Longing for Dignity

Transforming  human trafficking ecosystem

Sometimes we need to walk to the edges of our civilization to see deeper truths. Human trafficking is one such edge. It is a story of how human can reduce humanity to an object for flesh-trade.

I was ignorant and apathetic to the world of human trafficking until two leading non-profit organizations, working on anti-trafficking, invited me to facilitate a dialogue. They asked me to help them solve complex systems challenges in their field that was leading to internal ideological conflicts and impacting their collective work.

We convened a group of men and women committed to fighting against this gruesome act of humanity. At the end of the first day, we sat in a circle and shared painful stories of how young girls and boys are sold, how their innocence is manipulated, and their dignity is destroyed. As they introduced me to the dark world of human trafficking, I felt deeply sad, angry and helpless. I had no courage to facilitate a dialogue on such a painful topic. At some level, it was hard for me to relate to their complex challenges.

Honouring the FieldKali trampling Shiva. Chromolithograph by R. Varma.

Coincidently, the workshop was scheduled during Navratri (April 2017)– a festival where Hindu’s worship nine avatars of Goddess or Divine Feminine over nine nights. On that particular night, it was Day 7, Kalaratri pooja. I invoked the Goddess in my meditation and confessed my limitations as a man holding a conversation that related to deep dishonouring of the feminine. I asked her to help me in my role as a facilitator. Image of Kali with Shiva lying on her feet popped up with two clear insights: 1. Listen to the body (Kali doesn’t like anything heady) and 2. Surrender (as Shiva did)!

Next morning, instead of conversations, we used an embodied contemplative theatre practice called 4D Mapping to understand the social system that leads to trafficking of girls. 4D Mapping is one of the practices of Social Presencing Theatre developed by Arawana Hayashi. In this, we work with complex systems challenges, embody key stakeholders and co-create a social sculpture of current social reality. This process makes visible the hidden dimensions of the social field and generates in-depth data about the shifts that could move the whole ecosystem towards its wellbeing. Most importantly, this process required us to surrender our agenda and listen to the wisdom of our bodies.

Participants played different roles representing victim girl, her family, her dignity, police system, shelter homes, anti-trafficking NGOs, the justice system and customers. As we embodied the roles and relationships between various actors, all the stories from last night and many generations, become alive. We were uncovering the primal patterns of systemic oppression: where suppressed-sexuality turns women into objects of sex; and upheld-morality fights back to give her justice. She suffers on both ends. Sacrificing her dignity and freedom. While we walk the clean streets with our pants zipped and collars upright.

Collective Resonance: 

When we sat back in a circle to reflect on what we just experienced, the whole room went in deep impregnating silence. There was an unspoken resonance vibrating through space, transforming words into tears. After a while, few spoke from their heart. Others nodded in deep acceptance.

A man who played the role of a ‘victim girl’ shared that while embodying her role, he could feel her trembling fear and pain in his body. He added that while every other player in the act were pulling or pushing the girl to justice, all that she longed for was acceptance and dignity from her family.

A woman who played the role of a ‘policeman’ shared that while playing the role, she felt exhausted and misjudged by others. All that policeman wanted was appreciation and dignity for his work.

Another woman who embodied ‘family’ found herself powerless and filled with shame. All through the exercise ‘family’ kept lying on edge away from ‘dignity’. She said, “I know the girl longs to come back, and everyone else judges me (family) for letting her go, but I have no dignity left within myself. I have no agency or power either.”

Everyone in the room, including me, cried as we embraced the fact— we all were somehow victims and contributors, unfairly stuck in this systemic suffering. And each one, irrespective of our gender, longed for acceptance and dignity.

Collective Resolution: 

Slowly our heart-felt reflections transformed into collective resolve.

A program leader opened her heart and said “I think we got it wrong from the beginning. We got so invested in our idea of justice that we turned insensitive to girls need. How different are we from the trafficking ecosystem that robs her of her dignity? We need to redefine our purpose from anti-trafficking to pro-dignity”.

A young man who works with communities and shelter homes said “I have been feeling this for long. Her dignity dies at the source: when her family sells her due to their vulnerable social-economic conditions. We should work at the source instead of trying to fix the problem after she has lost all hopes in the trafficking system”. Another leader declared: “Let’s redirect our attention and funds for bringing dignity to girls and working with their vulnerable families”.

