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One Future Inspire I Vivek D’souza: Advocacy, Policy and Social 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 Vivek D’souza, Policy and Advocacy Co-ordinator of QKnit, an LGBTQIA+ Collaborative that works at building the capacity of young LGBTQIA+ individuals to achieve equality, equity, and sustainability

Please tell us a little about your personal journey. What made you join The QKnit?

Um…where do I start?…

These past few years have been an intense journey of ups and downs.  But these experiences have shaped me into the person I am today. Back in 2010, I was clueless about my future.  Being the bright kid in the family, I was coaxed into pursuing physical sciences to a point where it became unbearable. Before I even realized, I was in a race I did not want to participate – a race that demanded good scores, a good job, and a high pay-package.  It was about the same time that I was in complete denial about my sexuality due to the fear of being unwanted and rejected. Being the eldest son in a conservative and orthodox Catholic family, the pressure to conform and be a good boy, obey and become a role model to the family and the outside constantly weighed on me and made me feel broken, incomplete, insecure and worthless. Towards the end of 2012, things took an ugly turn that I left everything and ran away from home.

In 2013, I started afresh and decided to pursue the Humanities. During my undergraduate years, I volunteered with several local student-led movements and got the opportunity to travel abroad which gave me the platform to contribute to policymaking and advocacy.  My experiences locally, regionally, and internationally encouraged me to became more involved in student activism and this gave me the confidence to organize capacity building initiatives for young university students. My experience interacting with the youth not only made me sensitive to the ground realities but also made me confident to talk about my own challenges of insecurity, anxiety, mental health, and my sexuality. I realized there were other people like me who faced similar hardships/struggles on a daily basis. Slowly but steadily, I started to get involved in the queer scene in Mumbai and in the process, I saw, learnt, felt and experienced what it means to be ‘queer’.

In 2016, I met Sumit, founder of The QKnit (who is now my close friend and confidante) through an event organized for the Queer Azaadi Mumbai Pride March. I liked the idea that ‘Q’ meant Queer and ‘Knit’ meant the act of weaving together different threads so I decided to help him by actively volunteering. I was hesitant in the beginning about joining because of what my parents would think, but later it did not matter, I chose to normalize my work so that it would become my every day. I joined The QKnit because I saw this as a space of self-exploration and personal growth – where I would be comfortable with myself and not be judged or looked down upon by anyone. I wanted to make friends who felt the same feelings as I did, who went through struggles similar to mine, but also to understand struggles quite different to me which I have not experienced because of my own identity and privilege.

We understand that you have been involved with several grassroots movement in the country. What are these movements about? Please tell us about two that are close to your heart.

AICUF:

The All India Catholic University Federation or AICUF, presently at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, will always be the closest to me because it was the first ever student-led movement I was part of that later went on to play an integral role in influencing and shaping my student politics/activism. AICUF, a largely youth-focused and youth-led movement works to advance the rights of the Dalits, Refugees, Adivasis, and Women through awareness and outreach programs and has local, state, and pan-India presence. It not only gave me exposure and experience but also encouraged me to pursue my passion for human rights activism and advocacy. Gradually, work at the local and state level enabled me to address critical concerns at the national, regional, and international level primarily at United Nations spaces where I worked on youth mobilization and capacity building initiatives to address gender, disaster risk reduction, humanitarian issues, and contribute to SDG policymaking. It gave me the space to liaise with governments and other stakeholders on critical SDG policy imperatives and nurture important connections with global and local civil society spaces.

Praja Foundation:

During the second year of my master’s degree, I once noticed a call for applications for Praja’s ER Fellowship in Mumbai pinned up on our department notice board.  Praja Foundation works on instilling local democracy and urban governance reforms. Praja is also close to me because it gave me the opportunity to apply my theoretical knowledge of urban governance into practice.  Since I worked closely with local authorities for 6 months, I used data to identify gaps in the governance of civic concerns primary education, and public health. I liaised with the project team to build capacity to influence governance reforms and strengthen the efficiency of public service delivery.  My advocacy efforts saw an increase in participation by the councilors who addressed grievances around civic complaints, solid waste management, tuberculosis and malaria, and learning outcomes in the BMC schools during general body meetings. It gave me a practical understanding of urban problems while at the same time gave me the opportunity to develop a rapport with local politicians.  This experience proved to be very insightful as it later encouraged me to apply for the Urban Fellows Programme at the Indian Institute for Human Settlements (IIHS) so I could further deepen my knowledge and understanding in urban policy and practice.

What are the challenges you face at work? What are the resources or requirements to work in this field? (personal disposition of team members, resources, etc.)

Initially when Sumit and I were the only ones working in The QKnit, executing activities and projects became really hectic and difficult.  At one point, we were quite pessimistic about our reach and the impact we wanted to create because we could not raise adequate awareness or generate money to finance our work. Since I was busy with studies, there were difficult times especially in terms of coordination amongst ourselves. It was an intensely slow period because while we had a lot of ideas, some materialized, some failed. And it was through this process that we learnt and worked on our shortcomings.

