South Asian creative Harpo Mander leans into creativity and community to elevate joy
Surrey, resting on the unceded territory of the Semiahmoo, Katzie, Kwikwetlem, Kwantlen, Musqueam, Qayqayt, Tsleil Waututh and Tsawwassen First Nations, is a place of buzzing vibrancy. For Harpo Mander, Surrey native and recipient of its 25 Under 25 Award, it’s the beating heart of British Columbia. A safe haven to express her identity and culture, and the bedrock of her brand it’sHarpo.
Watch and listen to the extended conversation in this video or listen to the podcast at the bottom of this article.
Community and Joy
Communal healing and unity has always been Mander’s mission. It’s the core and drive behind her work. It’sHarpo, Mander’s namesake brand, is a multi-pronged storytelling entity irrespective of the medium. Through audio and video, Mander spotlights her own stories and the stories of the unique diverse people in her community. “When we show up in love, to create space to support one another, and build the world we want to, while living authentically, that to me is community”.
Speaking to her own upbringing: being raised by aunts, uncles and grandparents in addition to her parents – Mander expresses how this communal approach inculcated a mix of values in her. Values that played a huge part in how she envisions the role that a community performs. There is a place for a hustle culture that glorifies fierce independence. But for Mander, the healing strength of relationships and community is often overlooked. “To me, community is really warm hug” ends Mander.
Working for Change
Growing up, like most people of colour, Mander frequently felt a part of two different worlds. “Too White for some spaces, and too Brown for others,” she said. There wasn’t space where both these worlds could co-exist equally, and where the real Harpo could flourish.
The Third Space, where Mander didn’t have to translate her identity, is where she found her creative voice. A voice that doesn’t obsess over the complexities of her identity, but celebrates it.
Mander is the creator and host of the Brown Girl Guilt Podcast. A podcast for South Asians to participate in communal healing and understand the intersectionalities of their own identities, Brown Girl Guilt also dismantles the guilt that arrives with not belonging. “For me guilt has been such a … disempowering experience for so long. I want to be in the driver’s seat of my own life and by being myself … inspire others to do the same,” concludes Mander.
Mander is also the General Manager of the 5X Fest, an annual Surrey-based cultural festival for South Asian youth that promotes music and the arts. Past artists have included heavy hitters such as Raja Kumari and Cartel Madras.
5X also launched its inaugural Artists in Residence program for South Asians artists to come together to create and make art. The goal is to foster a space for South Asian artists to thrive. The goal is to put money directly into the pockets of South Asian artists. So their creativity can become their main source of income, and something they do for the rest of their lives.
Similar to Cold Tea Collective, “for us, by us” is the motto of 5X Press, a digital magazine with a robust team of South Asian writers and editors that is an offspin to the festival. “It’s for young people telling stories that they want to tell and making the commentary that they want to make, while untangling the knots of their own identity,” she said.
Making room for joy in and solidarity
For the former top 25 under 25 honouree, there’s so much more room for South Asians today to explore and to be curious. Harpo Mander believes that South Asians can now take up more space. Growing up, she didn’t see many models for what South Asians could be and do. But South Asian in Canada today have so many more visible examples of what one could be.
When asked about bringing communal healing to the South Asian community, Mander stresses the importance of celebration and joy. “While we work to fight systemic inequality, and call it out, we really show up to celebrate and support our culture and our people. Joy in itself is a form of resistance and activism,” concludes Mander.
Mander also sees being in solidarity with other BIPOC advocacy groups as a way to elevate joy. For Mander, a unified position with other BIPOC groups can propel the various needs of the groups much higher than would be possible alone. Together, each group no longer need to look for permission from the dominant group in power.
Looking forward, Mander envisions and strives for the bluest of skies in South Asians’ future where there are “ no boxes put around us. … We get to be whoever we want to be, whatever we want to be, in any capacity that we want to be.”
You can also listen to the full interview between Executive Producer Natasha Jung and Harpo Mander.
To see more episodes of the Making It documentary, visit our YouTube.
Cold Tea Collective proudly presents Making It, While Making a Difference, celebrating Asian Canadians who are following their dreams while uplifting their communities. This production was created with the support of TELUS STORYHIVE. If you’d like to see more Asian-led productions for, by, and about the experiences of the Asian diaspora in North America, please consider making a donation to Cold Tea Collective.
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