On keeping to resolutions

This is going to be a quick one.

Resolutions are easy to make, hard to keep. They demand routine, planning, focus, prioritization. None of those are my strong suits, unfortunately. And so, when I recently did a quick tracking of the resolutions I had made earlier this year, I found myself falling short on ALL of them. Let’s start from the top:

  1. Reading: With a goal of 3 books a month (fairly achievable), I’m 1 book behind schedule. I’m a bit bummed, because I thought I’d set myself an easy target here. However, this did net me a treasure trove of reading gems these last 6 months – and I’m pumping up the momentum on this one now! My top picks from my list this year:  A Man Called Ove, by Fredrik Backman; The Vegetarian by Han Kang (disturbing disturbing disturbing!); Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. You can see the rest of my list here.
  2. Exercising: After lazing around the whole of last year, I decided to finally get off my ass and get it back into a gym. While this went swimmingly for the first quarter of the year, the extended holidays and travel in the second threw me off-balance, and back into my default state of inertia. While there have been occasional bursts of activity: weekend hiking; Saturday morning parkruns, etc, I’m nowhere back to being as fit as I was earlier this year. Getting back to that this month, makes me feel hopeful for the remaining months of this year though. My motivation? Discovery Vitality – I’m only a 1000 points away from my next level, and I think I can get there in the next two weeks!

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    Weekend Hiking nets beautiful sights like this one: these are only two of four giraffes which surrounded us on one of our weekend adventures

  3. Writing: Writing was a late addition to my resolutions, but I was still so excited to get back to this! I wrote a bunch earlier this year – even utilising time in commutes and air-travel, which did lead to a distinct travel theme, but eh – and then of course, stagnated! And there’s SO MUCH to write about. I have some more food-related things to warble about; some more work-related events to rant about. In the meantime, this is me bringing back the writing-fu, so expect some more here.

Some other add-on resolutions that I revisit on-and-off? Food habits (I’ve tried quitting carbs atleast TWICE this year, and failed both times. Now I’m resolutely starting again, from today!); Cooking at home more, which means I cook meals atleast 4 times a week, which I now want to increase to 6 times; and DIY home stuff – earlier in the year, I tried to build my own canvas frames, and failed. I recently tried another home project that I was successful at though, and this has motivated me to keep finding fresh projects.

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Success is in seeing a project through to completion! A sudden whim lead to a trip to Builders Warehouse, and armed with chalkpaint and brushes, I embarked on this journey of transforming this raw-wood bedside pedestal to a some-what distressed painted beauty. 

With this ‘quick’ status update, I want to kick this off again. Expect more detailed, thought-through stuff in the near future.

 

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Leading in times of uncertainty

I started writing this post, had it in my drafts, and of course I came back and saw it disappeared into the black hole of WP. Is this because I have it on multiple devices? Does WP not sync between devices? And I find I’m able to write and sync and publish seamlessly when online, but when I’m off-line and writing (like on long flights) the process becomes infinitely harder.

Tech issues aside, the last few weeks have been HECTIC, in the words of South Africans. I’ve had a few aha moments: one, when I realised that I’ve been in this foreign land for a whole YEAR (gosh time goes by), not just as the passing of time, but in tangible reminders of how I’ve succeeded in embedding myself in this culture. More on that later. Further, work drama escalated, which reminded me how long I’ve gone without team politics! To distance myself from all of that, I thought it was time to put down some notes, on how best to lead in times of transition, in times of uncertainty and thereby anxiety.

Just a quick contextual note – I started writing this after experiencing a sudden leadership tangle, leaving the team feeling lost, unmoored, and mistrusted. And at the same time, South Africa is going through a country-wide upheaval, where JZ circumvented democracy, and reshuffled the government as per his own cronyist policy. As I write this, marches are being planned all over the country, and though it looks like he’s not going anywhere, there is still a populist voice calling for his removal.

