My mother hails from Mobile, Alabama: one of the bases of the Civil Rights Movement, and a location that I still call “home” in some regard. Big families are a staple in the South, and my mother grew up with six siblings, all of whom migrated to New York in late adolescence or their teenage years. Six aunts and uncles meant lots of cousins for me. My mom just so happens to play matriarch to both the oldest and youngest of my generation in my family, as my sister is nearing 42, and I stand here today at 22.
Needless to say, being the youngest also came with being the smallest, and I’ve always had a strange relationship with my age. I was typically the youngest in the room no matter where I was: at family gatherings, school, or – later on in life – work. As a result, when I accepted a spot in the AIF Clinton Fellowship, I was somewhat perturbed and yet unsurprised that I was the youngest in the cohort, yet again.
Age is an interesting thing in India, particularly in the workplace. Layered on top of things that may sprout from gender and caste issues, India grapples – like any other country – with issues of age. As a worker in a lower position, it is more common that you give deference to those who you report to. The concept of “managing up” definitely exists, but to a lesser degree as compared to “managing down” tactics. Knowing this, I came into my host organization somewhat apprehensive about my role: how did I fit into this organization? What was my role, and how did my age play a part – if any – in that?
Fortunately, the Naz Foundation – once again – taught me more than I could have ever hoped to learn. Naz’s flagship program (Goal) is primarily run by young women, between the ages of 18 – 26. Every day they execute our programs on the ground and work with participants, produce reports, and strategize for how to constantly improve our program. Here I found myself in a country with much more emphasis on age in the workplace than I was used to, and yet I was working in an organization that had flipped norms on its head (in more ways than one!). I was forced to reckon with how I would work in a new country with people who were my age or older, and yet I was training them on things such as reports, emails, and technology in my project of creating a mobile application to support our program impact.
As I grew more comfortable in my ambiguous role in the organization, I also grew more comfortable with having a voice. I wanted to be cautious about how it may appear that I was younger than most people in my workplace and a foreigner. The combination of the two initially made me hesitant to have my own voice, all self-imposed limitations given that my particular workplace was one that deviated from social norms in all regards.
My colleagues – as well as confidantes, and friends – taught me more about navigating age in the workplace than I think I ever could have learned in a more “traditional” job in the United States. This past year, I’ve seen others face – and experienced myself – issues with growing up and fitting in. Throughout this journey, it has made us all better and wiser.