Our work at a glance

  • Storytelling for gender equality and peace

  • Education with curriculums, workshops and dialogue

  • Tech for Good for resources and reporting

  • Digital Advocacy for gender equality and peacebuilding

  • Legal, Policy and Psycho-social research to inform our activism

Stories that change the world

Monday, October 15, 2018

Chaat Masala, anyone?

Chintan Girish Modi is a peacebuilder and writer, among a range of other things. He recently founded Chaat Masala, an initiative to create safe spaces to engage with curated conversations with artists, academics, authors and activists all over India. Here's his story. 

1) What's Chintan up to, now? What's his world view currently?
I am in a space of quiet, intense churning where it feels equally important to be engaged with social justice issues and with self-care that combines physical health and emotional well-being. The world is at my doorstep, quite literally, thanks to social media. Does that mean my compassion automatically extends to everyone who is suffering? Not really. It takes a special effort to anchor oneself back in the body and the breath, in the present moment itself, because there is much to take one further away -- books, Netflix, Facebook updates, Twitter feed, WhatsApp messages, and my own imagination. Without that quality of awareness, it is difficult to know oneself, leave alone anyone else!

2) Tell us about CHAAT MASALA. How did it come about? 

It's a project that is very close to my heart. I spend a lot of my time thinking, reading and writing about South Asia. What irks me, however, is that American and European scholarship often frame this region as a 'conflict zone', reducing us to nothing but a hotbed of identity politics and sectarian violence. It would be dishonest to overlook our legacies of caste discrimination, genocide and sexual violence but it is also problematic to see the region as nothing but this. Colonization was possible because we were deemed as chaotic and unable to look after ourselves without some benevolent White supervision. Intellectual work around South Asia and development sector discourse are reproducing those colonialist narratives now without accounting for the role played by the global North in bringing us where we are. We have vibrant traditions of faith, cultural practices, artistic production, built heritage and rigorous academic research. They merit serious attention and enquiry. This colour and diversity is what I wanted to capture through the name CHAAT MASALA.

3) What is CHAAT MASALA all set to do?
I envision it as a digital platform that would catalyse exciting conversations with artists, academics, authors and activists from all over South Asia. Pardon my affinity for alliteration. As is the case with most of my work, CHAAT MASALA will encourage dialogue, resist bigotry and promote alternatives to violence. It was launched on September 21, the International Day of Peace. Our first initiative is a celebration of the Bisexual Awareness Week from September 23 to 30. Through our Facebook page and our Twitter handle, we will gather and amplify stories of bisexuals from South Asia and beyond, and also share resources that can help cultivate deeper understanding of bi-phobia and bi-erasure. Though there is greater awareness around the rights of queer people, bisexuals continue to be doubly discriminated. They are not accepted within a heternormative universe, and are also shunned by many within the queer community itself who view bisexuals as unwilling to commit to either a gay or a straight identity because they want the best of both worlds. On September 28, we have our inaugurual tweet-chat with lawyer, academic and playwright Danish Sheikh who will join us on our Twitter handle @chaatmasala3 to talk about his work at the intersection of queer rights, law and literature. He is an assistant professor at the Jindal Global Law, runs a theatre group, and his written widely about his experiences as a gay man and Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code that used to criminalize carnal intercourse against the order of nature, effectively making it illegal for men to enjoy sexual intimacy with each other. Thankfully, the recent Supreme Court judgement has decriminalized consensual lovemaking. This should have happened long ago. We still have miles to go in terms of intersectionality because queerness does not exist in isolation from caste, class, religion and race.

4) Can you tell us a bit about how your idea of Peace and Gender Equality looks, now?
That is a really broad question, and I hope to do justice to it. Sometimes, challenging questions can make one articulate some really crucial insights that are surprising, to say the least. I think my own understanding of peace has grown after I have invested more time and energy in learning about patriarchy and masculinity. I can now see why women feel angry about men not doing enough in terms of emotional labour. I can look back, and identify moments of misogyny in my own relationships. Building peace demands that we address structural violence in our society. I think there is this notion that only a limited amount of power is available, and that it has to be claimed not from within but by snatching it from other people. Because of this erroneous idea, patriarchy has systematically worked towards devaluing women and queer people. Their rights need to be respected if one wants to see peace in action. It is time for toxic masculinity to retire and die.

