Drifting Across Desi Youth: Youth Activists Reflect on Social Justice, Resistance and Solidarity

Last summer, three South Asian American youth camps took place across the country over the same weekend in August: Bay Area Solidarity Summer (BASS) in Oakland, CA, Chicago Desi Youth Rising (CDYR) in Chicago, IL and East Coast Solidarity Summer (ECSS) in New York City, NY. Though organized by different collectives, each with a unique curriculum, all three camps shared a central focus on social justice and activism. In an effort to collaborate long-distance, camp organizers asked their youth participants to collectively define three key concepts in a reflection activity inspired by the feminist social center La Eskalera Karakola in Madrid called the “drift.” Participants were asked to define “social justice,” “resistance,” and “solidarity,” in their own language and on their own terms, both at the beginning and end of their camp experience. Below is a summary of responses from two locations, along with reflections on the camp experience.

 

BAY AREA SOLIDARITY SUMMER (BASS), Oakland, CA

Collated and written by BASS 2014 youth participants 

with support from BASS 2014 core organizers

 

It’s year four of BASS. Oakland. We’ve assembled from across the Bay Area and as far as the East Coast. There are twenty of us, half still in high school, the other half in college. Our backgrounds are diverse in ethnicity, religion, culture, and class. Most of us have little to no knowledge of the history of South Asian resistance in the United States, but all of us are more than willing to discover our roots and define our own narratives together. After learning about the history of BASS and its inspirational source tracing back to New York’s Youth Solidarity Summer launched in 1996, we review our itinerary. We’re going to cover our radical diasporic histories, think through race, caste and Islamophobia together, engage the politics of gender, sex, and sexuality, and reflect on the current ecological crisis. But most importantly we’re going to learn organizing tools like messaging, building a campaign strategy, planning direct actions - and we’re going to apply these skills in real time through mock campaigns. The main themes of the camp: neoliberalism/capitalism and intersectionality/solidarity. Some of us are already wondering how is this all going to be possible in just five days. Five days. Fasten seat belt time.

 

At the beginning of the camp, when we started sharing in circle, several of us spoke about the first concept—social justice—as having to do with creating access for all, having to do with equality, whether race, ethnicity, religion, class, caste, gender, sexuality. Out of the three categories this one seemed to mean more or less the same thing to most of us, though we didn’t talk about it in specific ways. For the second concept—solidarity—many of us hadn’t even heard the word before camp. The few of us that had some ideas thought it was about “being supportive to other groups” or working towards a cause or issue with others. Some expressed that solidarity was necessary because our struggles were “similar” or “shared” with others, while others thought solidarity was “extending support because it was the right thing to do.” Regardless, we all felt the absence of solidarity within and across South Asian youth. That’s why we were here at BASS, creating this possibility for each other. Finally, the third concept—resistance—meant a lot of different things to us. It was about “speaking up,” “standing up for ourselves,” “reclaiming our identities,” “working towards solutions,” doing small everyday things that “challenged the status quo.” Those of us with a little more experience talked about it as “challenging norms,” “taking direct action,” and “countering oppressive forces.” 

 

There were no right answers. In fact it was pretty clear that we didn’t have to have any answers. That wasn’t the point. We were simply invited to ask questions to each other to see where we might go. 

 

By the end of the camp, some of us found that we went quite far. We crossed the biggest distance when our responses became less individualistic and more collective-oriented. Our initial ideas about resistance and social justice were about individual resistance, such as breaking stereotypes in our social circles, challenging patriarchy in our families or even deconstructing the power structures that had taken over our minds. And this understanding definitely changed by end of camp. We were starting to understand resistance as ongoing, long-term, not just about how we stood up for ourselves at home or at school, but with others on a much larger scale. And -- resistance was not just what we were against, but what we were for! Our ideas and definitions also got more specific. For example, when discussing social justice at the end of camp, we spoke about it in relation to the injustice of the caste system in India. Resistance was not just about the personal, it now had a feel and history to it, it flowed through our blood, connecting us with struggles that came before us. It looked like the South Asian and non-South Asian Berkeley High School students who allied with each other after September 11th, it looked like the San Francisco-based Ghadar Party that organized to overthrow the British in India while embracing a spirit of worker solidarity and internationalism. And it was even starting to look like us, especially after we presented our mock campaigns against, for example, the recent election of Hindu Nationalist Narendra Modi as Prime Minister of India or against militarized police trainings like Urban Shield in Oakland. 

