Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa
BA ’09, Registrar Staff Associate
Photographed by Mikel Healy at Union Station in Los Angeles
October 22, 2013
Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa
BA ’09, Registrar Staff Associate
Photographed by Mikel Healy at Union Station in Los Angeles
October 22, 2013
by Chris Allsop
Identity is a strange, malleable, paradoxical thing composed of many parts. It’s something that we seek out but always have with us, which we defend at all costs and readily discard. It’s also catching. At the age of eight, my family relocated from California to Bristol, England, for my father’s work. Upon arrival at my new school, I was held in unwarranted high esteem. Fellow pupils began to spontaneously “dude.” And then my tan faded, and with it, my novelty.
By high school, I was as English as my classmates: asking the way to the “loo,” writing “humour,” saying “cheers,” and fixated on egregious Australian soap operas. By fifteen I was already a binge drinker of cheap cider and MD 20/20. I still retained my “dude” habit, but almost as an affectation to subvert my new English private school accent. Returning to California at the age of 30 to attend the MFA in Creative Writing program at Antioch University Los Angeles, my English wife noticed – with panic – an almost immediate shift in my accent. Still jet-lagged, I bought a surfboard for $60 off eBay. After 12 years of the same hairstyle, I grew out my hair, unconsciously fashioning it into a restrained version of the style worn by my eight-year-old self.
Identity, as one of the subjects in this piece describes it, is “a fugitive issue.” For those who open themselves to change, the crisis of identity brought on by experiencing foreign cultures can lead to interesting and unexpected results.
NAME: Rebecca C. Fenton
EXPERIENCE ABROAD: Three months in Antioch Education Abroad’s Arts and Culture in West Africa program in 2007, studying painting at the National Arts Institute in Bamako. (Returned in 2008.) Currently pursuing an MA in Art History at Indiana University, specializing in Mande culture.
In Mali, a former French colony, few people speak English. So Fenton – a fine arts undergraduate experiencing West Africa for the first time – uncovered inroads into the culture through art and mimicry. She was assigned a Malian mentor as part of the program. “Working with someone who is sincere in the way they approach things is a great way to relate to people,” she says.
Relating to Malians beyond the studio presented greater difficulties. Fenton suppressed her own personality as she “tried to shape my behavior and gestures to the way they did things.” It was her hope that this effort to adopt Malian social norms indicated good faith. “I also tried to be really extra kind to people to make up for being so awkward,” she adds.
However, her ineptitude at basic skills – such as eating without cutlery – proved to be a boon. “It was embarrassing,” she admits, “but it put me in the position of someone who needed to be instructed. That urge became part of my identity there.”
When she returned to the U.S. for her last undergraduate semester, Fenton felt deflated by the all-too-familiar – and unchallenging – environment. She explored her experience through art, obliterating parts of images to make sections inaccessible. This practice clashed with her knowledge-hungry researcher self and has become a conflict that she’s harnessed to drive her work.
Fenton returned to Mali a year later as an AEA program assistant, and hopes to go back again to research her dissertation on Malian dress and self-presentation. “For the fashion-conscious in Mali, dress is an incisive way of interacting in the social sphere,” she says, describing how Malians emphasize elements of their identities by putting symbols and texts on their bodies and in their attire. “Being in another country and culture showed me that identities are much more flexible and multiple than I previously thought,” she says. “We can draw on aspects of identity as resources in different situations.”
NAME: Katie Larson
EXPERIENCE ABROAD: Taught for six years, volunteering in the summer in developing countries such as Peru, Costa Rica, and Mongolia. Her husband, Blake, was accepted into an MBA program in Barcelona, where they lived for 15 months beginning in 2011.
In her travel blog, Larson, an Antioch University PhD in Leadership and Change pre-candidate, addresses the phenomenon of reverse culture shock. “Away from all the new stimuli, the brain doesn’t know how to cope with normal again,” she says. “You almost feel depressed.”
The shock was all the more severe when Larson and her husband departed Spain. Upon returning to her hometown of Grayslake, Illinois, she found herself “fighting the process of reintegration,” strongly attached as she was to the new “chameleon identity” that she’d developed as she’d moved among cultures. She found it difficult to communicate what she’d learned on her travels and became hyperaware of sounding snobby or pretentious.
“Why is this so hard for you?” her mother had asked. “This is where you grew up.”
