Working for a better future: Interview with Vandita Morarka, Founder, One Future Collective
Amidst the broiling waters of separatist politics and sectarian practices finding the spotlight in the country, there is one single ray of hope in the way that the youth react to the politics they are tied and initiated into, and the politics that they choose to interact with. They are informed, dissenting, respectful and mindful – for the most part – and they hold the keys to ushering in a more peaceful approach to the social, cultural and political spectrum in the nation. In light of this slowly but surely shifting landscape, Jessica Xalxo of Arguendo converses with Vandita Morarka, Founder & CEO of One Future Collective (OFC), a youth-based NGO working along the verticals of gender, mental health, legal reform and developmental policy to build compassionate youth social leadership.
Jessica (J): Looking back, when do you think was the time or what was the experience or memory that lead to you working in the legal and social space?
Vandita (V): I’ve known since I was about 6 years old that I want to be lawyer but what I don’t think I realised then that it wasn’t that I wanted to be a lawyer, but that I wanted to be able to make a difference, to be part of a process to create social change. I started becoming more conscious of the injustice around me, a lot of injustice in everyday interactions and everyday experiences that most of us disregard as ‘how the world works’ – I couldn’t think of a better way to make a difference in this sector than to do it through the legal and the social space.
(J): How important a role does the youth play with respect to the country’s political, social, economic and cultural scenario and decisions?
(V): I think the youth is (or at least should be) the most important stakeholder when we talk about any change in our country’s political, social, economic and cultural structures. 65% of our country’s population is young people. It’s very easy to say, “Oh, the youth needs to be involved,” or my current favourite, “we need to unleash youth power” but till you aren’t giving them a seat at the table, until you are not giving them or letting them take decision-making powers, you’re just lying about how involved you actually want young people to be. And for young people, if you don’t have a seat at the table, stand there. I know it’s difficult but you have to fight if you want things to change. Any decision made in your country today is going to most significantly impact your life. And if the youth don’t take up a more active role and if they don’t become more active stakeholders in the processes, the changes that they want are not the changes that they will live to see in the coming years. Personally, I am blown away by just how much young people are doing. They want to be active agents of change. There is a definite need for intergenerational dialogue and for more space to be created for young people to be leaders, more space for young people to take on more senior roles in change-making and decision-making processes. Young people bring in dynamic thinking, they bring in fresh ideas – I keep hearing how youth is what will transform this country and then I hear about how young people are the cause of all misery and that they can’t take on leadership roles. I’m sorry, you can’t have both – and if it’s a pick, I know which side I would be on.
(J): You’ve worked at NGOs such as Safecity, Earth5R, Red Elephant Foundation and SAHR, and had also co-founded the Students for Social Reform Initiative (SSRI) at Sophia College in the past. Why did you form One Future Collective?
(V): A key reason behind starting One Future Collective is that I’m someone who doesn’t like addressing issues in silos. You can’t address gender justice issues without talking about economic structures, you can’t talk about mental health without thinking of education policy – I felt the need to create a space where issues could be addressed cross-sectorally through the lens of leadership. Additionally, I wanted to see young people take on formal leadership roles. Often, at organisations, young people are leading massive chunks of the work, but they never break into the management circles just because of their age. Big words like experience, exposure, strategy etc are thrown around, but how will we learn till someone lets us fail? I wanted to see what magic we could create when we gave young people, like myself, a chance.
(J): What are some principles, values and lessons that you bring to your work at One Future Collective?
(V): Working with empathy and compassion is the cornerstone of all our work. It isn’t just directed to the work that One Future Collective does externally but also to how we function as a team internally. Additionally, we have an open participatory approach to decision making – which is of course easier because we’re a smaller team, I believe in distributed leadership as a model for successful teams and projects – we make sure that each person has a say in building the agenda for the work that we do, they have a say in even shutting down an idea that they think doesn’t make as much sense or if they think we can do something better. Another guiding learning principle for us at One Future Collective is how we can mainstream social development, how we can bring people from different segments and sectors of life to take on small, micro roles that push social change in their communities
(J): One Future Collective (OFC) works along the verticals of gender, mental health, legal reform and development policy. Why are these themes important to youth social leadership and how have your experiences inspired the verticals?
(V): The verticals at One Future Collective were inspired from the work that I have had experience in and the work that the founding team members and I held close to our hearts. These four verticals are quite all-encompassing, while mental health and gender justice, for me, address the key problems of our society in terms of our interpersonal relations and who we are as a people, legal reform and development policy highlight the need for institutional change and large-scale action – working with these verticals ensures young people have a holistic idea and approach towards social leadership.
(J): What difficulties or challenges can one expect when setting up an NGO? Did One Future Collective face any of them – if yes, how did you overcome them?
(V): We’re registered as a section 8 not-for-profit company, while the technical process for setting one up isn’t difficult, costs can be prohibitive, and even with a fairly digitised process, corruption still exists. This could mean things take longer for you to happen without giving bribes, but that is perfectly okay, as long as you’re working, the formalisation will happen; just make sure you document everything well and that all your legal documents are in place.
(J): What are some of the projects that OFC has worked on and will be working on this year?
(V): We’re very excited about all our projects!
The Thought Project is our flagship digital advocacy platform that curates ideas and thoughts on issues of social concern. We hold monthly Youth Meetups to facilitate dialogue and conversation among young people, this month we’re taking them to Delhi and Pune, in addition to Mumbai. We run the Sanskari Girls Book Club with Strategic Advocacy for Human Rights, a fun feminist space for conversations and reading.
