Exactly this time of the year, my process for final interview with Atlas had commenced. Interestingly, I was almost through my first interview selection in the month of May 2019, but I choose to go for a similar role in a multinational corporation, ironically both roles were in the health care domain. At that time, I thought this was IT, I have got what I was looking for – a private sector job, a fantastic person to work with and a role that was aligned to my skills. I firmly believed that this was THE JOB where I will perform my best, and this is THE OPPRTUNITY. It was my first job relocation to another city, despite my wide spread travels, I had always been a proud South Delhi Girl (my friends from India would read between these lines). And then, within two months, while I was getting accustomed to the whole change of sector, location and learning to live all by myself – came the crashing news of my mom being diagnosed with breast cancer. For me the crisis commenced with cancer in 2019 only!
The Dream Work that was Across the Ocean
Workplace has always been a driving force for me, and yet my so-called dream place became altogether an indifferent space, it lacked empathy, and moreover, the vision to achieve an impact was not getting realized. Yet, despite my mom’s illness, I was performing with a smile – completed the tasks that were assigned to me but felt unrelated. And then came a mail from Atlas Corps for being shortlisted to work with Collaborating for Resilience (CoRe), to build multi-stakeholder dialogues, collective action for the marginal communities in areas of common lands, forests, water resources, fisheries. Interestingly, what excited me the most was that one of their projects was in India on the Promise of Commons. I was thrilled and I said to myself this opportunity has come again at a juncture where I was questioning myself – It has come for the second time for a purpose, I recall the rigorous application process of AtlasCorps, written application, semi-finalist interview, intensive due diligence and only few lucky ones like myself are selected as finalists from over 75 to 80 thousand worldwide competitive applicants who are already established young leaders. It was during the final interview, coupled with a series of assignments, subsequent calls that I was selected, and as a sociologist and as a Scorpion let me tell you this was indeed symbolic. Sometimes, your ideal place is not what you are chasing or what appears to be, but something that chases you and enables you to reach your destiny. My mom always stated that it is only talent and merit that will enable you to attain your goals – people and prestigious platforms like AtlasCorps are opportunity for your to realize in order to achieve these goals. My #1 thank you to all those at AtlasCorps who despite the initial interview provided me with a second opportunity on the basis of my talent and work done in my home country, to Blake heading CoRe for an interesting interview process, engaging conversations and selection. But most importantly to the Indian co- workers in my last organization, thank you I will still cherish the last few months where I did some great projects and thank you for removing me from my comfort zone, I treated it as a pre-preparatory for my international stay that was coming along.
Work is Fun : Create an Impact While Enjoying Work
January 2020, I landed in Washington DC, United States of America (USA), on the iconic Kings Day (Birthday for Martin Luther’s King) I got the opportunity to volunteer at the fantastic Food and Friends working on a mission to improve lives of people suffering from terminally ill diseases such as Cancer. We helped in packing specialized home delivered meals for patients. I also had the opportunity to interact with fellows of my class from Kazakhstan, Kenya and of course, the lovely Lizzie from Atlas for organizing this initiative. Lizzie became a pillar of strength throughout my fellowship, my #2 thank you – to you for your support and cheer. It was here that I met my best friend the Kenyan Queen Elvira we continue to share the same bond as we clicked instantly. I was inspired by your struggles and hardships. The lovely Zoya (Zoe) as I fondly call her, was also my work colleague at the Open Gov Hub, together we attended some exciting workshops at the Gov hub with great interest, not to forget the scrumptious food we ate 😊 It is only at Atlas that an Indian and Pakistani meet and become great friends – I met one – Kashmala, we had great chats, loved our walks and of course our quest for Asian food 😊
It was 2020 February when I joined one of the most dynamic workplaces the Open Gov Hub, housing more than 75 worldwide organization, situated at the landmark 1110 Vermont Avenue with more than 200 international experts from diverse countries. This was IT, this was the global environment, this was THE DREAMPLACE that I longed for, the feeling that Work is Fun!! While back home. I am and still snubbed at this concept, made me look very different from my peers, but I am a firm believer of only pursuing those things, especially work that brings fulfilment. Most importantly, my previous mentor way back told me that we are blessed in a way that our work is indeed bringing some sort of impact into the lives of people. The question of brining impact to communities continues to remain with me.
