Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra advocates spaces of belonging on the CHASIcast

The CHASIcast is back! Continuing on our trend of speaking to great friends and colleagues of CHASI, like Dr. Jacqueline Nolte, we turn this time to Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra. Dr. Sandhra has been the coordinator for UFV’s South Asian Studies Institute for over a decade, is the co-curator at the Sikh Heritage Museum, co-chair of UFV’s Race and Antiracism Network, an instructor in UFV’s history department, and most recently earned her PhD from UBC’s history department on April 19!

Dr. Sandhra joined us and shared that wealth of experience and knowledge, speaking about her studies on museums as spaces of belonging, her work on the recently-launched South Asian Canadian Legacy Project, and how she brings her anti-racist lens into the classroom environment.

Photo of Dr. Sandhra speaking into a professional microphone in the CIVL Radio studies.

To see more of Dr. Sandhra and her work, take a look at the links above, as well as:

Hosted by CHASI’s director Dr. Martha Dow and recorded in CIVL Radio’s studio at the University of the Fraser Valley, the CHASIcast is available to stream below, or on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts, Amazon Music/Audible, and other platforms!


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Dr. Sandhra: If you are working against a system that for a hundred plus years has built a negative about you, there’s a lot of catching up to do in terms of strength building, but when you feel a sense of belonging in your heart, you bring that energy with you everywhere.

I talk about affective resonance. So affective resonance means, when I feel like I belong at the Sikh Heritage Museum, that aura, I walk around with me everywhere. And nobody can suck that away from me. Nobody can take that away from me, no matter how much negativity I may face.

Intro: Based out of the university of the Fraser valley on unceded, traditional lands of the Sto:lo people we are the community health and social innovation hub, or CHASI for short. We support the social, mental, emotional, physical, and economic health of those living in our communities by bringing together experts from across disciplines. Those experts have some incredible stories and insights. To share those with the communities we serve, we bring you the CHASIcast, a monthly program where we drill down on a current topic and chat about how it impacts our lives.

Dr. Dow: Good morning, welcome to CHASIcast, and it’s our pleasure this morning to have a Dr. Sharn Sandhra and congratulations on your recent PhD.

Dr. Sandhra: Thank you!

Dr. Dow: And welcome. And for those of you who don’t know Sharn is the coordinator of UFV’s South Asian Studies Institute, and has been there for over 10 years. You’re the co-curator at the Sikh Heritage Museum, co-chair of UFV’s RAN, an instructor in the history department, and I hear great things from your students. And as I just said, recently earned your PhD from UBC. So really looking forward to this conversation, I feel really privileged and it’s kind of selfish time for me, to be honest, because I get to sit with people that I have great deal of respect for.

So let’s start there. You recently completed your PhD with your dissertation on museums, as spaces of belonging, and I wondered if you could talk a little bit about that. And in particular, we just had Sikh heritage month conclude. So maybe we can start there.

Dr. Sandhra: Yeah, sure. Thank you. Thank you for the kind words as well.

You know, it’s interesting. My dissertation, didn’t begin looking at museums. I kind of was wishy-washy about what it was I was going to do, I looked at looking at poetics of oral history, for example, at one point. But something happened during the course of my studies where I felt like I didn’t belong in the department of history at UBC.

And that was because I was the first Sikh woman and mother and, and an older student at that point. I was 30 years old when I began my PhD. So I felt very much out of place. Everybody around me was much younger. They were mostly cis-het white men around me at UBC then eight years ago.

I felt like I didn’t belong. And in fact, you know, one of my instructors called me into his office one day and said, you know, maybe you don’t belong in this department and maybe you should do a masters. And I was like, but I already have a master’s. And I was so confused in that moment. So I thought about quitting the program. And luckily I had a supervisor who understood the nuances as a fierce anti-racist himself, Dr. Henry Yu who supported me along that process. What happened was during the course of not feeling like I belonged, I found belonging through my work at the Sikh Heritage Museum. And so for more than 10 years, Satwinder and I have been co-curating and co-managing that space. And when I was giving tours in that space, when I was co-curating exhibits, something shifted in terms of my confidence, something shifted in terms of my understanding of my communities, how to build bridges, but also how to challenge.