5) You've been doing some interesting work through your #MardonWaaliBaat campaign. Can you tell us a bit about it?
I had been looking for a space that would bring together men for conversations about gender roles, masculinity, intimacy, body shaming, sexuality, mental health, sexual violence, consent and self-care. I did not find one, so I decided to start it by hosting sessions that I would facilitate using a mix of fun activities, videos, one-on-one peer sharing and whole group discussions. I have been conducting workshops around gender sensitivity with high school boys for a while but I really wanted to work with adult men as well. I have got an encouraging response so far with men saying that they have been hungry for a space like this where they can be themselves and share openly without the burden of manning up or masking vulnerability because men are expected to be rought and tough. I use #MardonWaaliBaat to also document interesting tweets, news items and commentaries. The name #MardonWaaliBaat is now also being used by an organization called Equal Half, and I want to use this platform to clarify that mine is an independent initiative. I do not buy into the #Planet5050 language because it is built on the binary of male and female. It invisibilizes diversity in terms of gender identity and sexual orientation/preference. It deliberately overlooks the issues faced by trans, queer and non-binary people.

6) One of your longstanding initiatives has been Friendship Across Borders. Can you tell us what's in the pipeline with FAB?

Friendships Across Borders or #aaodostikarein, as it is more commonly known, will complete five years in February 2019. I am in the process of reviewing what has happened so far, and what might be a beneficial direction to take. India-Pakistan dialogue is very much an area I would like to continue devoting my energy to because there is much distrust and animosity in that relationship. It has been a happy journey, not terribly illustrious in terms of accomplishments to show off, but I feel confident that it has made a positive contribution. #aaodostikarein has managed to reach teachers and students in Trivandrum, Delhi, Lucknow, Mumbai, Lahore, Islamabad, Vermont, Maine, Vadodara, Chennai, Pondicherry, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Pune, Jodhpur, Panchgani, Chandigarh and many other places, and I am grateful for their participation. I do not really measure impact in terms of number of people who attended my talks or workshops because I think that is an inauthentic way of learning about attitudinal change. Peace education happens in a slow, almost invisible manner. One can think only in terms of seeds sown. Some will germinate, some will be carried away by birds, some will go deep into the ground and come up when the time is right, and some will die sooner than expected. I believe in smaller, quieter work, so thinking in terms of scaling up does not come naturally to me. I would like to do more peace journalism workshops with media students because that is an area that could benefit from my engagement. Young journalists in the making can be inspired to stay steadfast in their belief that their words and their stories matter. They do not need to grow wistful because everyone else is a sell-out. We live on platters of hope, a few crumbs cannot sustain us for long.

Monday, October 8, 2018

A Teenaged Beacon of Hope from California – Shelby O’Neil fight Single-Use Plastics

by Raakhee Suryaprakash

 So, who is Shelby O’Neil?
·     A teenager who started a non-profit to educate school kids about their impact on the Ocean.
·     A girl scout who wrote to CEOs & convinced a few of them to change their companies’ single-use plastic policy.
·       A high-schooler who testified before California’s Natural Resources Committee in support of AB 1884 – Straws Upon Request bill.
·       A young Californian who has had an impact of stopping the use of about 20 million plastic straws and stirrers with her action.
·       Sagittarius schoolgirl who launched #NoStrawNovember in 2017
·       Founder, Jr Ocean Guardians, which along with Monterey Bay Aquarium, co-sponsored SCR 139 – No Straw November with Senator Bill Monning.  
·       A high school senior who raised $2,050 with her Girls Scouts special edition patch for the Girl Scouts San Jacinto Council in Houston, TX, for Hurricane Harvey relief.
Yes to all of the above, but so much more. She is a beacon of hope that the next generation has many concerned nature-lovers who will work to ensure that their environment is cleaned up and stays clean.
Shelby also demonstrates the scope of the impact of just one individual, as well as the power of institutions like the Girl Scouts, the influence of “Young Women in Science” programmes such as the one hosted by Monterey Bay Aquarium that she was part of and above all the clout of a motivated teenager on social media.
At a time, when mainstream media highlights the ignorance of the general public in the US in being unable to point and name even one country on the map, we have first world teenagers like Shelby O’Neil and Boyan Slat whose work has international impact.
With No Straw November hosted by Shelby &Jr Ocean Guardians in Monterey, CA, she took her movement out of the classrooms and challenged people and businesses to give up single-use plastics for a month. By writing to company CEOs and influencers, Shelby reminded people that to be truly sustainable stopping the use of single-use plastics is essential. Her biggest wins from approaching company heads directly by mail were companies such as Alaska Airlines, Farmer Brothers Coffee as well as Dignity Health giving up the use of most or all their plastic straws and stirrers. Her online #NoStrawNovember challenge saw cities, counties, schools, restaurants, and everyday people participating and pledging to give up straws for the month and keep track of how much they were offered and how often they refused the ubiquitous plastic straw. In my opinion this was as much an informal audit as it was a challenge to combat plastic use. But as Shelby put it in her interview with me,
“It was definitely a team #NoStrawNovember movement with people all over the world supporting and spreading awareness, it is much bigger than one person.”
Preceding 2018’s Earth Day and World Environment Day themes calling to “End Plastic Pollution” and “Beat Plastic Pollution” respectively, No Straw November’s success in 2017 demonstrated that people and businesses were willing to go the extra mile to help counter the plastic menace. Getting the No Straw November Proclamation passed by the government of California paved the way for an influential legislation that ensures that straws and stirrers are only provided in restaurants on-demand and not as a matter of course.

