Stronger together: Building agreement across brands

This month, I had the grim satisfaction of sharing an important news story: part of the Global Witness report on the plight of Land Defenders worldwide. (In short – it’s not good news: the problem is growing worse and spreading wider, with 200 people killed in 24 countries in 2016, up from 185 deaths in 16 countries in 2015.)

The story itself is unlikely to surprise those readers who’ve been involved in any environmental campaigns over the last five years; we’ve all been witness to – if not victims of – some form of backlash for daring to question reckless ‘development’ at the expense of communities’ rights and shared resources. But apart from the comfort I drew from telling this story, to and through a number of journalists, I drew strength from knowing the potential for real, long-term gains behind having issued this press release to draw more attention to the situation for Land Defenders in India, particularly.

The press release linked above is remarkable for another reason – and this is probably most obvious to and best appreciated by those working in civil society, those with an insider’s view of how hard it can often be – to get three organisations like Global Witness, Greenpeace, and Amnesty International to come together for common cause, and make a joint public statement, no less!!

In this case, the choice was so much simpler, because the links between the organisations and the campaigns are clear enough that I was merely, and quite literally, ‘instrumental’ in bringing the groups together. On the one hand, you have a grassroots campaigner like Rinchin, working with the Chhattisgarh Bachao Andolan, a community right in the middle of an epic struggle to protect their land, their forests and their human rights. And then you have three global organisations with powerful motivations of their own:

  • Global Witness, whose investigations boldly reveal that “globally, governments and business are failing in their duty to protect activists at risk… permitting a level of impunity that allows the vast majority of perpetrators to walk free, emboldening would-be assassins. Investors, including development banks, are fueling the violence by backing projects that harm the environment and trample human rights.”
  • Amnesty International India, who have themselves “exposed countless instances when corporations exploit weak and poorly enforced domestic regulation with devastating effect on people and communities… [and highlighted how] few effective mechanisms at national or international level to prevent corporate human rights abuses or to hold companies to account. Amnesty is working to change this.”
  • Greenpeace India, whose campaigns on forests, climate and energy have inevitably led to challenging the extraction, processing and burning of coal for energy, and the many disastrous consequences on public health, ecosystems and global climate change.

Bringing these groups together to support land defenders, and amplify their story beyond the usual media vehicles for such ‘liberal values’ stories, was immensely gratifying.

But the hope, that it has triggered a conversation that will see this collaboration continue, is even more so. #StrongerTogether, after all!

Longing/Belonging

Today it is a decade since my husband and I moved to the UK.

Like all those who move from one society to another (whether by choice or forced by their circumstances) our first few years were spent in longing… longing, in equal measure, for the life we left behind and the life we wanted to build here. Equal parts nostalgia and determination.

And like all those who put down roots anew, today I feel a strong sense of belonging… belonging twice over, in equal measure, to both, the community we left behind and the community we are part of here.

Today is also my birthday, and like all those who celebrate these milestones in parallel realities (real life and online!) it is inevitably a day spent looking at one screen or another, as the warm wishes pour in. Late night emails & early morning phone calls, Facebook, WhatsApp & Skype around the clock: my digital reality today is yet another reminder of how very fortunate I am, to have so much love sent my way from such distant parts of the world. Meanwhile my physical reality – doing deeply rewarding work while enjoying a sunny day in a beautiful garden I get to call my own, before enjoying a celebratory evening – reminds me how privileged my life here is too.

I find myself sighing even as I smile… and acknowledge, yet again, this borderless state of mind I enjoy, the sheer privilege of a globalised life, and yes, the lifetime of saudade I’ve signed myself up for.

Haiku2

My first attempt at a Haiku, seemed fitting for it to be this one, on this day.

‘No Buy July’: rethinking consumerism

buy-nothing

I’ve just finished what I called ‘no buy July’. At the start of the month I decided I would go a whole month without buying anyTHING. (I would still spend on services, and of course, on food and drink. But I wanted to see if I could go a whole month without buying things.)

First, the rationale behind my decision: it was not about saving money, but about taking a good hard look at my own consumerism and minimising my own impact on the planet. If you stop to think – as I made myself – about the amount of resources that go into creating, packaging, shipping and selling things, and then question whether you really truly needed all that material, energy and money spent on fulfilling that precise desire… honestly, not many things would pass the ‘do I’ test.