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How could this have been avoided? Some insights, from these two experiences which could potentially be useful in all kinds of anxious moments. I would LOVE to hear more from you on this:

  1. Consult, consult, consult: I cannot begin to emphasise how important consultation is. Leaders readying their teams for new decisions, however small or large they may be, would tremendously benefit from having basic consultations with teams before implementing said decisions. While town halls, surveys etc have been used before to some effect, really nothing is as effective as a personal email, or a phone call. This might be harder in large organisations, but decentralising feedback loops could be the answer. Whatever it is, knowing that leaders are personally invested in consulting, and that the feedback is important for decision-making, allows employees to feel trusted and valued, allowing them to deal with uncertainty productively.
  2. Communicate: If you haven’t consulted in the beginning, that’s still alright. Communicate! Share information to the affected teams: why are you making this move. What will it entail for the team? How will it affect their day-to-day? Information is key to battling uncertainty, and its important to be as open and transparent!
  3. Be consistent: Nothing creates more anxiety than conflicting information. And nothing makes the grapevine come alive as sudden change. People hear things from multiple sources, interpret them in various ways, and share them with each other, creating heightened tension, hostility and fear. A leaders job in such a time is to read this fear, and be utterly clear, and consistent on vision and goals of the decision, and the future roles of the stakeholders. When different stakeholders perceive the nature of the change differently, what results is a mess of worry, betrayal and ultimate chaos.

It’s understandable that leaders find it difficult to practice these principles when confronted with organisational crises that demand quick decisions to be made. However, being able to set ego aside, approach problems with humility and involve teams in the decision making are key leadership traits that will allow organisations to weather the bad times, and emerge stronger, united and with the ability to handle future crises. I am reminded of my favourite leadership guru (yes, I have one of those!) Ronald Heifetz, who urges leaders to alternate between the balcony and the dance floor: to come down on the ground and dance a bit, experience the tumult on the floor, and then go back to the balcony, to see the effect of that dancing. This helps those of us leading, to make quick course corrections before going back to our dances 🙂

My 3Cs approach is super basic, but somehow so far away from reality! I remember talking about this with a few people who work in corporate South Africa and was universally met with expressions that ranged from confusion to apathy, on why this was so important. Only re-emphasising the need for empathic leadership across the board, so people can start seeing the dramatic shift in results, and in general well-being across workspaces!

Would love your feedback, additions, etc!

 

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Why I hike

Every time I go looking for a waterfall, a journey that requires hiking, climbing, etc, I inevitably have a fall. Sometimes, like my most recent one, the fall is comical – slipping and plonking, buttocks first, into the water. Sometimes I come away with minor infractions: a broken umbrella, a lost water bottle. A scratch here or there. And sometimes, i return with long lasting scars. On my chin, just under a lip, while trekking to Meenmutty Falls in Wayanad. On my left shin, a coin shaped wound from tissue that was torn out, still healing, from the Ba Ho waterfalls in Nha Trang, Vietnam. Battle scars, I think of them. Me against the waterfall.

My adventures with hiking are not restricted to waterfalls though. I don’t remember when I caught the bug, but the first major hike I did was climbing to Roopkund in the Himalayas, back in 2011. When I proposed it back then, I remember the looks and exclamations of skepticism I received: on my general fitness levels (which at that time, was a gym membership collecting flies), my endurance, and on my general distaste of all kinds of exercise. For some reason, the adventure proved to be more alluring than all this nay-saying and I set off, not confident but determined. And it was hard. Much more than I’d thought. But whether it was the people I was with, the kindness of our guides or something else altogether, I prevailed, almost reaching the top (bad weather convinced us to abandon our last stretch). And more than me, watching a friend with a lung issue manage it as well made me both question our sanity, but more, marvel at human resilience.

Coming back to ground I was filled with a sense of super-humanness. What can I achieve if I put my mind to it. I quit my dead-end job and found another, infinitely more satisfying one. A more, my urge for adventure was kindled, and that fire still burns.

