Learning from ‘Our Voices’: how collaboration and radical optimism got us here
By Rory, on 22 November 2020
Our guest author Shuranjeet provides some reflections on why he thought a zine like ‘Our Voices’ was needed, how it helped him understand the complexities around collaboration, and how we can build on these lessons in the future when co-producing.
‘Our Voices’ is a zine on the topic of social isolation and loneliness across South Asian communities which was collated by myself, Shuranjeet, representing Taraki and Taimour, who represents Expert by Experience. Both organisations encourage discussion and action on the topic of mental health through an intersectional lens, Taraki specifically with Punjabi communities, and Expert by Experience with a focus on South Asian communities more broadly. Both editors view mental health as going beyond immediate biology, as something that is deeply interwoven within our social, economic, political, and environmental realities.
Spaces for Depth, Spaces for Breadth
After my experiences of mental health challenges whilst a student, I thought that there needed to be a shift in the narrative around mental health within the communities I was surrounded by throughout childhood. So, in October 2017 I started Taraki, a movement which alongside with Punjabi communities to reshape approaches to mental health.
Many people have commended Taraki and our work since we started, but a few have also outlined the importance of being ‘inclusive’ of communities who may not identify as Punjabi, to be broader as to encompass ‘South Asians’ or even ‘Black and minority ethnic communities’. My thought, as steering the ship of an organisation led entirely by volunteers (myself included), was that this would mean foregoing depth at the expense of breadth.
My belief is that assumptions about a policy or a solution that fit neatly into all communities speaks to some across the board but often omits those most under-served. My experiences tell me that those who benefit most from such policies are those whose voices have been historically amplified and privileged within these spaces more broadly, which only serves to perpetuate inequalities.
I did not want us to fall into such a trap. Working with Punjabi communities was and is complex enough, especially when you are aware of how identities may intersect across ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, caste, ability, and class. I was understandably reluctant, therefore, to expand Taraki’s immediate remit to include ‘everyone’ under a ‘broader’ umbrella.
“Let’s learn to take our first steps before we decide to run a marathon.”
When and where, then, is it appropriate to have these broader conversations? It was on a sombre evening in London in 2018 that the inspiration for ‘Our Voices’ emerged. I was asked to speak at the launch of ‘The Colour of Madness’, an anthology on Black and minority ethnic mental health collated by Rianna Walcott and Samara Linton. The anthology amplified the voices of so many across Black and minority ethnic communities in a way that seamlessly balanced both breadth and depth whilst confronting the political complexities at the heart of such labels. Whilst providing a platform for so many to talk about themselves and their experiences, the text and its amazing contributors did not look to generalise or erase nuance but show the beauty in how it can be presented.
The Colour of Madness proved to me that this balance was possible given the right time, place, and space. It proved to me that through meaningful collaboration, the experiences of marginalised and multiply marginalised folks can be set alongside one another without generalising the voices of some at the expense of the many. It was this seed which slowly grew into Our Voices.
Many dimensions of collaboration
As elaborated above, the idea of a cross-cultural space which did not perpetuate the very power we profess to protest was inspired by the Colour of Madness. As it sat on the backburner in my mind, I went about my daily life which has, and continues to comprise, of university work, Taraki work and other projects.
One day I had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Taimour and Expert by Experience. Taimour’s use of flowery emojis and conscientious language immediately drew me to the publication and its work. I exchanged messages and spoke with Taimour on several occasions; some discussions were sprawling, others focused, but generally it was, and still is, a lovely and thoughtful experience. Taimour’s approach to his work was different; he did not immediately ask to collaborate, nor was he overly focused on what we can ‘produce’, but it was really a chance to get to know one another.
Inevitably, the collaborative pieces emerged as I wrote a short article for Expert by Experience on the topic of body image. It was at this time that the Zine idea shifted from the backburner to the forefront of my mind. Taimour expressed interest in what was initially going to be a physical zine, but it ended up being one we would publish online available for everyone to read. We worked with each other, a group of inspirational contributors and an illustrator with a marvellous eye for colour and shape.
Fast forward several months later we published the zine ‘Our Voices’ after Taimour effortlessly communicated with contributors and was able to deal with my deep commitment to scheduling phone-calls and, ironically, being unable to properly manage my own diary.
My key reflection here, however, is on the importance of how the development of an ongoing relationship was key to this project coming to fruition. Taimour and myself did not start speaking with a view to ‘producing’ something – which, in my opinion, is something we have become fixated upon especially when reconciling our existence within a racialised neoliberal system. We spoke, and still speak, because we enjoy each other’s company and discussions. I definitely feel like I can make mistakes, reflect and grow unashamedly in our conversations, so it made complete sense to work together after crafting such a space.
“If we wanted to create an open, welcoming and reflective space in the publication, why not work together considering we already work towards this in our friendship?”
Looking to the future
Really pleased and proud of Taimour, Ananya who illustrated the Zine so brilliantly, and all contributors who courageously shared their experiences of social isolation and loneliness through creative means. Moving forwards, we want to continue showing that creative expressions, whether through photography or film, poetry or prose, dance or art, are all legitimate forms of communicating our lived experiences.
Spaces like ‘Our Voices’ build off the ground-breaking work of the Colour of Madness; these are processes years-long in the making. Such spaces look to provide a space for broad reflection and an appreciation for our differences as well as our similarities. In fostering an appreciation for both, we can look at challenges with an appreciation for complexity and a radical optimism that we can work towards a better world with all.