Crisis Tests your Character and Leadership
Fellowship is what you make of it, we were provided with a platform, the onus is onto us how we would like to leverage it. The Global Leadership Lab by Atlas was done in the month of January, a professional leadership development training extended by leaders on pathbreaking issues such creative leadership, emotional intelligence, team building, personal development in times of crisis all of which that enable us to emerge as transformative leaders.
Leadership is truly tested in the times of adversity and so does a true character of a person, the Covid `19 crisis came and the world became virtual. Either you succumb to your circumstances, or rise, I choose to be the latter. I still recall back in India, I was criticized for my event management skills but during Covid 19, virtual facilitation emerged and continues to be as one of the most powerful skills. I was approached by my dear colleague Tanu Balasubramaniam to launch Rethink with CII India @75, with an aim was to showcase global volunteering efforts India – US series in times of Covid 19 response. I did share my experiences of the innovative Virtual Coffee, and QuaranTunes which I did as a member of the Social Cultural Atlas Committee, on raising the spirit of fellow community through the power of virtual technology. It was during the launch of the programme, few moments ago that I came to know about the news of my father being diagnosed with advanced level pancreatic cancer. It was difficult but I did garner all my courage to fulfil my commitment. I was helpless, unable to return to visit my father given the international border closures, I was left with a choice – either to cry or to be courageous and continue to spend quality time with him through technology. I also used this time to open on the power of collaborations, the very virtual event management skills of which I was criticized emerged as a force to initiate powerful collaborations – the SDGs Impact nexus series was launched with OpenGovHub and kudos to Izabella the Program Manager for her active engagement and my colleague Samuel Stalls. Our first series was on SDG5 as women across the world witnessed a double pandemic of increased domestic violence along with the lockdown of Covid 19. I met an interesting impactful person Kevin Sofen who was inspiring to do the SDGs Talks, we collaborated on a the SDG10 podcasts. Young people from India collaborated on sustainable consumption and it was so inspiring to speak to energetic vivacious Pratik, and Pratishtha on their wonderful initiative. As a result of which, I was invited at UN HLPF to come on this prestigious VNR platform and talk about SDGs. I am glad I was able to do so My thank you #3 to all these new, powerful people who will be the driving force of what collaborations can truly achieve.
Sustainability Implies Empowering the Unempowered
I had to do continuous visits to India on holding strategic consultations, with a multi actor platform approach for an impactful project with Foundation for Ecological Services involving government officials, community leaders, grass roots practitioners, on strengthening natural resource management, sustainable livelihoods, water resilience, sustainable agriculture under the promise of commons initiative. One of the key products that I was involved was to develop in collaboration with my dear colleague Samuel Stalls, was a Practitioners Guide that will empower a ground level practitioner to design and implement a multi actor platform (MAP). When we were presented with the challenge on how to host these consultations with the grass roots people, the very skills of virtual facilitation came into use. It is important to ensure that the skills, expertise of one’s work is able to enhance the capacities of communities especially those placed in the villages and marginalized areas. I conducted these workshops, field interviews, and relived the Sociologist experience with my dear friend Ankita whom I am thankful for her extensive collaboration and support in the time of crisis. Amidst the large talks of SDG5 and Gender Equality and despite the revolutionary 72nd Constitutional Amendment, that provides delegated seats to women in local governance. With mixed emotions, I witnessed the contrasting views and scenarios, sitting in DC, talking about SDG5, listening to the so-called private sector diversity claims on March 8 – and then interacting with women in villages of India who continue to remain powerless. It made me nostalgic about the programme I conducted way back in 2012, and now 2020 nothing has changed. Men continue to be proxy representors for women who are in fact legally elected. Well, one universal aspect that I learnt during the fellowship was that empowerment issues of women whether it is DC, Delhi still remains as a state of utopia. We need more women in decision making, leadership roles in order to support others, we need men who will be able to work with strong women and not include them in their team by reducing them to mere diversity examples , as in reality men are unable to hear the voices of these strong women.