Not that I’m any more graceful on a mountain than I was while starting out though. Especially waterfalls and I, we share a temperamental relationship. One of great yearning, and fascination from one side, and malicious humour on the other. But the fire that burns trumps all of that. At Nha Trang last December, after suffering the worst fall I’ve had (into a gorge, narrowly missing razor sharp rocks, scratches and blood all over my body), I overcame my fear and jumped off those cliffs, 20 feet high, into freezing cold water. The fear still persists though, and two weeks ago at the Drakensberg range, confronted by large wet rocks with foothold few and far inbetween, numb with fear, I told my companions to proceed without me. 10 minutes of waffling later though, I made myself get over it, and clambered up (ungracefully, clumsily, but steadily), catching up to them without any help. I remember reaching the waterfall that I’d almost missed out on, and being overcome with gratitude – for my own perseverance (or foolishness) and  to the world, for creating such beauty to live with, and marvel at.

 

 

And this, this moment, is what I hike for. To feel my body stretched thin, but not breaking. And to remind myself, that I am human, that I am frail, and that I’m ephemeral, in a world that ought to continue long after me. And I realise what a privilege it is. To never have faced those hardships that come with living in mountains, or having to walk to school, or for work, walking/hiking becomes challenging, adventurous, and not an every day chore. And I’m grateful to have the opportunity to experience it, briefly as it is, to remind myself of what I have, and what others don’t.

I’m blessed to have lived and be living in countries and cities that offer me unending opportunities to discover the hills, and in the process my own frailties and courage. From the Deccan plateau (night hiking in Kolar) to the dormant and dead volcanoes of South Korea (Halla-San in Jeju-do was a highlight) to the rolling hills of the crater that Johannesburg and Pretoria are situated in, each offering new challenges, new obstacles and (to use tired cliches) new peaks to summit. I’m seeing new challenges this year – will keep you posted!

(In the meantime, using WordPress on two devices means that I’ve accidentally deleted my previous post on pickles. I still have abt half of it, but rewriting it is calling for more reserves than I have right now. Consider its impact as fleeting, meaningful when written but not meant to last, as nostalgia often tends to be)

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A week in Cape Town

It’s been a hectic few days, and consequently, writing has fallen off the radar.

A view of the V&A Waterfront, serving as my mobile office innumerable times

The theme of the last week has been space. Comfortable spaces, safe spaces, happy spaces, accessible spaces. How space can be transformed just by small details. And how that plays with your mind.

It started with choosing a restaurant for dinner. At the V&A Waterfront, we walked into an Italian restaurant at 7 PM. Walking in, I followed the waitress, only concerned about satisfying hunger. As I arrived, I noticed that my colleague’s steps had slowed down, and there was a deep sense of discomfort on her face. The only other people with her skin colour were those who were standing up, and serving. ‘How is this my continent, my country?’ she asked.

It made me think of the things we all take for granted when it comes to spaces like this. In my case, this is NOT my country and my foreignness is, well, granted. Yet I imagined a similar situation in my home. Walking in and seated at a restaurant where almost 100% of its patrons are from another race. Where my own race are only allowed in to serve.

We consoled ourselves with drinks and as the evening progressed, rejoiced as more people of colour came in as customers but that was us sweeping the issue under the carpet. Because as the week progressed, we learnt more, much more, about those invisible lines that keep people in. And keep people out. For the communities on the Cape Flats, coloured gangs control territories and force young people to determine which schools they should attend, where they should work, how they move around. For those in the richer suburbs, big guarded security gates, cameras and self-restrictions create bubbles of affluence, and influence. For those in universities, language pride endures, forcing people of colour to use translation devices in compulsory classes, deciding their timetables, and thereby mobility and access to work. And the utterly confounding thing of this is: that it was all done by design. Design to elevate a few, and leave out the rest.

Hanover Park on the Cape Flats. Rife with ganglines, this was the closest to we were able to get out of the combi to take photos.

