Bridging Divides Through Education

As someone who holds queer, gender deviating, Muslim, and first generation Bangladeshi-American identities (among others), being considered unusual is common. Having conversations that include the statements, “Yes, a person can be Muslim and queer at the same time,” or “Of course, South Asian transgender people exist,” are a regular part of my life. Though these exchanges can be trying at times, I have come to realize that they are a huge necessity. Only by connecting with one another through understanding of each other’s truths can solidarity between individuals be forged. Only by educating one another can community be built.

Thus, education is often on my mind, though not in the most obvious sense. I think not of the institutions typically associated with education, not the schools or universities, but the idea of spreading knowledge and understanding through populations in less structured environments. I wonder how stories can be shared and community built without the support of larger systems to create channels of communication. As referenced above, individual conversations can be powerful tools for community building, but as someone who is a both part of and works within South Asian LGBTQ communities, I am often searching for ways of reaching more people, more efficiently.

Enter the Young Leader’s Institute (YLI), hosted by South Asians Leading Together (SAALT), which I attended in 2014. The opportunity is one that that I don’t often come across; I was able not only to gain practical knowledge on doing advocacy work in marginalized communities, but was also connected with professionals involved in justice work and given space to share experiences with peers. It was deeDSC_0035ply fulfilling to be in an intentional space with a clear focus on LGBTQ justice and allyship. After various trainings on issues ranging from the effect of colonialism on gender norms in South Asia to methods for completing projects, the importance of particular issues became clear to me.

Sharing truths, creating understanding, and reaching across difference were themes that came up again and again over the three days of the Institute. Here, it seemed, was the issue with which I had been grappling: how to spread awareness and better serve communities by understanding their specific needs. With the guidance of SAALT staff and in partnership with Satrang, a South Asian nonprofit that serves LGBTQ communities based in Southern California, I decided to focus my efforts on building allyship trainings focused on the needs of South Asian LGBTQ-identified people.

The allyship trainings are a series of six to eight workshops that will be held over a six month period, and will target professionals and other groups that work with South Asian LGBTQ communities, such as immigration lawyers, social workers, journalists, medical professionals, and possibly student groups. The trainings consist of an overview of South Asian LGBTQ history and relevant current issues within these communities and a more general section on LGBTQ-related terminology and concepts. The idea is to give people working with Desi LGBTQ-identified people the tools to better understand their needs and ultimately better serve these communities. In conjunction with the trainings, I am working to develop a resource toolkit. Resources, such as literature on gender identity and needs assessment research on South Asian LGBTQ communities, will be both handed out at trainings and available on Satrang’s website so they are accessible to those who are unable to attend trainings.

Thus far, the project has proven both challenging and rewarding as I focus on developing the training curriculum. Reaching out to individuals and organizations involved in LGBTQ justice work has proven very helpful, not just in completing the project but in helping to develop my own approach to allyship. Often, when one thinks of allyship, the gist is to support individuals with different identities than your own. However, I have come to realize that it is important to be an ally to one’s own community. For me, that means educating myself on the needs of folks in my personal and professional life and using whatever skills I possess to improve conditions for others. Though I can’t work in immigration and the media and the medical field, I can give the people who do work in those fields and those who regularly work with South Asian LGBTQ communities a better understanding of how to do so. And that, I believe, can ultimately make a real impact.


Pia Ahmed
Young Leaders Institute Fellow, 2014