I didn’t feel that at UBC up until that point. And that’s slowly led to me realizing, you know what, I should do my dissertation on museums as spaces of belonging, because the Sikh Heritage Museum is a different model than a lot of those colonial institutions that we see as being the traditional museum model.

And so that’s how it came to be where I decided let’s look at museums as spaces of belonging, and I look at three different Asian Canadian communities. And what I love about that is that I’m not just looking at the Sikh community I’m looking at Chinese-Canadian communities and Japanese-Canadian communities to see what are the differences, what are the similarities and how can we build solidarities?

This month is also Asian heritage month, right? So there is a lot of conversations around anti-Asian racism, but also like you mentioned, last month, April was the Sikh heritage month as well. So there’s all these great opportunities to build in these conversations around Asian heritage and South Asian histories. And so I think it’s perfect timing that my dissertation is coming out when it is.

Dr. Dow: I’m so interested in this idea of belonging. And I think so many people talk about belonging as natural, as easy. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the work of finding spaces of belonging. I’m always in awe to be really honest of the energy you bring, but I also always, you know, the exhaustion that comes with that. So I wonder if you did talk about the work of belonging.

Dr. Sandhra: Yeah. You know, when we look through a lens of belonging. Now there’s different forms of belonging. My lens and experience is looking at it through a critical race theory lens, right? So I’m looking at belonging in terms of systems that I’ve always excluded through race systems that have always excluded through making whiteness the center.

And so when I walk around buildings, when I look at things that is the lens that I’m interpreting through it, but also historically, so for example, the museum, as a project, the museum was based on a collection of Indigenous artifacts, stolen artifacts based on genocide, but also artifacts based on African slavery.

That is the foundation of the museum. They were called cabinets of curiosities. They stuffed these cabinets with everything you could imagine, stolen, based on harm violence, genocide. That’s the museum project. And we have this presumption about the innocence of the museum when we walk into a museum, because historically we haven’t interpreted those centuries of history.

I interpret those centuries of history to the very moment I walk into a museum to say, okay, how is this museum different? How is it the same? Who is working in this museum who was writing the story panels, who was curating the exhibits? I have a problem still where the majority of museums are run through whiteness, right?

When you’re writing stories about other communities who are not from your own, there is always going to be a difference. And I think that’s where the rub is right now. And that’s where the resistance is. Where communities are saying, let us write our own stories. Don’t just pay us an honorarium, or for some they don’t even give honorariums.

Don’t make us honorary board members. No, no, no, no. We want to be inside the fabric of your institution. The other thing that’s interesting with like histories of museum in, let’s say British Columbia, for example, they’re also based on white pioneer settler histories.

And so what’s happened is a lot of powerful families. For example, in Abbotsford, the Trethewey family, right? They have this power system in our city and a lot of them are like the board members there. They have this kind of patronage in the museums. Well, guess what the majority of the stories are going to be then, guess what the majority of the emphasis is going to be.

You have to disband those kinds of hundreds of years worth of patronage and say, we need to find other people to build in our board structures. So that is the way I look at museums as spaces of belonging. It is always through a lens of anti-racism.

Even in my childrens’ school, we talk about our kids’ schools all the time. When I walk into my child’s school, there’s a massive portrait of queen Elizabeth. There’s a massive portrait about an anti-gang message. From a lens of anti-racism. I sit back and I say, that’s problematic. What does queen Elizabeth have anything to do with my child’s education? In fact, it’s antithetical to the educational process because you’re teaching a child that colonialism is acceptable. You’re not asking them to critique colonialism.

With the gang message. You’re telling them you’re walking into this building. You’re going to be a gang member. That’s a lens of anti-racism that I look at. And you know, when I hear stories from my students about being surveillanced by the police at a Cactus Club restaurant, you know, white waitresses will tell me, Sharn, the group of brown men are sitting here just enjoying their dinner and a bunch of police come and start harassing them.

My eyes are open to the forms of harassment that exists in the city alone. So that is what belonging is to me. How do we foster that belonging from a lens of positivity? We’re always working from a model of a deficit. Martha, everything is always just, you know, what is wrong? Let’s fix the wrong. My ideology is, can we work from a place of positivity?

Can we work from a place of what people bring into a space and highlight that rather than this deficit model. And you can use that model anywhere. Not just museums, institutions like UFV, too.