A high-school senior and a girl scout having an impact on state policy and corporations shows what just one motivated person is capable of doing to change the world for the better. Shelby credits her awareness of the issue of Ocean Plastic to her two-year association with the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s “Young Women in Science” programme. The right after school and extracurricular activities and volunteering with committed institutions and individuals can channel young people into change-makers extraordinaire.
The school children she interacted with as part of Jr Ocean Guardians’ beach clean-ups and awareness building programmes also showed her that they were interested in doing something concrete to tackle the Ocean Plastic problem beyond the classrooms and activity books.
Plastic pollution an all-pervasive existential threat, that’s characteristic of the over-consumerist, use-and-throw times we live in.De-plastic-ing and Re-plastic-ing our lives is a continuous process that needs to start now, start small and build up in a step by step process, and young change-makers like Shelby O’Neil show us that even one person can have a massive effect on the plastic problem.
When asked about her plans for the future, this young change-maker who has already had such a powerful influence on the world kept it simple,
“Right now, I'm a senior in high school so I'm really focused on graduating and then going to a university!”
Here’s wishing her all the best for her future and world-changing activities.
Read the full interview of the first Re-Plastic Change-Maker at:
And follow her initiatives at:
Twitter:  @nostrawnovember
Instagram:  jr.ocean.guardians

Monday, October 1, 2018

Say it Forward

Sharon d'Agostino of Say It Forward is all about making change happen, by passing the mic. Here is her story.

Could you start by telling us a bit about your childhood and growing years, work and education?
That’s a big question! I was blessed to have grown up in a loving family in a small town in the state of New Jersey, in the United States.  My parents worked hard to ensure that my brother and I had a much better childhood than either of them had had, and they believed in the importance of education.  I cannot say enough positive things about the love that my parents shared with my brother and with me, or about how much I loved having a younger brother.
Family was very important in my formative years.  Our Gram, and most of our aunts, uncles and cousins lived relatively nearby and Sundays were often spent visiting them.
Like anyone who is fortunate enough to go to college, that experience opened my world, transformed my views, and presented opportunities I would have never imagined.  My first job after completing my undergraduate degree was teaching in a school for girls.  I loved it.  Several years later, I completed an MBA and then spent many years working in the private sector.  The people with whom I worked were terrific, and I learned so much with and from them.

What inspired the birth of SayItForward.org? Could you take us through the journey?
In communities close to home or across the globe, I have been moved by the individual and collective challenges that women and girls face in recognizing and claiming their personal talents and strengths.  I know that families, communities, and countries are stronger when women and girls are equal partners in decision-making and governing. While many people believe that the empowerment of women and girls is an issue in other places, in places far from their own home or neighborhood, I believe that gender inequality is a global issue that, to varying degrees, affects us all.  While there are extreme variations in the levels of inequality women & girls face in families and communities globally, can any of us name a long list of places where true equality exists?
Over the years, I often found encouragement and inspiration listening to stories told by or about my Mom, aunts, grandmothers, cousins and friends.  Listening to stories of other women’s experiences taught me, first and foremost, that I was not alone in some of my experiences or fears. 
Three years ago, talking with a dear friend, I realized that I could do more to support the empowerment of women and girls.  The idea came in a flash - create a web-based place where any and every woman and girl could share her unique story (or stories) of overcoming whatever once hindered her from pursuing her dreams.  I reached out to a few other friends, women and men, who quickly helped launch SayItForward.org.  I am so very grateful to each of them and celebrate them on the website.  And, of course, I am deeply grateful to those who had the courage to share their stories on the site.

