About Swarna Rajagopalan

I am a political scientist by training with a special interest in security studies.

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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First steps, first images

On May 2, 2014, we took the first steps towards moving into the new workspace we are borrowing from the Shree Ayurvedic Multispecialty Hospital. This photograph, taken at the end of the small get-together insisted on being posted first! So, here’s who was present!

may 2 7

may 2 1We entered by pasting a laminated A4 sheet with our logo and name in three scripts on the door of the room. (We did it paste it straight, rest assured!)

You can get a sense of the room from these photos of us standing around and chatting. may 2 2 may 2 3 may 2 4

 

Our long-time host and supporter, Shyamala Rajagopalan, lit a tea-light placed in an old Diwali diya, and that was our moving-in ceremony!

may 2 5

 

 

This was followed by the distribution of sweets. Glasses of mango juice prepared us to step back out into the Chennai heat.

may 2 6And this is me lighting a sambrani ‘dhoop’. Hope light, fragrance and a happy team are always the hallmark of the work we do in this room and elsewhere.

“All I want is a room somewhere”

When you get to see this post, Prajnya will be taking its first tentative steps outside the small, narrow room that has been our home so far. Oh, that remains our registered office and we will still work there, but we are getting to borrow some workspace in another location. As this post appears, we will be in that space for the first time, filling it with our hopes, our dreams and a lot of positivity. (And yes, our many accumulated belongings!)

This is a big step for us, and we take it with great trepidation.

There are many things we are not sure of. Funding is the biggest one. Human resources remain a challenge. It’s been a very anxious two weeks, too anxious to even be excited about this move. Is this the right thing to do? Is this the right time? I don’t really know.

But yesterday, I remembered: Not knowing is normal, right? It’s life. And every now and then, you just have to close your eyes and jump. We did that when we started Prajnya. We did it with the first quiz and the first campaign. At every turn, we had no way of knowing how it would turn out and we haven’t done too badly on the whole.

Reading the generosity of our new hosts as a good sign, we are stepping off the ledge. Wish us luck!

As for me, each time this impossible dream of mine turns another corner, my heart fills with so many thoughts and words that I can barely distinguish them to write. I cannot completely believe what I see. It’s as if I watch things unfold, surprised. I am not excited as much as awed. How can something that began in my head have become so real?

And the answer, as always is, because it has become the dream and the mission of so many others–those who volunteer, those who donate, those who participate, those who partner with us and those who learn of our efforts and wish us well.

These are incredible moments, made possible by friends like you. Please savour them with us.

Will we, won’t we? Depends on you!

It’s almost two weeks since we opened this year’s fundraising drive.

This year, we are hoping to raise just INR 300,000/- towards the cost of the 2014 Prajnya 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence. Much of this whatever we raise–acknowledging that we have never raised our full asking amount–goes towards the salary of the Campaign Associate/Coordinator and in the last two years, the Media Associate. Both of them work 24/7 and then some in the four weeks preceding the campaign and the campaign fortnight. Increasingly, their work stretches till the end of December, as we do more programmes that require reports and follow-up, and campaign report-writing gets more complicated with more diverse programming. Even with these two people working that hard and the couple of us that end up working full-time but honorarily with them, we are usually physical wrecks by mid-December. But selective amnesia starts to kick in and we recall the season’s buzz and start planning again almost right away, just holding ourselves back by saying, “We really should wait for the Campaign to be in place and besides, we don’t know how much money we will have.”

We end up being so tired post-campaign that we have put a “sabbatical” system in place. After every three years, we stop for a break. (Yes, I know a sabbatical happens once in seven years, but believe me, campaign years leave you exhausted as if you’ve packed the work of two years into one!)

The 2014 Campaign will be the third in our second cycle of campaigns. In this campaign, we will want to replay every idea that worked in the last two years, do it better, do it more and push for maximum impact. We will want to bring together the people we have worked with. We will want to set the agenda for the work of the sabbatical year. We will want to tie up loose ends on processes that have taken two years to gain momentum. This is an important year for us.

Next year, there will be no campaign.

And the fact is, this year too, there will be no campaign if we do not raise any money for it. And in these two weeks, we have only one donation in the till–the starter donation I made. Not just the campaign, actually, if our resource mobilization does not improve so that we can scale up if just enough to do work that’s now becoming possible, then we will have to shut our doors altogether. But that’s the subject of another blog-post.

