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Stories that change the world

Monday, July 16, 2018

One woman catalyzing One Million

Pranaadhika Sinha Devburman is the founder of One Million Against Abuse, and works hard to make cities and homes safer for children. Here is her story.

The beginning
My childhood and growing years were filled with joy and happiness despite the assault I endured. Being an only child, and part of a very privileged family meant that I got the best of everything. My schooling took place at two of the country’s best educational institutes after which I decided to dedicate my life towards child abuse prevention and personal safety education. I decided that I would follow in my father’s footsteps (he went to Cambridge) only after fulfilling my dream of setting up a structure that would safeguard children from violence. 

Work wise I began at age 10, conducting workshops for small peer groups, later expanding those to include as many as 50 participants per session. In order to be able to sustain this, I went on to pursue a short-lived stint in IT, and then set up my own tattoo studio (White Star Tattoos). Business was brisk, profitable, but very time-consuming. 

One Million Against Abuse

One Million against Abuse as an idea occurred when I was sitting in my father’s hospital room, watching him waste away as cancer destroyed his body. He advised me to not give up, but to look at things from an alternate perspective. He said, “balance your idealism with pragmatism; great ideas fail because we ignore sustainability and focus only on our perspectives.” It made sense to think about the issue of child sexual abuse beyond just my perspective as a survivor. There had to be a reason behind why people only talked about it but did nothing to prevent it. There had to be some mentalities which needed to be challenged, especially when it came to education policies. 

The campaign launched in 2012, a few days before my father passed away, and is inspired by the practical advice he gave me. Our goal expanded from simply raising awareness on CSA, to demanding that age-appropriate Personal Safety Education be made a mandatory part of the Indian school curriculum. 

Making a difference
Among the significant achievements of the campaign thus far, would be the fact that it reached out to and received a response from Maneka Gandhi, who responded to a change.org petition demanding implementation of mandatory personal safety education in all ISC/CBSE affiliated schools. The petition has since garnered over 1.16 lac signatures; we hope to impact 10,00,000. 

We are in the process of completing and launching a one of a kind abuse prevention manual which will focus on actions and steps to take in order to not only prevent, but also tackle cases of abuse which may occur at home or at school. By offering a layperson-friendly process which simplifies otherwise convoluted legal terminology we hope to increase reporting of abuse and promote responsible and sensitive handling of survivors. I would consider this collaborative effort (with iProbono) to be one of our most significant milestones. 

We also launched an online and telephone helpline for survivors of abuse that will enable survivors with internet and/or phone access to reach out if they are in trouble. At the least, we will offer empathy, and also referrals to lawyers, doctors, police, and others who may be able to intervene. Our support network is pan-India and is constantly expanding as people are coming forward to be included on the list. We are also doing our best to reduce fees for certain services in order to make support more accessible to the student community. 

Another milestone which will be launched this November on Child Abuse Prevention Day, involves an income-generation program for sexual assault survivors. It is part of a social enterprise that is dedicated towards the social and economic development of Middle India. 

Crossing hurdles

The biggest challenge I face involves the fact that most people just talk about abuse, complain about the government, and rant on social media. While all these behaviours are valid, they will not challenge the mentality and apathy which shrouds sexual violence against children. Getting people off their chairs and into actual programmes where they can participate and facilitate on-ground activities, is a backbreaking task. We have had a few successes here, and have managed to ally with a few organisations and individuals. The conversion success rate for your average keyboard warrior is slowly increasing. 

Government apathy is also a cause for concern. If current text books are being modified to suit other agendas, but not one relating to personal safety, that is a huge problem which needs to be highlighted. It is my ardent hope that we will soon have an opportunity to present our tried and tested curriculum to the MWCD and MHRD, among others. 

Work for all of us

The first step we must take as a country is to acknowledge the gravity and prevalence of the issue. Sexual violence is about power and privilege. Unless we disempower and dismantle these toxic attitudes and behaviours, our efforts will remain fruitless. The present government must take active steps to implement not only personal safety education, but must ensure that the legal framework becomes more survivor-friendly. Over 80% of cases lodged under POCSO remain ignored, and the need to shift from victim blaming and shaming must end so that the survivor, not the perpetrator, is protected. 