We seem to be entering a world where the invisible lines are visibly being redrawn, and darkened. Where the tendency seems to be: retreat, isolate, protect. From our experience this last week, we saw and felt some the consequences of this thinking. Ghettos are created, trauma is normalized, and violence becomes the MO for all transactions.

And yet, there were some AHA moments: we took a few people out of their work, university, community bubbles and realized the power of crossing those lines. Of experiencing life on the other side. A poignant moment: when we were at Hanover Park on the Cape Flats, a community criss-crossing with ganglines, rife with gun violence, abuse and trauma, we were lucky enough to witness a Klopse Klopse: a local carnival, with people dressed up, music and so much dancing! To know that in the midst of despair there is so much potential for happiness (although it was probably as much an escape!) allowed us to realize that people have the power and the resilience to keep going. To seize moments of happiness. And that it’s as much our responsibility to create more such moments of happiness as it is theirs.

Flying back to Jozi, my home for the indeterminate future, I feel tired but thoughtful. We embarked on this journey for the benefit of others, as a job, without realizing the effect it had on ourselves. The more I think, the more I wonder what my own capacity is: to bring down those walls and create change. More on this as I go along. Till then, thanks for sticking it through!

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Travellers travelling

There was a time, when I was much younger, when travelling was romance, adventure, with a dash of drama and some comedy. Mostly, it was rare. A pleasure deeply sought, yearned after, dreamt about, and satiated in periodic intervals.

A Cape Townian sunset outside my plane window

As I grew older, and started travelling more, for work, friendship and love, travelling became less exotic but no less intense. It became about knowledge. New cities bought in contact people, ideas, habits that were utterly new, utterly curious. Some of it I gawked at. Some I inbibed. Some made me laugh and mock later. And in some way, it reassured me: I was perfect the way I was.

And so, it became about affirmation. Remember when they said that travel makes you appreciate home more? That’s  what travel became: telling me that I was in the right place, where I truly belonged, where me, with all my bulges and crevices…just fit.

And then I moved from that home, forcibly removing myself from that space I fit so comfortably. Travelling became a mirror, one that made me aware of all I had taken for granted: habits, perceptions, things which were invisible to me and those around me, starkly becoming visible in a completely new context. Made me see where I was flawed, and where I excelled – stripped completely of cultural buffers and bias. It’s an invaluable knowledge, one that surrounded by the comfort of unconditional love, I’d completely missed out on!

We are always travelling – near and far, in our minds sometimes, sometimes physically. It almost always puts us in the company of strangers: at home, or abroad. And all kinds of travel – in an auto rickshaw, metro train, airplane, uber pool, whatever it be, is an opportunity – to find out that new thing about self, to reaffirm your own self image, and also, more importantly, to let go – of long held perceptions, rigidities, allowing the discovery of a new self!

(I started writing this on the train today, hence the travel theme, and I meant to ruminate on the people I met daily – people who’ve surprised me, amused me and ultimately shaped my view of the world. It ended up being much more self indulgent but thanks for sticking with me!)

 

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It’s been long…

A friend recently poked me about this blog that has been lying dormant for so long. When are you going to start writing again, he asked? I looked at the email, scratched my head. Blog, I thought. Well, why not?

Blogging and I go a while back. In the days of Livejournal, I would write about everything – people I know, issues in school, then in university. Amateur efforts at fanfiction. Nothing was hidden, the personal was very, very public. I then grew up, grew away, discovered social media, started working, and blogging became not just more sporadic, but in my mind, more purposeful. Structured communication of insights, achievements, ideas. Something that would actually be useful to someone reading, I thought.

What this did though, unwittingly, was put more pressure on my writing. No longer free-flowing, each piece had to be carefully thought out. Aha moments had to be quickly documented, else they were quickly forgotten. If I don’t plan my posts, I thought to myself, I’m not going to blog. And so I’d make a list of topics, but then I’d never work through them. I’d sometimes be bored, just looking at the list!

