Pyramigo Profile: Anand Balasubrahmanyan

Posted: Feb 18, 2016

Every day we’re excited to come into the office. Not many people can say that. But we can, because we know the work we’re doing matters. Each of us has a different story to tell, a different story about why doing good in the world matters to us. We thought we’d share it with you. Get to know the Pyramigos!

Anand Balasubrahmanyan is a project manager. He brings to Pyramid in-depth knowledge of immigration reform, housing advocacy, and message development.

So, Anand, you’ve been a project manager at Pyramid for about six months. What did you do before?

I moved over from the Committee to End Homelessness in King County (now named AllHome), where I created communications about King County’s strategy for homeless resources. Before that, I worked on an immigration reform advocacy campaign at the Immigrant Law Center of Minnesota. I wrote op-eds for a large coalition and helped organize events. 

It sounds like you have a lot of experience working for nonprofits, so, it’s no surprise that you found your way here. What aspect of the job were you most looking forward to?

I’ve worked at a lot of scrappy nonprofits and while they all had their heart in the right place, there was often not a lot of capacity for planned communications ventures. When your mission is so urgent and you have limited resources, it can be difficult to prioritize communications even though everyone recognizes the benefit of a compelling message. When I first started at the Committee to End Homelessness, I worked with Anne Tillery and Denise Rhiner and I really appreciated the thought that they put into gathering community input to inform strategic messages. I thought Pyramid would be a great place to learn the building blocks of an effective communications effort.

What are some of your favorite recent projects?

I enjoyed working with Seattle Public Utilities to raise awareness around the city’s new composting law. The project involved the creation of TV, radio, print, and bus ads that were shown in multiple languages. I liked the challenge of creating ads about composting in languages that had no word for “compost.”

What do you feel you’re best at solving for your clients? 

I think I bring the ability to hear multiple sides of an issue. Prior to Pyramid, I’ve done a lot of work with coalitions. A big part of that work is listening and synthesizing viewpoints from organizations that aren’t naturally in line with each other. I like to see the connections between people that you wouldn’t see as natural allies.  An example is when I was working at the Immigration Law Center. I ghostwrote an op-ed that was cosigned by the Minnesota AFL-CIO and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, who disagree on everything except immigration reform. 

How did you find your way into immigration reform?

My interest in immigration law in particular comes from my family history. My grandpa was brought over to the U.S. in 1961 to work with NASA on the Apollo 11 program. At the time, it was still illegal for people who were born in the Asiatic Barred Zone to immigrate to the United States, so he had to get this special paper signed in order to get into the country. Growing up it made me wonder, “why would we have a law that requires someone to get a presidential pardon so that they can help invent the space suit?”

From there I went to Grinnell College, a small liberal arts school where they let you study whatever you find interesting, so I studied civil rights and immigration law history.

I got an internship in Seattle with OneAmerica and gravitated towards advocacy and communications positions at organizations that work for social change I believe in. 

So, what’s the relationship between your work in immigration reform and housing? 

While the details of each issue differ, I feel that there is a common structural injustice that connects immigration and housing issues: both our immigration laws and legal system can punish people because they don’t take into account the reality of being poor in America.

Here’s a paradox. It’s illegal to live in a tent in many places even if you do not have a home. But if you are arrested for living in a tent your legal history will bar you from attaining future housing, because what landlord wants a tenet with a criminal history? In a sense, you are condemned to homelessness because you are homeless.

It’s similar in immigration. Fifty percent of of all laborers in the U.S. agricultural market are undocumented, but each year there are only 5,000 permanent visas for all ‘un-skilled’ labor in the U.S. The reason our “undocumented” population is so high is because there is a need for farm labor but no legal mechanism to allow workers to fill that gap. In both cases, laws that are out of step with how people live turn them into criminals for struggling on the margins.

Why did you decide to make the move from Minnesota to Seattle? 

My wife got her dream job in Seattle at the Northwest Film Forum, which is an independent movie theater that shows alternative and international films. Also it was hard to sell her on winters in Minnesota. For five months of the year it’s below zero. 

Speaking of film, didn’t you co-found an international film festival in Spain?

I did. My wife got the Watson Fellowship and her project was about film festivals outside the U.S.  You’re not supposed to see anyone from the U.S. on the Watson Fellowship, but if you get married, you can bring your spouse. We’d been dating long distance for three years and she said, “You know, if we got married…” [Laughs]. So that’s what we did.

We founded a film festival in Santander, Spain about immigration issues. We showed Spanish-language films about what it meant to move from one country to another. I think this work has helped me search for stories that are told in unique ways to help explain complex issues like immigration policy to new audiences. It’s easier to understand the human side of an issue through a documentary film than a policy brief. 

Since you’re no longer working for nonprofits, are you volunteering for any?

I volunteer at the Northwest Film Forum, obviously. I was also recently a community advisor for the group that put together the Wing Luke Museum’s exhibit on the anniversary of the 1965 immigration law. Since I love immigration history, it was fun to help put this exhibit together.

So, what do you do when you’re not putting together film festivals or coming up with communication strategies?

I play basketball. I’m a huge fan of the NBA and have hope that my beloved Minnesota Timberwolves will some day win 25 games. I’m a huge history buff as well. Lately I've been getting into Byzantine history. I’m making up this card game to teach kids about this history that you often don’t learn about in school.