That was a long answer! *Laughs*

Dr. Dow: No, it’s great. Can you talk a bit about that mostly so that you can solve it for me. But can you talk about this balance of deficit and strengths? Right? Because you’ve got the tension to say, if we stay on the strength side too much, we don’t want to, you know make invisible. The real challenges is absolutely, we don’t want to just stay here. Can you talk a bit on how do we navigate that?

Dr. Sandhra: I think we are in a place of having to catch up. Against all of the deficits that have been thrown against racialized bodies. And, and for me, June of 2020 was this moment of catching up this call to action of let’s catch up to the fact that for so long, it’s always been a model of deficit, of less than, of proving ourselves, of model minority, of all these kinds of forms that we have to defend our positionality.

So a hundred percent, we don’t want to over nostalgize. We don’t want to make it where it’s only the good so you can’t work on the negativity. But I feel like if we play catch up first, that too will slowly happen. If you are working against a system that for a hundred plus years has built a negative about you, there’s a lot of catching up to do in terms of strength building, but also, you know, when you feel a sense of belonging in your heart, you bring that energy with you everywhere.

I talk about affective resonance. So affective resonance means, when I feel like I belong at the Sikh Heritage Museum, that aura, I walk around with me everywhere and nobody can suck that away from me. Nobody can take that away from me, no matter how much negativity I may face. That’s really powerful, Martha, that’s so powerful to feel like I do belong here. You can’t take that away from me. And it’s a challenge to whiteness. It’s a challenge to white supremacy, in the perspective I’m talking about belonging.

Dr. Dow: What does that look like in your classrooms?

Dr. Sandhra: I teach from a very inclusive lens. I teach from an emotional lens. I teach in a way that is mindful of every single student’s lived experience in my classroom. I may not know all their stories. They don’t even have to share with me, nor should they have to share with me. But the moment a student walks into my classroom, I understand they have complexity in their life. And I respect that complexity. They may have children. They may be of a different class. They may have different complexities in their life.

If you begin with that foundation, you move forward in empathy. I feel like we are institutionally really caged into work on assessment and work on output based. I think you can find a balance by first finding empathy and compassion, and then building upward. And I think for the most part, my students value that and it’s a mutual respect. It’s not hierarchy. I’m not better than them. In fact, I learn from my students just as much. I also learned that they don’t always respond to dense articles, dense academic writing, hell I don’t even respond to dense academic writing half the time, the stuff I’m reading, I don’t understand. I think that’s powerful because we have to position ourselves to say academics is also fluid, so let’s teach in a way that’s fluid in our classrooms. So I think my students respond.

Now, there is resistance. I was looking at my Rate My Professor ratings, and I can’t help but do that. I know were told not to, but I can’t help, but do it, and somebody posted a comment saying, you know, all she does is teach through a lens of hate.

And I was like, that’s so interesting. Cause that’s the exact opposite of what I’m trying to do. But to some, when I’m teaching the challenge of systems that they’ve always been used to, it may look like hate. But that is not what I’m trying to do. And, when I get my responses from my class reviews, knock on wood, they’ve all been amazing. And that fills my cup.

Dr. Dow: I have no doubt. I wonder if some of that response to you and how you teach and others teach has to do with us being really comfortable with sort of diversity workshops and kind of really soft, you know, ticking boxes, whether it’s in the universities or policing or wherever it is. But can you talk just a little bit about that balance, you know, sort of that need for more aggressive sort of stances and then that diversity sort of approach.

Dr. Sandhra: It is a very difficult balance to strike. I think when I’m looking at it from a position of power, that’s where I try to challenge and teach my students to challenge.

So for example, if I’m talking about race and anti-racism, I try to teach them how power works within that situation, who has power? Why do they have power? What is that power built upon? And get them to understand, oh, wow, we’ve never noticed that this is kind of a huge disparity. How do we challenge those systems?

So if I position everything back to power, they kind of understand, but if I just make it, pardon the pun, like a black and white issue, it’s not going to work. In fact, what I tell them is there is no black and white it’s grey. There’s complexity and greyness in our classes, we’ve been having huge debates about the truckers’ convoy. There are students who believe firmly, it began as a protest in labor solidarity, in class, there are students who are like, hell no, it’s always been this. I allow those complex conversations to take place in my classroom, but I do it in a way that doesn’t put down each of the viewpoints.

