Happy 2013 everybody!
I know that it’s already the end of January. But I’ve had a hectic January full of traveling and changes, so I’m writing my 2012 reflection piece now. I was inspired by the format of my friend Taylor Conroy‘s birthday post. He talked about the lessons that he learned, the things that inspired him, and the goals that he has for the year ahead. I had a ridiculous 2012, so I figured it would be both more practical and comprehensible to organize it in this particular way.
Where I traveled:
In the beginning of 2012, I moved to New Delhi. I had no idea what moving to India would mean, nor the vast differences between different regions in the country. I was particularly unprepared for certain aspects of life in New Delhi (although no one should “get used to” sexual harassment and feeling unsafe) and thus traveled frequently around the country and eventually left in April for some R&R in Thailand. I stayed in Thailand for about a month and a half, briefly visited Burma on a visa run, and traveled to Cambodia to visit the Somaly Mam Foundation and AFESIP, a nonprofit headquartered in Phnom Penh but active on the ground in various countries in Southeast Asia that is dedicated to ending sexual trafficking and slavery. I flew back to Mumbai for my flight back to NYC, which I specifically chose because of the stopover in Cairo, Egypt. I had been fascinated by the Arab Spring since the year prior when I was active in Occupy LA and made lots of friends who were active in their countries’ revolutions at a UN conference in Doha. I only had a day in Cairo, which I chose to spend in the city center observing the still-energetic protests in Tahrir Square instead of at the Pyramids (one day..!). Back in NYC, the only trip I made during the summer was to a highly intriguing and unorthodox meeting of great minds in Martha’s Vineyard. In August, I flew to Portugal to attend the United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Summer School in Coimbra.
I traveled around the north of the country by myself after the summer school was over, and randomly ended up flying to Barcelona, Spain in order to attend the Festa de Gràcia, an impressive over-the-top artistic street festival in one of Barcelona’s oldest and most traditional neighborhoods.
After August, I didn’t travel outside of the country again until December, when I flew back to Barcelona to celebrate New Year’s. This time, I traveled around Spain a bit more, and went to Andorra with new friends and to Basque country to visit an old friend. Overall, it was a year full of travel, although I did travel more in 2010/11. In 2012, I chose to go to some places that were really different for me – places where I didn’t speak the language and was pushed beyond my comfort zone (sometimes in good ways and other times in bad ways). Before 2012, I mainly traveled to countries where I spoke the language and was at least somewhat familiar with the culture. The most marking travel experience in 2012 was definitely my time living in India. I learned and experienced so much that I often feel that I am still processing my time there. Sometimes I miss India and my friends there almost achingly, and I follow Indian news very regularly now. Other times I think that I could never go back, but I know that that isn’t true. I know that the situation in India will change for women – I am very optimistic about all of India’s passionate, determined and incredibly intelligent activists who are currently fighting for change.
Biggest lessons I learned:
I would say that the two most important lessons that I learned this past year is that I need to set myself more practical boundaries at times and that as a thinker, I also need to push myself to initiate and commit to a project. I am a very openminded and curious person, and before I went to live in India, I imagined myself working in all sorts of countries in the future. Wherever the issue was, or work needed to be done, there I would go, I imagined. However, I felt so harassed and unsafe in New Delhi that I was not in a productive state of mind. I couldn’t concentrate on school, and I didn’t have the motivation to follow up with the internship that I had set up with the International Center for Research on Women before I arrived in New Delhi. I hated having to always be around other people in order to feel safe – I felt that my sense of independence was robbed. I didn’t feel comfortable even leaving the house during the day completely covered sometimes. Eventually I dropped out of the local university where I was enrolled and left India earlier than I expected. I learned that while it is important for me to address an important social issue in my future work, I will have to live in a place that is at least somewhat safe for women and where I have some measure of independence, otherwise I will not be psychologically able to give my work or studies my best efforts. I learned the second lesson after going on a conference spree during the latter half of 2012. From Martha’s Vineyard to the Youth Assembly at the UN to Portugal to MCC ’12 to the Social Change Summit to the Feast… I arrived to a point where I was so intellectually stimulated and inspired by people that I was meeting that I was actually stuck as to what to do myself. I needed time to arrange my thoughts, ideas, dreams, and hopes. I was inspired by a conversation with Taylor, where he told me that the most important thing to do is just to start. Social change organizations spend a lot of time trying to get things ‘right’ but look at how corporations go about it – they know that they’ll learn along the way and that they just need to start, as quickly as possible. I’m glad to say that I took that conversation to heart and have decided where to focus my energy and passion on for the moment.
