Better Off (Un)knowing


Absent-mindedly, I swat another mosquito away that has landed on my arm. I can now trace invisible lines on my body from one bite to another, and even with my skin having turned a deep brown from the glaring sun, the redness from the bites shows through. I direct my attention back to the conversation between my supervisor and co-worker.

“—and it’s unfortunate, because the weather from November to January is perfect for a run.”

“Yeah, but at least it’s not as bad as Delhi.”

“True. Here at least I can still go for runs outside, I just need to know which peak times to avoid. When I visited our colleagues in Delhi and I went for a run, the air literally burned my eyes and lungs. So I downloaded an app that would tell me what the pollution level was and if it was safe to go out. At least here it is safe to run around 6 A.M. The entire time I was in Delhi, the app never marked it as safe.”

When I flew to India a month ago, there were a multitude of unknowns. I didn’t know if I would like living in India long-term. I questioned whether my presence as a Black woman would pose an issue. And most importantly, I was unsure if I would be able to contribute to my host organization in the way that I wanted to. I was aware going into this Fellowship that I would most likely not make a remarkable change, and I would inevitably take more than I could ever give. My host organization and city opened it’s doors for me to stay, and with so much to learn in so little time, I will never be able to repay them. And with so many unknowns in both my personal and professional life, I was fortunate to be received by an organization, with a tiny office nestled in the bustling city of Mumbai, that provided me with some certainty that I would, in fact, make these next 10 months worthwhile for all of us.

The Naz Foundation (India) Trust is a non-profit organization that sprouted from humble roots as a HIV/AIDS organization, advocating on behalf of LGBTQ individuals in the fight against AIDS. Over two decades after Naz’s start in 1994, it has achieved many accomplishments, including petitioning the Supreme Court against Section 377, building a care home for orphaned children with HIV, counselling for MSM (men who have sex with men), and nurturing a sports development program for adolescent girls.

One of my projects at Naz has been to research girls’ access to safe public spaces. For all of my fascination with public health, I had given little thought to what “access” and “safety” truly entailed aside from the common buzzwords, such as freedom, empowerment, and expression. Naz’s flagship GOAL program promotes life skills training through sports (netball, specifically) for adolescent girls, primarily from ages 12-19. Each week, coaches will go into schools that Naz has partnered with for the program and teach sessions on a range of topics, including financial savviness, menstruation, health/hygiene, and female empowerment. GOAL girls can rise through the ranks to become peer leaders – and eventually earn a stipend – by teaching as community sports coaches, junior coaches, and ultimately senior coaches. All the activities facilitated in the GOAL program have the end purpose of promoting girls’ access to whatever they desire, be it sports, careers, or overall happiness. But what does it all mean?

Accessibility. The ability to move. To exist. To be free. These were things I had rarely needed to question as they pertained to my own life. I always take time to reflect on what my presence in a space means, and attempt to limit any disruption I may bring to the natural balance and flow of a community. With that being said, working in an NGO in India – particularly one that advocates for the rights of LGBTQ people and adolescent girls – is a paradox. I don’t want to disrupt the environment, yet my work means potentially upending widely held beliefs of people in the community. I desire to reflect on what my presence in this space means, and yet taking time to focus on what my presence means objectively translates to less time being spent on what I want to do – investing my free time in observing the dynamics of the community that I am a guest in. My ability to come to this specific space because I choose to, as a 21-year old, is a privilege. And it consistently brings me back to thoughts about access, and my research project, and the environment.

At the end of the day, I’m not sure what access truly is. For the purposes of my project, my supervisor has defined it as “the ability the GOAL girls have to go to public spaces where they can play sports, and feel safe.” Simple enough. But this doesn’t factor in questions that we – as an organization – consider, yet are unable to measure on paper. Questions like these:

  • Will a girl’s family let her leave the house to do something seemingly unimportant, such as play sports?
  • Even if a girl feels safe, is she likely to be physically harmed in these spaces?
  • Can the park around the corner from our office serve as a “safe public space” but only within a certain time frame?
  • And a question that I’ve recently been thinking more about: in this research that I will be doing on access, at what length – if any – should I consider environmental factors? The thick, humid air has yet to burn my eyes and lungs, but it has slowed me down. In our advocacy, how can we protect the girls from something that they cannot escape?

A little over a month into the Fellowship, I have many more questions than answers. But if we can find a solution to at least one, I can rest.

Hailing from the small suburb of Ossining, New York, Akiera knew from a young age that she did not want to settle down in a mundane locale early on in life. That mindset led her to Boston, where she attended Northeastern University in 2013. Northeastern has a co-op program that provides students with 6-month opportunities (up to three times throughout their undergraduate career) to pursue full-time work positions in their field of interest. Having worked at a local health improvement NGO and a government agency, she decided prior to her senior year that it was time for her to go after her interest in sustainable international development, despite her fears of not having the correct toolkit. During undergrad, she immersed herself in research across a wide variety of social impact sub-disciplines: from human trafficking to drug abuse to sexual violence. Public health emerged as a common thread amongst all of her studies. In 2016, she traveled to Kenya to work with a NGO in Nairobi to evaluate the effectiveness of a sexual gender-based violence (SGBV) resource tool the organization had developed to be put to use in an informal settlement. Later that year, she also worked in a consultant-capacity in Cape Town, South Africa with micro-entrepreneurs that had designed a business to create a foundation for social connections and employ refugee women from other African nations.

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