Tuesday, June 20, 2017

5 Things I Learned in My First Year of Work

On the one-year anniversary of my first day at Living Cities, I'm sharing the five most powerful things I've learned at my workplace this year:

1. The mark of a great leader is to amplify the leader in everyone. 

I have been surrounded by leaders from the moment I joined Living Cities who have pushed me to believe in the inherent value in what I bring to the table, and to couple my curiosity with a self-assured faith in my ability to offer unique insights to our work. From Ty scolding me for sitting mute on a conference call and not introducing myself as an intern (“people need to meet all of the wonderful people we have working at Living Cities!”) to JaNay challenging me to speak out in TII meetings (“don’t think of yourself as young, because you don’t show up as young or inexperienced in a room”) to Jeff empowering me as a young staff member (“don’t ask me if you can go to the event — tell me you are going to the event!”) to Brittany reminding me again and again that there is power in my voice (“I have watched you transform an entire room with your questions”), I have been surrounded by colleagues and leaders who have empowered me to make my voice heard, and to believe in the value of my opinion.

As a young woman of color entering the full-time workforce from a competitive college setting, I honestly have battled some pretty serious internalized inferiority and self-doubt this year. But the constant nudging from strong leaders around me has reminded me how small and simple it may seem, but how powerful it is to amplify the voices of staff of every rank, gender, race, and so on.

2. The world is hungry for real-time learning. 

In conversations about the work that Living Cities does with other organizations in the field, the piece that often stands out as most innovative and unique is our commitment to learning in public and producing knowledge in real time. There is so much momentum to do good in this country, and cities are eager to learn about promising practices from one another. Living Cities has built an incredible platform to empower staff to share timely insights around both the successes and failures of our work to uplift low-income people in U.S. cities. This ability to accelerate learning through our evidence-building process will continue to be of crucial importance to our ability to effect results.

3. There is more than one way to talk about race. 

When I entered the organization, I was nervous about being educated and equipped enough to say the “right” things when we talked about race. I believe this racial anxiety — whether it stems from pain for people of color, or often from guilt for non-POC — is what hinders us from co-creating solutions and moving forward to action. How to convey oppression and trauma to people who have no firsthand experience with either remains a deep and pressing question in my mind, but what I am learning, through the training and conferences I have been fortunate enough to attend this year (and under the patient mentorship of Hafizah and Nadia), is that there is more than one way to discuss the issue in a way that is authentic to you and your experience with race and racism. It’s just crucial that you have a genuine desire to embrace the mindset of a humble student and commit yourself to the process. 

4. Genuinely engaging community is crucial. 

Whatever community looks like — whether it be residents of the cities you work in or the staff of your organization — engaging the community you serve, who is impacted by your decisions, at every stage of your work and with fidelity is the only way to determine that the work you do accomplishes not just what you believe is best for people, but what is actually most powerful for transforming the lives of people on the ground. This is particularly important from our balcony-view perspective in the philanthropic field.

5. Changing hearts and minds takes time. 

I have faith in the collective action approach because it just makes sense that large-scale change cannot be achieved by one sector alone, and we need data to track the outcomes we care about. And I am also learning that shifting entire sectors and systems takes time, patience, and dedicated leaders who are constantly driving the work forward.

With these insights and the countless others I have gained this year, I hope to be one of those leaders.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

My Interview With Four Brilliant Feminist Leaders

Earlier this month, I had the privilege of attending the Othering & Belonging conference hosted by the Haas Institute at UC Berkeley, and I can say without exaggeration that its content was some of the best content I have ever consumed in any form. The conference was on the obstacle of "othering," the process through which we are conditioned in society to discriminate based on any kind of difference -- and how to strive toward "belonging," or inclusion, across all sorts of fields -- from philanthropy to public health.

I think I never knew what it meant to be in a "safe space" until I experienced what it felt like to be present here. To know that everyone in the room (about 2,000 people) were all striving, aching for utmost acceptance and uplifting of ALL persons regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religion, ability, etc. was freeing in a way I cannot articulate. I wore things I wouldn't wear elsewhere, I said things I wouldn't say elsewhere, and I felt so fully empowered to speak my mind. I am eager to share some of that spirit with you all.

I attended a breakout session called "Building a Transformational Women's Movement: Feminism at a Crossroads" where four feminist activists shared their vision and wisdom on how to forge a powerful women's movement for our time, as well as how to be kind and loving toward ourselves and others. Their words blew me away, and after the conference, I had the opportunity to interview each of them. Please check out my piece to learn from the beauty and brilliance of Malika Redmond, Vanessa Daniel, Kathleen Gutierrez, and Kim Tran.
Click here to read the post on Medium.

Friday, May 5, 2017

My Other Writing Life

Dear Readers,

The year (!) that has passed since graduation has been for me very much a time for self-care -- a time to spend time with self, listen to self, live with self, and reflect and decompress after a stimulating and challenging college career.

As many of you know, one of my responsibilities at Living Cities is to write about what we are learning in our work with cities, and about ourselves as an organization. In this vein, I have written a few pieces for work recently that I would like to share with all of you.

The first is called Radical Self-Care: Four Lessons from Our Meeting with City Leaders in Albuquerque and it describes a wonderful trip that my team took to New Mexico with the seven cities that my project works with most closely. In between group discussion, we re-connected with our work on social change through art and culture.

