About 300 students and faculty attended the 17th Annual South Asian Awareness Network Conference took place Saturday  at the Michigan League. SAAN is a student-run organization at the University of Michigan which focuses on spreading awareness about social justice issues related to South Asian communities and other communities of color.

The conference, titled “Shifting Sands: Amplifying Stories to Create a New Narrative,” hosted a variety of speakers to discuss social justice issues such as sexual and mental health, representation in media, immigration and transgressing gender stereotypes.

SAAN’s vision statement for the conference read, “We aim to maintain spaces that challenge the dominant narrative and support those who are not given the opportunity to tell their stories.”

Students, alumni and Ann Arbor residents who attended the event were divided into small groups to participate in group dialogues about individual experiences within the South Asian community and social justice issues as a whole. In addition to a lecture by the keynote speaker, Trisha Sakhuja-Walia, CEO and co-founder of Brown Girl Magazine, other guest speakers presented in smaller workshops throughout the day.

During her keynote speech, Sakhuja-Walia highlighted the efforts of Brown Girl Magazine, an online publication created by and for South Asian women that uses stories to build community and empower South Asian women. The magazine, created in 2008, has published more than 4,000 original stories, reaching more than 5 million readers spanning the U.S., United Kingdom, India, Pakistan and South Africa.

Sakhuja-Walia named topics the magazine has covered, including the struggle of immigration, pursuit of creative passions, stigmas surrounding mental health and domestic violence, coming to terms with gender identity and women’s rights.

Sakhuja-Walia left her previous job one year ago to work full-time at Brown Girl. Her passion to achieve representation for the South Asian community has been the driving force behind her work at the magazine.

“Representation is more than just seeing ourselves on television or in movies or in gigantic ad campaigns and billboards,” Sakhuja-Walia said. “Representation matters because it directly impacts how minority communities see themselves and how others in society view them.”

Sakhuja-Walia played clips of different media that have either portrayed South Asians positively or negatively. Sakhuja-Walia explained, while Anik Kahn’s uplifting music video “Big Fax,” containing the lyrics “damn it feels good to be an immigrant,” shed a positive light on cultural pride, Apu, the cartoon character from “The Simpsons,” instilled damaging stereotypes in society through its offensive portrayal of an Indian immigrant character voiced by a white man.

On the topic of the stereotypes of minorities in media, LSA freshman Emily Wu said the underrepresentation of South Asians is relatable for other minority groups.

“I really liked the media that was in (the presentation) … because I actually feel that too,” Wu said. “I’m Asian but I still feel that. It’s very relevant across all ethnicities that aren’t white.”  

Sakhuja-Walia also used a disclaimer in her presentation, explaining that doing something out of the ordinary or engaging in certain actions as a member of the South Asian community does not make the action right. She said the actions of an individual belonging to the South Asian community don’t represent the actions of the whole population.

“Before I dive into some of the positive affirmations of media representation, I want to acknowledge that we are finally in a time where doing something cool or out of the ordinary just because you are South Asian or brown doesn’t mean it’s always going to be right,” Sakhuja-Walia said. “Your actions speak for themselves, and the color of your skin and cultural affiliation can only do so much.”

Sakhuja-Walia emphasized the importance of continuing to share stories to create a more inclusive narrative for the South Asian community.

“No matter how far we have come living as South Asian people living in the diaspora, no matter how many times we have told our story, we will always be in the pursuit of storytelling,” Sakhuja-Walia said.  

During one workshop, Amit Patel, a dancer and choreographer based in Los Angeles, spoke about his personal storytelling through dance. Patel discussed his experience as a first-generation Indian American and his journey discovering his identity through pioneering a new discipline of fusion dance called “Indian contemporary”: dance which combines elements of ballet, contemporary, modern, jazz and traditional Indian movements.

Patel explained the confusion he experienced in college regarding his identity.

“I was still very confused about my identity,” Patel said. “Who I was in terms of, ‘Should I be a little bit more Indian? Should I be a little more American? What does that even mean? What does that entail?’”

In an exploration of his identity, Patel said he turned to different forms of movement for individual expression.

“I was trying to learn more about movement and how it was more than just a way of expression, but a mind, body and soul connection,” Patel said. “I was able to express all aspects of my being through that.”

Patel’s discovery of his identity through movement was only one of the experiences explored in the SAAN conference. Other workshop speakers included Jordan Alam, a Bangladeshi-American writer, performer and social change educator; Alicia Virani, associate director of the criminal justice program at the UCLA School of Law; Hiba Khan, a Pakistani-Canadian artist; Neeraja Aravamudan, a social justice educator and associate director for teaching and research at the University’s Ginsberg Center and Tazin Daniels, an anthropologist and advocate for immigration and other issues relevant to the South Asian experience.

LSA junior Nikita Bazaj, small groups chair for the SAAN Central Planning Team, explained the relevance of SAAN at the University of Michigan.

“I think that SAAN is a great starting point for a lot of people who are looking to start engaging with social justice because a lot of people hear the term, ‘social justice’ and they’re afraid of it,” Bazaj said. “And I think that SAAN creates an opportunity for people to get introduced to what it is all about and listen to major speakers from minority categories that we don’t really see represented on this campus as often.”

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