What’s YOUR superpower? Love? Compassion? Helping, housing, and feeding people? For 19 young artists from Sand Point Housing, these were just a few of the strengths tapped into during cartooning and storytelling workshops with cartoonist, activist, and educator Vishavjit Singh, Solid Ground’s 2019 Building Community Luncheon keynote speaker.
At the first workshop, Vish, also known as the Sikh Captain America, shared his own personal journey with the youth – laying out his own vulnerabilities and strengths. His story takes many tough turns, but continues with hope.
Born in Washington, DC, Vish endured bullying as a youth due to his slight physical stature. Later, his family lived in India, where they survived genocide of the Sikh people after Indira Gandhi was assassinated by her Sikh bodyguards. They escaped back to the US, but lost friends, family, and neighbors.
As a young adult, Vish worked in tech in New York City – but then 9/11 hit. Instantly, his turban and beard made him a target of hate and bigotry – and he began cartooning to process his feelings, drawing himself as Captain America to shake up stereotypes and fight intolerance. Later, he found that embodying his alter ego in costume opened doors to spread change.
“Know your vulnerabilities; know your strengths. Tell them; don’t keep them inside you. And that’s where you’re going to find courage.” ~Vishavjit Singh, the Sikh Captain America
He explains, “We are ALL stories – and just by looking at someone, you’ll never know their stories. You’ll never know who they are until you ask them. So I asked this group of young people to reflect on their personal stories and use cartooning to express them. I want them to know that storytelling – telling YOUR story – is … a critical part of their life skills.”
Vish believes, “One of the things that unites us as a human species is we all have vulnerabilities – things we fear in ourselves or the world.” When we name our vulnerabilities, it can lead to “some of the most eye-opening moments in our lives. Sit down and try to think through your vulnerabilities. They create opportunities for you. Coming to terms with these vulnerabilities is an important part of what makes us human and how we build connection with each other.”
He finds that kids are “often even better than adults” when it comes to “openly sharing not only their strengths, but their vulnerabilities. For young people facing an increasingly complex and challenging world – who live in a world described by global warming, racist immigration policies, and internet-driven isolation – sharing vulnerabilities through creative expression is a powerful way to realize our commonality and the power from living authentic lives.”
So to start, he says, “I had them write down their vulnerabilities, their strengths, the problems in the world they wish to change, and the superpowers they would like to have.”
With a little bit of awe, Vish notes that in their artwork, “More than a few of them incorporated the notion of ‘I want to help people’ – using compassion, reading people’s minds. There is that deep-rooted sense of ‘I want to do good. I want to help out.’ And that’s what I saw in these kids at Sand Point, at Solid Ground, and I feel this with kids across the US.”
This short video documents Vishavjit’s workshops at Sand Point Housing:
So Vish says, “I remind them, that’s what superheroes do in real life. People help each other out all the time; we’re doing superhero acts all the time. But there’s a fascination with a superhero and movies and comic books that I find people connect with, and that has allowed me to open doors. People see me dressed as Captain America and something changes.”
In the Sand Point Housing workshops, he says, “I got to see firsthand, in real life, the power of superheroes” as youth came to the realization: “‘You know, I could be that superhero that goes out and helps people.’”
One young artist is disturbed by the homelessness he sees around the city. His superpower is compassion. He says, “There is this thing … where you could switch – you could put someone else’s perspective or soul in someone else’s shoes so they can feel the pain – and then maybe they’ll rethink what they’ve been thinking.” Another artist declares, “I’m going to buy these houses for the homeless people, and then I’d put food in their houses.”
Vish tells them, “We talk about superheroes in comic books, and there are superheroes in real life. Teachers can be superheroes. Social workers can be superheroes, first responders – all kinds of people. So there is that connection with the fictional world and the real-life world where we realize, ‘You know what? Superheroes do good deeds every day.’”
Vish says, “We all have vulnerabilities. Superheroes have vulnerabilities in the fictional world, superheroes have vulnerabilities in the real world. And I want kids to know: ‘Know your vulnerabilities; know your strengths. Tell them; don’t keep them inside you. And that’s where you’re going to find courage.”
Snapshots of Vish, the Sand Point Housing artists, and their artwork, which was compiled into a printed anthology for the participants.