I have written since this last post. I’ve posted some travel pieces in my East Asia blog. I wrote some letters. Some of this was instinct, just the need to get it out there. Some of it was writing practice, just to unlock writers block. Some, just for the joy of writing, joy for the person being written to.

Because that’s what I did. In my cautiousness, I had sucked the joy out of this blog. I had made it too detached. From me. And I tried to create to separate out the parts of my life, without realising that they are not separate. Travel. Work. Friends. Family. They’re all one.

And so. I’m back, to try doing this one more time. I’m in a different country now, in a different phase of my life. My world has shifted slightly to the left. Or to the right. And yet, I’m still chasing that dream, that me that began this blog. The one that dreamed to be infinite.

Stories await.

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Myth and mysticism : Everyday Leadership

There are images of this world that become ingrained in subconscious – images which take months and sometimes years to develop, sometimes emerging fully formed, helping us see and interpret the world in very specific ways. To understand this, I did this small exercise with students to see how they interpreted and viewed leadership in their everyday life. Specifically telling them to look at their own spaces: families, friends, workplaces, and communities, I asked them to understand what they see as good leadership, and how they developed that image of leadership.

And the results were…expected. Typically, students appear to view leadership as a position to be aspired to, and not as an activity which can be undertaken successfully by all of us. This was perhaps the biggest lesson I had to impart in this particular course. However, to bust the myths, one has to first understand the myths. And from this small exercise, these are the prevailing concepts that students use to both understand, and choose their leaders:

1. A good leader is one who has a good personality – there is something irresistibly attractive about this person. Whether it is physical appearance, or accent, she/he draws the public in.

2. A good leader is one who helps us when we have problems – we need them to make change for us. We give them that power, so that our lives become better.

3. Good leaders are primarily concerned about the sanctity of the group. All their efforts should be directed at keeping the group together, and in ensuring that conflicts do not split the group – or ‘spoil’ the group atmosphere. (This is one of the most common statements I encountered). Thus, the leader should protect the group from all kinds of threat: internal and external.

4. The one who makes the decisions is the leader. Students exhibited a particular kind of disdain for opinion-sharing. While the sharing of opinions is important, however the leader has to make the decision – and it is okay if this decision puts a few members in the minority. This is the leader’s prerogative.

The issue here is still that of leadership being out of our reach. The problem when we look at our authorities for answers, when we glamourise leadership is that it becomes equally easy for us to disclaim responsibility of our own lives. Leadership is seen as the talent, or alternatively the burden, of the few who work tirelessly for the rest of us. An equally significant image of leadership that crops up over and over again is that of sacrifice. Giving up our own comforts, our own lives for the pursuit of our dreams, our hopes is another deep-rooted myth which I confronted time and again.

And I will not blame ourselves for upholding and following these principles. For centuries we have glamourised and looked up to those extraordinary men and women who changed our worlds. We have made them our heroes, put them on pedestals, and worshipped at their shrines. However, as the world falls further into incredibly complex problems, pinning our hopes and dreams on a few, extraordinary individuals seems to be rather futile. The more we look to our authorities for answers, the more they fail us, and instead of searching for our own solutions, we mindlessly look for replacements. How long can we continue down this sisyphean path?

 

Charismatic Authority – still a favourite

 

Leadership lore today is filled with how everyone can be leaders. Starting with the small,everyday moments where one can impact someone else’s life, to the biggies: managing and leading teams, starting own companies and ventures, identifying and designing creative solutions to deep-rooted, systemic problems. For me, the first step in making leadership available for my student, was to demonstrate that leadership is not something to be scared about. Failure is not something to be ashamed of. By creating spaces in the university where it was okay for students to try and fail, it was okay for students to attempt the impossible, I saw big differences! I am only just starting down this pathway to my own enlightenment, but I do believe I am on the right track.

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Experiments in education

I have spent the last two-three years trying to answer a single question:

How can young people in today’s world start making and sustaining creative change?