On her blog, she describes returning as “drowning in a freezing pool” of American culture. “What is so frustrating and so exciting about American culture is that I understand everything on every level,” she explains. “When I’m away, I can keep in touch with the parts of the culture that I like and appreciate, but when I’m home, I’m confronted with all of the layers, and that’s frustrating to return to.”
For example, while enjoying a haircut at her favorite salon for the fi rst time since returning from Spain, Larson was held hostage to a lengthy, vehement exchange between two grown women concerning Kim Kardashian.
Still, she concedes that there is the risk of romanticizing foreign cultures, especially when you don’t speak the language and immersion is at a very superficial level.
Her identity is currently in limbo. “I’m not an American anymore, and I’m not a foreigner, so I probably fit in best with other expats,” says Larson, who appreciates bonding with expats over becoming a more ambitious, risk-taking self while overseas.
For all of that, returning home had her recognizing “parts of me that I loved and missed while abroad,” such as her connection to friends and family, and the chance to “bake apple pies and shoot off fireworks.” Her next adventure involves relocating to Hong Kong for her husband’s new job; the duration of their stay could be anywhere from six months to two years.
“I think I will return to live in U.S.,” she says. “You have to wear out eventually.”
Read Larson’s blog at elcaminolesstraveled.blogspot.co.uk
NAME: Luis Enrique Garcia
EXPERIENCE ABROAD: Left Colombia in 1998 to study at Notre Dame University and returned for post-graduate studies at Harvard University in 2006. Now COO and co-founder of Envoys, an operator of international experiential learning programs for high-schoolers; divides his time between his permanent residence of Colombia and Envoys’ headquarters in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
When Garcia moved to the U.S. from Colombia for the first time, he quickly adapted to
academic life at Notre Dame. He’d spoken Spanglish with his international classmates since his teens, and was classroom-fluent in English. However, when it came to the essential task of ordering burgers at a fast food-joint, he was helpless. For a month, he simply answered “yes” to the question, “For here or to go?”
“The sentence has no literal translation [where I come from],” he explains. “It was frustrating, but I make jokes about it now. I always say that I should have forced myself into a stronger accent, as then people could have understood that I’m a foreigner and not simply stupid.” Nowadays, Garcia has a mastery of conversational English, giving him something of a second identity. “I’m a different person when I’m thinking and speaking in English,” he says. “I have a better sense of humor when I’m speaking Spanish. When I’m talking in English, I’m more pragmatic.”
But it’s with Spanglish that he finds the greatest scope, or perhaps his most complete self. “I don’t like the concept of Spanglish – it feels disrespectful to both cultures – but I like the practicality,” he explains. “The two personalities come together: the humor and natural feel of Spanish with the resources of English.”
Learn about Garcia’s company Envoys, which offers international experiential learning programs for teens, at Envoys.com
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As for me, after graduating from AULA in 2012, I’ve relocated permanently to the U.K. and settled in the city of Bath, an official World Heritage Site in thrall to its former Romans occupiers, Jane Austen, and a trash-raiding mafia of seagulls. I wear darker clothes and savor warm beer, but my wife still corrects my lingering American pronunciations (particularly, and aptly, “frustrating”).
Returning to England felt like a homecoming – the wettest summer for 100 years was the perfect fanfare – but leaving the U.S. felt like leaving home as well. My emotional response to both wasn’t intense, and in turn I slipped easily back into English ways. Yet I’ve recently become more actively interested in my Hispanic background (my mother is a Chavez from New Mexico). Now that “Breaking Bad” is over, I’m going to have to come up with new ways to engage with my Southwestern roots: perhaps another stab next Christmas at perfecting my mother’s empanada recipe.
by Chris Allsop
The word “branding” tends to be associated with corporations and cattle. Fortunately, since the advent of social media and the rise of “personal branding,” we’ve been charged with making our own individual marks in the world, thus influencing how others perceive us.
For job-seekers and those looking to expand their business opportunities, creating a strong professional online brand provides a cringe-free icebreaker for approaching colleagues and companies that can further one’s career. The tools at our disposal include social media networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn), blogs, and personal websites. But before you begin online empire building, Skilset Communications’ Michele Lando, a pioneer in personal branding who’s based in Pasadena, California, recommends taking the following steps to build a personal brand.
First, consider your proposition: who are you, and what do you want to be known for? If you don’t have solid, well-thought-out answers to these questions, you’ll lose control of your message and your audience may not be sure who you are or what you have to offer.
