South Asian Awareness Network hosts annual social justice conference virtually
This weekend, the South Asian Awareness Network hosted their 19th annual conference “Rising Tides: Pulling Together to Push Boundaries.” While this year’s virtual setting looked different from previous round-table dialogues at the Michigan League, the social justice awareness organization delivered a rather engaging program with discussions of activism, identity and breaking boundaries.
Over the course of three days, the conference shifted between speaker talks and facilitated breakout room sessions. Speakers included Hoda Katebi, Chicago-based organizer and creative; independent entrepreneur Ankita Bansal; state Rep. Ranjeev Puri, D-Canton; author and entrepreneur Suneel Gupta; entrepreneur and influencer Shivani Bafna; and Rukmini Vijayakumar, artistic director and choreographer.
During talks, attendees were encouraged to engage in the chat with virtual reactions and comments that each speaker could interact with, and the virtual breakout sessions during dialogues offered an easy way for speakers and moderators to enter rooms and speak directly to attendees. The stimulating perspectives of everyone involved made the transition to Zoom fairly seamless, and is a testament to the assiduous efforts of the entire SAAN team.
DAY 1: FRIDAY
Hoda Katebi — Keynote Address
The conference started off with a keynote address from Chicago-based abolitionist organizer Hoda Katebi on Friday evening. Katebi spoke about approaches to abolition and the inherently political nature of fashion from her home, with her cat on standby.
As Katebi explained, “fast fashion is necessary under capitalism,” and “violence (most often gender-based violence) is necessary for fast fashion.” As she took us through the steps of the global clothing production cycle and the corresponding exploitation at each level, she quickly condemned ethical and sustainable fast fashion as “fake news.”
Katebi swiftly connected the performative reformation of fashion companies to that of the military and its very performative notions of democracy, alluding to the deep interconnections of all institutions in which individual choice is never the sole determining factor. She called out the perpetuated narrative of trying to “buy the revolution” through brands that preach sustainability and instead, she encouraged what she calls “collaborative intersectional movement building” which requires taking a step back and holding the institutional structures accountable.
As consumers of goods under capitalism wherein we “(are) not supposed to know what happens on … production floors,” our power, she said, lies in our ethos. Consumer power lies in what we can and cannot control, and she attests to this with one final sentiment: “I might use plastic straws, but I’m still trying to defund the military.”
DAY 2: SATURDAY
Ankita Bansal — Unapologetic Pursuits: Rise of a Phoenix
On Saturday, Ankita Bansal started off the first full day of programming with a talk about her journey from starring in the Netflix reality TV show “Indian Matchmaking” to expanding her global denim brand THERE! with her sister Gayatri. In her first-ever talk to a university crowd, she opened up about her failures in the entrepreneurial world and encouraged all attendees to embrace their “unapologetic pursuits,” which remained the central theme throughout her address.
“I wear my failures like a badge,” Bansal beamed as she told the audience about the great impact each one of her deterences had on her career and in her personal life. In one breakout room dialogue, attendees talked about how Bansal’s sentiment of embracing the lessons of failure is often lost in the pressures of hustle culture.
In picking up many of her insights on the job, Bansal preached the importance of “bring(ing) in a personal aspect when growing a brand.” She talked about the value of community and the importance of authenticity, saying that “building a community takes a lot of heart and soul, not money.” For THERE!, this meant unique size customizations and open communication with individual clients.
Alongside her business journey, Bansal is passionate about cultivating good habits and daily routines, warning against the lack of fulfillment from a 24/7 hustle. “When you start your day with (just) working, it leaves you in a space where you are not satisfied,” she said.
With her closing workshop, Ankita encouraged attendees to pursue a new activity with a more self-oriented goal in mind for the next 21 days through a social media challenge collaboration with SAAN.
Ranjeev Puri — Dichotomy of Activism within South Asian Generations
Newly-elected state Rep. Ranjeev Puri, D-Canton spoke about his identity in relation to politics, the importance of a culturally-competent campaign and the dangers of the monolithic South Asian political identity.
As the first person of color to represent the 21st District of Michigan, Puri walked through his campaign strategies to effectively reach older generations of the South Asian community in the diverse city of Canton through engagement with ongoing cultural and religious occasions. He delved into the inherent politics of “desi dinner parties,” and he expressed the need for getting those strong opinions at the dinner table out to the ballots.
