Coffee Chat with International Zoroastrian Youth – Natalie Kanga
“Future possibilities start with steps we take today, so I would encourage anyone who is interested in becoming involved to not hesitate to take that first step. We made such good connections with youth from all over the world at the 12th WZC in New York; we have already promised each other that we will all meet up again at the 8th WZYC in London next year!” – Natalie
Hi Natalie! Welcome to our coffee chat and we’re excited to have you as our seventh guest in this series.
Can you please tell us a bit about yourself?
Hi all, I’m Natalie. I was born in Toronto and grew up in California, where I lived with my dad who is Parsi, my mom who is Canadian, and my sister. I studied Psychology/Human Health and Music at UC San Diego, and then worked as a behavior therapist as well as the manager of a music and arts school. I’m currently back in school completing my Masters in Psychology research at Arizona State University. I manage the Emotion, Culture, and Psychophysiology Lab, where I have multiple projects running regarding police stress and decision-making, exercise treatments for psychiatric patients, and music and arts interventions for children with mental differences. After I graduate in December, I plan to get a job in industry, hopefully with a health-centered tech company such as Google Health or the Calm App.
Apart from my professional life, I am most passionate about developing meaningful connections with friends, mentoring peers and students in their academic journeys, coaching volleyball teams, writing music, traveling, and being outside enjoying nature. I am lucky to be surrounded by gorgeous landscapes and beautiful people daily, and I try my best to live in the moment and appreciate all that I have!
Having grown up in San Jose, California and living between Phoenix and Los Angeles how do you manage to get involved with the local Zoroastrian Community?
Our Zoroastrian community is so interconnected worldwide, and I have used that to my advantage wherever I have moved. I love that everyone knows everyone, and even if they don’t, their grandmothers probably went to school together! I find it’s been easy to get to know the community if you’re willing to just put yourself out there, connect with friends of friends, and sometimes show up without knowing anyone. That’s when new friends are made!
Can you please tell us about your active role with the community? How did you get involved in hosting Z Camps for kids in Southern California? Do you ever have joint events with LA and other sister organizations?
I have taken on an active role in the San Jose community over the past decade or so and it really started when I attended the summer Z Camp when I was 18. I met so many friends and had such a fun time competing, putting on shows, etc. that I returned the next year, and every year after that, as a counselor.
Once people saw me getting involved, doors started to open, and people would come to me with ideas for projects they wanted to do in the community. Over the past few years, I have completed a few projects: I worked with a friend to produce a fine art photography book showcasing Parsi and Irani Zoroastrians in the San Francisco Bay Area, and the book and professional portraits were sold to raise funds for the new center. I also helped to create a mini documentary showcasing the diverse voices of our Bay Area community, young and old, involved and not involved, and from many different countries of origin. The message that rang loud and clear through the entire documentary is the fact that we all agree much more than we think we do, and we all want our community to survive and thrive.
For those interested, the documentary is available at the following YouTube link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Moghgghf_ek&ab_channel=ZThoughtsBayArea
I am also on the building committee which is working on fundraising and purchasing a center for the new Northern California Zoroastrian Center. I am especially excited about this initiative because it will be the first organization and center in California that combines both sides of our community – Parsi and Persian. Having the American culture in common will aid the unification of our communities, and I strongly believe that sharing and appreciating one other’s cultures will allow our communities to unite to build a stronger presence in North America and worldwide.
As for future involvement, I am going to be revamping the Z Camp for teenagers and moving it to be based in Los Angeles. Historically the camp has done a good job of bringing youth from all over California (and a handful from across North America and Iran) together, but we welcome teenagers from all over to attend, so please reach out if you know of anyone who is interested! Camp was how I made some of my closest Z friends and it is truly the catalyst that got me involved in the community.
How do you think you can collaborate with FEZANA and other international sister organizations to stay connected and exchanging ideas?
This is a great question! I do think our community would benefit from developing stronger connections and sharing resources. For example, there are several Zoroastrian communities in North America that have started or would like to start fundraising to eventually purchase a Zoroastrian center, however the task is daunting and time consuming. If we can make better use of our connections and resources across communities, we can save time and stop reinventing the wheel. I have thought about widely sharing the template for the documentary project, as well as the planning materials we use for the Z camp so that other communities can take these ideas and run with them. The massive WhatsApp group for Zoroastrian youth, as well as the Worldwide Zoroastrians Facebook group, are both a great start in getting people connected and sharing ideas across distances.
