A fundamental component of the battle against the inequalities we see on campus, big or small, is awareness. Awareness of our environment. Awareness of the way we think. Awareness of the people around us and the steps we can take to ensure a healthy and supportive community. And yet, vague words like “awareness,” “community” and “social justice” can trick people into thinking these issues have nothing to do with them. What does awareness really entail? One could argue it is as simple as acknowledging the existence of another human being or social identity. Fortunately, conversations that have been happening on campus have proven this to be completely false. You can see it all around campus: From classrooms to dorm rooms to bus stops, people have been talking about things like Theta Xi, #BBUM and #UMMockEviction. The reality is that these issues affect everyone, regardless of your background.

These issues are microcosms of larger, global issues: Theta Xi’s appropriation of black culture is an example of the appropriation of minority group’s cultures, #BBUM tackled the lack of cultural sensitivity and inclusivity on an institutional level, and #UMMockEviction drew attention to Palestinians being forcibly removed from their homes, raising awareness about the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although knowledge of these events and conversations can be thought-provoking and raise questions, simply knowing is not enough. In my eyes, the next step is entering into a conversation to hear other peoples perspectives, and luckily for me, I found a platform to do that through SAAN, the South Asian Awareness Network.

I began working with SAAN during the first semester of my junior year as a small group facilitator for the annual conference in January. A good friend of mine was one of the committee chairs and encouraged me to apply. After going through the application and interview process, I was fortunate enough to be offered one of the 30 facilitator positions. From there, things began to change. At the start I felt out of place, holding varying degrees of understanding on the concepts that we were discussing. It made me uncomfortable to see my lack of awareness, but slowly, I began to engage my discomfort and see how it could be a learning experience. And I began to grow.

Finding a comfort zone on this campus can be tricky, and finding a space where you’re just uncomfortable enough to know you’re growing can be even harder. The SAAN Conference works to provide both the former and the latter. Entering into a space with a large group of people who may be strangers and who are from radically different backgrounds can be intimidating. But over the course of two days, people are able to navigate their ways to growth and deeper understanding.

What I most enjoy about the SAAN Conference is exactly this: being able to learn and grow as an individual with completely new people, all while engaging in dialogue about relevant social justice topics. Although conversations about such issues shouldn’t end with dialogue — in fact, to me, dialogue represents just one phase of a cyclical process — having these conversations about identities and issues can lead to compassion and even to action for a greater cause. I invite you all to join us as we start on this path toward a more supportive, empathetic and involved campus. Through the SAAN Conference, we hope to engage our participants in a way that challenges their thinking, as well as expose them to new ideas and bring them to new levels of awareness and understanding with regard to themselves and the world around them. What happens then? Our hope is that participants can then take this new knowledge and understanding into their daily lives and, if they so choose, actively engage in conversation, action and change.

This year’s conference, titled “Panorama: Capturing Change Through the Lens of Culture,” will be held January 17th and 18th. Register now and learn more at umsaan.umich.edu.

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