But there have been moments where I had to say, okay, we’re gonna have to stop. Because things are getting heated and I’ve only been teaching for three, four years. I’m also still learning how to work through that because I’ve got my own opinions too. And if you are on my social media, you know, I’ve got my own opinions, but I don’t ever let that enter the classroom. I try to keep nuance while at the same time, always bringing us back to power, power, power. I feel like students understand that when you bring it back to power. Not always, but sometimes

Dr. Dow: I’d love, maybe we’ll do this over a glass of wine, I’d love to talk more about these ideas, about how we navigate, you know, space, voice, silence in the classroom. So that positions that seem contrary and are problematic we don’t find too much space for, and I think that’s interesting.

Dr. Sandhra: But you know what’s been really interesting teaching, on Zoom and having students private chat me, it’s actually opened up those students who aren’t comfortable speaking in the classroom.

And I don’t give participation marks just for speaking up in classroom. What I say is if you private chat message me, if you want to have a zoom conversation with me, that counts as participation too. So once again, the fluidity now, perhaps we can figure out that it’s not just participation in terms of I’m going to raise my hand and speak for 10 minutes.

I don’t count that as participation. There’s fluidity to it.

Dr. Dow: Interesting. Okay, so I’d love to hear you talk a bit about the South Asian Canadian Legacy Project. And, in particular, I’m really interested in terms of, CHASI has been really focused around sort of community and innovation and SASI has a long history of that. Could you talk a bit about that project?

Dr. Sandhra: Oh, an incredible moment for us. On April 12th, we launched a two year project called the South Asian Canadian Legacy Project. There are six different pieces to this, so for example, a whole South Asian Canadian digital archive, Open School BC, which is like a provincially mandated organization that creates school curriculum.

We’ve created school curriculum all the way from K to 12, based on South Asian histories and contemporary stories as well. There’s a traveling exhibit. There’s a social history book. There’s a labour history. So many different projects completed in two years.

This is a legacy. Like it is specifically a legacy, not just for me. In fact, I may not even be the benefactor. It’ll be my kids. It’ll be my kids’ kids. This is a model for other communities to see how they too can fix those erasures, fix those omissions and not just school as part of a whole entire… it’s all encompassing. So for example, even the digital archive, if you go on our digital archive website, it is accessible to you.

For so long archives have been a colonial archive. Gate- kept even the names like my own community’s histories. We were either erased or we recalled Hindus because they didn’t know who we were. Those erasures we are fixing. Martha, sometimes it takes us an hour to write one caption for a picture, of a wedding for example, what is the ceremony taking place? Why does this matter? One hour. Imagine the work, the behemoth of work. I’m so proud of this. I’m so proud Satwinder has led this project, it’s huge. It’s huge.

Dr. Dow: Yeah. To be honest, you could get the energy from the photos that were there. Like you could just feel the energy of a really exciting event.

Dr. Sandhra: And Jagmeeet Singh was there! Like, it was so wicked, come on!

Dr. Dow: It was great. So what’s next for that?

Dr. Sandhra: Yeah, so we’re working on promotions, each individual, project’s going to have its own launch. A really cool thing we’re doing at the SASI is monthly workshops around the digital archive. So speaking of CHASI’s commitment to community, well, we’re going to be doing is bringing in community members saying, Hey, drop in. Do you have pictures that you’ve always wanted to have archived, digitized? Come to the SASI, we’re going to do monthly workshops. Now we’re all engaging with our stakeholders and saying, let’s pump this out, let’s get our teachers to embed this in their curriculum. It’s a lot of work.

Dr. Dow: Just amazing.

Dr. Sandhra: Thank you.

Dr. Dow: So given all of that, can you talk a little bit about how we can work together? I mean, we naturally, many of us draw together because of our commitment to various issues, but can you talk a little bit about on a university campus, such as ours, how can we be better supporters and collaborators.

Dr. Sandhra: You know, I think there’s a lot of buzz on campus with the different centers, opening up, different dedications to the work of anti-racism and EDI and inclusivity. I think we need to speak more to each other. CHASI and SASI have a great relationship and friendship. And I think that’s a prime example of how other institutions and centers too can work collaboratively.

