Excerpts from my speech at Class 13 graduation
How does one start talking about the end of a wondrous year, an era of change and change making? For a lot of us, this was a big step in our lives – having to leave our friends, families, and loved ones behind, some of whom are in the middle of crises today. Atlas Corps gave me, and all us fellows, the chance to speak up, speak out, and work…oops scratch that – SERVE at brilliant organizations here in the US; an opportunity for us to learn from them and them from us, and an even bigger opportunity for us to bring our worlds, our work, and our passions to a stage where key world policy makers and organizations would not only listen, but also learn from us.
This year for me has been life changing. Coming from a grassroots background and feeling that no one seemed to care about young LGBTIQ people in India and Asia, this fellowship gave me a chance to be part of an amazing team at the Human Rights Campaign, here in DC. Me and TJay were the first two fellows at the HRC, aptly the guinea pigs, in a team that itself was only in its infancy when we started. It gives me immense pride to say that we got the opportunity to help build the first ever program that focused completely on International LGBTIQ rights at an organization that for the last many decades was primarily dedicated to national work. It was a chance that the HRC took with us – bringing people on board who knew the work and lived and breathed it every day, as opposed to “experts” in that region, and I’m sure that Ty can vouch for the fact that it not only gave our team valuable insights, but also added to the overall organization in terms of the diversity of culture, language, and life experiences we brought with us.
It’s been a weird year for me – when I came here last August, I was at a stage in my life where I was ready to change the world and learn more about how to do it. I go back home on Wednesday, now a criminal in the eyes of my country, just for being who I am. In December, India reinstated an ancient colonial era law from 1860 and made same-sex relations criminal again, and I remember being here when the decision came out. It is excruciating when the combined sadness of millions of humans deemed criminals echoes across the world, and you are here, far away from all that, unable to share that emotion, to take part in the collective angst, to fight together. For many of us fellows, it’s been a similar year because of deteriorating conditions for human rights back in our countries, among other personal crises, but let me tell you that in times of pain and anger it is these people, these fellow fellows, who have come together and been more than family to me. This little global community of fellows that I’ve gotten to know over the past one year has been my support group, my co-conspirators, my party buddies, and I’m really thankful for that, so when you all get a moment during this crazy busy day hug and thank someone who made your experience this year worthwhile.
Now on to the fun part. Here’s an not very exhaustive list of things that I feel we learnt this year-
1) people WILL stop their cars to let you cross the road. Good luck surviving the roads back home!
2) the art of schmoozing is an acquired taste which involves a LOT of drinking and faux pas which are perfectly acceptable as long as you’re not the one making them!
3) It is cheaper and easier to fly home for a week and get surgery done than to have an appointment for a consultation with a doctor here and get reimbursed by the insurance
4) every single person on our fellowship is doing something extremely amazing and you keep wondering if there’s any other place in the world where you’ll be able to spend a year with such a mixed bag of awe-inspiring individuals
5) if you haven’t had Suzanne’s baba ganoush, you haven’t had baba ganoush
6) You will find love, support, recognition, and admiration in the most unlikely of places
7) do NOT miss the Global Leadership Lab, else you’ll be out if the loop for months
8) there is unfound joy in being able to become friends with people who you wouldn’t have been able to even interact with because of your country’s politics and policies
9) your professional and personal lives will overlap. A LOT
10) at the end of the year, you will recognize approx 500 different organizations just through their abbreviations
Enough of lists…I feel like I can go on forever with that.
This is the point in my speech that I should be quoting Gandhi or Mandela or Martin Luther King Jr, but I’m going to mention something Scott uses every single time in his schpiel. He says “talent is universally distributed, opportunity is not” and I remember the first time I heard it, a year ago, on our first day of orientation. There couldn’t be more truth in that sentence as I’ve come to find out through my experience with my fellow Fellows this year. These people you see around you this evening are some of the best minds from across the world. Your investment in our future – as donors, as host organizations, as staff – helps us in ways you may or may not realize today. But when you see our class in a few years heading international organizations, winning awards for their work, or maybe just toiling away building grassroots movements to empower millions, you can proudly say that you’ve been part of a truly global family that will lead the world someday soon
And now for the final minutes of my speech I was going to invite Kunihiro Shimoji, our fellow from Japan, to sing the Atlas Corps song, but he threatened to punch me if I did so, so I’ll leave you all to enjoy this evening, get to know everyone in our awesome class, hear individual stories, and join me in giving a hearty round of applause to the graduating class