This item is an audio file.

Sumangala ('Sumi') Kailasapathy Oral History Interview

Sumangala ('Sumi') Kailasapathy is a public accountant and former City Council Member representing District 1 of Ann Arbor, Michigan. Sumi has a history of political activism that dates back to her upbringing in Jaffna. Sumi begins the interview with a discussion of her younger years in Jaffna, where her father was the first President of the University of Jaffna, and where her mother's activism with the Mother's Front organization is what planted the seed for her own politicization and investment in activism. The Mother's Front was inspired by mothers' protests against enforced disappearances of their sons in Latin America. Local Tamil mothers would protest enforced disappearances carried out by the Sri Lankan military and police. Sumi goes on to discuss her time as a student at the University of Jaffna, where she participated in the radical feminist Women's Study Circle collective, and soon after was involved with a women's rehabilitation organization called Poorani with the late physician activist Rajani Thiranagama. She discusses the violence she witnessed (trigger warning: graphic discussions of death) committed by the Indian Peacekeeping Forces, the Tamil Tigers, and other militant groups. Among these experiences, she talks about how women who were assaulted by Indian soldiers were doubly traumatized due to familial and community ostracization, and how she confronted these realities through her work with Poorani. She talks about the feminist leaders of the Women's Study Circle other than Rajani Thiranagama, many of whom have their own legacies that are not as well known, and also discusses the kinds of scholarship that the Circle read and discussed during their regular meetings. Sumi goes on to discuss how the Tigers' murder of Dr. Rajani Thiranagama is what forced her to flee Jaffna, and eventually come to the United States.

She narrates how her experiences with war and discrimination in Sri Lanka is what informs her involvement in local politics in Ann Arbor, and how a her politics of solidarity is based on her own experiences of state violence. This led her to kneel during the National Anthem at City Hall out of solidarity with African Americans protesting police violence, for which she received thousands of messages of hate mail. She also discusses her campaign and tenure in City Council where she resisted the political establishment's attempts at luxury projects that would have benefited developers at the expense of local marginalized residents. After covering her activism in Jaffna and Ann Arbor, argues that intellectual honesty and solidarity across communities needs to be the path forward for the Tamil diaspora community. She critiques the Tamil diaspora's hegemonic nationalism as politically insular, likening the political culture to a "potted plant."

This interview is an important contribution to the overall project by documenting how someone born and raised in Sri Lanka has been driven to political activism here in the United States, and how this activism is inspired by her experiences with gendered and armed violence and exploitation in Sri Lanka. It documents how experiences in our homeland can plant the seed for activism at the vanguard of political leadership in the United States, while not shying away from a radical and aspirant politics of solidarity with oppressed communities.

Photo Courtesy of Ann Arbor Chronicle

Activism, Political Engagement, Civic Engagement, Law & Justice, Early Student Life

Duration: 01:27:24

Date: February 12, 2022
Subject(s): Sumangala ('Sumi') Kailasapathy
Type: Oral History
Source: Archival Creators Fellowship Program
Creator: Kartik Amarnath
Contributor: Sumangala ('Sumi') Kailasapathy
Location: Ann Arbor, MI

Collection: Kartik Amarnath Fellowship project
Donor: Sumangala ('Sumi') Kailasapathy
Item History: 2022-06-24 (created); 2022-06-29 (modified)

* This digital object may not be sold or redistributed, copied or distributed as a photograph, electronic file, or any other media without express written consent from the copyright holder and the South Asian American Digital Archive (SAADA). The user is responsible for all issues of copyright. If you are the rightful copyright holder of this item and its use online constitutes an infringement of your copyright, please contact us by email at to discuss its removal from the archive.