history and background, and they're working towards this same positive goal. And they are able to understand how much they are role models to future generations.
Last week while in Chennai, our team went to see that new movie, The Big Sick, together -- so they're all sitting in a movie theatre in Chennai, watching this movie together, and they are all laughing at the same "inside" jokes that they can relate to with other Brown kids. A lot of these kids find connections in each other because of it.
SLAM Magazine sent a reporter with us this year to track the program. After two days, the reporter actually asked me, “how long have all these guys known each other?” -- and all of these volunteers had just met two days ago. He couldn’t believe it, he thought they’d all known each other for ten years. It made me envious that this didn't exist when I was playing sports. That's something I wish I’d had growing up - the knowledge and ability to connect with other Indian-American athletes in a way to share our experiences.
You grew up in an area that didn't have a lot of South Asians; how has that shaped your perspective?
I grew up in Calgary, Alberta in Western Canada, a fairly racist city in the 80s and early 90s. We lived on the other side of the city from the other Brown kids, about an hour away, and I was typically the only Brown kid in school (other than my younger brother). Also, being Catholic, I didn't really understand the context of the traditions of the few other Brown kids I did know, and as an athlete, that also made me feel even more removed.
We moved to Falls Church, VA (about ten minutes outside of Washington DC) when I was in high school, and I was 16. Even there, I finished high school with only a few other Brown kids, and for me, as an athlete, it was hard for us to connect or relate at the time.
I truly began to see the importance of representation when I became a teacher.
How did becoming a teacher help change your perspective on the importance of representation?
I went to a national diversity conference for independent schools (POCC), and I met this guy, Raj, who taught Biology at Phillips Academy. He was also the varsity football coach, and I was like “Wait, what? There’s somebody else, like me, who does this?” I must have harassed that guy for three years to become my friend -- I didn’t know any other male South Asian educators, who also coached a varsity sport. Now, Raj is a good friend, has travelled with Crossover to India, and actually is on my Board [of Directors for Crossover].
How does seeing yourself reflected in others impact you?
These moments of representation are so vital. The feeling of realization that "there’s somebody else like me?" In education, it feels like the South Asian representation is slowly starting to grow, but still missing in terms of being recognized as an actual “diversity.” And it's crucial to see that representation in the mass media, but even on a personal level.
And speaking of mainstream media, you’ve had a lot of big names, of South Asian American backgrounds, reach out to you about the work you’re doing; what does that mean for you?
Kevin Negandhi, the first South Asian ESPN anchor, once I reached out to connect with him about this work has become a big fan. Utkarsh Ambudkar (actor - Pitch Perfect, The Mindy Project) saw my TedX talk, and wanted to know how he could get involved -- he loves basketball, and was like how did you connect Basketball to India? Utkarsh actually flew to Chennai immediately after filming Barbershop: The Next Cut -- these guys are mainstream media guys who are recognizable. Seeing these kinds of people wanting to be involved with this work is great.
And it’s great having that representation. That helps you see you can have your own unique blend of what it means to be a good South Asian. You want to be a trailblazer, but you also think I want to know that there are others like me.
Things have been different in America recently, and xenophobia has increased; how does this impact the need for seeing others “like you” represented?
A lot of students want to assume they're fully American. A few years ago when teaching at a school, multiple students “jokingly” called a kid of Muslim Pakistani descent Saddam. And no teacher said anything. It may not have been to the extent of the N-word, but, it still immediately makes you feel othered and inferior. And my generation was just starting to believe that we could just be called American.
But with the current climate, a lot of topics are coming up that people will now have to face for a long time. The kids growing up now will be facing an increase in xenophobia that will exist to some degree for the rest of their lives. And sometimes grappling with the idea that you're still not [seen as] American. When are you fully a part of America?
So I’m 6’4” and have a shaved head, and I get mistaken for a lot of things. Depending on the day, I get mistaken as African-American and therefore a violent threat subject to the police stops and names, or sometimes I get perceived as a potential terrorist. It’s wonderful (sarcasm), I get to experience all sorts of racism that goes beyond the normal immigrant tax. In this new xenophobic swing, it's a whole new conversation of what does it mean to be Brown in America.
As teachers, do we have the toolbox for helping them unpack all of this? How are we preparing for these new questions?
Shaun Jayachandran is the founder of Crossover Basketball and Scholars Academy.