Participant builds safe space for South Asian youth

Jshandeep Jassal knows what it means to struggle as a South Asian youth. Growing up in North Delta and Surrey, the SFU Community Capacity Building program participant recalls feeling frustrated by negative stereotypes and narratives. At the same time, she recognized that problems she saw in her community—substance abuse, alcoholism, family dysfunction—were issues that troubled many other community members. 

As co-director of the non-profit Solid State Community Industries, Jshandeep already works with racialized youth. But through the SFU program, she’s gaining the knowledge and support she needs to launch a new effort: the SAH peer support network for South Asian youth. SAH stands for South Asian Healing, but sah also means “breathe” in Punjabi.

“The name speaks to the whole idea of creating a safe space for South Asian youth to just breathe and be able to talk about issues facing our community,” says Jshandeep. “It will be a space where we don’t have to feel we have to be representatives of South Asians. Often, as a racialized person you go into the world and have to be this role model and represent your race, and that’s really heavy.”

Traditionally, the stigma of discussing issues like mental health or substance abuse has made it even harder for youth to reach out for help, she explains. The idea for the peer support network was inspired by Jshandeep’s close relationship with a friend she’s known since childhood. Realizing that they shared similar personal and community concerns, the two have long found solace in confiding to one another. Through group meetings and social activities, SAH hopes to provide that support to youth who don’t have anyone else to lean on.

“Our overall goal is to create this normalization of the healing process,” explains Jshandeep. “We want to change our cultural mindset on what healing is. Rather than looking at mental health as seeing something wrong with a person, we want people to see that a person is actually strong because they’re taking control of their wellbeing. It’s a cultural shift.”

Having recently completed her bachelor’s degree at SFU, Jshandeep was expecting another formal online learning experience in the Community Capacity Building program. But she was pleasantly surprised by the energy of the live virtual classes.

“I’ve never experienced anything like this before, and I had to do a lot of unlearning in order to make space to learn in different ways,” she says. “Everyone has come to the program with this willingness to unlearn assumptions, learn about different ways of being in the world. Sometimes when I leave class, I feel like I just had a three-hour therapy session. It’s been really beautiful.”

The program has opened Jshandeep’s eyes to different ways of facilitating groups and creating safe spaces, which she says will be invaluable for her work at SAH. As an added bonus, she’s made some lasting connections within her cohort. One classmate has even joined her as a member of the SAH project.

“You’re around all these amazing community workers or people in community,” says Jshandeep. “I don’t think there’s another space like this for community workers to network in the same way.”

By Kim Mah