As a society we too, have a lot of unlearning to do when it comes to how we perceive sex, sexuality, and gender. Teaching our children to say “No”, and believing them, and listening to them when they talk to us, is of primary importance. We cannot hide behind “log kya kahengey” when it comes to sexual abuse, we cannot blame a child for enduring this horror. Once the attitude shifts, we can and will be a safer nation, and a nurturing space for future generations to flourish in. 

Monday, July 9, 2018

The man who declared peace

Story based on an interview in 2014-2015, with Lawrence R Gelber, by Kirthi Jayakumar

One often hears of declaring war: whether in history, policy or in simply in the news. But to choose peace, and opt for a peaceful way to settle a dispute takes greater courage.  Showing the world just that: the fact that the path of courage is a wiser option, is Lawrence Gelber.

An only child born in the Bronx, New York, to a lower middle class family of somewhat observant Jews, Lawrence grew up in a household that emphasized the importance of education. His parents were both high school dropouts and children of the depression. He went to public schools in the Bronx in the 1950s and 60s, and a few months before he turned seventeen, Lawrence entered City College of New York in 1964 – a rather tumultuous time. John F. Kennedy had recently been assassinated, the civil rights movement was heating up, and the music scene was changing with Bob Dylan, Joan Baez and the Beatles, among many other notable groups having a huge influence on the consciousness of a generation. In short, Lawrence was a hippie.

Just a few credits shy of a degree, Lawrence dropped out of college and made his first international trip, spending a couple of months in Ibiza in 1968. With the intention of finishing his degree, Lawrence made his way back to New York, and following graduation, he learned Transcendental Meditation. Then, after working some minor jobs, left the United States again, this time for 18 months, during which time he lived in Nerja, Spain and Heidelberg, Germany and then traveled overland from Germany to Nepal and back. His experiences in Afghanistan and India, among several other places, dramatically altered his world view, and made him realize that people were the same everywhere. While in Germany, notwithstanding that he was a pacifist who had resisted the war in Vietnam (Lawrence was not drafted out of what he deems ‘sheer luck’), he voluntarily worked for the United States Army, washing pots and pans at an officers’ mess club in a military village outside of Heidelberg. This too expanded his perspectives.

Lawrence soon became very inspired and influenced by Maharishi (Mahesh Yogi).  In 1977, when Lawrence was on a long Transcendental Meditation course in Switzerland, learning the Transcendental Meditation-Sidhis program derived from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, he realized in a post-meditative epiphany that he should become a lawyer.  In the language of the Gita, Lawrence grasped that being a lawyer was his dharma. He then took to law school quite like a phoenix takes to the open skies. He has been practicing law since he graduated from Law School in 1981.
While many of Lawrence’s experiences while young were immensely formative insofar as his worldview went, it was 9/11 that proved to be a catalyst. In downtown Manhattan on the morning of September 11, 2001, Lawrence’s office at the time was on the corner of Broad Street and Exchange Place, right next door to the New York Stock Exchange.  He was about to cross a street to the entrance to his office building when Lawrence met an acquaintance and stopped to chat. All of a sudden, things were hitting him on the shoulders. Lawrence described what happened:  “I looked up and the sky was a yellowish color and papers and other debris was falling, so I ran inside.  I went up to my office and looked out the window and saw the North Tower burning. Then I saw the second plane come in over the harbor, bank slowly and hit the south face of the South Tower.”

