Roller coaster!

What a difference a year makes!

One year ago, Prajnya opened the year with great uncertainty. All our resources were shrinking in inverse proportion to our work and reach. That is, more and more people were interested in working with us on this and that, but we had fewer volunteers, available less and less, and were raising less money than before. For me, personally, the workload was overwhelming; the difficulty of neither being able to say yes or no to things that came our way very embarrassing; and the inability to keep my own professional life and identity (which are separate from Prajnya) alive had become a source of resentment and anxiety.

When we started the year last year, we did not know whether we would still be in existence at the end of the financial year. With these questions, we set an emotionally trying year in motion. I asked all the active volunteers to think about these questions realistically, and spent the year anxious, indecisive, agonizing and yes, grieving. Grieving, because this idea, this dream that began in my head looked like it was on its deathbed. How do you watch your child die? How do you choose euthanasia? For me, there were no easy choices.

All year long, I got advice–from partners, from donors, from friends in my professional network and Prajnya’s, from volunteers, from Board Members and of course, from Advisors. I listened carefully.

Each of them had a valid point to make. But over time, the advice began to hurt. For each one, this was a problem they were thinking about only for that brief period of time. For me, whichever way the year ended, this was going to be emotional, almost an organic wrench. Some people listened with horror when I suggested we might close, and said, “No, how on earth can you shut down?” I would resent that and think, “Well, are you going to come and do this work?” Others would say, “You should not make an emotional decision. You should shut down. There’s no shame in quitting.” And I would think, “It is an emotional decision either way. How easy to say, “Quit!”” It was getting harder to talk about this decision, and harder to talk about anything else while this huge sword was dangling over my head. I doubt anyone in my life or in Prajnya could imagine how hard this process has been for me.

Something else was happening. In the face of imminent death, it was hard to not do every single little thing that came our way. One last time. Just this once. Just in case we never could again. Giving it our all. In the face of shutting down, we wanted to max out our life, go out in style. The result was a very active, full year, of many pilot activities and many new partnerships. In April, we helped EroTICs India bring their “Connect Your Rights” workshop to Chennai. In August, we launched a Peace Club at the PSBB Millennium School, Gerukambakkam, refusing to let the Education for Peace Initiative die without one last shot at a life. We met the students thrice during the year, and they held follow-up activities to take the ideas in those sessions forward. At the end of the year’s sessions, they asked, “No Peace Club next year?” I did not have an answer. In September, all of Prajnya’s active volunteers and Board met to discuss Prajnya’s future. We took heart from each other’s enthusiasms, but walked away with big questions. In November, we brought the findings of Saakshi Fellow Linda Racioppi’s book to a media training on gender and disasters. We worked with two new partners–the All India Disaster Mitigation Institute and Oxfam India. The same information was carried into a briefing held at the Tamil Nadu State Planning Commission in December, just before the 10th anniversary of the tsunami. The 2014 16 Days Campaign was one of our most successful. Not only did we finally organise the “gender violence as a public health issue” programmes that we had always dreamt of–again going all out because it may be our last chance–but our decision to have 17 individuals adopt and lead the campaign turned out to be a great idea. It took the reach of our campaign well beyond what we could have done, and opened up new conversations, new spaces and new partnerships. Through the 16 days, we agreed to help with this idea or come in for that training, with me always wondering if we would be around to deliver. We decided to take each day as it came. In January, our women’s history and peace education work came together when we launched Women and Peace, a South Asia directory of organisations working on both women’s rights and peace. We revised our television screenwriters’ guide and shared it with the Broadcasting Content Complaints Council through a friend. In March, we launched the Prajnya Archives’ third call for entries, this time extending our call to stories and photos. Plus, we did workshops and training at old locations and new. All this with a team that rarely went over three people, excluding the brand new administrator!

January was a really difficult month. Decisions needed to be made quickly so that they could be implemented by the new financial year. But the writing was already appearing on the wall and I just needed the courage to read it aloud. In September, we had left that weekend of deliberations with three choices: to continue as we were, to shut down or to continue but with some big changes. At the end of the meeting, I knew this was nobody’s challenge and nobody’s problem as much as it was mine. It could not be. Working with volunteers meant that nobody could own this as much as they might like. I had to take this call alone. By January, I knew that whatever decision I made, I would have to live with it and implement it alone–while building a new professional community to carry on the work started by volunteers.

As I was saying that to myself, I knew what the campaign had underscored in bold red for me: Closing was not an option. September and my experience told me staying open on the old basis was not an option. So in February, I made the only decision I could.

As anyone who has read the story of the Amritmanthan knows, churning brings good and evil in equal measure. Sometimes they are identical, and what you see, depends on your viewpoint at a given moment.

The heartbreaking churning of last year yielded a very lonely decision, but one that I could make with a strong sense of accomplishment. I knew and had repeated the challenges like a litany for so many years that I had stopped noticing how much we were doing in spite of them. I remembered how we had started–with just words on paper and one person in a new city–but I had forgotten to acknowledge how far we had traveled. We dwelt on the imperfections of our work, but dismissed the reality that we’d still done many things that others with more resources had not thought of doing. We had celebrated so little that our collective sense of accomplishment was not enough to keep us going. And I had also forgotten the other things that are really important: that the only measure of ‘success’ is doing–if you do your best, you are successful; that every little bit counts; that you have to max out what you give–to others and also to yourself; that, really, each of us walks alone.

So I took the decision: to keep Prajnya open, but using the campaign sabbatical this year to professionalise the team and transition from working primarily with volunteers. Our old volunteers will be around and we will need new ones, but we will move away from depending primarily on them and towards having full-time team members.

This means, we open the year with fund-raising as our main plan for the first part of this fiscal year. We are launching three categories of fundraising initiatives:

  1. A “Fun Fundraising” project, our equivalent of a Small Savings Scheme, to raise money from individual to support activities.
  2. A special outreach to Indians living abroad to cover the costs of our office and administration.
  3. The launch of a circle of special donors who will help us finance two professional positions by the end of the year.

This is not going to be easy, but it has to be done. I hope that everyone who has stood by us for the last eight and a half years will continue to do so. This work does not belong to one person or a small group of people. It belongs to all of us.

As I began to communicate this decision to the team, we got word that FICCI Ladies’ Organisation, Chennai, had decided to recognise our work in their annual awards list. The appreciation came as an endorsement of this tough decision, and encouragement to enter this new phase bravely.

I start this new year feeling very positive about what we have accomplished, and about what we have the potential to do. For every negative thought or every pessimistic view we have heard or expressed, there is a defiant, obstinate positivity in my heart at this moment. I have made this decision fully aware that it is not going to be easy to implement, even as I reclaim time for myself personally and professionally. But I know we cannot walk away. We have to do this. This is the right thing to do. That conviction makes 2015-16 an exciting rather than a daunting year.

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