Next, conduct a competitive analysis. Research individuals with a similar proposition to yours and ask yourself: how am I different? From there, consider how you’re going to differentiate yourself and craft your unique message. “This will help your audience to choose you,” Lando explains. A good example of this process in action was Facebook’s knockout of its main competitor, Myspace. Facebook created preference for its service by offering a cleaner interface that was favored by a broader demographic of Internet users.
And remember that the devil is in the details. For instance, use a professional-sounding email handle for work-related endeavors. “Some students send resumes from email addresses such as ‘Princess@’,” says Lando. “As a business owner, I won’t hire you: I can immediately see that you lack common sense.”
Once you’re armed with a clear idea of what you’re trying to express and why you’re preferable to the competition, you’re ready to generate brand buzz online. Christopher Williams, vice president, Strategic Communications for Cookson Strategies in Manchester, New Hampsire and interim director of Communications for Antioch University Midwest, says the first thing to remember about online engagement, whether personal or professional, is that it is there forever. “Don’t post anything that you don’t want your boss, your mother, your partner/spouse and, nowadays, the NSA, to see,” he advises.
So what are the cornerstones of a strong online brand? Be appropriate, says Lando. If you’re studying to be a writer, write a blog. If you’re studying to be a therapist, perhaps not. “Pick the right vehicle that makes sense for your story,” she says. This choice is made easy by identifying which platform is most in favor with your audience. If you have intelligent competitors, they’ll be present in these online spaces already, but don’t restrict yourself to the tried and tested – if you can find some unique avenues, all the better.
In branding, consistency is key. To support this, Williams suggests separating your professional and personal online personas and activities. Within your professional network, use the same appropriate headshot, the same user name, and leave the privacy settings wide open to eliminate hurdles that your audience has to clear to reach you. Interact consistently across platforms in a fashion dictated by your strategy. “The goal is to have your personality shine through, but in the context of things that are more relevant to your professional life,” Williams says.
CHOOSING A PLATFORM
Now, don’t panic. While the selection of platforms may appear infinite, it’s not you who has to make the choice: leave that to your audience. Determine where they hang out, and let that be where you focus your personal branding efforts.
Feel free to test the waters. Lando began with Twitter, but disengaged swiftly when she realized it wasn’t appropriate for her brand strategy. “If I get around to writing the book I keep threatening to write,” she says, “then I will return to Twitter, as it has strategic value to my overall plan.”
When you have a presence on multiple platforms, don’t duplicate content across channels. Th ere are distinct communication styles for each platform; what works for one may seem out of sync and lazy in another. Pick one platform and master it before moving on to the next.
LinkedIn is a safe bet for career-oriented networking and can also serve as a personal website. Williams describes it as “your online resume,” as well as a great place to scan the professional landscape. Seek out like-minded professionals – take tips from how they represent themselves – and use the site as a resource. Through LinkedIn, you can discover and investigate companies, including the names of key contacts, with whom you may want to do business. “If I get to a place where I’m ready to contact a company,” says Williams, “I’ll see if there’s someone I might know (personally or through another connection) and reach out to them directly.”
As you would with your resume in an interview situation, ensure your information on LinkedIn is accurate and upto- date. (It’s unnecessary to go back further than 15 to 20 years). Explore LinkedIn’s group options, through which you can access a community that may help promote your brand through word of mouth, or by sharing the links you post. Finally, be choosy about whose invitations to “connect” you accept: visibility isn’t everything, and contacts with questionable reputations might have a negative impact on your brand.
Twitter is described by Williams as the easiest yet most complicated channel to use. “Essentially, it’s an ongoing conversation that you engage in,” he says. Although it might appear that your remark has dropped unnoticed into the continuum, always assume someone’s listening. Engage by retweeting items of interest (no cats dressed as Elvis – stay professional), and if there’s a topic you want to comment on, weigh in. Choose as your contacts people who interest you professionally. And think local. Williams sometimes approaches potential clients in his community through Twitter; the simple act of following someone immediately upgrades a cold contact to a contact.
Finally, strategies for Facebook overlap with Twitter in many ways. Target friends and groups with a cold, professional eye. “And no political or religious posts,” says Williams. “You’ll alienate people.”