Having experimented with curriculum, storytelling and social service, I finally took the plunge and entered the hallowed world of university education. In the last eight months, I have explored creative and meaningful methods in leadership education. And I have emerged a little bruised, a little disillusioned, but a lot hopeful for the world in which we hope to live in.

I started with what my predecessor handed over to me – a textbook, guidelines for two projects, and anticipation. Today, I have discarded the text book, banished those stories of extraordinary leaders, and refocused on what I knew before I got here: leadership is for everyone. There’s no courage involved in this. Just skill. And hope for a possibility of a new world.

Using, what was for me a new and phenomenal methodology, created and honed by Ronald Heifetz and colleagues at Harvard, I focused on the individual story of each student, and each group. The goal was to simulate the different systems that we live in, in the classroom itself. Supplemented by extracts from literature, music and films, I have spent the last ten weeks immersed in the everyday leadership we all experience, we all ignore, we all downplay.

The biggest highlights for me was:

  1. Watching the shy ones open up, and start influencing their groups – both within their smaller project groups, and the larger class with everyone.
  2. Watching the confident ones reevaluate their perceptions of leadership and authority, and walk away with hopefully new understandings, ideas, and insights into group thinking and functioning.
  3. Celebrating each moment of success AND failure, acknowledging success without being thought of as ‘arrogant’ and recognizing that our failures are perhaps the most important sources of learning – more meaningful than any textbook, any other story
  4. Realising that leadership is not to be feared, not about a single person’s responsibility – but that of everyone.
  5. Understanding the cultural context – that what might work with mid-career, international professionals might not particularly succeed with young east-Asian undergraduates. And controlling for this.

And from that last point emerged my biggest challenge: how can I create experiences both within and outside the classroom, through which undergraduates can get exposed to the reality that is this diverse world? And the answer lies in the ecosystem’s willingness to allow for this. While I have had a small measure of success in the classroom itself – my own failure lies in my lack of understanding of this complex ecosystem which is the university. In my inability to penetrate the cultural and historical barriers in this region that i now call home.

The challenge in front of me now is to shake this system up a little bit. To show new ways, new ideologies to a highly traditional and conservative institution. The question is: am I more effective where I am; or should I now try from outside?

In the next few months I hope to document these experiments in a little more detail. I hope you will stay with me for them 🙂

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Empathy, and not apathy

Recently, I was posed an interesting question: if you knew, for a fact, that a company was unproductive and a drain on resources, would you choose to shut it down, and cause the loss of hundreds of jobs? Or, would you bolster it, till it runs its course and dies a natural death, while wasting however many millions of dollars in the process? For me, this kind of question brings up a range of ethical and value-driven points of consideration. It is, of course, impossible to look at this uni-dimensionally, however tempting it might be. If we take an economic perspective, then perhaps it is better to cut our losses and look towards more productive uses for capital. At the same time, economic, social and political realities never function in isolation from each other. Looking at it from the perspective of an employee, or a family member, or a shareholder, or a board member, gives us different ideas and senses of how we can approach such a problem. Solutions ought to have maximum benefits for all stakeholders, and somewhere I believe that we need to move away from the idea of capital being zero-sum for the world to become more sustainable. Indeed, collaboration towards solving problems, and equality in stake will serve towards building such a sustainable world. And key to this is that element of empathy, one that could be defined as an openness to the world, an ability to understand and experience different perspectives and standpoints. For me, empathy underlies some of the best (and potentially the worst) decisions that we make, and design supported by empathy has the potential to solve some of the most pressing problems we face in the world.

Moving beyond ‘Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes.’ Photo from here.

For a long time, the question of how we can activate empathy has been building in my head. I’ve used the word activate very consciously here – we are all empathetic human beings, some of us highly so, even as it lies dormant in others. We choose who we care about, and how we care for them. This is why we are able to shut ourselves away from different aspects of the world, as we believe it doesn’t affect us How then can we open ourselves up towards the whole world? Is that even possible, or am I envisaging a utopian, and ultimately unviable universe?

