"Being Progressive Inside 'n Out: Walking our Talk Within our Organizations"
Session notes from SAPC 2004

The following notes were taken by volunteer note-takers. There may be errors, and notes may not represent full session content.

Being Progressive Inside 'n Out
Walking our Talk Within our Organizations.

South Asian Progressive Conference 2004.
Panel discussion with Nadia Khastagir, Sabahat Ashraf, Reva Patwardhan, Asha Mehta, Birjinder Anant and Maulie Dass
Facilitated by Shaily Matani, organized by Mini Kahlon.

For corrections, further information, or thoughts about next steps, contact Mini Kahlon at mini[AT]brainbytes.com Thanks to the organizers of SAPC 2004 for creating such a wonderful space for this discussion!


Given the dazzling spectrum of struggles in which progressive South Asians are engaged, we're apt to overlook the very issues we fight for, when it's closer to home. Sustainability, democracy, accountability, exploitation, peace - and power - how do we address these in our own organizations? What are the lessons learned? What are the challenges?

Opening & Themes

Shaily Matani opened discussion by speaking about the importance of self-reflection, by touching on some of the lessons she has learned, including having the humility to say "maybe I'm not completely right". With a self-critical attitude established from the outset, the panelists began to speak, managing to share with us in under 5 minutes each some useful examples and lessons learned from their own experiences.

Two main areas of discussion & learning emerged. First, touched on by Nadia Khastagir, Sabahat Ashraf, Reva Patwardhan and Maulie Dass, was the issue of membership and diversity of identity and opinion - why is it important? how does one manage it? how does one improve it? Second was about the challenges and solutions to creating, in our group interactions, environments that are true alternatives to the injustices we fight against. How does one ensure true empowerment of all members? How does one ensure true representation & inclusivity while being clear and uncompromising about core politics?


Nadia Khastagir, Design Action Collective
Focusing on the specific goal of a coalition to manage differences in core politics between coalition members.

Nadia Khastagir described a recent conference that Design Action had co-organized called Designs on Democracy ("Improving the impact of graphic communications, public relations and guerilla marketing in the struggle for justice"). Mini Kahlon, the panel organizer and Reva Patwardhan, a panelist, had attended and had been impressed at many levels, including the content, attendance, and very real diversity in panels. Nadia focused her few minutes on the challenges faced in working with a coalition of quite different groups all of who were focused on the common goal of making the conference successful. In her example, one of the coalition members was key to bringing a certain community to the conference. This would ensure that the conference remained a true representation of those it wished to serve. But there were differing politics around engagement with (or not) corporate culture. Design Action's views were orthogonal to those of the other group. In general, it was clear that everyone was to the left of center, but there was still a huge range, going from liberal to radical/anarchist. How far does one stray from one's core politics to make a coalition 'work'? In this case Design Action and other coalition members figured that political unity was not the main point of the conference. Instead, getting everyone into a space where they could learn from each other around graphics/communications for progressive ends was really the key goal. Therefore, for the purposes of the coalition, the collectivized process and need for diversity at the conference were really the most important priorities. These priorities were in fact the political priorities of the coalition, not just functional priorities for the conference. This clarity helped Design Action work with coalition members to produce a successful conference.

Sabahat Ashraf, Friends of South Asia Bay Area
Providing space and time for learning about the different individual histories and philosophies of those interested in the same political goal.

Sabahat Ashraf from Friends of South Asia (FOSA) picked up the theme of political differences. He spoke about his own journey of learning about the very different paths people take to get to any political organization defined around a tangible goal. For FOSA, this goal is peace in South Asia. Several years ago, spurred by the context of heightened nuclear tensions between India and Pakistan, Sabahat was part of a group of mainly Pakistani-Americans & immigrants that held peace vigils in the South Bay. They named their group "Friends of South Asia", then searched online and found out that there was another group called "Friends of South Asia" based in the South Bay, organized around peace between India & Pakistan! The two groups spoke to each other, and agreed to form a single group. Given the differing backgrounds - and differing national origins - of the memberships, this new group brought people together who had a multitude of personal histories and political assumptions. In fact, Sabahat said that through time, and some "Aha!" moments, they learned about the details of differences in politics, and the different journeys and paths of people that contributed to their different politics. For Sabahat the moment came when on an email discussion he stated his (what he thought were obvious) starting assumptions of the natural sense and acceptance of the 2-nation goal (India/Pakistan). A co-conspirator, professed 'Gandhian' in his philosophies, was stunned and it was that moment that both realized that in fact some basic assumptions and starting points were quite different for both, although they had both been working comfortably for a while on a solution of peace between India and Pakistan. Their understanding of each other has since matured.

Sabahat also spoke of the need for diversity in the membership of Friends of South Asia. For example, FOSA misses an Indian Muslim voice, a crucial component of conversations around Indo-Pak peace, and relations. He also spoke of the need to think about peace for South Asia as the name of the group suggests, and in this widen the group to include individuals from other South Asian backgrounds. Usman Qazi, also a member of FOSA, remarked, tongue-in-cheek - "so to cut to the chase, we're saying we need Bangladeshis" ...