After creating a strong personal brand, it’s important to maintain it. Lando recommends a quarterly review; check to see if your story or the professional world around you has changed, and adapt your message as needed. And remember that silence is deadly – once you commit to maintaining an online presence, stay active. Respond to comments, post often, and try to stay topical. If a potential client or employer Googles you and encounters social media accounts with no recent activity, you’ve made a poor “first digital impression.”
Now you’re ready to make yourself stand out from the herd.
Learn about the branding and communications company that Lando co-founded at skilset.com
Learn about the strategic planning, public relations, and marketing communications firm where Williams works at cooksonstrategies.com
by Dara Silverstein
Women today have more opportunities in the workplace than ever before, but the picture is far from perfect. By 1990, U.S. women’s labor force participation had climbed to 74 percent, but 20 years later it had barely risen, according to a 2013 report from the National Bureau of Economic Research. Conflicting ideas about what accounts for this stagnation range from stingy maternity-leave benefits to sexism in the workplace. In a country where women in leadership positions caps out at 20 percent and women are still fighting for equal pay for equal work, women can feel devalued and internalize society’s perceptions of them as “less than.” A lack of confidence and assertiveness means women may be passed over for professional opportunities, exacerbating the problem. So the struggle toward gender equality continues.
Antioch University has been an active part of this fight from the start. Antioch College, its founding institution, was the first college in the United States to educate women on equal terms with men and to hire female faculty on an equal basis with male colleagues. It was also the first co-ed college to have a woman on its board of trustees. Today, the women of Antioch University continue to combat gender bias in society, and create opportunities for themselves and others.
Jen Baron, an Antioch University Santa Barbara student focusing on Environmental Studies, founded Girls Rock Santa Barbara! in 2012. GRSB! is a nonprofit organization that empowers girls to reach their full potential through music lessons, workshops, summer camps, and performances. Baron’s mission is to challenge gender stereotypes, increase the girls’ self-esteem, and help them express themselves through music. GRSB! doesn’t just teach the girls how to play an instrument or be in a rock band; it instills essential skills – such as teamwork and confidence to speak up – that will help them succeed in life and work.
Baron was inspired to create GRSB! after thinking about her own life and goals. “I was in a place of self-reflection. I had just wrapped my first studio record and kept coming up against this internal voice asking me, ‘Why did it take you 30 years to record an album when you have been writing music since you were nine?’ At the time, there were only a handful of people who actually even knew I played music,” recalls Baron. “The answer became more and more clear to me: I honestly didn’t believe I was good enough.”
As part of her coursework at AUSB, Baron began an independent study with Dr. Dawn Osborn, who was her advisor and professor, to try and tackle this issue. “I wanted to explore feminism and media culture and survey the women in my community,” Baron explains. “What I found was shocking for me. I heard responses all across the board in terms of demographics, and all saying the same thing: ‘I don’t believe I am good enough.’” Baron began digging deeper. She read journals on girls and self-esteem and was appalled and astonished by what she found. “GRSB! grew out of a deep need to create change in our community, and that’s just what we’re doing,” she says.
Girls Rock Santa Barbara! has been expanding rapidly since its launch. The program currently runs both a summer rock camp and an afterschool program for seven-through 17-year-old girls, a program for high-school girls where they earn community service hours by acting as mentors, and a weekend-long rock camp for women. The organization has served 165 girls and engaged more than 100 volunteers. Baron has plans to expand even more, developing an all-teen curriculum and a music label.
Celeste Anlauf attended Antioch University Los Angeles to earn her MA in Organizational Management, more than two decades after she’d graduated from college. “When I went to school, my parents said, ‘You are going to be a teacher or a nurse,’” Anlauf recalls. “I’d had dreams of getting an MBA after college, but women of my generation weren’t necessarily encouraged to get an advanced degree. The boys went to grad school; the girls didn’t.” Anlauf ’s master’s degree from AULA helped her change careers and take a leadership role in solving issues of inequity in her community. She is now the director of Major Gifts at the education nonprofi t Para Los Niños, which provides education and other resources for low-income children in Los Angeles.
Antioch University Santa Barbara’s new Women and Leadership Certificate program was designed to examine issues of leadership and gender. The mission of the 10-month program is to empower women to break through the “glass ceiling” and become leaders in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. As Director Judy Bruton explains, “Even though we have had educational parity for 40 years, where women have had access to the top educational opportunities, for many reasons it has not translated into parity at the top levels of leadership.”
