On Saturday, the South Asian Awareness Network’s annual conference hosted two keynote speakers and held multiple seminars to discuss activism, intersectionality and civil rights.

While the first keynote focused on South Asian heritage and its links to the Civil Rights Movement, the second emphasized the importance of the intersectionality of racial and cultural identities. Both lecturers aimed to shed light on social entrepreneurship.

LSA senior Fatema Chamak, co-director of SAAN, said the group’s main aim wasn’t just to create a conference that acted as a singular event, but rather to create one that acted as an extension of all the events the organization hosts throughout the year.

Of the conference’s many goals, Chamak said she hoped participants learned how to explore the intersectionality and fluidity of their identities. Intersectionality refers to the way different identities connect and overlap.  

“I want them to walk away with the idea that activism isn’t over,” Chamak said. “And that social identity is something that always needs to be reflective and explored.”

American Culture prof. Manan Desai, who gave the first keynote speech, focused on the relationships between South Asian identities and the U.S. Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s.

Desai said African American social activists influenced anti-imperialist activists in Southern Asia, exploring the history of South Asia and subsequently to activism.

“It was not only the case that South Asians who came to the U.S. were often drawn to the conflict fighting injustice,” said Desai. “But the history of African American struggle had long influenced activists back home.”

Desai also told the crowd that he wanted to speak at the SAAN conference because during his time as an undergraduate at the University, there wasn’t a space for students of South Asian descent to discuss the issues that faced their community.

Overall, he said he hoped participants could learn where South Asians fit into the nation’s history from his keynote.

“I was trying to say something inspiring about people before who showed solidarity towards African Americans or civil rights movements,” Desai said. “I also wanted us to think about where South Asians fit historically in the larger picture.”

Naya Jeevan CEO Asher Hasan presented the second keynote speech, focusing on his own racial and social identities. Using his own life as an example, he noted how participants could make a positive impact on the world.

Hasan’s company, Naya Jeevan, is based in Pakistan and is dedicated to empowering marginalized communities by giving them access to health care, education and financial inclusion.

While Hasan spoke specifically to his South Asian heritage, he explained he was more comfortable now as a person who views himself as all his identities simultaneously, whereas he used to think of himself in terms of only one or another at a single time.

“We can all have multiple identities,” he said. “It’s just trying to get them to converge together into an integrated whole.”

Hasan said he wanted to speak at SAAN’s conference because he wished to share his experiences with young people, and help them navigate the world of entrepreneurship from hearing his experiences.

“I always enjoy engaging millennials because they’re a generation that don’t just want to do good for themselves,” Hasan said. “They also want to do good for others.”

LSA senior David Schafer, who attended the conference, said he came because he he thought it was important to discuss social justice issues within the South Asian community.

“Even though we do come from a variety of backgrounds and identities, we have shared lives and experiences,” he said. “We need to help each other and we need to set out to stand in solidarity with each other."

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