The next four pieces describe lessons that I learned through searching for a job in the social sector last spring, that I think can be valuable for other students and professionals as well. In one post, I share my process for searching for jobs to apply to and provide advice for young people interested in entering the social change space. In another, I describe the experience I had during my interview process, and follow up with tips for interviewers to make sure they are reflecting their organizational culture positively, as well as interview advice for students to use discussions with potential employers as opportunities to determine whether a firm would be a good fit for them.

All of my posts on the job application process are also available as part of this series called Hiring in the Social Sector.

I hope you all enjoy the fruits of "my other writing life," and I look forward to sharing more soon!


Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017

I was lucky to be able to visit our learning center this week, even if just for a few days. Though I wasn't there long, I wanted to share briefly my thoughts on where we came from, where we are, and where we're going. Click to read Ratna's Reflections on Gyaan Ghar, Spring 2017.

Sunday, April 2, 2017


You can hear it when you call them
The slight tone of surprise and expected expectation
They birthed those who birthed you

The best part, by far, of my trip to India these past two weeks was how much quality time I got to spend with my grandparents (or "the grandies" as I quite enjoy calling them). I've realized I have this subconscious fear that as I get older, I'm going to become too something -- too modern, too "American," too progressive, too aloof -- to be able to relate to my grandparents anymore. This trip was such beautiful proof that absolutely the opposite is true. Graduating college and living in the working world (albeit for very short a time) has filled me with nothing but admiration and respect for the inspiring careers and lives of strength and courage these incredible humans are living.

Let's start with my Nanaji. He won't approve, but the word that constantly comes to my mind for him and his career is "badass." (Since I know he will look this up and don't want him walking away with the wrong definition, I'm going to say I define that as "distinctively tough or powerful; so exceptional as to be intimidating" (Random House, Inc.)).

Nanaji decided to tinker with a college career in engineering, and ended up retiring as the Chief Engineer of the Punjab Irrigation Department, shortly after I was born. Then, he decided to benefit from the irrigation and drainage systems he himself had built throughout his career, and retired to his ancestral land in Abohar to run a citrus orchard.

He literally just does this for fun; so he has something to do. I asked him how he learned about farming and he said he had just been exposed to an agricultural lifestyle from a young age and that's how he picked up the vocabulary of the farm...and the technical stuff he learned on the internet. His fancy new sprinkler system for the fields arrived in Abohar the same day I arrived in India -- so I was honored and pleasantly surprised that between the two of us, he chose to receive me!

Nanaji and I got to chat on the long drives from Chandigarh to Ludhiana and between Amritsar and Chandigarh, and I had the privilege of getting to see a few of the sites at which he was stationed at various points in his career. I absolutely adore these drives, and deeply cherish the assorted advice Nanaji always gives me about personal finances, moderation, and trusting in the universe to do its thing.

My Nani is genuinely one of my closest friends. I can't think of anyone else, fluent in the same English-Hindi-Punjabi melange we speak, who so wholeheartedly accepts and appreciates my antics. Whether we are spontaneously breaking into bedroom Bhangra routines, rudely spitting out citrus seeds at the farm, or muttering genuinely irreverent Punjabi commentary about strangers who irk us, we never stop laughing together.

I keep thinking that one of these days I am going to be a good granddaughter and give this queen the pampering she so deserves -- but she never gives me a chance as every morning she wakes me up with my favorite Nescafe drink and a pile of my laundry from the day before that she has decided to wash by hand. Every day. Who even does laundry every day?!

After my adventures in Ludhiana and Amritsar, I returned to Chandigarh and just debriefed with Nani for two hours. I kept trying to flag topics in my head that maybe I couldn't discuss with her or feelings of mine that she wouldn't be able to relate to, but as I continued to run my mouth, I was disproven time and time again.

Despite a knee injury (can relate), Nani carted me around running my frivolous errands until the last hour of my trip, and when I was leaving she said, "I'll miss you so much...starting tomorrow I won't have anyone to do things for!"

My Dadi is a stunning exemplar of strength and independence. She never graduated high school but started from the age of 16 to support my Dadaji in his long and celebrated career as a college professor (whence my passion for education and literature come). Her dream was to one day be the Principal of a primary school. I didn't know of this aspiration until after I asked her to be the President of Gyaan Ghar in 2008, at which point we discovered that coincidentally, this dream had become a reality!

In addition to overseeing the daily operations of this learning center home to 65 students from low-income families, Dadi also serves as Vice President for the local Senior Citizen Welfare Association (advocating for the rights and dignity of the city's senior citizens) and runs the Park Club Society (through which she has been working on transforming junkyards in the region into green urban spaces for upwards of 15 years). So although she lives alone at the age of 77, she is never without something to do, and constantly frequented by adoring community members seeking her counsel.

I skirted around trying to explain what I do at Living Cities with most people on my trip, but with Dadi I decided to go ahead and try it -- within three sentences (clumsily uttered in Hindi, no less) she had grasped our model more quickly than probably anyone I've tried to explain the organization to, including in English. She asked brilliant questions and then started talking about how we need to do more to bridge the intergenerational wealth gap between blacks and whites in America...at which point I was just too blown away to hear anything else she said.

I spent time at the dinner table last week asking Dadi to recite her story and Dadaji's, including all the places they have lived over their lives, which I audio recorded so I can go back and look each place up to document as much of the history and wisdom of my elders as I can.

One of my favorite quotes (by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar) begins: “Play with a small child as you played when you were a child. Talk with an elderly person remembering that one day, you will be like them.” In the case of my grandies, all I can do is hope that this is true.