In her recent book “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Facebook COO Sheryl Sandberg offers up possible solutions to the leadership gender gap, including the need for women to support and mentor one another. Th e Women and Leadership Certificate program reinforces that notion by offering a professional network of like-minded women and advisors to do just that.
Although women have a ways to go before they achieve parity in their careers, they’ve made huge inroads over the past decades. Everyone, of any gender, would do well to follow Sandberg’s advice to dream big, forge a path through the obstacles, support others, and work to achieve their full potential.
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As women in the U.S. fight for equal opportunities in the workplace, women in the developing world face very different challenges.
“Here in Ethiopia you have girls married at ages 10, 11, and 12 because the families are so poor that they marry off their daughters so they can receive the bride-price (dowry) and have one less mouth to feed. I am hired as a technical specialist by nongovernmental organizations to design different programs to help girls navigate their environment and avoid situations that are harmful to them.
A major problem that women and girls face in Ethiopia is a lack of education because of poverty. I was just in rural Ethiopia, and we were interviewing girls and their parents. They were saying they couldn’t send their daughters to school because they didn’t have money to buy a notebook and pen.
In my opinion, lack of education and poverty are the biggest challenges to equality for girls in Ethiopia. I think here it’s a lot about life skills, too. Women have to learn to be assertive, to make decisions. When you are a girl in rural Ethiopia, you spend half your time hauling water for your family; you are not told to dream or think big.”
-Ashley Lackovich-Van Gorp, a student in Antioch University’s PhD in Leadership and Change program, is working and doing research in Ethiopia on the practice of child marriage.
Learn how you can contribute to educational and vocational opportunities for Ethiopian girls and their families at CommonRiver.org
by Kristen Forbes
What defines your identity? What makes you you? Does society get to decide who you are based on your name, gender, religion, or upbringing? What happens when elements change? What can we learn when someone’s identity is reborn?
In our cover story, we explore these questions by examining the personal awakenings of four extraordinary graduates of Antioch University. Each journey is unique, just as every identity is unique. Yet they’re all propelled by the same idea: we ultimately have the power to shape our own identities through our decisions.
How do people react when someone converts to an unfamiliar religion? How might a natural disaster help inspire someone to change her life? Can someone who spent years battling demons turn his life around and help others? Where’s the space for someone whose gender transcends the typical definitions of “male” and “female”?
These stories reflect not only the diversity of human experience, but also the wide range of individuals who choose to learn at Antioch University. After all, for many of us, being part of the Antioch University family is a large part of our identity. It’s what makes us us.
As someone who identifies as Two-Spirit/Queer, Qwo-Li Driskill embraces the idea of living between genders. The Native American concept Two-Spirit, as Driskill explains, “is an umbrella word in English that is inclusive of people in native communities and traditions that fall outside of European gender binaries.” This fluidity can be reflected in a person’s appearance, style of dress, modes of work, and forms of expression. It extends to language, as well. “I prefer gender-neutral pronouns,” explains Driskill, whose pronouns of choice are s/he and hir. “There’s no way anyone’s going to get it correct. They can call me Sir. They can call me Ma’am. Both and neither are true.”
Driskill was born and raised in a Cherokee family within a predominantly white, straight community in rural Colorado. Perceived as male by society, Driskill never felt that s/he fit into traditional gender boxes. S/he learned more about the concept of Two-Spirit in college, which ultimately gave hir the language needed to go beyond gender binaries. Driskill came out as gay after hir freshman year in college, a choice that was difficult “internally, emotionally. I made the decision to come out so that I didn’t kill myself.” As Driskill’s gender vocabulary expanded, s/he went from identifying as gay to queer and transgender, and found that visibly living outside societal gender norms often left others unsure of how to react. Once on a plane, a flight attendant tried to wake the longhaired Driskill by saying “ma’am” – until the sight of Driskill’s facial hair threw a curveball.
“[The attendant] got really flustered,” s/he recalls. “That kind of stuff happens at grocery stores, too. If you don’t fit into something they can pin down, they don’t really know what to say, because gender language is so much a part of people’s day-to-day conditioning.”
Driskill graduated from Antioch University Seattle with an MA in Whole Systems Design in 2001 and is currently developing the Queer Studies curriculum for the Women, Gender, and Sexuality Studies graduate program at Oregon State University. S/he knows that what for hir is simply a way of life comes across as a bold statement to others. “This ‘coming out’ moment gets talked about so much as sort of an essential part of people’s identities,” s/he reflects. “I understand that, but being Two-Spirit to me wasn’t a coming out. It was just part of who I am and how I’m going to present myself in the world.”