My decision was prompted, in part, by my frequent visits to India in the course of this last year. As any of my migrant friends will appreciate, a visit ‘back home’ is almost always a shopping expedition: all those special treats you really only get out there, the traditional clothes, shoes and accessories in colours and designs you’d be hard pressed to find in London stores (and when you do, they’re certainly not at comparable prices!) By now, the impulse to buy in bulk is an almost automatic one.

But as I made more than a couple of trips back and forth this year, I realised I didn’t really have to stock up quite as much, and I certainly didn’t ‘need’ to go shopping on each trip. More to the point, my decision to exercise sensible restraint was in glaring contrast with the behaviour I witnessed while in India…

As the country has ‘developed’, with globalisation bringing most brands into the domestic market, and the urban middle class enjoying more and more disposable income thanks to salaries starting to reflect international collaborations, consumerism has become quite the phenomenon. So much so, I found myself wondering if people were even conscious of how impulsively (compulsively?) they were buying things!

Every single time I made plans to meet family or friends in India, they would suggest we met at a bar or restaurant – either in a mall, or in the middle of a ‘shopping area’. (Not surprisingly, the food and retail markets seem to coexist, and feed each other.)

Every single time we met, at least one (but usually more) of my drinking/dining companions would be carrying a shopping bag, with something they had just bought.

Every single conversation with friends was therefore inevitably punctuated by exclamations over what had just been bought. Discussions over where similar – or better – items had been bought by the others. Arguments over whether similar – or better – prices, alternatives, other brands had been found.

And no one seemed to stop and think, did I really need to buy that?

Perhaps as an over-reaction to what I saw as absent-minded consumerism, I decided I would impose mindful un-consumerism upon myself.

I was determined to see if I could go a whole month without buying anything, and force myself to think of clever alternatives to buying the things that would only contribute to plunder at one end of their life-cycle, and waste at the other.

Here’s a small sample of the choices I made:

unnamed

  • Cooked my friends a present instead of buying them one.
  • When visiting friends, took them flowers from my garden, arranged in a once-used gift bag I had saved. (Yes, I always save wrapping paper… and would probably have wrapped them in recycled paper if I didn’t have an old gift bag at hand!)
  • I started baking in glassware and covering dishes with plates instead of taking the easier way out with aluminium foil and cling film. (Even though I was already using recycled foil and biodegradable cling film)

And yes, I didn’t buy any new clothes or personal effects: but then, as someone who doesn’t wear makeup, and never paid much attention to trends, that wasn’t hard for me to do either.

In fact, I ended my no-buy July by wearing a shirt** that I recently realised (thank you, Facebook memories!) I have been wearing since 2005!!!

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If this sounds like a challenge you would enjoy too, do check out the wonderful Buy Nothing Project, from whom I borrowed the title photo on this page.

** And yes, I cheerfully wear a decade-old shirt on my own birthday too! 

On the sidelines of History

I write this post with acute self-awareness. To be more precise, acute awareness of the many privileges I enjoy, because of/despite the many labels I carry, and the unique privileged perspective it gives me on the sidelines of history.

I write as an educated woman of Indian origin, and now a British citizen. A self-employed, tax-paying, citizen of a well-established welfare state. And I write as I travel across the English channel in comfort… indeed, some style and romance even, on the  Eurostar.

I travel for work… and every word of this is important: it is fulfilling, cerebral, paid work. Work I enjoy, no less. And work that renews my connection to my roots.

I do so in a week where I witnessed, on a symphony of screens, events that are quite simply, History in the making.

In India, I watched a polarised debate take place, kicked off – as the best debates are! – in a university campus where the drama continues day by day. The debate has sparked intense discussion, as passionate citizens spanning generations search their souls for what their idea of nationalism is. Define what their patriotism looks like. And articulate loud and clear: my nation is bigger than my opinions. But equally, it is bigger than yours!

