At the South Asian Network (SAN) we work with youth and older South Asian people to engage them in dialogues on racism, violence within the family, and immigration. We look at how policies on these issues impact the community. The question is, how do we do that so that the community feels a sense of entitlement and ownership?
A lot of it also has to do with storytelling. Policy is often seen like this artificial thing out there, something you hear about on TV. But if you hear a personal story, it’s easier to make
connections to your own life. If you gather a group of people who have their own stories to share, they may challenge each other’s existing assumptions and understand how their issues are related. Popular education is not just about developing a formal curriculum but more about opening the space for sharing stories. It’s a place to have people share and talk about their experiences, our vision for ourselves and our communities, or policies we need.
We know one leader doesn’t have all the answers in the movement. In popular education the traditional foundation of teacher and student is put aside. Instead we learn from each others stories. We then reflect on our own experiences as a community, do our own analysis, and move forward together. This process ensures that we are critical and develop an action plan together, so that people are not excluded or marginalized or a small group of people are making the decisions.
Taking on Homophobia and Sexism Head-On
At SAN we provide a space for immigrants to talk about the experiences back home and connect them to how they experience repression here. About 3 years ago, we took a step back because there were issues that we needed to talk about— homophobia and sexism. SAN is already open to bringing out the issues, but we realized we needed to do more. We needed to build in resources to identify and address some of the key issues of the queer community. We got together some folks from SATRANG, a queer South Asian group, and others from the community who cared about building a space for queer South Asian folk and allies.
We spoke individually with all staff and board members about their comfort level with queer issues and whether SAN should move forward on addressing these concerns in our work. First we conducted three trainings and dialogues to provide a space for people to talk about how they grew up, messages around gender, immigration rights, and all the different things that impact us around sexual orientation.
We decided we needed to build internal capacity to address issues on civil rights, discrimination, and health access, particularly in terms of the needs of the queer South Asian community locally. Collaborating with SATRANG, we started the Southern California South Asian Queer Community Health Assessment. We distributed materials at public events and collected surveys on health and wellness. We were basically asking the community, “What are things that are needed in terms of social support?” Now we are in the process of collecting the results of the surveys, incorporating the findings, and trying to make changes in our curriculum organizationally.
For those of us who are immersed in this work, we are constantly trying to analyze without allowing ourselves to look internally. We don’t have a chance to look at ourselves historically and say that this has happened to me. We walk around sometimes really mad and frustrated; you feel like a robot and you have to perform. Popular education can help us heal these frustrations. An example is one of the pieces from the BRIDGE curriculum. You reflect on the generations of women in your family— what did your mom do and what did your grandmother experience? Tools like that help us to step back and share what happened.
For us to be able to move forward we need to be able to vocalize our own oppressions. If you hold it in, you are constantly feeling worse. If you vocalize it, it creates a sense of relief. You find that other people share or understand that historical background. Then you’re not in it for yourself since others have similar stories. That’s where the potential to heal lies— because you’re not the only one. People can share the injustices that they’ve dealt with and move on to the next step. Our clients have told us that when they share their stories, they feel that they are not alone, that this is not just randomly happening to them. They connect with each other and find comfort where they’ve had a release. They are then no longer suffering in silence but are out there and talking to people in the community.
Popular Education and Movement Building
Popular education relies on creating a sense of solidarity in order to organize and mobilize a community. There always have to be spaces to connect at that human level to know that you’re really in solidarity, not just the political analysis. If you don’t have sensitivity within a group of people, there’s no healing, and then people don’t have space to be regarded as anything but a number. Unless people are able to connect on that human level, there is no movement.
In terms of movement building popular education needs to be encouraged more. In LA I don’t enter into a lot of spaces where it is about popular education. Having more spaces for training and where people can talk about some of the missing pieces in our work is crucial to moving forward. One of the challenges occurs within movements. We are also impacted by outside society, so there are still a lot of hierarchies and divisions within the progressive community. We need a space to step back to see how external factors also play out within our community.
Popular education is a long term process. It would change the pace of work and the kind of work we do. Just challenging one policy often distracts us from the work of doing community education or creating forums for the community. It happens in my work— we focus on responding to hate crimes, employment & housing discrimination, workers’ rights— and that’s important work. But popular education methodologies urge us to take the time we need to share, heal, and move forward together.
Based on an Interview with Joyti Chand, South Asian Network, Artesia, CA by Diana Pei Wu, National Network for Immigrant and Refugee Rights, Oakland, CA
Joyti Chand is a Community Rights Advocate in the Civil Rights Unit at South Asian Network, based in Artesia, Southern California.