I don’t really have answers to these questions, but some things might lead us in the direction of these answers. I think the first thing to think about is improving our own critical consciousness. Moving away from just pedagogy, I see critical consciousness as the development of a framework of questioning: situations, responses, ideas. Taking it one step forward, it is also developing an ability to link things up, see the bigger picture as it were. Such an ability would suddenly put everyday instances in a new perspective for us. It would create a whole new awareness of the world. Developing this framework and knowledge would then inform our daily opinions, and choices, creating a whole new set of actions for us to draw from. Actions we wouldn’t ever have considered or discarded as useless before. In the case of the unproductive company, if we actually question what we mean by ‘unproductive’ and redefine it for ourselves, we suddenly see a whole bunch of new actions we can take towards not just salvaging a situation, but turning it around and making it healthy.

Would critical consciousness alone actively lead to empathy? I don’t know. However, I believe it is the basis for developing this skill. And I also believe it can happen at multiple times. For Buddha, it took three shocking events for him to develop it and actively seek enlightenment. For Ashoka, a terrible war suddenly made him see the consequences of the path he was in. But ‘shocks’ like this are few and far inbetween in a world as desensitised as our own. It might be far more powerful to start developing our empathetic abilities from when we are young.

And how do we go about it. I’ve experimented a bit in the past, with few results. With new opportunities beckoning, I’m hoping to spend the rest of this year finding out! So watch this space, yes?

Some thoughts on representation…

In the somewhat recent past, I have encountered some truly horrific attempts at representation of communities by the same people who claim to know them the best. Let’s leave aside mainstream media for now (because that is a whole other can of worms, we all know!). For those of us constantly engaging with communities, deprived or otherwise,  I think it’s time to take a step back and reflect on our methods of articulation of people’s needs and requirements, particularly as practitioners. Here are some examples of what has gotten me so riled up:

1. Positioning malnourished and emaciated children in poses of need and distress through photos and video.

2. This particular project, which looks at enabling the mainstream to experience how the marginalised live, through site visits to their homes, and walkthroughs in their living spaces.

While I am the first to admit that both attempts I have described have been made in complete sincerity, with only good intentions by the respective practitioner, I believe this throws up some important points for reflection. The main thing is to re-look at why these attempts at representation have been made. For me it comes down to empathy. For those of us working in the non-profit space, it’s a constant challenge to create feelings of empathy with our audiences. Empathy, for me, is a crucial element which enables people to act. And if our mission is to change the world, then our core strategy would be to build empathy across the board – those who we identify as stakeholders AND those who we do not. And how we do it comes back to my favourite topic – how we tell stories.

Storytelling is key towards building empathy, and we might choose a range of ways in which we can tell those stories. Media is only a tool in this, and each particular medium can help us in getting our messages across with maximum impact. But what is crucial is the message: how are we articulating our communities, how are we making them relevant to our audiences, how are we bringing meaning to our media, these are the questions we need to answer. So when we portray our communities as victims, whether intentionally or not, we need to question if this is how we want our audiences to relate to them. When we position our communities as an attraction, a way of entertainment, we need to ask if this is achieving what we have set out to achieve. Ultimately, are we getting our audiences to empathise with what our communities are going through.

For me, empathy emerges from understanding. Empathy emerges from experience. Enabling this through media is by nature a challenging task. Media is, at the end of the day, showing us things which are often removed from our everyday realities. And in a world where we are constantly under a barrage of messages, our stories need to stand out. And thus, as practitioners, we need to start observing carefully what we are putting out into the world, always keeping our end goal in sight. For what we want is empathy, and not apathy; building courage to act, and not remain indifferent.

Disclaimer: I have kept both illustrations intentionally vague, as I wouldn’t want to offend anyone. They were merely used as a means to talk about my larger point on representation in general 🙂

 

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