Hang Yin Candy Lo
For Hang Yin Candy Lo, sometimes words alone are not enough. A dancer and performer since childhood, Lo sees the world through a physical, visual lens. This explains the hole cut out of an illustration of the sky on her business cards. Lo is the founder of Piece of Sky, a creative arts therapy and counseling agency in her native Hong Kong. “Everyone should have their own piece of sky,” Lo explains.“Everyone’s dream should be different. Wherever you put the hole, that’s your piece of sky. Piece of Sky gives my clients – and me – a place to start, a place of potentials that can be fully developed.”
Although Lo had long recognized that dance could be therapeutic, she spent many years working strictly as a performer. In her mid-20s, while working as a vocalist at Hong Kong Disneyland, Lo began to rethink her priorities. “I was seeking, and I was at a low point,” she says. Around that time, in 2008, a massive earthquake in Western China killed roughly 70,000 people. “My very wise friend said, ‘You don’t realize how many people are striving to live,’” Lo recalls. “‘If you’re so much in doubt, give your life to them.’”This propelled Lo’s decision to attend graduate school at Antioch University New England to study dance/movement therapy and counseling, as well as drama therapy. She earned her MA in 2012.
Lo, who has lived in China, Belgium, England, and the United States, has learned that people are more alike than they are different. “Sometimes people will say, ‘I’m not a dancer. I’m not creative.’ As human beings, we’re all creative, actually. Every movement is dance. Life itself is creative. It’s just a matter of whether or not we’re aware or we acknowledge it,” says Lo.
Today, Lo says life is a balancing act between her various identities: small-business owner, child-life specialist at the Children’s Cancer Foundation, dance/movement therapist, and performer. As a person who thrives on being somewhere different every day, Lo says she feels “blessed, very blessed.”
Ben Murphy was a 20-year-old business major and athlete at San Jose State University when an injury ended his sports career and changed the trajectory of his life. After multiple surgeries and a lot of prescription pills, he was depressed. He turned to alcohol and drugs and dropped out of college twice.
This was the start of an eight-year battle. Murphy went to rehab several times, only to return to drugs. He wound up using crystal meth, “a drug that makes you so high, it’s like a pit bull gets a hold of your psyche and won’t let go,” says Murphy. He committed crimes, went to jail, and became a person his family and friends no longer recognized. He had an emotional breakdown and lost interest in everything he loved. He continued using drugs, including acid and ecstasy. He eventually overdosed.
Despite this wake-up call, Murphy was unable to handle the intense emotions that he felt when sober. “I would drink more again just to cover it all up. That’s really what addiction does. You get to the point where you’re in such denial about it,” Murphy explains.
Finally, he moved to a sober-living house in Santa Barbara, California, worked on a 12-step program, committed to sobriety, and found a mentor he related to. “He was a walking example that recovery was possible,” Murphy says. Inspired, Murphy enrolled in the drug and alcohol counseling program at Santa Barbara City College (SBCC). He finished the two-year program and transferred to Antioch University Santa Barbara, where he earned his BA in 2010 and his MA in Psychology in 2012. He is now a partner and coach at Thrive Wellness Coaching, as well as a certified addiction counselor and an MFT intern at SBCC’s counseling center.
Seven years sober, Murphy says his life, relationships, and personality have completely turned around. He’s channeled years of pain into helping others and never loses sight of his priorities. “My sobriety is the most important thing in my life,” he says. “If I don’t have that, I’ll lose everything.”
Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa
Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa wears her new identity on her sleeve, literally. She was born Mehgan Sepanik and raised Catholic by her Irish/German mother and Italian/Polish father in Elgin, Illinois. Once an adult, Khalsa’s struggle to find inner peace led her on a journey toward Sikhism that would change everything – her manner of dress, her name, and, most importantly, her psyche.
“2009 should have been a year I felt great and full of joy, but I found myself in a very low place,” says Khalsa, who completed her BA at Antioch University Los Angeles that year. “I said to the universe, ‘I am done playing with you. I am tired, and I don’t know what to do anymore.’ Then a beautiful friend of mine gave me a stack of Kundalini yoga mantras. I listened to them day and night: the most beautiful sounds I had heard. They touched the core of me. They became a life raft.”