What are some of your key milestones / anecdotes in your journey so far?
It seems that my personal journey to empowerment has been an ongoing series of opportunities and decisions made over the course of my life, steps and missteps that either advanced my sense of empowerment or temporarily stalled it.  The most frequent missteps were decisions I made to make others happy instead of making the decision that I actually thought was best.  I learned some painful lessons from those decisions, and still do! 

What have some of your challenges been, in the journey so far? How have you / are you addressing them?
In launching SayItForward.org there have not been challenges, really, but many opportunities.  As of the end of August, 2018, women and girls from 40 countries have posted their stories at SayItForward.org – most in English but also in 6 other languages.  We want to increase awareness of the site, reaching many more women and girls, encouraging them to read stories and hopefully decide to share one of their own.  We welcome stories from everywhere, in every language, understanding that the most authentic version of our story is told in the language of our heart.
We reach women and girls through collaborations with individuals and organizations, and through our social media platforms we share stories that have been posted.  Readers can find us on Twitter as @SayItForwardNow … on Facebook as SayItForwardNow… and on Instagram as @SayItForwardNow.
We recognize that some stories are intensely personal and so women and girls can choose to share their stories anonymously if they wish.  We wanted to create a safe, judgment-free space, so no one can comment on another person’s story – no ratings, no criticisms, no evaluation. 

What keeps you going?
What keeps me going is the core belief that within each of us, regardless of age or gender, we are stronger than we imagine.  We can inspire each other to overcome fear, adversity, self-limiting beliefs or any situations that keep us from living to our full potential.  I believe in the power of storytelling to support and encourage each other on our respective paths to empowerment.  THIS is what keeps me going. 
I have never met a woman or girl whose story did not inspire me.  Not ever.  When we are very young, our parents, relatives, and family friends tell us stories about our earliest days, and those stories shape our perceptions of ourselves.  I am excited to give girls and women the opportunity to craft and tell their own stories about who they are and whom they want to be. 
I am so inspired by the women and girls who have posted their stories on SayItForward.org, and also by comments we receive from women who have visited the site.  Here are a few examples…
… "Thank you for creating this safe place for all of us to tell our story and know, we are not alone."
… “Your website is wonderful, what a great way to instill a glimmer of hope for those feelings so lonely and trapped."
… “Thank you. I've been carrying this story around with me since I was a teenager, and it was such a relief to tell it. I never had anyone who I thought would care"

What are your aspirations for SayItForward.org? Do you have particular goals in the next few years?
Through the power of storytelling, SayItForward.org celebrates the strength, determination and triumphs of women and girls on their path to empowerment.  My first goal is to keep this celebration going, to encourage every girl and every woman to recognize and claim her power to achieve her biggest, boldest dreams. That’s a BIG, heartfelt goal!
My second goal is another big goal - to encourage women and girls from EVERY country to share one or more of their stories.  I think that for every human being—girl, woman, boy, man—there’s a part of us that feels very much alone, even when we are surrounded by family and friends. We are not sure that anyone else is having the experience we are having, or facing the struggles we face. I believe there is great power in storytelling, in having others understand that someone else has gone through this experience, and this is the story of how she triumphed.  Storytelling can advance their own sense of empowerment and support the empowerment of others.
I also hope the stories posted on SayItForward.org will inspire engagement with organizations that support the empowerment of women and girls in communities everywhere.
How can we, as citizens, engage with SayItForward.org?  
I invite you to visit the website and read or listen to the diverse voices and experiences of the remarkable women and girls (and even a few men) who have shared their stories.  Then, I hope you will consider sharing one of YOUR stories that highlights an aspect of your path to empowerment.  EVERY one of you has an inspiring story to share – of that I am absolutely certain.     
I also invite you to consider our vision… We envision a world where every woman and every girl recognizes and claims her rights and her power to achieve her biggest, boldest dreams.  
We stand with women and girls, and with the many not-for-profit organizations that work on their behalf, and that is an amazing place to stand.  We invite everyone reading this interview to stand with us. 

Monday, September 24, 2018

Intersectional Musings #24: Janani Viswanathan

Janani Viswanathan heads the initiative, #NoMoreNirbhaya, as part of AWARE INDIA. This is an initiative that aims to create safer and gender empowered public spaces. Currently, she also volunteers as a Crisis Counselor for Crisis text Line and Maitri, which helps south-Asian familes who have faced domestic abuse.  She has been volunteering with various organizations for the past ten years focusing on various issues such as colorism, domestic abuse, access to education for underprivileged children and gender-based violence. Originally from Chennai, she is currently an Environmental Professional in San Francisco, California.

Read her story here.