Nine years after that, somewhere around 2010, Lawrence woke up one morning and simply said, “I Declare World Peace”.  One of the things that Maharishi always emphasized is that all actions stem from thought, and it occurred to Lawrence that war usually starts after somebody says “I Declare War”. It similarly occurred to him that perhaps peace could start, or at least the thought of peace could be created, by the converse declaration. Lawrence became aware a year or two later that John Lennon apparently said a similar thing about declaring peace decades earlier.
As the next course of action, he went to his Facebook page and wrote the words “I Declare World Peace”.  Somebody opined that it was a great post and it should go viral. With time, Lawrence’s wife Rita designed the IDWP website, and together they started a separate Facebook page, while also running streams on Twitter with the hashtag #IDWP. One of their goals was to keep it from being a “lunatic fringe” project, and so Lawrence and Rita styled it as an art project modelled on The Gates[1]. So they promoted the phrase “I Declare World Peace” as a “flag” to be installed in the consciousness of humanity, a form of mental installation art. Working with the idea of raising peace consciousness, Lawrence and Rita have posted a number of meaningful documents such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the Kellogg-Briand Pact, an anti-war treaty that has been signed by over 60 nations, among other on the IDWP web site. 
Though IDWP is an art project, Lawrence is actually interested in promoting real peace. As a result, the IDWP project aims to see injustice eliminated and has allied with other groups across the world.  As a result, the I Declare World Peace project is growing at an ever increasing rate and the phrase, or affirmation (or mantra) is spreading throughout a vast range of social media.  The IDWP project does not accept donations, and instead, Lawrence and Rita spend their own money to promote the project. With simple activities that include tweeting, re-tweeting and posting online all of the content that resonates their affirmation and hash-tags, the IDWP project has grown to become a tremendous movement with over 262,500 twitter followers, growing by approximately 1,000 followers every week.  People attach images – photographs, memes, peace symbols – or include quotes, along with the phrase “I Declare World Peace” and the hash-tag #IDWP, and it has become popular.  The project also welcomes people to send in videos of themselves saying: “Hi, my name is [first name]. I am from [city, town country etc.] and I Declare World Peace.”  These videos are posted online on social media channels, and are a viral campaign in themselves.
Counting on being fortunate to have been born in a time and place where opportunities existed, Lawrence attributes much of the good in his life to the many opportunities he had.  The circumstances of one’s birth can be viewed as creating obstacles or opportunities. To him, growing up came with the freedom to do and be whatever he wanted: and though there may have been limiting factors, nothing was an obstacle. Personally, though, Lawrence counts naiveté, immaturity and ignorance among his greatest personal obstacles. As he progressed through life, though, he came to understand that all obstacles were of his own creation.  Fortunate enough to realize quite early on that blaming others for his mistakes was misguided, he soon developed the habit of not ducking responsibility.  The development of the I Declare World Peace project was premised in part on the notion that everything that happens in the world is the personal responsibility of each of us.  Due to his own “naiveté, immaturity and ignorance”, he encountered various frustrations, false starts and struggles as a new lawyer.  But, as trite as it may sound, Lawrence found that anytime one door closed, another door always opened.
The IDWP project has garnered widespread global support. People have written to Lawrence with a note to the effect that the project has made a positive difference in their lives. Many people have told Lawrence that they get up in the morning and audibly verbalize “I Declare World Peace” and that it has a positive effect on their days.  Convinced that social media can provide the vehicle through which human consciousness can be raised by the sharing of positive ideas in a way that was never before possible in history, Lawrence And Rita continue the promotion on a daily basis.
Despite growing up in a family that treated boys and girls equally, Lawrence once nurtured a belief internally that boys were better than girls. This “knowledge” was transmitted in very subtle ways – for instance, the word “doctor” could only be male and “nurse” female; females who drove cars were not drivers; they were “women drivers”. Somehow, Lawrence woke out of these misconceptions and came to understand that there cannot be male without female. As Lawrence moved through the various stages of life, it became crystal clear to him that, though different, men and women are perfect, necessary complements, each to the other and that necessitates unwavering commitments to equality.
Lawrence points to a Yiddish word – “mensch”.  While this word sounds like it refers to a masculine quality, it means “human being”.  It refers to a person of integrity and honour, somebody who does not take unfair advantage of a situation or benefits him or herself at the expense of another. This value was instilled in Lawrence since he was young, in the form of exhortations from his mother. While he may not have given thought to what it means to be a man, Lawrence frequently has given thought to what it means to be a mensch, a human being, a person of integrity and honour.  Once he grasped that men and women experienced all the same things, with the lone exception of looking at women as potential romantic partners, he looked, from then on, at men and women the same way. It made no sense to him to cause suffering if he could help it. This was a major realization on the path to becoming a mensch, and it meant do not cause suffering to any human being, male or female. Lawrence never felt that he was entitled to something simply because he was a man. Being a man, to him, means being a human being. Not more. Not less.
For Lawrence, promoting the idea of peace worldwide on social media through the IDWP project is a way to change, or at least try to change, the existing false paradigm that peace is not possible.  The project was set up with the idea that it would take 30 years for it to gain real traction. However, the long term goal is identical to the short term goal – World Peace. It cannot happen soon enough. In physics, there is a phenomenon called “phase transition.” It can be explained many ways, but one of its simpler explanations has to do with the effect of synchronization of a small population on the larger population. Viewing humanity as one giant complex organism, in order to “synchronize” or harmonize that organism, it would be beneficial if enough of humanity shared the thought “I Declare World Peace” in the hope of inducing a phase transition whereby the idea of peace is no longer far-fetched and the idea of war becomes as preposterous as it should be.
Persevering in the hope of achieving world peace, Lawrence labours on, advocating for the collective voice of reason in a world that takes, very easily, to battle.

