Interview: Miti Desai of HSP

With #SLCKindnessWeek starting next week, here is a conversation on kindness with Miti Desai. Miti is a writing student at Sarah Lawrence. She’s also a co-founder of the club HSP—Health Smile Peace. I sat down with her outside of the library café two weeks ago to discuss the club. This is our interview on kindness, tragedy, Facebook, SLC, and staying positive.


Elizabeth Sochko: You’re one of the co-chairs of Health Smile Peace, can you just tell us a little bit about how the club started and how it operates?

Miti Desai: My co-chair, June Kramer, is a senior TA in one of my classes, so that’s how we met. We just want to work towards building a community, which is the number one thing with self-confidence and self-care. It’s funny because we were just talking about it in the DAPS (Diversity Activism & Programming Subcommittee), how self-care is supposed to be a novelty but it’s actually a need. We’d like to raise consciousness beyond what society tells us. We do yoga nights every other Friday, where it helps relieve stress and [we] sometimes learn healing techniques. It’s all about stress-relief, motivation, and digging into the core of who you are.

ES: I think that’s especially important on a college campus where everyone is stressed. And everyone is thinking that what is going to relieve their stress is finishing their work or studying more, and that’s not necessarily the case.

MD: Yeah, I guess this is a kind of boost of productivity or just creative ability.

ES: I think that’s an awesome plan. Especially just having the option to do something, not just talk about it…Every other Friday someone can look forward to At least I can get something out of this. That’s really nice.

ES: How many people are in the club with you or are actively engaging in what the club is trying to do?

MD: So we just started, and we haven’t gone into the logistics of a club. What we do currently is just [with] our friends or people we know. Like, “Oh yeah, there’s a thing next week you should come.” and we go to the yoga center in Scarsdale. For now, we’ve had four sessions. And every session has had a different set of groups.

ES: That’s really, really cool. Especially since it is off campus and you’re still having a turnout. I think that’s speaking to what you’re doing.

MD: Yes. Even if there’s only five of us, we still go because at least someone will get something out of it.

ES: And the sense of community in doing something with your friends where you all want the same things. I think it’s powerful to be doing that. It’s great.

MD: Exactly.

ES: You mentioned DAPS. How has working in DAPS trickled into this new project you’re starting? And how do you see both of these, Daps committee & HSP, affecting your daily life?

MD: Well I’m a transfer, so this is my first semester. I was in Bryant University in Rhode Island. So I feel like being a part of DAPS was an integration into the community. DAPS is very active and [as a community] we actually do stuff. Health Smile Peace is stemming from this community that has just kind of helped me be involved, think about projects to engage [others], and yeah, I don’t know how to say it, but it’s just helped me settle into the community much faster than if I wasn’t a part of it.

ES: That makes a lot of sense. This is sort of a random question, but what is something kind that someone has done for you that you’ve never forgotten. It can be small, doesn’t have to be huge.

MD: Every year on my birthday I tell people to send me a letter. And I got one today, like one month after my birthday!

ES: Just now you got it? That’s so fun! Who is it from?

MD: It’s from my friend back home in India. You know when someone just takes time to write a letter to you, even just birthday letters, those are my favorite. Or randomly when you get a voicemail from your friend and they’re just like, “Oh I miss you!” You know, stuff like that.

ES: Yeah! That’s so sweet you just got it. Were you expecting it or was it a total surprise?

MD: No my friend told me, “You need to go check your mailbox. I sent the letter on November 3rd.”

ES: That’s so cute.

ES: Okay, big transition. In the aftermath of political tragedies that we’re constantly hearing about, especially this week starting with Missouri and ending with Paris, how do you think that remembering to be kind helps us cope or deal with situations out of our control?  

MD: Okay so, my number one belief is that there are so many tragedies that keep happening, and constantly living in fear of such things is not going to help us. Because what is life? Constantly being like, “Oh shit what if someone attacks my school and I’m going to die?” I guess it’s just waking up everyday first of all, and just being grateful for our lives. Then [acknowledging] everyone is going through life, and it’s tough. And being conscious that you can’t be rude is the simplest thing. I read this tumbler post about Paris, where a person living there talked about [how] it’s nice that the whole world is praying, but also to start looking at all the positive things that have happened during the tragedy. Like the cab drivers giving free rides to all the victims, or how the bus drivers stayed up all night and drove the buses or transported all the patients, and I guess you have to look for a little bit of hope In every tragedy and everyday life.

ES: Yes. All of that is very important, and also to remember not to be upset over silly things. Like people who honk when I’m driving on my way to school—there are bigger things than me immediately driving at the green light. It’s hard to be in this state of being both so impatient and ready to be critical of someone else versus a collective ‘Oh the world is so bad, we should be so united.’ I don’t know.

