Protestors versus Organizers: Finding the Sweet Spot for Leadership and Change at FLAME

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By Maya Bhardwaj

For the past month, our organizers Vidhi and Maya have been organizing at FLAME University in Pune, one of India’s first liberal arts colleges. We have been working with a group of students in FLAME’s Leadership Program, ranging from second-year bachelors students in the humanities, to final-year masters’ students getting their MBAs.

Beyond their academic interests, these students also varied in their hobbies – from photography, to entrepreneurship, to dance – to their leadership and communication skills itself. While some students had been at the forefront of starting campus activities and organizations, some of the students were of the “quiet observer” type – with one of the students specifically telling us that she needed help speaking to strangers and in front of groups.

At Haiyya, we believe that leadership is the ability to empower others to act with purpose in the face of uncertainty – so we were excited to jump in and coach these FLAME students on how to stand up for what they believed in.

During our first session, the students gathered on the grass outside to conduct an informal People Sabha, where they discussed issues that they faced on campus – from isolation from the outside world, to the food on campus, to classroom environments and job opportunities after graduation. As they worked through an issue-cutting session, the students broke down the problems they selected into bite-sized issues that they could tackle. They moved from poor medical care to the need for more trained practitioners available 24/7. For varying quality of instruction, they hit upon the need for students’ voices in teacher review. As the students narrowed from problems to issues, they began to chart the paths of their own solutions – and of their own agency as leaders.

Between the first and second workshop, the students turned to their peers to build their base. They focused on stories of hope: their personal stories, the emotions they told, and the shared possibility of change. The loosely banded group of learners used stories and connections to build core members and form a tightly-connected team of organizers growing relationships for change.

In the second workshop, we switched from issues to solutions. The students led a town hall to identify the target in charge of the policy they wanted to change. They brainstormed key allies to form coalitions with, and clarified their next steps for rallying campus together. As they came up with tactics like video diaries and petitions, they moved from assumptions of angry protests, to new prospects of proactive, cooperative action.

In many senses, our work at FLAME has been a microcosm of our work throughout India. It takes time and struggle to move from feeling alone and disenfranchised, to reclaiming our own autonomy to act. The greatest success we can see is in the students themselves – as with one of the girls, who, nervous to speak in groups at the beginning, stepped into to the front of the room during a particularly heated outburst. From a timid 20-year-old, we saw her transform into a leader in control, as she told the group, “We can’t focus on what doesn’t work – we have to find what does. Lets decide the tactics for who will reach out to each of our allies.”

By stepping up, the FLAME students embodied our sense of leadership – instead of charting a path by themselves, they found a way to engage others productively and empower them to act – to build a better FLAME, together.

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