Fighting stigma through personal narrative was one of the main themes at the South Asian Awareness Network conference held over the weekend.
Parents, alumni, college and high school students from around the country gathered in both Rackham Auditorium and the Michigan League to participate in the two-day event.
Titled “Threads: Connecting Our Voice, Our Truths, Our Selves,” the conference attracted over 300 attendees during its run from Friday night to Saturday afternoon. SAAN first launched the conference 13 years ago to foster discussion on social justice issues relevant to the South Asian community, such as Islamaphobia after 9/11. Since then, the event has evolved to address a broader spectrum of issues, such as mental health.
LSA senior Shaina Shetty, SAAN director and co-director of the conference, said it was a forum for productive discussion with regard to the South Asian community at the University and beyond.
“It was kind of an attempt to create a space for conversations that weren’t being had in the South Asian community,” Shetty said. “It was kind of a place to bring people together and start engaging with those issues with leaders in our communities.”
This year, “Threads” focused on personal stories from various members of the South Asian community, emphasizing the significance of individuals’ journeys and the relation to their identities.
Public Policy senior Raeesa Khan, co-director of SAAN and the conference, said the “Threads” theme diverged from previous iterations of the conference, which concentrated more on business and entrepreneurship. She added that the goal this year shifted toward social justice and activism.
“We’re trying to show participants that you can make some sort of change, whether that’s change at an individual level or a larger level within in your field regardless of whether you’re a doctor, lawyer or artist,” Khan said.
This year’s guests were activist Almas Haider, comedian Hari Kondabolu, actor and writer Sunny Tripathy, youth activist Saajan Bhakta, pediatric specialist Seema Jilani and Mahima Mahadevan, who works at the Education Policy Initiative at the Ford School.
Past SAAN conference speakers include University alum Sanjay Gupta, the CNN medical correspondent, Pepsi CEO Indra Nooyi and actor Kal Penn.
Each of the speakers presented their experiences with South Asian identity in a narrative form by providing stories and examples from their own lives.
Kondabolu, who performed the introductory act for “Threads,” addressed the importance of hosting an event like the SAAN conference because he feels that many young South Asians follow a tunnel vision to their career paths, and don’t have enough social justice awareness.
“They have their career path and some of it’s pressure from the parents and some of it’s from going to great schools,” Kondabolu said. “This isn’t all (South Asians), but … I think they forget the bigger issues and the context that they live in.
“Awareness is a minimal requirement to know what’s happening in the world and perhaps do something about it,” he added. “Every year I’m always impressed by (SAAN), even when I’m not invited. It’s not just one token event; it’s actually a commitment to justice.”
Tripathy, who is an actor and writer for a newly developed Fox show titled “Keeping Up with the Guptas,” said being the victim of a hate crime when he was 16 years old shaped his personal character and his future ambitions.
Tripathy was attacked by a neo-Nazi gang on the day of his prom and was left severely injured, with a broken clavicle that still protrudes today. Realizing his life could end any day, he began to work harder at his schooling and filmmaking, of which he became an avid fan after receiving a camcorder to document his sister’s childhood.
South Asians have such diverse subsections, Tripathy said, that that holding a conference like SAAN is necessary.
“(The South Asian community) needs its own voice,” Tripathy said. “It needs its own space and I think the more people know about our cultures, our ideas, our philosophies, they’ll see that we’re no different from anybody else.”
Bhakta, youth activist and CEO of the non-profit PovSolve, shared his narrative related to mental health — a topic he said is taboo in South Asian communities.
Bhakta, who was invited to the White House and honored by President Barack Obama, detailed how his own struggle with mental health, resulting from years of emotional abuse, inspired him to help his community.
“We’re a community and in order to make a difference we have to come together as a community and we have to be able to talk about sensitive issues like mental health and breaking stigmas,” Bhakta said.
Khan, the event co-director, said while the speakers were special, the subsequent group conversations were just as important — if not more so.
After each workshop, attendees split into small groups to discuss what they had heard and share their individual perspectives. These groups were comprised of 12 to 15 randomly selected students with two members of SAAN trained to help facilitate discussion about potentially sensitive and triggering issues.
Throughout the conference, members of the “Threads” Central Planning Team and small group facilitators continually emphasized the importance of a safe space for these conversations.
“The strengths of the small group is that the conference really tries to tap into different communities on campus and provide a space where all those narratives can be shared,” Shetty said.
“This is to build trust and to build a group of people that you become comfortable talking (to) about not only these issues, but, this year especially, your own personal narratives,” Khan added.
Two of the small group facilitators, LSA junior Amanda Ruesch and LSA sophomore Sidra Kader, said the conference left them feeling more challenged about their own perceptions of the issues at play.
“Facilitating is a (much) different role than participating,” Ruesch said “It challenges you and it actually makes you think a little bit more, just because you have to be the one to come up with questions to ask.”
Kader was not only a first-time facilitator, but also a first-time attendant of the conference. She said she liked delving deeper into the social issues that were presented at the conference, and felt empowered by her facilitator role.
“If I can be in control of this, well I can be in control of making the change we need to make and have improvements in society, which is the point of the conference, is it not?” Kader said.