Tuesdays are when KERA’s American Graduate project charts the journey from childhood to graduation. Today, we chart a different sort of journey – the one Dinesh Mali made from childhood in India to his spot as the first Indian-American elected to the Irving school board.
Dinesh Mali grew up poor. And he was one of seven children. So when he got older and thought about going to college, his dad had bad news.
“My turn come up [and] he said, ‘Sorry, I’m exhausted, I got nothing for you,’” Mali said. “And you know, that was a challenge.”
So he asked for help from an older brother who was in the U.S. getting his master’s. His brother agreed, and in January 1966, Mali came to the U.S. He learned English by taking classes in Chicago’s community college system. Today, the newly-minted trustee looks back on his immigrant experience to encourage other immigrants to learn English.
“My problem when I came to Chicago was, I cannot tell a guy how to buy a pie, or a hamburger, or a coke,” he said. “So I had to learn that part of the conversation.”
Mali would go on to get his bachelor of science in mechanical engineering from the University of Missouri at Columbia, and a master’s degree in the same field from Washington University in St. Louis.
Mali, who’s 69, got married, raised a family and eventually settled in southern Irving, an inner-ring suburb in the midst of a demographic transformation powered by a wide range of immigrant families.
“It’s not only Spanish people live here,” Mali said. “We have Indian people live here, Islamic people live here, Sudanese people live here, Nigerian people live here and, you know, their kids go to school but parent don’t know English.”
Mali says he plans to promote programs that teach English to immigrant parents. That was one of his messages to voters this past election in which he won by a large margin. He ran unsuccessfully two previous times.
The big difference this time: this was Irving’s first election using single-member districts – which were ordered by a federal judge last summer.
Even so, many of Irving’s Indian community don’t live in Mali’s district – they’re in North Irving and their kids go to schools in the Carrollton-Farmers Branch and Coppell districts.
Sirisha Kodeboyina is one of those residents. She was tending a food booth at the Taste of Irving this past weekend.
“Education is a very very important part of how Indians are raised, because most of the Indian population is middle class,” Kodeboyina said. “So their ticket to America or to better places is education and jobs.”
Kodeboyina and her husband own several businesses, including Southern Spice, a homestyle Indian food restaurant. Mali doesn’t represent her, but she says having a diverse board can make a difference.
“For somebody who was born and brought up here, they may not exactly understand where a parent who was raised in a different country is coming from and why some things might be very important to them,” she said. “You know?”
Irving’s growing immigrant population has had an impact in the classroom and in the services the city provides. Jason Brown, senior recreation specialist at Cimarron Recreation Center in the North Irving neighborhood of Valley Ranch, points to the city’s three cricket fields. The bat and ball game is popular in places like India, England and Southern Africa.
And this past weekend, he and Mali talked about plans for the city’s first Indian Heritage Celebration later this year. Mali is a volunteer for the city’s parks and recreation department.
“Twenty years ago that didn’t happen,” Brown said. “So you do evolve and part of it is the population group sometimes will come to us and say, ‘hey, this is what we’re interested in,’ because, to be honest, we may be ignorant on what we’re missing out on.”
Mali says he, too, wants to make sure the city keeps evolving. That task begins now – Monday night, he was sworn in to the Irving school board.
KERA recently produced a series of stories about immigrant children in North Texas and their impact on education. You can find those stories at generationone.kera.org