Best (social change) book I read in 2012:
Now, I feel bad recommending a book that won’t even be available until later this year. And I don’t believe in ‘meant to be’ or the superstitious like. But I had just moved into a new apartment in the West Village very close to NYU. I had been meaning to find my super and say hi to him – I’m a bit of an old fashioned neighborly person sometimes. I ran into him in the lobby and we talked for a bit. I noticed that he had a book by John Wood, the co-founder of Room to Read, a famous and successful nonprofit that builds libraries and schools around the world. I told him – that’s so funny – I’m about to go hear him speak tomorrow at NYU’s Social Entrepreneurship lecture series! My super replied, well someone just left this book in the lobby, and nothing is supposed to be there, so you can have it if you like. This book is called Creating Room to Read and is about Wood’s
challenges and stories scaling Room to Read. I learned a lot about the innovation, flexibility and perseverance it takes to scale a nonprofit into a sustainable, visionary, and global organization. What Wood capitalized on most was human capital – finding amazing people who would grow Room to Read with him, and people who are in other fields but who were interested in helping in inventive ways. I thought it was amazing that I had an advance proof in my hands and basically read it in one go before I met Wood the next night, and told him in person what I thought about his new book, and also grilled him a little bit on in-country fundraising (which I think should be the future of fundraising, but we’re getting there pretty slowly).
Favorite organization of 2012:
I met Emily May at the meeting of minds in Martha’s Vineyard. Being the only 20 something there and the youngest and least experienced by far was intimidating at the very beginning. I gravitated towards Emily, another New Yorker, and sassy and smart-mouthed to boot. Little did I know that Hollaback!, the nonprofit that she co-founded and directs, is so amazing. Hollaback! aims to end street harassment and is based on creating communities of supportive yet active activists in countries all over the world. Hollaback! has been growing at breakneck speed (because the problem is so polemic and yet there are almost no organizations exclusively dedicated to eradicating street harassment) and is currently active in over 50 countries. Their young leaders around the world have to fundraise their own funds, but have come up with incredible campaigns and ways to use mobile technology. If you consider donating to one nonprofit this year, seriously consider this one. Your dollar will go far – the people of Hollaback! work hard and are seeing real results.
Stopping traveling, coming back to New York, and starting school (New York University) all over again was not easy. Let me re-phrase. It was all incredibly hard. I haven’t lived in New York as a New Yorker for 4 years and I’ve basically been out of school for 2 years. Before I took time off school to travel and live in other countries, I was studying in Wellesley, Massachusetts and Los Angeles, California. I couldn’t believe how much New York had changed when I came back in September. I couldn’t believe how much I had changed. I found that the city that had once enchanted me was now a touch too materialistic and now ridiculously overpriced. I was used to having a stable social life because of sports and a regular schedule in high school, but now I had to contend with school, work, and busy city life while trying to see my friends. I had never had to get an apartment by myself before, and the hunt is seriously a nightmare in New York. Then there’s NYU, which I’ll admit I have never particularly cared for. I found it to be much more challenging and… indifferent than I thought. My professors had limited office hours and didn’t really seem like they wanted to just chat with their students. My classmates were always too busy to get coffee after class. Then there’s adjusting to the workload… Basically I became an unhappy workaholic during the semester and at my darkest moments, I wondered why I came back to the US at all. I could have finished my degree in Europe, I could have done this or that… I missed certain people that I met during my travels, and it just felt like I was stuck.
In retrospect, now that I’m in Argentina, I know that those were just dark thoughts that I had at the time. The truth is, whenever you feel stuck, you can do something to change it. New York is a difficult place to live, and even as a native New Yorker I wasn’t handling or adjusting it all that well. I won’t be back living semi-permanently in New York again until January or February 2014, but I think I will try to be a little more balanced about work and school, and regularly leave the city in order to manage stress levels.
On the horizon for 2013:
Like I’ve said, I’m currently in Buenos Aires for the semester.
I will live with a host family and study the majority of my courses in Spanish, only taking a Travel Writing course in English, which I will hope will motivate me to write some stories that I’ve had cooking for a while from years past. I plan to travel to Uruguay, Bolivia, Brazil and Ecuador, where I have friends and family. This summer, I’ll go back to the US for the meeting of minds again in Martha’s Vineyard, and then to visit friends and family in NYC in August. In September I’ll study in Paris for the semester. I really want to travel around Eastern Europe this time, as I only know Western Europe, and eventually end up in Istanbul. As for the holidays, I hope that I’ll be spending them in a foreign country once more, as I had an amazing time this year spending New Years and Los Tres Reyes in Spain.
My social change project this year is to join the reproductive rights movement. I want to do some independent research with existing nonprofits in South America, and eventually link up with UNFPA or the Gates Foundation, since they’ve announced that reproductive rights is their new priority for the next decade. This is an issue that is close to my heart, and I think that I’m in the best possible place to learn and do something about it. I plan to improve my Spanish and French even more, gain conversational fluency in Portuguese (I started studying it in September and I really love it) and perhaps learn a bit of German this year.
So that’s it – my recap of 2012 and goals/plans for the upcoming year! Stay tuned on IndieVolunteer for more updates live from South America and news from the international development/NGO world.