Monday, April 05, 2010

we are not always born to lead



If you ask my mother, who was a good leader, she will tell you "Shivaji, Churchill, Indira Gandhi..." If you ask my father, he will tell you who wasn't a good leader.."Pandit Nehru.."

We tend to think of national and international level leaders when discussing leadership for obvious reasons. Theirs are the achievements that burn the brightest in the sky, and they are the people who have either risen or been born to achieve monumental change.

I cannot disagree with this. I too have people I admire very much...

The more I leave the books in their shelves and travel around the length of this country, working with grassroots leaders, the more I have begun to deconstruct the beginnings of leadership and how it is formed -- and how it can be encouraged

* We have rungs of leadership, starting at the grassroots level. These are people I have been fortunate to work with, and at times I feel that they are the ones who achieve the most because their fights are the most passionate, personal and often, hardest.

* They are born of their circumstances. Many I know are not the ones "with a vision" - no, they are often fighting hard to earn respect for their communities ("we are not untouchable") or fighting a physical displacement because of the growth of industry.

* It is not at all easy to rise above the discrimination you face because of caste, religion or economics, but it is all the more an astonishing achievement to be prepared to lead your community to a better future. When Ambedkar went to visit Mahatma Gandhi to ask him to speak out against untouchability, Gandhi did not agree. When Ambedkar left, Gandhi was told that Ambedkar was a Dalit himself. Gandhi remarked that he did not know this -- it is easier to feel compassion when you are significantly better off than when you are a victim of these circumstances yourself. (You see, Ambedkar is a upper caste name given by his tutor so that BR could study further in life without discrimination).

* Many of these grassroots leaders (I won't say most, because some were drawn to the NGO life) have battled horrific personal tragedies that would make a lesser person turn to alcohol, drugs, suicide.... or depression. But these people have fought the hardest when backed up against a wall. Now, as vauge as that cliche sounds, the turning point of most of these people has been that they got involved in some local NGO that was involved in either womens rights, education etc etc

* This is the first important point: leadership needs to be harnessed. Local NGOs, through various activities and often a substitute for schooling, teach people how to think constructively. They in turn, understand nuances about issues that concern them, and lead a team from their community that can work on it. You cannot imagine some of the people I meet, shy housewives with pallus draped around them, who lead all the women in their village to defy their families and open bank accounts... it is truly amazing how a million little steps help open a million minds.

* Where we come in is the next step. Our dealings with grassroots organizations and leaders/members is that we are "enablers". Our worldview is bigger, and we have more experts on our staff that can help put context to events around the world, and also introduce new tools as we have access to technology. For example we need to introduce many grassroots people to (a) identity (b) the bigger picture.

* Those fighting for Dalit rights or womens rights only see themselves as those things, whereas, their other identities are pushed back. For example, a Dalit can be from a state, a region, a country, a philosophy. Same for a woman. In terms of the bigger picture, often NGOs oppose development without studying other factors besides displacement. If they correctly understood monetary value for their land, opportunity this project could bring.. or on the flipside their rights as per international conventions many of these struggles would not be for nothing. (Case study: Dongrias vs Vedanta).

* Technology is also another factor that can help raise their work from a strictly low impact local action to one that is accessible everywhere and immediately scalable. Technology also encourages creativity and employment.

* The point is that armed with information, often imparted through tried and tested skill development camps, local leaders can become successful on a national level.

* For me, where I work in a high impact organization at a national level, and for us, we can step outside a community led struggle and see how we can tie up these movements at a national level to have the kind of impact that will generate a movement. For example, we are currently arming many grassroots people with video cameras so that stories of their communities can be brought to a common platform where we can generate action.

* But for this me to grow further/ for the org to grow further we need to educate ourselves in what is out there, what people are doing, and how to build on these things. For example, we meet people from the UN and now have developed a model by which beneficiaries of schemes can document the pace at which they are being implemented. There is a potential to help Google create content in local dialects and so on. Conversations with MDGs help us align our future goals with a common international vision.

*For that platforms that help you meet people with big ideas, a breadth of experience and often the funds are important. It helps connect dots you never knew existed.

I need some helping in thinking..... guys, your thoughts?

5 comments:

Dantedownunder said...

This is clearly a difficult and exciting endeavour.
I think leaders are often created by circumstances. In some scenarios a local circumstance may bear some/all of the features of a wider struggle (town/state/nation). In such cases an organisation like yours could prove invaluable in helping the local leader identify with the larger problem. On the other hand, if the local issue lacks relevance at a more national level, it may be more useful for the leader to focus on the local issues that motivate him/her. I don't see any harm in this. In particular, it is not obvious why a local leader must necessarily have a national role. In the latter case your organisation can give the local issue the level of visibility it requires to get ahead.
Given your expertise, I think you and your organisation can differentiate these two scenarios best. In both, you have a role to play. In the first, to connect different local leaders with similar struggle. This may or may not lead to a common agenda. In the second to give greater visibility to a purely local but important struggle.
The assumption (highly debatable I am sure) in all of this is that people are motivated by issues they can identify with. The reason they may not identify with other causes could be a) they couldn't care less or b) they don't have the information required to see the similarities. As suggested above, these two should perhaps be treated differently.

egg style said...

Generally speaking, "leadership" to my mind must necessarily transcend identity (other than, say, homo sapien). On this measure, of the names mentioned, only Nehru comes close.

Of course, such lofty thoughts do little for the upliftment of those oppressed under particulars not of their own making. So, admittedly, we need to think in pragmatic ground-level terms; the efforts of your project to put new tools in the hands of those who could assume charge of empowering their "own" people are clearly commendable in this context. Local leaders of such suffering groups have typically been the lucky few who have been fortunate enough to gain intimate exposure to those who live significantly better lives (the Moses model, shall we say). Therefore, the enhanced and sustained interaction of haves with have-nots, in forums such as those your project is operating, can perhaps yield leaders in that mould. And they could even play a role in sounding the alarm, drawing attention to their misery, and raising their power of collective bargaining.

However, this "re-slice the cake" approach could create social schisms of its own, and even if not, can at best offer only interim relief to the oppressed.

Discrimination runs deep, and the extirpation of its diagnosed source from the under-evolved mind demands the subversion of irrational notions of supreme authority that accord superiority to particularly idealised and projected anthropomorphs (distance from which sadly also often corresponds to successive shades of demonisation), and the simultaneous use of the sensual void thus created as the ultimate guarantor of human equality. Easy enough? Naaah. And that's the whole effin [ineffable] point.

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