You recently attended the 12th World Zoroastrian Congress in New York City, USA, can you tell us more about it and how it felt being around 1200 Zoroastrians from all over the globe in one single hotel for four days?
The 12th WZC was an unforgettable experience! Right when I stepped out of the taxi in front of the hotel, I spotted Parsis – it was like a Zoroastrian takeover of Manhattan! I attended a number of wonderfully thought-provoking, inspiring sessions which dusted off the cobwebs of some incredibly important, timely topics. I got to experience beautiful entertainment and listen in on impressively progressive dialogue. I explored the city with old and new friends and made memories I will cherish for years to come. The entire four days were a treat and I left feeling so full of light, hope, and love for my community.
Are you excited for the 8th World Zoroastrian Youth Congress in London, UK next July? Would you recommend it to someone who has no idea what a congress is? How do you think you can spread the word and increase the excitement around the once-in-a-four-years global youth event? What ideas would you suggest for someone who wants to attend but is looking for sponsorships to enable them to attend next year’s congress?
I absolutely cannot wait for London 2023!!! Meeting the London crowd in New York really sealed the deal – we made such good connections with youth from all over the world at the 12th WZC in New York; we have already promised each other that we will all meet up again at the 8th WZYC in London next year! For anyone who isn’t sure about attending or who hasn’t been to a congress before, I would say to expect to be surrounded by people that “get” you. People that have the same roots, people that want to make friends, people that want to be involved and make a difference… Think about congress as an opportunity to explore a new city, meet new friends, and have important conversations about religion, culture, and community.
Spreading the word for London is honestly easy now because we are all on such a high after coming out of the 12th WZC in NYC! I think that word of mouth is the most powerful, personal way to get people excited. So, tell your friends, friends of friends, cousins, and anyone who will listen! The London team is really bringing the heat!
As for people seeking sponsorships to attend, I would say to reach out to your local community as a first step. Our community is so giving and well connected. Even if there is no sponsorship program already set up in your area, people like to come forward to help youth become involved. After all, we are the future!
Being born of mixed races did you face any challenges growing up – with respect to identity and belonging?
I think I was very lucky to grow up with the family I did. My mom is White, yet she cooks all the Parsi food, hosts potlucks, sits in on conversations that slip into Gujarati and nods along and listens for the English… and importantly, the San Jose community accepts her and my family fully. Ask anyone in San Jose – my mom is seen as an honorary Parsi! Of course, growing up I did notice I didn’t have as much knowledge as some of my friends about certain ceremonies or traditions. I don’t speak Gujarati and I had to learn how to wear a sari from my grandma when she was visiting, and aunties in the community would help me when I arrived at parties. Despite these minor challenges, I feel so grateful to have grown up with a mix of two cultures. I recognize my privilege in having this positive experience being mixed and I understand that our community has a long way to go to before my experience becomes the norm. I stand as an example of the good that can come from acceptance, and in an ever-diversifying society, I think this acceptance is essential for a successful future.
And to anyone else who is of mixed heritage: You are perfect as you are! You bring diversity and a unique beauty to our community and most Zoroastrian people love and accept you just as you are. Your lived experience is valid, and people will listen to you and support you. You can be as involved as anyone else, you can express your voice, and you can make a difference!
Lastly, what message do you have for our young members reading this and in what ways can they make an impact?
I would encourage my generation to step forward and be a part of the movement – it is an exciting, important time in our history, and it is up to us to decide what the future of Zoroastrianism holds. What will the Zoroastrian reputation will be in North America? Will we be known for our altruism, as the Parsis are in India? Will we be environmentalists? Will we step forward to help other communities in need? All these future possibilities start with steps we take today, so I would encourage anyone who is interested in becoming involved to not hesitate to take that first step. Reach out to someone, become involved in a small way, and doors will open that you didn’t even know existed.
Thank you so much Natalie, for your positivity and phenomenal work you do for the local community. You are such an amazing role model for our current and future youth!