A demonstrator shouts slogans and waves Indian national flag as she takes part in a protest demanding the release of Kanhaiya Kumar in New DelhiProud to be a ‘military daughter’ I nonetheless found myself on the fringe as some of my friends, service kids themselves, railed against the JNU students with surprising ferocity and (without taking the time to explore the many facets of the Truth behind all the media clamour) were, perhaps reasonably, outraged at the forgotten sacrifices our soldiers make on the frontiers, guarding a nation that these young ideologues were so ready to challenge, seemingly keen to discard. I was unsettled by the juxtaposition of these two ideas, so I found it deeply reassuring to read this piece by Admiral L. Ramdas, no less than ex-Chief of the Naval Staff, ‘Looking Back, and ahead‘ and concluding: In the ultimate analysis , human security is the best guarantee for National Security. (If it’s a choice between reading on and clicking through to a link – click through to this one now. The Admirable Admiral makes a far more important point, and says it far better than anything I have to say.)

Meanwhile, in my other home country, an equally polarised debate is occupying news space: are we better in the EU or out? What will it mean for us as citizens? And travelling unchecked, unnoticed almost, on my new British passport, I’m reminded again what this debate would have meant as recently as last year – when I would have worried about the implications of this decision on my personal life.

I’m reminded, also, of the many times a Schengen visa (or lack thereof) stopped me, kept me from important life events. The meetings I had to leave to my colleagues. The business opportunities I had to pass up on. The weddings I missed, and the much-loved-from-a-distance children of dear friends that I simply wasn’t able to cuddle when I wanted. I am so glad, today, that I was able to plan this work trip at relatively short notice. But unless we vote to stay in, my red passport may be no guarantee that I shall be able to do so at will in the future.

And then there’s the harsh, but inevitable reminder of yet another privilege I can’t forget: As I chugged across the Channel, cocooned in the comfort of the train, I’m reminded again of the critical difference between a refugee and a migrant. And as I roll up my trusty rain-proof jacket and stow it comfortably above my well-upholstered chair, I’m reminded of the flimsy lifejackets that some refugees (the ‘lucky’ ones) trust the lives of their children to.

In a few hours’ time, I’ll be settling in to a comfortable, conscience-soothing bed at the Conscious Hotel – with sustainability standards, and a commitment to most of the big ethical standards, it works to earn that name. But as I turn in to that comfortable bed, I won’t forget to be grateful for my continuing safety, even as families in Calais face further disruption to their already-troubled lives. Closing their camp, their one refuge, can only mean further displacement, condemn them to continued fleeing for their lives. Can the displaced afford to dream of comfort, security and dignity? How long can the human spirit endure in basic ‘survival’ mode?

no-jungle-1401Displacement and survival bring my thoughts full circle, back to India. Where tribal rights activist Soni Sori was viciously attacked yesterday, as a signal perhaps, to all those who have the audacity to speak up against police brutality, forced displacement of tribals, and the flagrant violation of community forest rights to make way for mining operations.

I like polarised debates, if only because they force people off the fence. Sometimes you can’t afford to be neutral, can’t afford to sit out the fight. So I will continue to play my small part in this history… speaking up where I can, writing some pieces when I can’t, and urging my friends – many with the same privileges I enjoy – to remember those less fortunate than them, invest the time to explore your truth, and pick which side of these Histories you’re going to side with.

Silence is no longer an option.

Following my Ikigai

Ikigai

Recently, I came across this Facebook post about Ikigai (生き甲斐]) a Japanese concept, meaning “a reason for being”. According to the Japanese, everyone has an Ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self.

How fortunate I am to have found my own Ikigai years ago. I didn’t know the term at the time, but I felt myself ‘being rooted’ when I first started working with Greenpeace, in India. No, even before that – I still remember the mounting sense of excitement I felt, reading that recruitment ad and ticking off their checklist. I knew I had learned – and was good at – my job, it involved all that I (then) knew and cared about, I saw how the world needed Greenpeace, and of course, I jumped at the opportunity to ‘get paid for’ the combination! That was it – no deep questions asked, no search of self required. I had my Ikigai.

In the years since, I’ve worked with a bunch of other organisations, of different types and sizes – indeed, some very effective campaigning groups that are too small to even be organised – and have found my centre strengthened for it. (Ok, so I always don’t get paid for it but I figure, if I have to sacrifice one quadrant, it better be that one! And it’s always been a conscious choice: I set up Cause Impact precisely so I could offer my support and professional advice to groups that needed help, but couldn’t always afford it.)