[1] An installation art by the artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude called "The Gates" in Central Park in New York City. It was a giant installation of 7,500 orange fabric gates, 16 feet high (4.87 m) of varying widths, lining 23 miles (36.8 km) of footpaths in the park.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Boss Woman: Vandhana Ramanathan and Jinal Patel

As part of our Boss Woman Series, we bring you stories of entrepreneurs who have gone forth on their own: dealing with challenges of different kinds, starting up without funding and sailing through, and much more. In the second post of this series, Vandhana Ramanathan and Jinal Patel tell their story and journey into creating WSquare.

The beginning
Vandhana Ramanathan: I did my Visual Communication in M.O.P Vaishnav followed by a steady IT Job where I met my husband and got married by the time I was 21. I was a mother of two kids by the time I was 24. After spending three years following my return into my career, I did a full-time course in Marketing & Advertising for my Masters and later started working as a Digital Marketing Head in an Advertising Agency. It was here that I met Jinal and began our entrepreneurial journey. What started as a co-working space on March 8th, 2017, has now become an eco-system that help women get back to work, build entrepreneurship among women and provide a marketplace for home-based women entrepreneurs. 

Jinal Patel: I did my Journalism at M.O.P Vaishnav followed by a Post Graduation in HR in Pune, which helped me in my career as a Client Servicing Expert, and subsequently start Lets SOS (Shout Out Social), an all-women digital marketing agency along with Vandhana. Having built strong connections with media and gained networking skills in my journey so far, I was able to work with Lets SOS and get more than 40+ clients in 2 years, which soon developed into our next business idea - WSquare. We worked with over 50 women who were content writers, designers, and developers who quit their job and were looking for a way to be financially independent and ensure their skills do not go rustic. While working out of more than 3-4 co-working spaces themselves, due to an inability on investing an office space the first few months, they realized that though all co-working spaces provided facilities required for any startup, there was no community that women could be a part of and understand their needs and wants, which helped in self-motivation and confidence to get back to work. It initially started as a pilot project at the co-working space with 25 women providing a community of like-minded women, and on further brainstorming and discussions, we were led to providing specialized services for women such as concierge services, home-cooked food, on-call beauty services, personalized counseling and more. 

Milestones aplenty
Vandhana: We have provided up to 40 co-working seats for women, and have empowered 842 women entrepreneurs through WSquare Marketplace. We've also been able to incubate six startups right from the ideation stage to a developed product/service. We've built over forty collaborations and partnerships with companies supporting women getting back to work and entrepreneurship, and have curated over sixty mentors for startups and women-led entrepreneurs. We are now aiming at building a 1000+ community of mentors, industry experts, startups, women entrepreneurs and women who are looking to get back to work and connecting them to the right type of communities to help them build their brand.

Jinal:  The biggest challenge has been reaching out to women who are looking to get back to work and addressing the roadblocks that they face when they wish to get back to work either through entrepreneurship or a corporate job. What keeps us going, though, is that we get calls everyday from at least four or five women who tell us things like, "We heard you help women get back to work, I will send you my resume, can you please help me get back to work?" or "I think what you are doing for women is amazing, and I am willing to contribute in any way possible for this initiative!" or "I had a wonderful sale and visibility through your marketplace, and your WSquare program gave me access to the right type of mentor with whom I am partnering to launch my brand!" Receiving messages like these really drives and motivates us to do more every day! 

Sunday, June 24, 2018

Intersectional Musings #22: Nicole Chan

Nicole Chan (b.1994, Chicago, IL) is a self-taught artist. She draws inspiration from Japanese animation, fantasy novels, and pop surrealism. Her photography often incorporates self-made costumes and props. Chan believes in the power of visual arts as a mechanism for storytelling and social change. Her work has been recognized by educational and non-governmental institutions. Chan is currently working as Associate Creative Director at LearningLeaders.

Read her story here.