Interview: Deepa Iyer
Deepa Iyer is a South Asian American writer, strategist, lawyer, and racial justice advocate. She's a Strategic Advisor at Building Movement Project and Director of Solidarity Is, a project that provides trainings, narratives, and resources on building deep and lasting multiracial solidarity. Deepa’s areas of expertise include the post 9/11 America experiences of South Asian, Muslim, Arab and Sikh immigrants, immigration and civil rights policies, and racial equity and solidarity practices.
Deepa’s first book, We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future (Amazon, Bookshop), received a 2016 American Book Award and was selected as a top 10 multicultural non-fiction books of 2015 by Booklist. She also hosts a podcast called Solidarity Is This.
I'm very interested in the framework outlined in Deepa Iyer's "Social Change Ecosystem Map."
By giving a name for the ten roles played by people involved in social changes, her framework clarifies how we each might play a role: Weavers, Experimenters, Frontline Responders, Visionaries, Builders, Caregivers, Disrupters, Healers, Storytellers, and Guides.
I couldn't wait to talk to Deepa about happiness, habits, and human nature.
Gretchen: What’s a simple activity or habit that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Deepa: Spending time by myself with a journal. That isn’t as easy during the pandemic with a 10-year-old coworker at home with me, but I’ve found that if I can find a quiet space and time to center myself by listening to my inner voice and by journaling, it makes me much happier and healthier.
What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
That it isn’t any one thing that brings happiness - i.e. a job or a relationship or a material object - but that it’s about figuring out what I’m good at, being in service to the world, and finding communities where I belong. This understanding anchors the social change ecosystem framework that I developed as well - to utilize our roles in service of social change values and as part of ecosystems.
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
In taking the quiz, I found myself to be an Upholder.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness?
Yes! There are so many reasons to feel jarred or off course these days. The news, the pandemic, family expectations, and the fast-paced nature of life all interfere with my ability to stay steady and grounded.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
I would say that the events of and after 9/11 became watershed moments for me. It became clear to me that I should use the privileges I had to work on behalf of my community. At the time, South Asians, along with Muslims and Arabs, were experiencing high levels of hate violence, discrimination, and profiling. The events of 9/11 and after forged a path that I’ve been on for 20 years now.
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
There are many but one that I’m sitting with right now is “Start close in” which is the beginning of a poem by David Whyte. It is a reminder to have a conversations with myself, to follow my own voice, to listen closely to myself - so that I can also do the same with the people I care about in my life.
Has a book ever changed your life – if so, which one and why?
In your field, is there a common misconception that you’d like to correct?
People think that those of us involved in social change are always resilient and strong because we are working for causes in which we believe. But we too need care, understanding, appreciation, and time to check out, reflect, and rejuvenate.
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