There are certain moments in history that are so intense, so urgent, so pregnant with possibility that they have the power to reshape our world. We are living in such a moment. From Occupy Wall Street to Standing Rock, from Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March to LGBTQ equality, people at every intersection of the social spectrum are calling for change. Galvanized in large part by social media, people are exercising their right to organize, protest, and lobby for the demolition of oppressive norms and systems that have long existed to their detriment.
While different groups have differing, and often conflicting agendas, one point on which all can agree is the necessity of change. Change doesn’t happen without the persistent nudge of those who are brave enough to confront the status quo, and that confrontation is never without pushback. With conflict, confrontation, and divergent interests at its core, activism is inherently antagonistic. So, how do we get beyond conflict, to move the needle toward sustainable political and social change?
Anita Dharapuram has made it her life’s mission to field these tough questions. “The rhetoric around race relations, and around changes that need to happen is still very divisive,” she says. “That’s not to say that these issues don’t exist. They do. And, it’s certainty not to imply that people don’t need to look at it, or examine it for themselves. Yet,
the language is so divisive that immediately when you mention the concept of ‘white privilege’ or ‘male privilege’ people get defensive and angry on both sides. That anger is paralyzing. So, how do we get beyond it? How do we talk about these things in a way that is productive?
Of course this isn’t a new question, but it’s one that Anita holds central as she strategizes solutions with fellow social justice warrior, Van Jones who is navigating a similar track with his #LoveArmy campaign.
Having spent the last 20 years volunteering with young women and girls, creating radical political trainings, implementing culturally relevant programs for low-income immigrant women, activating communities to participate in the electoral process, and building a school-to-jobs pipeline in technology, she is a proven leader in the nonprofit sector. In her current role as Executive Director of an Los Angeles based, $15 million dollar project, Anita continues her work of bringing grand visions to successful implementation.
I had the opportunity to speak with Anita on the role of activism, consciousness, and finding balance in this current political climate. Here’s what she had to say.
Why do you think that so many people are drawn to social activism right now?
That question has really emerged for me a lot recently. Why are people feeling such a strong pull to being active in this space? We’re talking about people who have never done this before. Think about all the women who had never gone to a women’s march, who showed up in Washington and all over the country after the election. The question is, why? They are probably coming from a very strong place of anger. Because they are very unhappy, and very angry at what’s been going on. It’s literally protest.
I think that kind of activation is often triggered by a disturbing event. Whether you call it “woke” or “conscious,” or whatever, it’s that moment when you awaken to all of the pervasive injustices and how they effect your community, and the lives of the people you love. What was “that moment” for you?
For me, that moment came in reaction to a very large world event. I was living in San Francisco and running my own successful floral design business when 9/11 happened. Being South Asian and growing up in New Jersey, I had a lot of family and friends still living on the east coast who were directly affected by the rampant bias, racism, and what have you. That’s when I made the decision to become more invested in the work of dismantling racism.
It was kind of an amazing shift for me to really think about, “What am I doing here? I’m doing these frivolous special events and I need to be making a bigger impact.” I didn’t know what that looked like, or how to get started, but I knew I had to do something. So, I closed my business, went to grad school, got my Masters in Nonprofit Administration from the University of San Francisco, and from there I began working in the nonprofit world. That’s what seemed to make the most sense at the time.
That really is an amazing shift. I think a lot of people flirt with the idea of dedicating their life to an important cause. Do you remember what you were feeling in that moment when you decided to really go for it?
To be honest, I was angry and upset and saddened at seeing so much injustice in the world. Initially, I used that anger and sadness to fuel this work and to empower others. Anger can be an incredible force, the problem is, it’s not sustainable. If the goal is to facilitate real change, and create a better world, that can’t come from anger.
I’ve gotten to the point in my life where it’s like, anger is only going to hurt me in the long run. I cannot continue to be in that space of anger, I need to come from a place of love.
You make such a compelling and nuanced point. How do you square the conflict between love and anger when it comes to driving social change?
I think both come from a similar place. I know, for the people I have encountered who are in this, who are really about the business of doing this work, their passion may show up as anger, but it’s rooted in love – love of humanity, love of people, love of everybody.
You don’t throw yourself into this kind of work without love as your driving motivation.
So, I think it’s about building a framework that really goes deep down into what our values are as individuals, and realizing how we can convert our anger, and really transform it into love. Whatever that activism ends up looking like, it’s only going to make everybody stronger and better. That’s how we create more beautiful and thriving communities in the long term.
We can get behind this brand of activism! We look forward to facilitating the conversation as Anita builds this framework, with your input, as MsXFactor’s resident social justice expert, providing practical tools and strategies for effective social change . Look out for Anita’s monthly column, debuting in August.
Have you been looking for a way to get involved and effect change within your realm of influence? We want to hear from you. Leave a comment below or send a direct message.