Officials, students discuss equality at SAAN event

Sidney Krandall/Daily
SAAN guest speaker Sharmadip Basu discusses the meaning of politics with his audience on Jan. 20. Buy this photo

By Josh Qian, Daily Staff Reporter
Published January 22, 2012

LIVONIA, Mich. — More than 300 University students gathered this weekend to learn about social justice and cultural issues that transcend the South Asian communities in Ann Arbor, the United States and abroad.

On Friday and Saturday, the South Asian Awareness Network hosted its 10th annual conference with the theme “MOSAIC: Shattering Barriers to Piece Together Perspectives.” Participants attended workshops, small group discussions, performances and keynote speeches in the Michigan League and the Rackham Graduate School Building, where they discussed challenges afflicting South Asians in America and initiatives toward increased equality.

Kiran Ahuja, executive director of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, spoke at the conference's formal dinner held Saturday at Burton Manor here, where she discussed the struggles she experienced growing up as a young Indian immigrant in Savannah, Ga.

“We are still figuring out how we call this country our home, and it’s important to think about how this country gets to know us and how we get to know it,” Ahuja said in her speech.

Ahuja said her childhood struggles turned out to be one of the most valuable experiences of her life, adding that her past difficulties inspired her to embark upon the national work toward equality she does today.

“Whatever challenge you face, it may be a difficult to fathom any kind of positive outcome from it,” Ahuja said. “But it makes you a lot wiser, stronger and empathetic for any kind of experience you will face in the future.”

In an interview after the speech, Ahuja said it’s her job to improve the quality of life for Asians living in the United States and help them gain access to federal services addressing social issues.

“There’s a lot of challenges from health issues, educational and immigration challenges (facing Asian-Americans),” Ahuja said. “Through my job, I have an opportunity to learn about all these communities that I would never have the opportunity to do.”

Engineering senior Prithvi Murthy, co-chair of the conference, said the event’s central planning team achieved its goal to raise awareness about issues relevant to the South Asian community locally and abroad.

“What we aimed to achieve with this awareness was to show how easily social justice initiatives could be incorporated into every individual’s life,” Murthy said. “We hoped that participants could establish the consistency and continuity of these injustices across communities and regions and that anyone can be inspired to make them personal causes.”

The program also included eight different workshops focused on promoting social change through arts, academics and activism. U.S. Rep. Hansen Clarke (D–Mich.), a South Asian raised in Detroit, also spoke of his experience growing up with a Bangladeshi Muslim immigrant father and a Black Christian mother in inner-city Detroit.

Prerna Lal, an LGBTQ Fiji-Indian activist who is an undocumented resident living in the United States, hosted a workshop encouraging South Asian youth to voice their concerns about the U.S. immigration system.

LSA sophomore Guneet Ahluwalia said the small group discussions during the workshop provided him with new perspectives on controversial topics that are usually avoided.

“I really opened up myself to the group during the small group,” Ahluwalia said. “I was thinking about stuff I usually wouldn’t think about, and because of that I was able to look at the issues differently.”

LSA senior Sian Dowis attended a workshop on sexual health on Saturday and said workshop leader Sapna Mysoor, a program manager at the Asian & Pacific Islander Wellness Center, made her realize how different learning about sexuality was for her as a Caucasian compared those in the South Asian community.

“I think the workshop was really eye-opening,” Dowis said. “When they asked who learned about sex from their parents, I was one of the very few who raised their hands.”

At Saturday’s conference, Engineering junior Evan Potter said he became more aware of the issues affecting South Asians in the United States and abroad.

“In South Asia, the issues are more about healthcare and education in rural areas,” Potter said. “However, in the United States, it’s more about racial profiling and negative stereotypes associated with the South Asians living here.”