Reva Patwardhan, California Peace Action.
Being clear about the reasons for needing diversity so that the process to increase diversity doesn't derail the purpose for diversifying.

Reva Patwardhan expanded on diversity, though this time in the context of representation cross race and ethnicity lines at California Peace Action. She pointed out that if one decides to change something fundamental about an organization - like increasing the diversity of representation in employees - it's very important to make it clear why you're doing so. If you don't, then people make the connections that they want to make, they decide why, and the reasons they choose are often not the same as your reasons. This plays out badly down the road as these presumed reasons influence how employees try and achieve the goals. She said: When well-intentioned people get confused, they fill in gaps with bad information. For example, at Peace Action, Reva said that it was clear that the reason to increase diversity was to increase their base of those who used their power to continue to push peace agendas. To increase their base, they had to access more people of color, but specifically people of color who were empowered to act for change. But when peace action failed to articulate their rationale clearly, some employees immediately got into a mode of communication with the people of color they were targeting that was of the flavor of "save the people". Instead, of course, when the reason was made clear that what was needed was a larger base that was powerful, then it became clear that sheer numbers was not key, instead empowerment was important. Clearly, then, a paternalistic approach was inappropriate.

Reva also spoke about lessons learned from Peace Actions' approach to diversifying their own employees. With great pizzazz and a multimedia demonstration of audio over drawings on white paper, she clarified the categories of reaction they encountered to the diversification process; confused; happy; nervous; threatened. Reva spoke about what she saw as the best ways to tackle those in the last category: first, she said, you have to have a focus of investing in people and really try to work around their fear. But after a point, she elaborated, you have to be okay with letting people go. There's always somewhere in the movement they can go...

Asha Mehta, Revitalizating Education And Learning (REAL).
Practicing youth development strategies of empowerment in meeting structures.

Asha Mehta spoke about her work in education, which ultimately focuses on changing school systems. REAL emphasizes a graded approach to creating environments conducive to learning. First, they say, build community, then build power in individuals, then take action as a group around self-selected issues. In groups, Asha said, the first step to creating real community is to be real, and understand that at some points down the road, there will be a dissonance between leadership and membership. Backstabbing will happen, rumors will develop. Know these and plan how you will deal with these moments in responsible ways. In meetings, again, there are some good ways to ensure participation. Ask yourself, do you start with an answer (or statement) or do you start with a question. Also, notice who's silent, and who's talking.

Birjinder Anant, Alliance of South Asians Taking Action (ASATA).
Investing in creating and improving decision-making structures to ensure true representativeness and participation.

Birjinder Anant spoke about the motivation around emphasizing being progressive inside and out. He said that it's important for ASATA not to recreate the social structures that we fight against, such as exploitation. ASATA has improved its decision making structures. An earlier consensus process worked in terms of providing a gut check on group opinions, but failed in truly revealing pragmatically who might work on a project, and who not. In the previous structure, ASATA realized that through the consensus process, by the time proposals were presented, agreement (in principle) tended to be a default. This kind of agreement over-estimated, however, the enthusiasm to actually work on a project. So they shifted the consensus structure, to include a hands-in /hands-out notation. This way the show of hands could not only reveal where people stood in terms of how important they thought an issue, or even their political stance, but also they would show whether they wanted to work on an issue or not.

A comment was made about how certain participatory structures can take time and sometimes it might make sense to just 'decide'. Birjinder pointed out that although that might seem like an attractive option in the short term, it may generate problems in the long-term. He compared it to a case of overcropping land, where it feels like you're getting more, fast, but continuous overcropping leaves the land unusable for any crops at all.

Maulie Dass, South Asian Sisters
Inclusivity & compassion with strong politics: balancing a tightrope by being as flexible as possible.

Maulie Dass was the final speaker. She spoke of the challenge of ensuring that South Asian Sisters (SAS) defined themselves as progressive, compassionate and inclusive of all women, yet having clear politics. One approach is to be as flexible as possible, and as responsive to whoever is involved in discussions at any time. At meetings, she said, they can swap agenda items based on the vibe of those in the room. Also, they all appreciate that there isn't a default notion of 'being progressive', and a 'by-the-book' formula of being progressive was not necessary at all! Maulie also spoke of using various different decision-making structures, and said that SAS uses consensus when it seems pertinent. But otherwise, simple yay/nay voting is used. The hardest challenge is in fact in being inclusive. Many different women, with different histories and differing default politics self-define as possible members of South Asian Sisters. SAS leaves as much flexible and open in their processes to ensure the space remains open to all of those interested in the group.

Notes from further discussion:

· Important to share and evaluate our accomplishments! Do we do this enough?
· Challenges to consensus model in situations where participants can't read and write!
· When working in coalitions, important to understand differences in process between member groups and account for it in coalition decision-making and functioning.

Resources brought up in the discussion include:

· Facilitator's guide to participatory decision-making. Read a review. Buy the book [bookfinder.com]
· Arnstein's Ladder of Participation (apparently being used by the U.N.; provides a super understanding of all the kinds of participation, real or imagined, (from non-participatory, to tokenism to real participation)