I had many of my private sector counterparts talking about their response measures in Covid19 but the Virtual Partners Facilitation conducted, brought forth the real work done by local community leaders, village youth who returned to villages and contributed in the overall response, recovery and rebuild measures with their inherent skills and collectivize their efforts in brining economic and social stability. The staunch images of the migrant laborer walking miles to their native villages revealed the stark inequalities that continues to exist in our society. The power of local community and how crisis accelerates collectivized efforts emerged during my interesting interaction with the village leader of one of the most patriarchal stated of India Rajasthan. Despite caste hierarchies, poverty, bureaucratic hurdles, he ensured a village Covid19 Action Health plan was implemented, ensuring that health awareness, accessibility reaches to every village household. Similarly, a government official advocated for One Gram One Yojna, One Village One Scheme to ensure that all village schemes, provisions are brought under one umbrella in an inclusive manner.
These real leaders actually implemented the SDGs into local action and our role was to further provide them with a strategic approach, enhance their capacities, enable them through the design guide implement a platform wherein priorities, challenges and solutions are self-determined and self-governed. It was simple, we were attempting to bring self-reliance of villages by providing a method to garner local collectivized action.
Believe in the Power of Collaborations to Bring Commitments for Change
The above inspired me to remain committed so I thank all the colleagues at CoRe, FES and most importantly those local leaders who redefined leadership and impact in one’s work. In the process, I lost my Dad, the technology enabled me to see him in his last moments virtually, but he was committed to work even in his last breath, he lived a life where he always enjoyed the moment. My mother who herself is a cancer survivor continues to inspire me to remain confident on the talent of bringing people together for ensuring impact. I am grateful to them for making me a confident, empowered woman who believes in what she does and has a voice of her own.
The Atlas fellowship has been a life changing experience, it has radically shifted my mindset that I was chasing something that was meaningless, the real chase is when you enjoy what you do as only then you can excel. All of the above work was successful as I enjoyed it – I became the Virtual Coffee Queen and Best Outgoing Fellow of my Class for initiating partnering initiatives. In fact, I wish the Indian social conditioning has a mindset shift too, we are so obsessed with designations, organizations that even in our introduction we ask – Where do you work, or what do you do? But in Atlas the first sentence we are told to state or ask while meeting someone is – What are you passionate about? The international experience, the pandemic was full of challenges, it was hard too, but was super exciting! Never before you can collaborate with so much ease with a person sitting in any part of the world. I thank each fellow from a different country, I had 17 different cultural experiences, new perspectives and insights. I am a person who believes that I can grow, learn and collaborate from any part of the world. Most importantly, this pandemic taught me to overcome, forgive and be thankful to all those people who were difficult with me, as it was only then I could break my comfort zone and achieve this prestigious fellowship. I come back to India to spend time with my mom, following my friend’s advice to now take it easy, one of my dear friends continues her fellowship in the war zone Armenia, the other has to presume teaching in-person in a conflict zone of India, these are the powerful people around me whose resilience gets tested every moment as life is unpredictable. I am grateful that I am surrounded with these inspiring people who continue to remain positive in the pandemic, it is overwhelming to be home as my Dad’s absence is missed, but then he was all for celebrating with life. So, what am I up to now? Well, partnering with people across the world this time on sustainable tourism, I aim to explore my long-lost work on consumption and food so on a lighter note this may be symbolic that my next journey would be on this iconic day over a Thanksgiving Turkey! Watch out I am Coming Soon with New Initiatives, New Energies and a New Voice 😊.