By: Razia Kosi, LCSW-C
Since 2007 I have attended the South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) Summit in DC. This amazing organization has coordinated the event every two years, there have been a total of four previous summits. This year’s gathering came on the heels of another horrific tragedy in our country, the bombings at the Boston Marathon on Patriot’s Day. This year, this summit meant more than a conference, we needed to come together in community.
Those who know me are aware that I am always singing the praises of SAALT’s work guided by the leadership of Deepa Iyer and collaboratively implemented by the staff I’ll lovingly refer to as the Saaltines. They are fierce, strong, brilliant, and, at the heart, amazing individuals. They help us build a bridge of dialogue between and among South Asian organizations, government agencies, funders, policy makers and ultimately bring together people who might have never met to learn about each other’s struggles and triumphs. We are reignited to move to action as active and engaged South Asian Americans working towards equity for all of our communities. In this blog I will explore different voices in our community and bringing art in our work.
Deepa challenged us at the start of the first day of the summit to go to workshops that you might not have a great deal of knowledge about. I chose to take this challenge to heart and attended a session titled: Inclusivity of Indo Caribbean and Diaspora Communities in the South Asian Narrative. The panelists were leaders from, Jahajee Sisters (www.jahajeesisters.org), Indo-Caribbean Alliance (www.indocaribbean.org), the South Asian Lesbian Gay Association of NYC (SALGA-NYC), and Sakhi for Women (www.sakhi.org), and they represented, Jamaican, Guyanese, LGTB, New Yorkers and layers of additional identities. One message that strongly came through was that the stories of the Indo-Caribbean community are not the same narrative of immigrants from South Asia from the past fifty years. The history of Indo-Caribbean narrative began over 150 years ago when great-grandparents left the country of India and worked as indentured laborers on the islands. The India they left may have become one of the countries now comprising South Asia. Meanwhile the people in the countries of Trinidad-Tobago, Guyana, Jamaica and other islands developed their own language, food, music and culture that was a more Creolized mix of the island and her people. The panelists voiced that their experienced has been marginalized twice, once on the countries from the Caribbean and again within the South Asian American community. As one panelist expressed, “The “litmus” test of how well one ties a sari, speaks a South Asian language or “properly” pronounces South Asian words, and never having visited the “country of origin” (referring to one of the South Asian countries) has created a barrier to Indo-Caribbeans feeling included in the South Asian narrative.”
I began to reflect on my own relationships with people from the Indo-Caribbean community. Growing up, I attended an Islamic Sunday school which met in Rockville. My friends were from all
parts of the globe. I made friends with Zori, whose father was from Trinidad, and whose mother was Native American and converted to Islam when she married Zori’s father. They even had a “love” marriage, which back then was rarely heard of among my parents’ generation. Her father spoke English with the lilt of an accent that flowed with the waves of the warm ocean. He was neither a doctor nor an engineer; he sold insurance, which made him even more different than the other families we knew. Her family seemed more fun, full of music and had fewer restrictions. They wore trendy American clothes at Eid instead of the conspicuous South Indian clothes I was forced to wear. They were “cooler” than my family, with a mix of foreign and familiar. I knew from seeing pictures of her grandparents, that they were originally from India, and yet I had already begun to “exoticize” Zori and her family. Of course I didn’t realize that was what I was doing at the time. We were friends, and our families would get together for the Islamic celebrations, but as more people immigrated to the U. S. my parents found more Tamilians and Indian Muslims and her family found more Indo-Caribbean Muslims to socialize with. Our friendships drifted apart. Since then I have met a few more Indo-Caribbean in different settings and contexts. I would like to extend an invitation and also make an intent to bring the Indo-Caribbean perspective into our work with CHAI.
A powerful session that I was excited to attend was one on “Bringing Art Into the Struggle.” I’ve always been intrigued by the creative energy of artists and how they can bring forth an honesty to their work that connects all of us on a raw human level. This session upheld all expectations and again addressed who might be on the margins. The artists who shared a sampling of their art and about themselves were, D’Lo
(www.dlocokid.com), YalaniDream (www.yalaniDream.com), Gowri Koneswaran (www.notherelong.wordpress.com), DJ Rehka (www.djrekha.com/basementbhangra.html), and Pushkar Sharma (www.brownstarrevolution.com/northstar.html). From comedy, bhangra, film, poetry to spoken word, these artists were able to express with great passion and profound clarity on issues that are plaguing the community from a political level or grounded in a very personal perspective. Artists in our community are brilliant and bring an opportunity for us to engage in the work we do from a creative perspective. As activists and from a mental health perspective, we can work to create a healing space that is safe, free of judgment and unleashes the creative juice flowing within each and everyone of us.
This blog is just one in a series that will be posted about the SAALT summit and the other blogs will highlight the mental health response to the Oak Creek Community after the August 5th attack at a gurdwara, a summary on the workshop on self-care for activists, how to include men in the movement to end violence against women and gender inequities, supporting refugees and new immigrants in our community and musings from one our CHAI board members who attended the SAALT Summit for the first time. Stay tuned as more guest bloggers contribute their voice about the SAALT Summit.