MD: Yeah! It’s different, especially with social media. Yesterday I was talking to one of my friends and she was really angry because someone posted on Facebook “What is praying even going to do for Paris?” She said, “I’m not even religious and that made me angry.” Like if you’re sitting here in Sarah Lawrence, and you can’t really help Paris out, if all you can do is pray, why be so critical of praying?

ES: Yes I read something really similar, too. And that negativity is just not productive.

ES: Are you going to the Black Out later today?

MD: Yeah.

ES: I’m going as well. I think a lot of people are, and I just wondered what your thoughts are on that? To see Sarah Lawrence engaging and speaking up for other voices across the country in universities that don’t have committees like DAPS or clubs that are trying to promote positive initiatives [with students of color].

MD: More than that, the Black Out has an agenda, which is amazing. You need that so you’re coming together for a cause that is much more concrete than just a ‘black out’. You know what I mean? Yes [black outs] are awesome, but I love that the community has turned it around the bigger issues at SLC. It’s cool. I think it’s a step forward to working as a community.

ES: Yes. I agree. Speaking of Facebook and this type of thing. I was reading this morning on my feed that the University of South Carolina—I’m from SC—and the university in Columbia is having a big walk out this morning as well. I guess some of the administration is saying not to do it, and some of the students that I guess I’m friends with on Facebook from high school or whatever, were posting things like, ‘This is so stupid, don’t go to the walkout, we already have some of these things.’ It was such a different response than what I’ve seen here. Re ading, ‘Some of these demands are already being fulfilled!’  bothered me. Why just some? The keyword is some. Why are you trying to put down others speaking? It’s crazy to me. And that it is happening on the same morning within the same realm of universitie and student engagement. I don’t know, but I’m happy to be at Sarah Lawrence today. 

MD: Yes. It definitely took me a month to settle in and get everything right. Yeah, you can make mistakes. And at first I was scared, like what if I say the wrong pronoun and stuff? But people are much more forgiving than that. It’s nice.

ES: Going back to the club, what are some things, apart from yoga, that you’ve been planning or doing?

MD: Oh yes! I forgot. We have a blog called Basically everyday there are inspirational quotes that go up. We’ve had it active for three weeks now, and on Wednesdays we have a new theme. This week’s theme was kindness and being grateful. There’s blog posts on Wednesdays and the weekend. We’ve had a bunch of guest writers. There was one who posted about Free the Nipple. It was a Facebook post of one of our friends and we really liked it, so we put it up on the blog—it was really powerful. There was another blog post that was a diary entry someone wanted to share. We’re putting up posters now to get the word out about the blog and also to have people write in. We come up with prompts every Monday or so, to start a discussion. You don’t have to share with us, you can just read or talk.

ES: Where are you having your meetings to talk? In apartments or on campus? It seems like a lot of organization has gone into this for being just a group of friends wanting to do something better, and I think that’s great.

MD: It started off randomly in the pub. And we were like ”Oh! We should have a magazine!” and then were like, “Ehhh, we don’t really have the budget for that. So OK what about a blog? Its free. Lets do a blog.” So we started the blog. Then we had a long discussion at someone’s apartment with just the three of us who organize it (Desai, Kramer, and Roshana Ostowari). And now it’s through texting. When we go to yoga, we have a meeting afterwards.

ES: What a good way to regroup! You already come out of having that safe space.

MD: We really want to start a weekly or monthly meeting to create a core group of participants, but I think we’re going to do that in the Spring semester since this semester is ending.

ES: Yes. It’s gone by fast. I wanted to ask, unrelated, what are you studying here?

MD: I’m actually studying writing.

ES: Oh nice! I’m a grad student in the Poetry program.

MD: I’m part of Right to Write. It is amazing. (Right to Write is program where SLC students host writing workshops for inmates at the Westchester County Correctional Facility.)

ES: You are? That’s so cool. Speaking of Right to Write, that is an act of kindness in and of itself but on a different level. It’s bringing positivity, but I don’t know how to word it….Everyone benefits.

MD: Honestly, it’s more rewarding for the people who facilitate it than the participants. Obviously, they get to get out of their zone for the thirty minutes, but for us… they produce such good work it’s ridiculous. We’ve had four sessions and all of us are so emotional. That’s how powerful they are. They keep telling us, “Thank you for taking time to volunteer and coming here willingly.” And we’re just like, “Don’t put us to such a high standard.”

ES: Yeah, like you’re the one who is helping me type of thing. Everyone [involved] I’ve spoken with has the same outlook on the program. You go, you expect it to be one way, and then it’s totally different.

MD: Yeah.

ES: What else are you involved in? The longer we talk, the more I feel like you have on your plate.

MD: Not much. This is kind of it. I have a job as an office assistant in college events. But yeah, that’s pretty much it.

“Pretty much it” Seems like an understatement. Thank you Miti (and June Kramer & Roshana Ostowari) for spending so much time planning, organizing, and thinking about how to improve the SLC community with your Health Smile Peace initiative. We think it’s pretty awesome.


Written by Elizabeth Sochko. 


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