Khalsa began studying Kundalini yoga with a teacher who was Sikh. She found herself drawn to the 500-year-old egalitarian religion, which Yogi Bhajan introduced to the U.S. – along with Kundalini yoga – in the late 1960s. Soon Khalsa was devoting herself entirely to Sikhism, despite fears that friends, family, and colleagues might not accept her. “When I started wearing a turban outside of the Kundalini yoga and Sikh community, the reaction was uncomfortable,” Khalsa acknowledges. “When I decided to own it and decided that this is who I am – a servant of the Guru – people responded very positively and respectfully.”
As part of her transformation, she took the name Jaskaram Kaur Khalsa and is in the process of legalizing this change. Jaskaram means “destiny of grace shining with God’s glory,” Kaur means “princess or lioness of God,” and Khalsa is a name typically given when a person is baptized as a Sikh.
The reaction to her new identity by the AULA community has been particularly warm, reports Khalsa, who now works as a staff associate in the Registrar’s Office and recently began teaching Kundalini yoga to other employees. “I remember the first time I wore white to work,” she says. “Oh my goodness, people loved it. This is when I understood the power and value of the dress and how it [can have] a positive effect on all those that see it.”
How well is sexual and ethnic diversity represented in TV and film? We asked two AULA community members to weigh in.
Founding instructor, LGBT-Affirmative Psychology Specialization in Clinical Psychology
Mondragon was instrumental in creating a new training site for Specialization students at Being Alive, a Los Angeles-based nonprofit that supports people living with HIV and AIDS. He has a private practice in West Hollywood with a strong focus on gay-centered psychotherapy.
Why is it important for minorities to be represented in movies and television?
Bringing visibility and realistic representation in movies and TV of the diverse groups of people in this culture and society is crucial to break down stereotypes, educate through exposure and understanding, and to empower those who otherwise feel invisible and unseen. Heterosexist and cisgender norms and media non-representation have contributed greatly to discrimination against LGBT folk and to the perpetuation of low-self-esteem and a lack of self-appreciation for LGBT people. One of the best ways to control and dominate another group is to make them feel ashamed or invisible. Research shows that bringing greater positive images of LGBT people, and this includes LGBT people of color, into the media leads to greater understanding acceptance by the dominant heterosexist culture, and this provides much needed positive mirroring for the LGBT community and its diverse expressions.
What are some TV shows and movies that do a good job of representing diverse characters?
The TV show “Glee” has characters who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender – and aren’t all white. This show has done much to introduce the general public to various storylines about what LGBT youth go through.
Movies I’ve appreciated with strong positive storylines in this regard have included: “Brother to Brother,” about a young African-American gay man who encounters someone linked to the Harlem Renaissance of the 1930s, shedding light on the importance of black gay, lesbian and bisexual artists, writers, and singers who shaped this important movement. “The Wedding Banquet” and “Saving Grace” have Asian gay and lesbian characters that were so mirroring of my experience navigating the line between having a gay/lesbian identity juxtaposed against Asian cultural influences and the effects of powerful cultural familial expectations and duties specific to being Asian. “Pariah” presents a much-needed strong lesbian African-American character going through coming out and having to deal with different attitudes from parents and family. An important documentary, “Before Stonewall,” shows the important contributions of LGBT people of color in the pivotal beginnings of the modern gay liberation movement starting with the Stonewall Riots in 1969.
While the film “Brokeback Mountain” was in many ways a powerful and highly visible film, it continued Hollywood’s depiction of gay men in a highly tragic, self-hating light.
What film or TV show could use a diversity update?
The Lord of the Rings films depict male friendships that exude homoerotic bonding. AULA instructor and gay-centered therapist Roger Kaufman has written extensively on how Tolkein’s classic tale can be viewed as a powerful gay individuation journey, where Frodo and his devoted Sam are archetypal figures of an erotic Twinning or Gay Soul Figures, whose mission it is to save Middle Earth. Imagine what this trilogy would be like if the various “couples” were explicitly gay, and what a powerful message that would send about the potential, purpose, and power of gay love?