I want to tell you–if I haven’t already–why we come to individuals for donations every year. In the beginning, it was because only our friends and families would support us. Who else would back untried, untested people trying to do something they could not guarantee would work?

Over the years, especially for the 16 Days Campaign, we have come to love the idea that the campaign happens because of a community of individuals who tell us over and over: This is important work. This cause, this work, are important to us. We appreciate your efforts and we think you should continue to make them. With each donation, this is the message we get from you. Therefore, we tell ourselves, that when you give again and again, you reaffirm your support to this cause: to end the silence around gender violence, and ultimately, the violence itself. As each donor joins this caravan for the first time, and as the caravan grows, it becomes a force that no one can resist. Individual donations matter to us, because they speak of a growing community around this cause.

People suggest to us we approach companies for sponsorship. We could, I suppose, but in the beginning, Prajnya and the campaign felt like saplings whose identity–astitva or brand–we needed to shelter and nurture. And then again, who would have sponsored us in 2008? But then, we fell in love with this idea of people choosing to be part of our journey by giving, by working with us, by sharing something they had (a skill, a network, a resource, a space), and now, I don’t want a gift to the campaign to be a financial or marketing decision. Companies do occasionally make donations to the campaign, but we know them so we know they are made from a sense of citizenship, from a commitment to equality and justice and because they have come to believe in this work. And they are gifts without strings, not sponsorship.

Moreover, it now seems so much more meaningful when people and organizations consciously join us in small ways. It’s a much bigger contribution to our work. I don’t want support for the 16 Days Campaign, in particular, to be a business decision. It must be a citizenship decision, a humanitarian decision, a justice decision–a conscious, mindful decision.

And so I sit here thinking, why have I not seen a single deposit or cheque in two weeks of a six-week fundraising drive? I can think of three reasons: donor fatigue, “bystander effect” and procrastination.

  • I think it’s absolutely fair for our older friends to feel they’ve given a lot and it’s now someone else’s turn. No argument at all. Some of our supporters have given every year since year 1, and must wonder if we will ever stop asking. Your gifts have already made so much possible that I couldn’t begin to make a list.
  • I too sometimes think when I see an appeal or a petition that what I can afford will not count and that someone else will surely make a better gift. After all, this or that organization manages to do a lot, so they must be getting money from somewhere else. I just want to clarify: we don’t. We do depend on you, but we do understand that everyone has constraints and limits as to what they can give.
  • Finally, please give today; don’t wait until the end of May because we might make all kinds of bad decisions in panic! Every gift waters the seeds of hope in our hearts! And there’s no little gift–we use everything frugally and make it stretch.

What happens if we don’t raise this money? It’s very simple. We simply won’t do the campaign this year.

Your gifts are our gauge. When you give, we read: This is a good thing to do and it would be useful to do it again this year. When you don’t give, we read: This may no longer be a useful thing to do. And it’s fine to send us that message. We will move away from the campaign and find other ways to be useful.

But do we think the campaign still has utility as an advocacy tool? We do.

  1. Every year, the campaign opens doors for us to try new issues, new frameworks, new media and formats, new partners, new resource people and most of all, new audiences. The banner of the campaign and the seasonal momentum open doors for us for year-round activity.
  2. We still come across people who are not sure that what happens to them is violence. The work of dismantling old ways of thinking remains useful and necessary. Changing that way of thinking has always been the measure we’ve offered for the effectiveness of our work, although we have never measured it–if someone listens to our programmes and goes back thinking, what has been happening to me is violence, not my destiny, we’ve been useful.
  3. In Chennai, our campaign has also been a platform that has brought together a cross-section of people with different degrees of experience and expertise in this field and given them a chance to engage with each other. Artists, social workers, lawyers, teachers, students, government servants, caregivers–our programmes try to connect people with each other.
  4. Each year, new people–as individuals or members of organizations–volunteer with the campaign, and the numbers of those who are aware and well-informed grows.

Let us know what you are thinking. This is our society, our problem; this is your campaign too.

I want to finish by thanking you for reading this, and for all your support in the past. I want to share with you once more our fundraising appeal for this year, and invite you to give and/or to share with others who might.

