It sounds a little strange to some Canadian ears, but it could be just the word for the times we’re living in.
“Yeepi,” says Dr. Linda Kongnetiman-Pansa, PhD, RSW, with a smile. “It means to help, or to assist in Okanisi and Saamaka, two tribal languages in Suriname.”
As it turns out, yeepi is a word loaded with meaning. As Kongnetiman-Pansa explains, the word really connotes a way of life — where you really consider the different ways you could lend a hand, that you could help others. In 2023 this feels like a refreshing idea, but Kongnetiman-Pansa says that it really reflects the spirit of the Suriname’s people, where she was born and raised.
“When you think about Suriname in the Amazon,” she says, “think about people who would always like to always be reaching out. Always looking to help other people. Who are making sense of life and raising their children in a way that I would say is very progressive and wanting to make an impact as well in their own community.”
It would seem that Kongnetiman-Pansa never lost this focus on giving back and making an impact, since that's all she's done throughout her life. These days she’s making an impact as the managing lead for the City of Calgary’s Anti-Racism program. The role follows 20 years with Alberta Health Services, where her resume includes managing provincial addiction and mental health.
She says seeing the toll that racism takes on the mental and physical health of racialized peoples was one of the main reasons she took on the anti-racism role with The City of Calgary.
“It will cost us more for social services and health care, if we don’t attend to anti-racism as a preventive measure,” she says. “This work is important, because people’s lives depend on it.”
'Born' to the profession
Like many who end up in the profession, Kongnetiman-Pansa says with a laugh that her parents would probably say she was born to it, and that, in many ways, she has always been a social worker. She followed her passion and did an undergraduate social work degree in Suriname before her family moved to Canada in 1999. Realizing her undergraduate degree wouldn’t be accepted for practice here, she applied to do her master’s in social work at UCalgary. Her mentor during the program, Dr. Daniel Lai, PhD, along with Dr. David Este, PhD, persuaded her to pursue her doctorate, despite her early misgivings.
And in many ways, academics and research have remained a big part of Kongnetiman-Pansa's life. Amazingly, besides her career as a clinical social worker and with The City, she has consistently found the time to teach as an adjunct professor / sessional instructor for several schools including St. Mary’s University, the University of British Columbia and, of course, her alma mater, UCalgary.
But even as her career has blossomed, she’s never forgotten her roots and those she left behind in Suriname. While the diverse country is rich in spirit, there is a lot of poverty, particularly among the Surinamese Maroon.
The Maroons are the descendants of enslaved Africans who escaped from the plantations and made their way into the heart of the jungle to escape. Kongnetiman-Pansa’s family are Maroon and she and her husband felt they had to do something. “When you are in a position to give,” she says flatly, “you need to give.”
Roots of YEEPI Foundation
So in 2009, the family set about fundraising and eventually packed several skids with 1,500 pounds of school supplies, backpacks, stuffed animals and pajamas for Surinamese children. Shortly after that, in 2010, with the support of friends, they created the YEEPI Foundation, focused on providing help for projects identified by communities in Suriname.
One of their most successful projects, in 2018, provided washable sanitary napkins to women for health and sanitary reasons. However, through that project they came to understand that as many of the women were talking about their physical health, they were often also talking about mental health.
As Linda explains, this too is YEEPI.
It’s not just about lending a hand and saying, ‘Here you go,’ it's about opening up ways of talking. So even a conversation about mental health is lending a hand to demystify mental health and the impact of mental illness on society.
From those conversations, the YEEPI Foundation created Operation Health First, holding online (because of COVID) mental health conferences in 2021 and 2022. This year they are planning the first-ever in-person conference, which will bring individuals and communities together to discuss the mental health, mental well-being, and mental illness of Maroon people living in Suriname.
(Note story updated, May 16, 2023)