April 7, 2013

Cornell South Asian Council Marks Inauguration

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On Sunday, the South Asian Council was officially inaugurated as the fifth umbrella organization — an organization that provides funding and support to its member organizations — under the African Latino Asian Native American Students Programming Board.

In addition to the SAC, ALANA includes Black Students United, La Asociacion Latina, Native American Students at Cornell and the Cornell Asian and Pacific Islander Student Union. Each organization receives an allotment of University funding.

Before the establishment of the SAC, organizations affiliated with South Asian students fell under CAPSU, according to Karan Javaji ’14, vice president of ALANA and the first president of SAC. However, the major cultural differences between the South Asian community — commonly described as including India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bangladesh and Nepal — and the rest of the Asian community always led to a level of disengagement with respect to South Asian students, Javaji said.

“The South Asian community never really engaged with the Pan-Asian community,” Javaji said. “It has to be very organic; you can’t just expect a community to identify with another community.”

The idea of creating a specific South Asian Council was born in Spring 2012, when South Asian leaders on campus met to discuss issues facing the community and brainstorm how to move forward, according to Javaji.

“The consensus at the meeting was that there should be an umbrella organization for the South Asian community,” he said.

The plans for the council were met with the University’s support from the very beginning, according to Javaji. However, it was still “a very political situation” at that point in time, due to the potentially divisive nature of breaking off from CAPSU, he said.

“A lot of sections of the Cornell community thought that this might be seen as a breakaway from the Asian community and might have huge racial implications,” Javaji said. “We began talking with CAPSU and [the Asian & Asian American Center]. At first, they weren’t very supportive of the idea, but it was a very strong community movement.”

However, students started to see that the formation of a separate council for South Asian students was “a step towards integrating with the multicultural community” rather than “a breakaway from the Asian community,” according to Jivaji.

“There wasn’t anything to break away from in the first place,” he added.

Wei Yang ’14, former president of CAPSU, echoed Javaji’s sentiments.

“Initially, it was a very complex issue for both members of CAPSU and members of the South Asian Council to grapple with,” Yang said. “One of the core issues that CAPSU has been dealing with in the past few years is [the notion that] ‘There is only one type of Asian,’ when the actual Asian and Asian-American community is completely diverse.”

Yang said the proposal for a South Asian Council brought these concerns to the forefront, challenging the notion that the Asian and Asian-American community is homogenous.“It’s not about the splitting-off from the Asian and Asian-American community or any kind of separation from the larger community, but recognizing that there are specific issues in the South Asian community that we need to devote more resources to,” Yang said.

Though University funding for the SAC will not be discussed until next spring, the inauguration marks an accomplishment for internal community-building among the South Asian community on campus, according to Javaji.

In the past year, the South Asian community has informally joined together for events such as a vigil honoring a highly publicized rape victim in New Delhi and a “Chai and Chat” that drew more than 150 people to discuss the SAC’s planned vision. More events, including workshops and documentary screenings, are planned for this week, according to Javaji.

“It really seems that SAC and its member organizations are really committed to making it successful,” said Olivia Obodoagha ’15, an ALANA ambassador who was involved in the SAC inauguration event. Obodoagha also mentioned that the inauguration of SAC, including a fashion show and cultural performances, exemplified a new way of launching ALANA programming — by featuring cultural events, rather than hosting a talk or a lecture.

Mariyah Ahmad ’13, former president of the Pakistani Students’ Association, and Nipun Bhandari ’13, former president of the Society for India, also were involved in establishing the SAC and say they have high hopes for the new umbrella organization.

“There was a dire need for an organization that represented South Asian interests and a resource that South Asians could turn to in times of need,” Ahmad said. “Though CAPSU is doing a phenomenal job at representing Asian interests, the fact that most South Asians do not self-identify as ‘Asian’ resulted in the South Asian population not utilizing the resources offered by CAPSU. The SAC was formed to fill this gap, to raise awareness of the South Asian region and to provide a support system for South Asian individuals.”

Bhandari agreed, saying the SAC will give voice and presence to future South Asian leaders.

“The SAC has the potential to serve the South Asian community in a variety of ways: advocacy, emotional and financial support, cultural promotion [and] educational opportunities,” he said.

The inauguration event also served as the kickoff to South Asian awareness week, featuring a fashion show, a performance by Tarana, the South Asian a cappella group on campus, and a gallery of South Asian art and photography.

Original Author: Noah Rankin