In sum: Half-empty or half-full?

We launched our 2013 fundraising drive on April 14, 2013 with a target of Rs. 300,000/- (3 lakhs).

As we closed yesterday, on a preliminary tally, we had received Rs. 177002/- in 15 individual donations and one corporate donation. That makes up about 59% of our target.

We remain short of 41%. Of course, the end of the “fundraising drive period” does not mean people cannot and will not donate after this. But what it does mean is that we will have to trim our sails somewhat and that we will come around once more in a few months with a begging-bowl. Please bear with us then.

Notwithstanding the disappointment of the fundraising deficit, it means a lot to us that so many people cared enough to take the time and effort to see what they could spare and share for our work. People ask who funds us, and we are proud to say our work belongs to you–our immediate community–and through you to the larger community in which we live and where we seek to bring change.

Thank you for your faith and support! It’s what keeps us going.

Grey skies. Are sunny fundraising days past?

This week, we received only Rs. 2000/- in donation. Only, that is, in relation to our goal which is hopelessly distant.

But it’s a precious 2000, not just because every rupee counts and every donation is an expression of support, but because it comes in memory of a childhood friend who passed away too, too early. Perhaps it will bring us luck in this coming week, the last week of this fundraising drive.

Happier news, though from Neela Thaamara: Lots of people have been asking about the bags, and orders are now coming in. They did not print too many, though, so if you want one, place your order today.

And no, even if all the bags sell, we will still be way short of our target, INR 300,000/- (3 lakhs). So if you can help us find a few large donations to cover the distance, we would be very grateful. This year’s 16 Days Campaign against Gender Violence and several other projects hang in the balance in the meanwhile. Please help!

Blue lotuses in our garden!

ntb1Neela Thaamara, a Kurnool-based business, owned by our friend Kavitha Reddy (who gifted us those lovely dupattas for our fifth birthday!) will share proceeds from the sale of some lovely shopping cum book bags with Prajnya.

The bags are available in nine designs and cost just Rs. 250/- each. You can order them directly from Neela Thaamara at neelathaamara1@gmail.com. They’d be useful anywhere and make great gifts.

We love the bags and have posted photos here. But you can also see them at Neela Thaamara‘s FB page.

10 days, 100,000 to go… will we, won’t we?

This week, we received Rs. 56001/- in donations. Thank you very much to our donors, all of whom have been supporting us since the beginning.

We still have half the journey ahead, and just over ten days to go. Will we make it? Won’t we? My eyes are shut tightly, my breath almost suspended, fingers and toes tightly crossed and touching wood…. it will happen, surely! We cannot have so much support and not receive the rest of what we need?

There’s some other good news too, but it deserves a post of its own!

A good week, but we’re still not looking!

This week, we received donations (counting pledges and undeposited cheques) of Rs. 73,000/-. I am almost afraid to be happy about this…. what if, what if, what if? Easier not to celebrate but to focus on the amount remaining–more than 50% in about 20 days. Will we make it?

Someone asked me this week: Why May 31? Can’t people donate after that? Of course people can donate after that and they do year-round. But here’s the thing, a lot of what we do takes planning far in advance, and we can’t plan on money we don’t have. For instance we want to hold 3-4 roundtables for HR managers on workplace sexual harassment. To set dates, block our resource persons’ time, block a venue and go through the process of inviting, following up, chasing and reminding participants, we need a lot of lead time. Working back, that means we need to be fairly sure of a minimum amount of money in the bank as well. If we know June 1 what we definitely have to work with through the year, we will adjust our reach and plans accordingly.

For now, on May 12, we have more than half of our fundraising target to meet. And we sit here, fingers and toes crossed and touching wood, not breathing, not wanting to look, hoping for the best.

We leave with the gentle reminder that for Hindus, Akshaya Tritiyai is a really good day to donate. Whatever you do on this day will multiply. What you give us will multiply in our accounts. Whatever good karma you earn will multiply. And your ability to give will multiply. It is the gift that keeps on giving!

THANK YOU SO MUCH!

PS: Suchitra Laxman made us a new fundraising presentation that introduces our work to new friends and also explains what we are raising funds for. Do share! Thanks!
About Prajnya and why we seek support 2013-14