3 Questions for…Lecturer Amy Kapadia
CSSW Lecturer Amy Kapadia has extensive clinical experience within the field of serious mental illness. Her research interests range from projects that examine the mental health effects of stigma among marginalized groups, to psychoeducation intervention development to enhance mental health using community-participatory approaches. At CSSW she leads curriculum development and teaches within the Clinical and Advanced Generalist Programming and Practice tracks. We are pleased to have her as a guest for our “3 Questions for…” series. She talks with CSSW Communications about being a second-generation Indian American, the impact her parents have had on her teaching approach, and the importance of bearing witness and honoring lived experiences as central to the creation and implementation of interventions.
#1: What are the formative experiences and influences that led you to get involved with the work you are currently doing?
My parents emigrated to the United States from India in the early 1970s. We lived in a suburban, predominantly white, middle-class town outside of New Haven, CT. It was a time in which societal culture valued assimilation—Americanization. Like many Indian immigrants, having experienced various forms of explicit and implicit anti-Asian racism, my parents shed much of their Indian-ness. They wore western clothing, spoke only in English and refrained from cultural practices outside of our home. I’m thankful that my mom always cooked Indian food. But my father would insist on opening all the windows, even in freezing New England winters, because god forbid our home smelled of curry!
My parents were physicians, researchers and professors of medicine within an institutional setting that perpetuated Western—white—norms. They were touted as members of a model minority and praised for their British-sounding accents. In our hometown, my sister and I were viewed as unique, assumed to be smart, meek, well-mannered and often mistaken as twins. People saw various shades of brown. They didn’t see us—we were not granted the privilege of being seen as two distinct individuals.
Upon reflection, I have spent much of my life traversing a white–brown line rooted in xenophobia, and anti-Asian and anti-Black racism. Generalizations abound with an exceptionally culturally rich and diverse group of Asian Americans. My ethnicity, language preference, and spiritual beliefs are often incorrectly assumed. I have been accused of trespassing in my own apartment complex and assumed to be a caregiver to my own children (who are mixed race). And yet, as a non-Black person of color of South Asian descent, I have garnered privileges within white-dominated institutional contexts within which I have attained education and employment. I must take ownership of aligning with whiteness as I have the choice to engage with or overlook oppressive ideologies and practices.
My hope in the work I do and in my teaching is that I may honor the strength, courage, and resilience of my parents’ and others’ immigrant stories by intentionally applying the frameworks of anti-oppression, intersectionality, ecological systems and cultural resilience to my work—and by holding close the historical and ever-present interplay of macro-level structures on individual, family, and community trajectories.
Question #2: Is there some success that stands out in your mind that you’re really proud of?
What comes to mind is the opportunity to teach. When I walked into my first class as an instructor 14 years ago, I was panicked and in awe of the responsibility entrusted to me. It has been an honor, too, to follow in my mom’s footsteps. She taught medical students for close to 45 years. For better or for worse, she dismissed the discrimination she experienced at an institutional level. Instead, she focused her career on forging genuine and meaningful connections with her students instilling in them a deep respect for the profound ways in which the human body functions. She taught with tremendous humility, devotion, and respect for her students—it was beautiful and rare. I have come to appreciate that the teaching process is transactional and collaborative: learning and growth happens in the room for each of us.
Question #3: What is the most important lesson you’ve learned doing this work, and what do you wish you’d known when you started that you know now?
Most recently, I have had an opportunity to collaborate with colleagues at CSSW (Drs. Winter, Martí, Lukens and Witte), members of the Columbia Global Centers, and community leaders in Kenya and Brazil, in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Together, we created and implemented a psychoeducation-based crisis intervention for community leaders working within informal settlements to support their mental health and leadership capacities in the face of tremendous loss and structural challenges.
The lessons I am learning through this process are emblematic of what it means to set aside our notions of “expert.” And, as I have learned from parents, I strive to work and teach from a place of humility: a place where I recognize the privilege and honor of bearing witness to lived experiences in any setting and context. I endeavor to hold myself accountable, engage in on-going self-reflection, and represent in my work transparency, truth-telling, and a commitment to challenge systems of oppression.