 

And as for solidarity, well, our understanding of it got much more complicated than thinking about it as just support. We got clear that it was definitely not charity. It is about connecting the dots between struggles that were far away and “at home.” It is about being together in struggle, recognizing our struggles in the struggles of others, and coming together to resist. Solidarity was about a “horizontal, not a vertical” kind of caring, about understanding how struggles were interconnected and where we were, in it all. It wasn’t about speaking for the struggles of others; it was about listening to them, listening to each other, and then figuring out how to move forward, together. 

 

A match was lit and a new fire courses through our veins now, a fire we hope to keep burning by continuing to build with each other, think and act together. For many of us, solidarity looked like BASS 2014 and the possibilities of shared political action that might emerge from now being connected. 

 

 

CHICAGO DESI YOUTH RISING, Chicago, CA

Collated and written by CDYR 2014 core organizers 

in conversation with CDYR 2014 youth participants

 

On August 8, 2014, eleven South Asian youth and five adult community members gathered in a small room on the ground floor of the Chicago Institute of Cultural Affairs, a building rich with a history of support for community organizing, particularly for communities marginalized by race and class. We were gathered together for the first-ever Chicago Desi Youth Rising (CDYR) youth activist camp, an opportunity to immerse ourselves in progressive issues and build community. We shook hands with one another, exchanged names and introductions, and silently took our seats around a circle. As participants filed into the room, we began our first activity: “the drift,” inspired by our friends at Bay Area Solidarity Summer. This was a space where no one knew much about each other, and yet we started off by challenging each other to share ideas on complex and personal terms; an unorthodox and ultimately effective ice breaker.

                

The “drift” was the first and last activity of the retreat; during both sessions, participants wrote on color-coded pieces of paper and responses were then placed on a large piece of butcher paper, so answers could be compared side-by-side. On the first day, before we began formal workshops, many of us said “equality” for social justice, “togetherness” for solidarity, and “protest” for resistance. By the end of the retreat, our definitions were not so distinct. Many of the words we used to define resistance and solidarity became part of our definition for social justice. We defined “social justice” as “standing up, fighting back, giving voice” and “collective liberation.”

 

One activity that illustrated this evolution in thinking was a panel discussion about social change in which organizers and activists talked about their personal motivations and experiences. After the panel, we divided into smaller groups and tasked us with crafting a campaign, utilizing a consensus model to find an issue. Tellingly, many of us chose issues outside a specific South Asian context including Native American rights and the Israel/Palestine conflict. We were influenced by the South Asian History workshop from earlier in the day, which emphasized how South Asian activism was born from transnational interactions around the globe and a shared sense of justice and equality. These were inspiring frameworks to draw from, and instilled a sense of duty in how we imagined shaping the world. Thus, throughout the weekend, social justice, solidarity, and resistance came to inform and create meanings for one another in ways we had not previously understood. While these three terms were once somewhat easily definable aspects of activism, they now became clear action steps toward change.

 

The drift activity also provided a vital point of reflection for the CDYR organizers. Ultimately, for organizers, our goal was to have the weekend camp to serve as a jumping off point for action, but the drift exercise taught us that many of the assumptions we have about politicization, social action, and justice are based in individual understandings, and don’t necessarily speak to a collective vision or shared meaning. In order to move toward action we had to first find common ground. By employing the drift activity we took a substantive step toward reconciling these concepts as a group, and thinking about what a shared vision might look like. As we think about the ways we will engage our participants post retreat, and hope for tangible campaigns, actions, and work we think about these terms, and how we might tackle topics like police brutality and campus violence based on these conceptions.

 

 

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