The Workers Rights and Mental Health Management Project is a community-based training programme with low-income workers that focuses on what they need, which to us seems to be a rights-based understanding, an understanding of the laws, an understanding of the financial systems and mental health care. Apart from that, we’ve launched Institutes, where under our different verticals, we hold 4-day weekend only training programmes, (the Policy Institute was concluded recently at St. Xavier’s College, Mumbai, and the Mental Health Institute is to be held in December).
We also have quarterly Research Projects, our first one falls under the Mental Health vertical and we’ll have details out soon! We also have the One Future Ambassador Programme where young people can sign up to be an ambassador for One Future Collective in all spheres of their life, promoting the idea of youth leadership and actively engaging in their communities for building change. Lots of other projects coming up, you can check details on our website!
(J): What advice would you give to someone – especially the youth – who wishes to join the development sector in any capacity?
(V): Come volunteer or work with us (One Future Collective)! But apart from that, if you want to join the development sector, do it – it doesn’t matter what sector you come from. You will always have some transferable skills that can add value, identify them and see how you can utilize them for maximum impact. I would say this though, working in the development sector does require additional skills and training, take the time to educate yourself, entering a sector you think doesn’t require any additional skills will only damage it more.
If you want to do this full-time, if that’s your career option, do it – there is a lot of scope. India is a country with a lot of problems. It needs young people to come into the sector and create social solutions. I also think that this doesn’t necessarily have to come from the development sector. You could be a Computer Scientist, you could be an Engineer, you could be a Lawyer, you could be in any sector – but if you can do work that furthers social change while you’re in it, that works just as well. So, if you are someone who has some other calling in life but you do want to give back to the sector, find a way to volunteer, find a way to give some of your time and also, to be very honest, a lot of organisations in India do need money. It could be anything you feel strongly about, channel those feelings and start.
(J): Why are youth-based NGOs different and how relevant and important are they in the current political and social scenario?
(V): I believe youth-based organisations are extremely important, this doesn’t mean that others aren’t. An intergenerational effort is needed to be able to actually create sustainable change. What adds to their importance is that increasingly young populations need young people that have an active, engaged role as stakeholders in their own future, as leaders – these organisations provide that space. It’s also now up to people in positions of power to say, “yes, your voice is important and we know what it feels like to not have a voice at the table, especially when the decisions are going to impact us. So we’re going to take a step back and give you a space to have a voice, to have a say, to demand change that is going to affect you”.
(J): What are some steps new NGOs can take to scale their work, increase their outreach and form effective collaborations?
(V): I think one of the key problems with NGOs, especially in India and pretty much worldwide, is that they tend to work on a grant-based or donation-based model. While that can work once you’ve scaled and once you’re established enough to have regular funding, trust me, it’ll take years. You have to build in revenue streams, you’ve to build a business model that gives you enough money to sustain without having to depend on donations or grants. Till you don’t do that, until you haven’t reached that point where you are self-sustaining, you cannot scale your work. To increase outreach, social media is such a great way to reach a digital population, but I also find that traditional methods such as street plays or just going out and talking to people is a great way to increase outreach. Because there is still a large part of India that is not online and if these people are also your target audience, then you’ve to make sure that your outreach is not just online. To form an effective collaboration, I think it’s just important to treat all your partners as equals, to give all of them equal importance, to know specifically what you want out of each relationship and to make sure that your partner in that collaboration knows that. That they know what your key asks are and which are the key things that you can bring to a collaboration. This clarity really helps to make sure that a collaboration goes ahead smoothly and is effective.
(J): Why is compassion important while working in the social sector?
(V): I would say that compassion is increasingly important for working in any sector. It’s important to understand where people come from, it’s important to understand people’s lived experiences and their perspectives – and this is impossible without compassion. You need to be able to get another person’s viewpoint in a situation to be able to actually solve a problem. Which is why not only compassion but both empathy and compassion go deeply together and both of them are important to be able to bring in change because change is not always from a singular perspective. So to be able to understand a multi-stakeholder perspective to a problem, you’ve to be able to understand where the stakeholders come from, what their problems are, what their struggles are and what solution would actually work for them. And without empathy and compassion, this is impossible.
(J): In your acceptance speech for the Young Leaders Creating a Better World For All Award by WEF, you talked about being the change one wishes to see in the world. How do you think people can be the change – from the most rudimentary of levels to the most complex of positions?
(V): I think that has been a driving thought for me, that when you see something you want to change and you see that nobody is changing that, then you have to act on it – because till when can you wait for someone else to do it? And I think every person can be the change. If you think LGBTQ+ rights in the country are a problem and if you cannot actively go out and protest because maybe you have a job with tight timings and you cannot actually be a part of a support circle or you cannot support it financially, start by talking to people around you who might hold reservation. Start with that. Start by having a conversation. Start by trying to understand where they come from and start by trying to explain your perspective to them. Start with those conversations. If you think waste is a problem, reduce your own consumption. If you think that Mumbai being dirty is a problem, don’t litter. Get your friends to not litter. Start volunteering over weekends with organisations that do with work that is close to your heart or write on issues that are close to you. There are very small things that each one of us can do. This is one of the key things that One Future Collective espouses, that it works towards. If all of us do small things and if all of us build in the compassion and empathy to realise that social change is the responsibility of each one of us, we will automatically create that critical mass required where our society changes because everyone is taking responsibility. There is no more a blame game, we’re not saying that it’s another person’s problem or someone else has to solve this. As long as we can do it, as long as we can all take that one step required in our everyday life to do something beyond the bare minimum, I think we can all create change.