Despite his status as the first Sikh-American in Michigan State Legislature, he drew a very necessary distinction in his political identity: “I’m not a South Asian legislator, I’m a legislator who happens to be South Asian.” He contended that in resisting the monolithic South Asian political identity, the diaspora must lean into the core values of our identities and experiences to then speak out to all people.
“To a lot of people,” he stated, “we are just brown,” but Puri said his rather progressive agenda got a lot of pushback from older Desi generations who have anti-Black Lives Matter, anti-pride and anti-immigrant sentiments. Puri explained that he understood these outdated attitudes to be rooted in their own respective experiences.
Through knowledge of struggle and feat, older generations of Desis taught younger ones to be good and do good in the society they are brought up in, Puri said. However, he encouraged younger generations to take charge of the political narratives in the South Asian diaspora by advocating for those same values for all people because “the (only) way we see our community succeed is when we see all communities succeed.”
Suneel Gupta — Finding Happiness in Your Work
As the final speaker of Saturday’s program, entrepreneur and author of his new book “Backable,” Suneel Gupta highlighted the difference between career and craft, only the former of which can be discovered on a LinkedIn profile.
He discussed a three-word framework for navigating through purpose and meaning in life: definition, devotion and detachment. He spoke about valuing character over reputation, prioritizing consistency over time and falling in love with the problem over its solution.
His perspective on finding your Dharma, or calling, hit home for many of the students as they continued to self-reflect on attachment to career-based identities in breakout sessions. Gupta suggested a familiar failure-embracing approach to finding happiness in your work, saying “the opposite of success is not failure, it’s boredom.”
He concluded with a workshop activity asking attendees to add something they want to learn in 2021 to a shared Google Document. After responses had stopped, he asked everyone to write their emails next to at least five items in the growing “To Learn List” that they could provide guidance for. As email links popped up next to statements like “I want to learn how to practice mindfulness” and “I want to learn how to speak another language,” attendees felt overwhelmed with how easy it had been to find guidance and seek out help. Members expressed their appreciation for the exercise and Gupta left them with one final push: “Let’s go do the things that make us feel alive.”
DAY 3: SUNDAY
Shivani Bafna — Sharing Your Authentic “Why” on Social Media
As the first speaker for Sunday’s program, influencer and University of Michigan alum Shivani Bafna talked about her unique journey in the entertainment industry and the role social media plays in it.
Originally a pre-med student, Shivani completely switched her career path as she realized what she really wanted to do. Soon after her graduation from the University in 2018, Bafna took the leap and moved to Mumbai, India, to pursue her career within Bollywood where she entirely immersed herself into industry work, from modeling to interviewing to creating social media content.
She turned to her social media platform to share her journey because as she said, “There are so many … experiences that we gloss over that are crucial to our journey.” She encouraged an awareness for all the steps that influence the journey — both the good and the bad. While she agrees that “what we share on social media is a curated highlight reel of the best wins of our lives,” she proposes more vulnerability in storytelling one’s journey online, sharing the equally influential failures along the way.
In the technology-driven age of ever-changing social media trends and followings, one breakout room dialogue debated the downsides to “making Instagram casual again.” Attendees also discussed the pressures that influencers like Bafna are faced with as she strives to tell her story and create a more empathetic space in the online world.
Rukmini Vijayakumar — Motivation, Inspiration and Consistency
Artistic director and professional solo dancer Rukmini Vijayakumar concluded the three-day program with her talk on finding inspiration and motivation as an independent artist.
She urged consistency as the foundation for her creative process, maintaining that it is “important to love the process and not the product of it.” “The process,” she continued, “becomes the biggest part” because once inspiration hits, she’s thinking about it all the time.
Vijayakumar recognized the importance of detachment from the product as she believes art to be extremely volatile: “We have our art in solitude, and when we share it, it becomes something else.” She encouraged the inner artists of the virtual audience to focus on what they can control physically. As a dancer, for Vijayakumar, this means keeping her fitness in check with yoga and counteracting any complacency by constantly questioning what she knows.
She opened up about the pressures of criticism from herself and from others advising against letting ego get in the way of growth. Attendees contemplated their relationship with different art forms in breakout rooms, and they found inspiration in Vijayakumar’s passion, hoping to make time for their own creative expression moving forward.
SAAN’s first virtual conference proved to be a huge success in its thought-provoking speaker events and intimate facilitator-led dialogues where attendees had a chance to talk with guest speakers directly. The SAAN team encourages further participation in inspiring and creating social change across the South Asian networks and beyond across their three branches: SAAN Creative, SAAN Active and SAAN Expressive.