One Future Inspire I Suhani Bhushan: Diversity, Inclusion and Change
One Future Inspire is a series of interviews with young people across countries, borders, spectrums of work and being. These people share a common quality — they inspire us. Our aim is to bring their work to the fore with the hope that it might ignite a spark in someone, somewhere.
Team One Future interviewed Suhani Bhushan of Diversity and Inclusion Group for Networking and Action (DIGNA) and CIVICUS: World Alliance for Citizen Participation. She is an ardent Human Rights activist and changemaker.
Please tell us a little about your personal journey?
As a young woman of colour in the western world, I have had to constantly analyze the social situations that have been presented to me. I constantly have had to question situations in which I have been treated poorly because of my race, or if in fact, race had nothing to do with it, analyse situations in which I have benefited from my privilege. It took me a while to understand that self-preservation was not the most important thing to consider and that I had to stand up for what was right. For example, growing up in mixed race areas in Canada, I was an ‘acceptable’ brown girl. I was not bullied for my race in school and instead I have had to watch as my ‘friends’ bullied other people of colour. I was so scared that by standing up for others I would paint a target on my back. Eventually, that didn’t matter anymore. I look at my parents who always did what was right even when it wasn’t easy and I knew I could no longer be complacent. I lost many ‘friends’, made people uncomfortable in professional settings, and have learned to stop smiling when I do not agree with those in direct power over me. My journey has been tumultuous and sometimes I have needed to step back, but I hope it is just to re-energize so that I can keep fighting the good fight.
We understand that you have been involved with several organisations and their work around development, diversity and inclusion. Please tell us about two that are close to your heart.
One programme that always has me in awe is the Voice programme that is hosted by Oxfam Novib and HIVOS. They began as a fluid agency to test innovative ways of sub-granting funds to reach people and places that have been difficult for NGOs or government donors to reach. They have grown to call themselves an inclusive grant making facility and focus their time and funds on reaching marginalized populations in innovative ways to help avoid state persecution or community stigma. They listen to the people they serve and are constantly adapting to better build a global community.
Mama Cash is another organization I would like to highlight. They are feminist grantmakers who support women’s, girl’s and trans groups with funds, knowhow, and networking opportunities. They are constantly questioning traditional donor relationships and champion “nothing about us without us” to make sure womxm are in top leadership positions in order to be eligible for their grants.
What are the challenges you face at work? What are the resources or requirements — what do you need — to work in this field?
One of the greatest challenges of someone who ‘works on’ Diversity and Inclusion within civil society organizations, is the realization that the people who work in civil society are also on their own journey regarding their own prejudices and beliefs on human rights. It can be hard to get people to challenge themselves to take the time to learn of all the ways that they can be inclusive and all the ways that their current behaviours and ways of working can be exclusive. It is also difficult when diversity and inclusion is not in the organizational strategy but is only championed by staff members. Having dedicated staff working on diversity and inclusion is necessary to make sure D&I becomes a priority in organizations.
What is your idea of inclusion?
My idea of inclusion revolves around individuals experiencing the safety and security to engage in any space at any time. If everyone is fully included, they have the ability to shape the narrative while understanding the rights that they have in that space. The question remains, how to be included based on your terms rather than accepting an exploitative relationship just to ensure that you or the group you are advocating on behalf of are heard? Inclusion is not only having a seat at the table or having your voice be heard. It’s the ability to choose when and how your voice is heard and who is listening at the other end of the line.
What lead you into founding the Council for Social Justice back in college?
There were so many groups advocating on behalf of such amazing causes. Yet, when it came time for fundraising or vying for resources, all of these groups were competing against each other instead of working together. I found it baffling to compete with other great causes so I came up with a way where values based organizations work together to fundraise and split donations together. This was a great way to find synergies across the different groups, connect like-minded people, and have more capacity to tackle larger initiatives.
How important do you think it is for civil society to incorporate more programmes around diversity and inclusion?
I think it needs to be a top priority as many major pitfalls of civil society can be attributed to a lack of understanding of diversity and inclusion. Civil society organizations have been accused of adopting the same systems that resonate with colonialism. Without understanding the complexity of constituencies, power dynamics, intersectional identities and culture there is very little chance that any civil society programme can make sustainable and real impact—and especially to those who need it most.
What would you like for people to understand better about your work?
I would like people to understand that being a champion for diversity and inclusion is not just a Human Resources responsibility and not just a programmatic responsibility but it needs to be embedded in the DNA of everything we do so that we remain committed to working for all people. This work is exhausting but it is so meaningful that I cannot even think of doing anything else!
Describe a day in your life.
I like to start my day very slowly with coffee or a smoothie while I check emails and organize my day based on priority. Even though everything is digital I need to physically write down everything. I need to do that day in order to make a plan on how to best tackle the to do list. I even add “respond to ___” to remind myself to answer emails. I then take a look at my to-do list for the day and week and organize my tasks within the four categories: Urgent & Important, Urgent and not important, not urgent but important and not urgent and not important. I then put a few circles beside certain tasks that require multiple actions so that I can check each circle when I complete a part of that task. Checking items off really helps me feel accomplished which is why I check off even the most menial tasks. Since I work remotely, I make sure to sit at a desk everyday and refuse to sit on my couch or bed until the day is over to separate areas of my life. I usually have half a days worth of meetings, but in order to feel connection I message my team members to ask them how they are doing to have some conversation. I also plan “coffee dates” with coworkers where we video chat for 30 minutes informally, chatting about work and life. This makes me feel connected to my colleagues, gives me human connection, and boosts productivity after a meaningful break. I find it very important to set boundaries in life, so I set up working hours and personal hours and try very hard not to let work bleed into my personal hours. It doesn’t always work but it’s still important to make the effort! After work, I close my computer and move to the couch for a bit and watch a show or begin to make dinner which mentally signifies that I am done for the day and so my evening can start. I enjoy doing a task like cooking as it feels therapeutic and helps moves my mind into relaxation. I am usually against working in the evenings or on weekends (as rest is more productive and you need to take care o f you!) but sometimes I feel finishing a few tasks in the evening can alleviate the stress you feel and helps you sleep better through the night. However— this is a slippery slope so working additional hours needs to be super justified.
Describe 3 books or tell us about three people that have impacted your life.
I have to say the group that created the Diversity and Inclusion Group for Networking and Action (DIGNA) have impacted my life so much just in the last 8 months that I can’t even think about who I was before. They have all taught me so much, challenged me, supported me, accepted my support, and have just built a community based on trust, passion and hope for a stronger future. I would like to name them all:
Vandita Morarka, One Future Collective
Juliana Catania, RACI
Ana Addobbati, Social Good Brazil
Justin Francis Bionat, Youth Voices Count
Dumiso Gatsha, Success Capital NGO
Aidan Leavy, Plan International
Kalisito Biaukula, Youth Champs 4 Mental Health
Maggie Musonda, ActionAid Zambia
What is your advice to the youth of today?
Know your rights. Work hard but don’t think that work ethic is the most important thing there is. Taking care of yourself is the most important– and even looking at it productively, taking care of yourself allows you to give more when you are at work. That is also why you should know your rights as it may be difficult to take time off when needed when you are trying to ‘earn your way’. I understand that self-care is a privileged notion. But if there is written policy, use it. Be smart about how you use your time and show up for yourself. You are your most important asset.
Interviewed by Jerin Jacob, One Future Collective.