Now, The QKnit has a small functional team wherein tasks are better spread across and managed by friends. But while working in a diverse team is great, being mindful of everyone’s time, commitment, effort, and background only lends us to small scale things at the city level at this point. Working voluntarily (you’re right, we don’t have the monies and also, in a certain sense, it is unfair to encourage unpaid work) in a space that is primarily LGBTQ+/queer can be very daunting and difficult especially when stigma around homosexuality is still prevalent. But we have onboard dedicated and wonderful friends help The QKnit regardless of their gender and/or sexual identity and status.

With the little resources we have, we try to support youth-led and youth-focused spaces and collectives in building youth capacities in the field of gender, sexuality, SRHR, and human rights through collaborations. And while I’m grateful for this, I believe in the midst of all this, we have yet to reach a point where we curate our own research projects and programs that will allow us to liaise better with government officials and public policy spaces.

What is your idea of urban policy?

“What is urban policy?” is a question I am trying to figure out myself.  Because in more ways than one, I am finding it rather difficult to fit everything in a two-line definition. Sure, we have UN-HABITAT’s and high-level government body’s world view on what is urban.  But ever since I studied at IIHS, I have learnt that the notion of what is urban in the south 1) is very different from the canonical understanding of the north, and 2) changes drastically even in the south. For instance, understanding of the housing market in Bangalore and Delhi is very different from the housing market in Mumbai. Similarly, urban planning policies differ depending on a city’s geographical/spatial location and while Mumbai can only expand vertically, cities like Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad (landlocked cities) can expand through sprawling. What I would rather ponder on is that in order understand this complex, frustrating, yet fascinating and intriguing way of how cities and people function to influence policy, one must really understand and unpack what it means to be southern, and urban in the south.

Vivek in action

Describe a day in your life

I don’t have a fixed schedule. I usually get up by around 8:00 and after breakfast I attend to emails.  Since I am on an internship, most of my day is on field for my research project. But otherwise I am constantly looking out for jobs, conferences, and scholarships to fund my education. But in the evenings, I do like to travel the city, go meet friends, have chai by the tapri and just vent and vent and vent to my friends. If not for the venting, I usually do rounds around the park/playground often listening to music. It keeps me sane and frees me from my anxiety and stress. Whatever/However the day is, ultimately I listen to some music. But most importantly, I keep myself busy throughout the week so I can get some rest during weekends and just spread across the bed like a potato.  Hahahahahahaha. (not really, I’m just an unemployed workaholic internally crying about how stressful my life is -_-)

Why is student activism important?

There is a certain notion and stigma associated that since student activism is a kind of rebellion, (which is often used in negative connotation) – students should just accept the status quo and should not waste their time in protests sloganeering their grievances.  Instead they should be good and obedient and remain in the cloisters of the college/university classroom and focus on exams rather than politics. While protests form a small fraction of activism, student activism is more than that. It is the articulation of dissent in various kinds and forms – through poetry, music, fashion, through acting, and organizing nukkad nataks, and building awareness and capacity to mobilize more and more young people into the fold. Imagine the scale of Greta Thunberg’s climate activism or 22 year old Alaa Salah spearheading the voices of young women in Sudan. But it need not be global. Student activism can also be spearheaded in communities, in colleges, and in youth-groups and youth spaces.

Student activism IS integrally important because as young people, we are as much affected by the policies created by our governments as much as other groups like women, children, persons with disabilities. As young people, we are also equal and important stakeholders in decision and policy-making.

What would you like for people to understand better about your work?

Working in the development sector is more often than not the least recommended career advice given by people primarily because of the understanding that it is extremely low paying.  Contrary to this popular belief, I want people to know that while most of the advocacy work I do is voluntary, it is indeed challenging, exciting and satisfying that allows me to spend a good part of my week with the people I love working with, who play an important role in my life.

I don’t think I can muster the courage or have words that could convey or translate my passion for human rights advocacy. It was this passion that shaped my academic life by pushing me to pursue a degree in Economics and Politics; it was this passion that urged me to work with local grassroots movements and civil society groups, it was this passion that took me to the United Nations; and it is this burning passion that continues to encourage me to work in the development sector regardless of the pay-package.

Describe a book or tell us about people that have impacted your life.

One of the most recent books I am reading is titled “Because I have a Voice: Queer Politics in India”  It starts with a theoretical understanding of what is queer, how the use of the word queer began in India, and what it means to live as a queer person in India.  The book then cites rich, and in-depth narratives of the multiplicity of intersections, identities, and struggles. Through first-hand stories of the people who have shared their deep and personal lives, the book talks about sexuality, desire, intimacy, and takes you through a journey of queer history and the emergent and contemporary queer politics in the Indian context.

What is your advice to the youth?

The pressures of being a young person are endless. As individuals, we’re constantly performing – to impress, to suppress – for others and for ourselves. But given that we live in spaces where we are constantly pressured to perform in certain ways deemed acceptable, we don’t realize what’s at stake – our identity, our sense of self, our self-worth, our mental health, and our purpose in life.  I think it is important to recognize these toxic environments, be mindful of them, and respect and be kind to our bodies and our vulnerabilities.

As young people, we’re often told we are inexperienced, that we lack skill, that we don’t have what it takes, that we won’t prosper, and that we’re not good enough.  Don’t let that get to you. This is precisely why we need to strive harder, question the hierarchies, demand that we be heard on our own terms, and be compassionate not hateful individuals.

Sanaya Patel is the Assistant Editor at One Future Collective.

One Future Collective