Ligiah Villalobos, BA ‘13
Villalobos is an independent writer/producer who won a 2013 HUMANITAS Prize for writing the Hallmark Hall of Fame movie “Firelight,” starring Cuba Gooding Jr. She was head writer on the hit Nick Jr. series “Go, Diego! Go!” and the writer and executive producer of the hit indie film “La Misma Luna” (“Under the Same Moon”). She is currently writing multicultural projects for BET and NBC.
Why is it important for minorities to be represented in movies and television?
Well, the first thing I would say is that I don’t really like to use the term “minorities.” The preferred term, for me, is “people of color.” The reason why I think it’s important to have a representation of people of color in film and television is because media should reflect the community and/or communities it represents. Especially television. TV wasn’t really originally established to make money; it was established to serve the community. So if that’s really what they’re supposed to be doing, then their programming should represent the diversity of the communities they reach.
Now that television has become a huge money-maker, it is common sense to make sure you’re reaching the widest audience possible. And you’ll do that better if you take into consideration the enormous amount of people of color that live in this country.
What are some TV shows and movies that do a good job of representing diverse characters?
There is more diversity in television today than ever before. And there’s actually a reason for this. (A little over a decade ago, during the fall season, studios and networks had to change the way they developed shows and hired creative talent.) So it’s not as hard to think about shows that do a great job representing people of color. Some of them are:
Creator/executive producer Shonda Rhimes’ TV shows (“Grey’s Anatomy,” “Scandal”) do a really good job of casting people of color in professions where they don’t often appear – in politics, as doctors, etc. “Modern Family” not only shows mixed marriages, but also foreign adoptions and the normality of a gay couple. All of the shows I listed also show women, not as sidekicks, but as important parts of the plot and storylines.
In terms of film, it is a little harder to really see a lot of great movies that do a good job representing minorities. But some of them would be:
The “Fast and Furious” franchise
The Twilight” franchise
“World War Z”
I think all of these examples show a diversity of characters with not a lot of stereotypes. In terms of the movies I chose, I not only appreciated the diversity you see on the screen, but also the diversity behind the camera: an Asian-American director in the case of the “Fast and the Furious” franchise; a Mexican writer and director in the case of “Babel” and “Pacific Rim;” a female writer and a female director in the case of the “Twilight” franchise; and then the diversity on-camera in the other films. Native American characters being seen in such a new light in the case of the “Twilight” series; Brad Pitt making an effort as a producer to make sure that scientists and doctors in “World War Z” were cast with diverse actors from all over the world. And Guillermo del Toro doing the same in “Pacific Rim.”
“The Amos and Andy Show” was a terrible representation of African-Americans, so much so that the network and studio that produced it don’t allow it to air today in repeats. It’s hard to even get stills of that show.
I didn’t see the film “Giant” until recently, and I was appalled to see that they had painted white actors with brown faces to play Mexican characters. But I will also say, that I think it’s just as bad – especially for me as a Latina – to see amazing roles go to white actors that should have gone to Latinos. Because there just aren’t that many amazing roles for us. So when I see a really good Latino role go to a white actor – heartbreaking. Also because the studios would not dare to do that with an African-American actor. Some examples of that would be:
“The Soloist”- Robert Downey, Jr. playing Steve Lopez, a real-life Los Angeles Times Latino reporter. (The real-life African American pianist was played by Jamie Foxx.)
“Argo” – Ben Affleck playing Tony Medez, a real-life CIA Latino agent.
“The Impossible” – Naomi Watts and Ewan McGregor (and the white actors cast as their children) playing a real-life Spanish family.
These were amazing roles for Latino actors, but all played by non-Latinos. And it makes me wonder, “why does Hollywood think it’s okay to do that with Latino actors, when they don’t think it’s okay to do that with African-American roles?” Can you imagine a studio ever casting a non-black actor for a true-life person like Nelson Mandela? Yet, they do that on a regular basis with Latino roles.
What film or TV show could use a diversity update?
I would love to see a movie like “The Big Chill” with a multicultural cast. Or, how great would it be if the family who took in E.T. was a Latino family, or a black family, or an Asian family? I would love to see any Woody Allen movie with a Latino cast. How would it change “Hannah and Her Sisters,” or how would “Manhattan” be told with a black cast?
What would the multicultural version of “Gilligan’s Island” look like, and how would the stories change? I’d love to see “Roseanne” as a mixed marriage. Or a multicultural version of “Friends,” “Seinfeld,” “Cheers” or “Frasier.”
(“Lord of the Rings” illustration by Alexander Lewitzki.)