Sarah Dharshi is a colleague of mine who has been an advocate for the #MakeItAwkward campaign as well as mental health issues. She’s unwavering in her belief that everyone is entitled to feeling safe and valued, even in the face of adversity. I wanted to take some time to revisit the #MakeItAwkward campaign and remind the world that both discrimination and mental health are still at the forefront of issues we need to address as a society.
Kayle: Earlier in the year I mentioned #MakeItAwkward in an article about racism, but it’s more than that, isn’t it?
Sarah: Although the #MakeItAwkward campaign was created in response to an act of racism, we work to draw awareness to all types of bigotry including racism, homophobia, sexism/misogyny, xenophobia, ableism, etc. We're essentially here to call out bullies, hold them accountable for their actions, educate them, and maybe act as a catalyst for positive change if the individual is receptive to the idea of it.
How has the reception been to the campaign? Have you noticed much of a change so far?
S: The reception to the campaign has been primarily positive – we have seen an enormous amount of traction from the hashtag and have received support from the likes of various small businesses, schools, fellow anti-bigotry campaigns and even from the Prime Minister himself! In terms of change, I have sensed a shift in mentality amongst people I interact with. The entire premise of our movement is to stimulate seemingly uncomfortable yet necessary dialogue about these human rights issues and although the views stated in conversations that surround me don't always align with mine, actually discussing these topics and bringing them to light shows me that we're on the right path. We cannot eradicate bigotry unless we acknowledge it and educate ourselves – these small steps are so crucial in our quest for social justice.
How can we as individuals help force an impact from this campaign?
S: In order for individuals to create an impact, all I can do is encourage conversation. If you feel strongly about a human rights topic or initiative, do all of the research you can so that when you find yourself engaging in conversation regarding these issues you're prepared. Don't shy away from the tough topics. Ask questions, stand up for what is right, educate people, and try to understand why they feel the way that they do. Maintaining composure through these uncomfortable conversations is extremely taxing but is necessary. On a more hands-on level than speaking up, attend protests and charitable events, donate your time or funds to worthwhile causes, and be the very best ally you can be by reaching out. You can't make an impact without action.
Being a woman as well as a minority, you are someone who can be on the front end of many forms of intolerance. Was there an event or occurrence which inspired you to take action?
S: As a woman of colour, I am often subject to various forms of intolerance. The most memorable occurrence did not happen in the workplace but as I was simply crossing the street this summer. I was crossing between 107 Street
and Jasper Avenue when two men leaned out of their truck windows at the
crosswalk and yelled, “Hey babe, take your top off for us!” along with other
obscenities. Me, being the person as I am, walked over to the car and
politely but firmly said to them “You cannot speak to women or anyone that way.
I am a person, not an object.” One of them hopped out of the car carrying a
water bottle, which he subsequently poured all over me. He got back into
the car and his friend sped away, as he yelled “Suck my dick, slut!”
This situation obviously didn't sit well for me and I took to Facebook to share my story and opinion on the matter. I received an overwhelming amount of support, including over 200 Facebook shares and over 40 messages from strangers who had been subject to similar misogynist treatment in our city but were afraid to speak up. One of these people connected me with Jesse Lipscombe (#MIA founder) who reached out to me about the incident. After a long chat and discussion about social justice, he asked me to join the team and the rest is history.
Okay, hypothetical: I’m at my next family occasion and one of my uncles says something mildly racist while trying to be funny. Is that where we should step up and say something? If not then, in what circumstance should we step up?
S: In my opinion, hell yes call out the casually racist uncle! There's no need to spark animosity or a full-blown food fight but I would recommend explaining the concept of microaggressions to him and providing examples of ways that his words could be harmful in other settings. Turn it into a learning experience for everyone and if he's still skeptical, ask him what drove him to use those words in specific. It may be awkward but hey, at least you'll come out of it with a new family dinner story.
Your experience extends beyond the campaign; you’re also an advocate for speaking up about mental illness. Why did you begin to speak publicly about your issues?
S: I decided to publicly speak up about mental illness once I realized that I had been blessed with this incredible platform to be publicly honest about the things that matter. I have struggled with high-functioning anxiety and clinical depression for years and I was afraid to speak up because I was worried that it would lead to people distancing themselves from or judging me. I am now in a place in my life where I can be proud of myself, flaws and all. Being honest about my mental illness has provided me with an entire support system that I didn't even know existed and it prompted me to seek medical therapy which has allowed me to live my life to it’s fullest and most productive extent.
My personal relationships have flourished since allowing myself to be vulnerable about my mental health issues, I feel like the important people in my life are finally able to understand me and what I'm going through. Speaking publicly has proven to be therapeutic for me and I hope that my experiences can help others seek the help they need too.
I don’t know if anyone can ever truly rid themselves of all mental illness, but they can be treated and kept at bay enough not to disrupt daily life. Having had to overcome your own mental health issues, what do you do to ensure a healthy mindset?
S: I don't think I've overcome all of my issues but I have definitely learned to balance them. In order to stay mentally healthy, I rely on the support of friends, family, work colleagues and my boyfriend. In turn, being honest with them and discussing my feelings candidly is extremely important in order to receive help. Dance is both a physical and artistic outlet for me and has been alleviating my depression for as long as I can remember. I eat as healthily as possible and stay diligent with my weekly fitness routine that consists of spin classes, dance and weight training. I have an incredible mental health therapist who I schedule sessions with whenever I can, and most importantly I ensure I set aside at least one hour of personal time to be alone and reflect every single day. Having a high level of productivity has always contributed to my mental health in extremely positive ways so finding the balance between staying busy while also finding time to relax, eat and sleep well is what's always been important to me.
What advice would you pass on to individuals currently suffering mentally?
S: If you are suffering mentally, do not be afraid to seek help. Whether it’s from a mental health professional, a friend, a family member or a mentor; find someone you trust and talk to them. You are not alone and mental health is nothing to be ashamed of. You are a warrior – take it day by day, develop a routine that will contribute to your personal happiness, speak to the people you trust and remember to breathe. It always gets better but taking the first step is on you.
Many thanks to Sarah for taking the time to shed light on societal issues as well as her own mental health. Courage is something within us all, and I want Concordia to rise up together and make the changes we wish to see in the world. Value the differences amongst us, encourage each other to be weird, and treat everyone with dignity regardless of their circumstances.