As an immigrant, the“mainstream” doesn’t feel like it’s for me. This experience changed that.
by Alex Andrews
we are the mainstream is a collective of First Nations, Women of Colour and Gender Diverse folk of Colour, created to elevate their experiences and celebrate their stories. In March 2021 ,we are mainstream hosted an event to raise the voices and visibility of Black, Indigenous, and Women of Colour (BIWoC) through courageous conversations, panels, and breakout sessions. Verve was proud to support this event.
Malayalee woman and event attendee, Abha Devasia, shares her experience with the Verve community.
Earlier this year we are the mainstream hosted its second international womens’ symposium themed “Ain’t I a Woman”. The theme derived from a speech by Sojourner Truth, made in 1851, at a women’s right convention in Ohio, USA. The speech was a clarion call to the White women’s movement about intersectionality, the non-negotiable reality of being a Black woman and a slave. The clarion call rings here in this unceded country, that women whether, First Nation, Women of Colour or Gender Diverse, are no less women, and continue to seek autonomy and agency.
My attendance at the conference was the result of a despondent Googling. I am a Malayalee woman of the Indian diaspora, born and raised in Ethiopia and then an immigrant to Australia.
I chose Australia to be my home, to stay and raise my family and proverbial hearth here. I swore allegiance. Oftentimes Australia does not choose me back; it can feel like unrequited love.
A lawyer and trade unionist, working in and for working people, is at once fulfilling my values of equality and progressive politics and frustrating as it still excludes those most marginalised by capitalism and colonialism from its structures, leadership and in the visibility of its change makers.
I’d attended conferences, court hearings, workshops and leadership seminars and I was often the only woman, let alone Woman of Colour in the room. Working in this space left me drained and I needed a space where I was not constantly mistrusting myself, was not playing the role of cultural spokesperson, was not tokenised, where I could affirm myself, my right to belong and be with women who did not need explanation because they also lived many of my truths.
I thought Google would show the way and typed in the words “women of colour conference Sydney”.
Google delivered. Better still the we are the mainstream conference delivered also. With 120 participants, it featured sessions including a mixture of panellists, discussions, and intensive workshops and performances by established and emerging artists.
“We have to live as we are already free” by Loma Cuevas-Hewitt, a trans-Filipina woman from the opening panel, composed of trans women, women of colour, First Nations people and those with a disability. It set the tone for the day.
The panel was searingly honest, bringing the struggles of operating in a White world front and centre, as well as offering hope and solidarity and most vital of all to me, the claim to belonging. Each speaker was a fighter of oppression speaking to a room of fellow fighters, putting their collective strength against the systems of patriarchy and capitalism that confines us.
It’s not often I’ve felt moved to tears at a conference.
Sessions included parenting and decolonising parenting, online activism, publication and media and trans solidarity among others. The event brought together voices that I had never heard of and did not realise I desperately needed to hear from. What the “mainstream” was currently offering me was not enough and was not for me.
It was a powerful feeling to be in a room full of ideas, passion, resistance, power and solidarity and feel “one of” rather than “the only”.
The messages that resonate with me the most were those about the ongoing work of creating our own stories. I’ve read the literature, the magazine articles, listened to the podcasts that talk about this, but to be in the room when the stories are told, the dances are danced, the poems are read, songs are sung, to witness how they are written, built, fought for, was exhilarating.
I attended a session on parenting facilitated by Rādhikā Ram Tevita, featuring First Nations woman Kaiya Aboagye, Ugandan-Australian MC Kween G, and Samoan-Australian mother and cultural arts worker Maryjane Schwenke. This session was conducted in a circle creating a consecrated space for women who were mothers, mothers to be, aunties and women wanting to gain insight into how they were raised. It was a gathering to raise consciousness about the experience of bearing children, excised from the tradition of our mothers, grandmothers and ancestors by migration. How assimilation can feel like erasure.
Schwenke spoke about our sense of who we are in the world, finding this by steeping ourselves in our culture, in our stories, in recreating our traditional myths on this land, for its children, their inheritance of a multitude of identities. Our need to reassert our right to take up space here and for our emerging ancestral lines because one day we too will be ancestors.
The other session I was a part of was on creating and growing momentum of activism online that is deliberately apart from and is resistant to patriarchal and White settler expectations of what activists need to be talking and thinking about. Led by four activists, Lamisa Haque from Pvblication, First Nations content creator Alicia Johnson (@8983Aj), Talica Tamanitoakula of 2 Brownish Girls and feminist cartooner Joanna Thangiah. It was a grouping that I just would not see, despite the years and conferences in the activist world I occupy. The underlying value in the conversations were about not conforming, about defiance and resistance to narratives of traditional and social activism that has a limited and singular version of being “Australian”.
The subtle and at times overt racist messaging in the media landscape leaves our community folk feeling less than, never enough and unseen.
Lamisa spoke about dismantling this by creating content, navigating the challenges of gaining popularity and followers as an online activist and the specter of being co-opted by capitalist fortune hunters. It was a searing, raucous conversation that covered everything from how to turn off your notifications for mental health days, to how not to be a token Person of Colour. I wanted more and promptly signed up to all the accounts and magazines referred to.
I had never been in a gathering like that before. Hearing the unspoken spoken, undiluted and undeferential. This was equal access to a platform like I had never seen. Meeting and hearing from community leaders that are invisible in the whitewashed billboard that is the Australian political landscape. It fed my soul. Fed my passion for continuing to challenge and not conform, for raising my daughters with a sense of belonging. To be one of the mainstream.
Meet the author — Abha Devasia
Abha Devasia is a Malayalee woman of the Indian diaspora, born and raised in Ethiopia before moving to Australia as a teenager. Abha is lawyer, trade unionist and an immigrant to Australia.