Friday, March 11, 2016

Organising for Utopia

I have always loved talking. As I often tell people, I started talking at six months old and haven’t stopped since. To me, words are my ultimate love, my passion, my tools, and my ultimate weapons. They define what and how I think (yes, I definitely do believe thoughts and beliefs are a function of language) and how I engage with the world and its people.

Getting involved in community building and activism enhanced this talk-love. Politicizing myself, clarifying and constantly reexamining the politics, learning more, exchanging so much with so many amazing people – everything is so wonderfully language-rich, so fantastically Adda demanding. And I love smaller, more intimate spaces for these conversations. Safer spaces, with a focus on listening and exchange, rather than a large set-up with listeners and a talker.

Increasingly though, especially in this city, but surely in others as well, I find these spaces privileged and limited. It is the same set of people, with the same or similar backgrounds. We are – most of us – upper caste, mid to upper middle class (social status wise, not in terms of the communist understanding of class), educated – from English medium backgrounds more often than not – up to a certain level, and with access to means of gathering a lot of knowledge, of reading, of acquiring the right political language to articulate our political stands… or even to have one.

A recent conversation with a friend brought this home even more clearly. “But I wonder
How do we get across what we figure to people less inclined to thinking for themselves?” she asked, “Or even say... Less equipped? Someone who does not have access to social media or the internet? The domestic help needs feminism too!” and this is a conversation we often have in these activist/social work (what a horrible phrase!) type spaces. One can’t help but, given everything that we avowedly believe in, from feminism to left leaning politics to caste justice, to blah blah. So, some of us, and I am glad to say the number seems to be increasing, always feel uncomfortable with how much space and visibility and voice we get, simply because of our privileges, simply because of an accident of birth.

When I first started collectivizing, getting (albeit tangentially) into organizing and activism, I was immensely lucky to be around some amazing people who seemed to be so damn sorted out! Totally green and wet behind the gills, all I knew was that I wanted to be around people like me, and that I believed in community support, in creating the alternative safety nets and support structures that most of us didn’t have with family and larger society. All I was looking for was a sense of belonging, some friends, and to help out a few people if I could. What I found instead (and blessed be the reporter who made it possible) were people like Chatura Patil and Vrushali Pendharkar and Shals Mahajan and Chayanika Shah who not only taught me pretty much everything I always wanted to know about identity and rights and activism and politicization, but also about reflexivity.

From the beginning, OLAVA for example, was about inclusivity and community in a much larger sense than just the urban English speaking group of women who got together and started it one summer evening. The process of trying to reach out, include, listen to, not co-opt, not appropriate the opinions and rights and presences and lived experiences of the “other”  was one of the most difficult, yet most rewarding processes of that whole experience.

More recently, when I reengaged with activism after a huge gap, the same issues jumped to the forefront in our planning of the Pride walk. The need to reach out to, include, and value people from rural areas, people who don’t necessarily communicate always in English, people who live in non urban areas, people who don’t have access to the internet – let alone social networking sites – was paramount. In the case of the Pride Walk, the systems were already in place, and community based organizations acted as points of contact and liaisons. However, more could probably have been done. Who knows.

As I begin thinking and working with caste issues, the same concerns raise their heads again. For various reasons, from ease of articulation to access to time, the most regular and vocal members of that group also end up being upper caste, educated, English speaking, urban, middle class people. And most of us are uncomfortable with that. Not having, in most cases, the lived experience of caste oppression, and all its intersectionalities with gender, poverty, location, and more, we feel like imposters at best, and appropriators at worst. What right do we really have to be saying this? And if we don’t, will this conversation not happen? How do we reach out to people with those lived experiences? How do we do that without exoticising, tokenizing or fetishising them? How do we make sure the space is safe enough and friendly enough? How do we step back and make space for their voices to be heard? Is this kind of thinking elitist too? Are we suffering from savior complex as well?

I think it's an important conversation to have. Amongst ourselves as well as with everyone else we can think of. How to reach more and more people, to acknowledge and give up our privileged spaces and voices to those less privileged, and to bring lived experiences to centre stage. To make visible the invisible experiences and oppressions we glance away from on a daily basis. As my friend said, everyone from the lower middle class downward on the class spectrum, even in urban settings, seems to be invisible to these groups, and it is the caste privileged, class privileged, educated, urban
“activists” who are the most vocal in them. It is very discomfiting how much appropriation we are doing, and yet we seem unsure of how to fix it.

Maybe as of now we can’t really help it too much (although we certainly can make the effort and try to a large extent). These conversations are starting over social media sites or in friends circles after all, and a lot of us, I am ashamed to say, don’t really have that many contacts outside of or beyond a certain circle. But we HAVE to find ways to change that. If we really believe in everything we say we do, we have to build alliances and go to people with lived experiences to let THEM tell us what they want and how to go about getting it. I don’t see the point of being in the position of speaking FOR them, it just doesn’t make sense.

In my opinion, the trick is to do more, try more, to begin working consciously and actively towards that utopia where we no longer have to appropriate, or be center stage, or be the most vocal or easily heard. Where we would, as we should, fade far, far into the background and let the affected tell us the solutions, whether it is issues of caste, class, gender, sexuality, or whatever else we want to stand with.

Me and my pink unicorns!