What makes CHASI and SASI a little bit different perhaps as we are community oriented. And when I say community, we aren’t looking at community as a frivolous little puppet that we are going to utilize and sap knowledge from, and, you know, the typical anthropological archeological historical way. No, what I like is that CHASI and SASI work with community as empowerment. And I think through that model, we can mimic that sort of relationship building across campus.

So, you know, build faculty relationships between each other. Just like we’ve done with Dr. Sarah Beaulieu. That’s a great example. I actually think we are one of the leaders on campus. Showing how we can speak to each other. There isn’t a lot of that happening yet. I want to see more of it. I think you and Satwinder do naturally do that anyways on campus, leadership is a huge, critical role in that, the leaders have to be wanting to build those relationships, but respect community first and then build those relationsships.

Dr. Dow: I think what you say is is dead on, right? It’s this idea that in campus culture, you know, and it’s not UFV it’s more general university issue is that that relationship with community is often a lot of taking or enrollment or those kinds of focus, but what does that meaningful engagement look like, so I think there’s lots of work to be done.

Dr. Sandhra: Yeah we don’t need to extract from community. They in fact empower us. So you look at it differently and you’re like, oh wow. We learn so much from our communities. Let’s value that, and bring that into our campus. It’s a great model.

Dr. Dow: Can you as we get ready to close, can you tell one of your favorite stories about the impact the Institute’s work has had on students?

Dr. Sandhra: Oh my gosh. I have one story. It’s it’s not even a UFV student, so I was giving a tour to a, I guess you would call like an inner city school in Abbotsford. Grade four children at the Sikh Heritage Museum and they were all non-Sikh students. And we had finished giving the tour and we were upstairs in the sacred space, the Darbar Hall, and that’s where it’s open Q&A, kids can ask me anything and everything under the sun, nothing’s offensive. I would rather mitigate any ignorances.

And this little girl raised her hand ,and she’s grade four. And she goes, why do I feel so at peace in this space. And I write about that in my dissertation as well. My whole dissertation is anecdotes of stories over the course of my past two, three years of my life. That moment, like, melted me.

I almost started crying. The teacher who’s done tours with me also non-Sikh, was like emotional about it. And actually the CBC wants to cover now this story and that school, because what they recently did is mimic the walk, carrying the lumber piece by piece from the Trethewey lumber company to the heritage Gurdwara, this is what she did mostly. Same teacher, same grade, but this was many years ago, this little girl said this, and I was like, wow, this is what happens when you can forge spaces of belonging, not just for your own community, just a space of belonging. My favorite story.

Dr. Dow: And it’s such an important story right now, right. There’s a desperate need for a sort of sense of peace for our students, and hope.

Dr. Sandhra: Yeah.

Dr. Dow: And then I’d add what you add to that mix. I think that’s so inspiring is urgency.

Dr. Sandhra: Yes. Always. *Snaps fingers*

Dr. Dow: Let’s get it done. So thank you for that. Is there anything you’d want to particularly point listeners to, in terms of accessing any of these?

Dr. Sandhra: Yeah. I can give you all our links, you know, our social history book, for example, a brilliant collection, open access available online, labour history book, I really encourage people and educators here at UFV to utilize these resources. So once again, it’s not just for those teaching South Asian histories. What’s really cool about our resources. It’s, it’s accessible to all historians teaching all subjects. It’s the breadth and depth of the themes in our resources.

It’s not about just, oh, what’s that South Asian community history. Nope. Don’t box it. Teach it in your courses.

Dr. Dow: Fantastic. We’ll look forward to it. Thank you so much. Well, I want to thank you very much for your time. And it’s always such a pleasure and I think your energy on campus, there’s been no more important time than right now for the voices such as yours. So look forward to hearing more.

Dr. Sandhra: Well, thank you. I have to say about the energy because not everybody feels that way, but I feel the love from CHASI and I I did tell you this, I was truly honored and somewhat shocked when I was asked to do this podcast because I hold so much respect for the work CHASI is doing. So this platform means the world to me in an institution that doesn’t always see me. So I really, really appreciate it, truly.

Dr. Dow: Well, we’ll do more of it. Thank you so much.

Dr. Sandhra: Thanks Martha.