2015 brought me full circle, back to where I first found my Ikigai: Greenpeace India. I went back to ‘my home team’ – as I always thought of them – at a time they were under attack… but as we put it in the very first piece of content I helped to write while there, they were are Undaunted, undefeated, unstoppable.

A few months in, and as 2016 began with the usual annual planning process, I found myself making a much larger commitment than I first intended to, and agreed to support the organisation’s team for this whole year, though one of my top priorities will be to help recruit a Comms Director to replace me. It wasn’t the easiest decision to make – but perhaps that search of self was long overdue?

“You love this work!” I told myself.

“You’re good at this,” they told me.

“It’ll be stable income,” my husband and business partners reminded me.

“They need me,” I told myself, “and the world needs this work; India matters more than ever before.”

But in the end, none of that really matters.

The truth is, I was only following my Ikigai.

Leaving the party too late

The end of the year is always a good time to pause and take stock, and – at least in my case, and particularly this year – a time to celebrate everything that went right in the year gone by. But sometimes, the reflections are so deep, so detailed, they take time to be clear enough to be articulated.

2015 was a momentous year for me. In more ways than one. In the spirit of grateful goodbye, I would have liked to articulate my gratitude, but I was too busy enjoying the party (“squeezing the last drop of pleasure from it” as my mother says I do almost each time) to start making my goodbyes just then. Also the fact is that in some ways, for me, the New Year actually seemed to start a few days later; a lengthy trip to India ended on the 5th of January, and that seemed like a more fitting time to turn the page on 2015.

As anyone who knows me will know – for me the professional and personal are deeply intertwined. And in 2015, I found this reinforced again, as events brought me full circle and issued me both, my greatest challenge and the greatest sense of reward, in both spheres. But still, considering how much went on in the year, I guess my reflections will follow in bits and parts…The professional year that was. And what the year did to/for ME, personally.

But thank you, all of you who were part of my life in 2015. (You know who you are, and I hope I’ve made it clear how much I valued your part in my life this year!)

It was a great party. And the next one has already begun well…

When home is no longer an option.

I feel compelled to share Kenya-born poet Warsaw Shire’s poem ‘Home’ in its entirety, if only to reinforce the #RefugeesWelcome message. These are undoubtedly the most powerful words I’ve read in a while, a stark reminder of society’s moral responsibility towards those for whom home is no longer an option. And of our obligation not to confuse refugees with migrants, who have far more agency in their own destiny. No images necessary, her words are description enough.

Home

no one leaves home unless
home is the mouth of a shark
you only run for the border
when you see the whole city running as well

your neighbors running faster than you
breath bloody in their throats
the boy you went to school with
who kissed you dizzy behind the old tin factory
is holding a gun bigger than his body
you only leave home
when home won’t let you stay.

no one leaves home unless home chases you
fire under feet
hot blood in your belly
it’s not something you ever thought of doing
until the blade burnt threats into
your neck
and even then you carried the anthem under
your breath
only tearing up your passport in an airport toilets
sobbing as each mouthful of paper
made it clear that you wouldn’t be going back.

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied

no one chooses refugee camps
or strip searches where your
body is left aching
or prison,
because prison is safer
than a city of fire
and one prison guard
in the night
is better than a truckload
of men who look like your father
no one could take it
no one could stomach it
no one skin would be tough enough

the
go home blacks
refugees
dirty immigrants
asylum seekers
sucking our country dry
niggers with their hands out
they smell strange
savage
messed up their country and now they want
to mess ours up
how do the words
the dirty looks
roll off your backs
maybe because the blow is softer
than a limb torn off

or the words are more tender
than fourteen men between
your legs
or the insults are easier
to swallow
than rubble
than bone
than your child body
in pieces.
i want to go home,
but home is the mouth of a shark
home is the barrel of the gun
and no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore
unless home told you
to quicken your legs
leave your clothes behind
crawl through the desert
wade through the oceans
drown
save
be hunger
beg
forget pride
your survival is more important

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
saying-
leave,
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here.

— by Warsan Shire

If you’re as moved as I was, please consider adding your voice to this Avaaz ‘no more drownings’ wall. It’s a beginning.