In following days and weeks, insights were translated into new projects. Relationships between the partners has deepened and so is their collective advocacy for draft bill on anti-trafficking in India. However, there was another piece of the puzzle lying in the outer circle.

Customers & Citizens: Two sides of the same coin?

Throughout our reflective dialogue, I kept wondering about the mysterious role of the customers. How could men be so inhuman to turn a woman or a child into an object for the sex-trade? Don’t they get curious about her feelings, her fears, her helplessness?

In the paralysed stuckness of the customer, I could see wounded masculine energy that falls prey to their own repressed sexuality, and, gets stuck in corrupt game of sex, money and power.

Towards end, my attention shifted to yet another invisible role– bystanders or citizens. Those of us who are aware but choose to disengage from the dark quarters of sex-trafficking or prostitution. We do not want to get our linen dirty in this mess. We would instead write college essays on ‘legalization of prostitution’ or share WhatsApp jokes on ‘Bangkok holidays’. Aren’t we part of the social system that creates the ground for sex-trade? Haven’t we invented and upheld morality that shames sexual desires? Pushing it to shadow realms of prostitution and pornography. In that sense, how different are we form the customers who create demand and activate the human trafficking system?

We generated powerful felt-insights when we created the embodied map of the stakeholder, oppressors, rescuers and oppressed in the social system. I wondered, how we would place the feminine, masculine, child, shame, sexuality, dignity within our hearts? Who oppresses whom? What accentuates the customer? What disempowers the bystander? What is the divine within us really longing for?

Returning to the Woman within

After the workshop, I sat alone in the room, feeling the resonance of the dialogue we just had. Unresolved, I turned again to the Goddess, the divine feminine. She responded from within:

A woman is reduced to an object for sex
So you can strip her of all her dignity
And redeem yourself from your shame

A stone is turned into a revered Goddess
So you can project her dignified presence
And redeem yourself from your guilt

Where have you lost it, O civilized man?
Couldn’t you pause and feel the woman within?
She longs for dignity and your presence!

—————
This experience led me to a poetic exploration of the inner dimensions of masculinity; and it’s journey from woundedness (exploiting feminine) to wholeness (honouring feminine and healing the world); in my upcoming book “Trading Armour for a Flower: Rise of New Masculine
—————

– Manish Srivastava


Gratitude:

I am grateful to the leaders and team members of Kamonohashi Project and Save The Children India for this opportunity to learn and work with them. They are doing incredible work to transform the trafficking ecosystem. Pls, visit their website to learn more about their work and contribute to their projects.
Kamonohashi Project: https://www.en.kamonohashi-project.net 
Save The Children India: https://savethechildrenindia.org 

Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 2: “Grandiosity and Shame”

Café Coffee Day founder #VGSiddhartha death revealed the debt crisis in India. It also revealed an empathy crisis of the world we live in. 

Frozen TV Screen in a Cafe Coffee Day

When a self-made, socially-committed entrepreneur commits suicide, we are left with an unexplainable void. In my last blog (Death of an Entrepreneur: Our collective Blindspot), I explored how we all are becoming the part of the invisible forces, within our social ecosystem, that makes and breaks an entrepreneur.

I received many responses from other entrepreneurs, bankers, tax officers, psychologists and artist. They resonated with the blog and shared how they feel stuck and helpless in the ecosystem that accounts for the death of talented and conscious entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Some of the readers knew Siddharth personally. They shared stories of his commitment to uplift underprivileged communities, educating youth and his diligence to pay off all his debts. Yet, he ended up seeing himself a failure and killed himself.

Interestingly, some readers saw it differently. They hold Siddharth as a defaulter who took the system for granted and killed himself when questioned. They wonder how can one have empathy for those who default the system and fail their dependents. This contrast in viewpoints made me wonder why do we fail to see and feel the ecosystem that we are part of. How do we get obsessed with the struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor, while, the script and the scriptwriters go unnoticed?

Perhaps, how we see the world depends upon what lenses we wear. Do we tend to look narrowly at immediate parts or we look at the whole? Do we look mechanically at structural/ logical elements and externalise responsibility? Or we also look empathically at emotional/cultural dimension and take collective ownership of what happened?

This made me draw a matrix to map all response. There seem to be four distinct viewpoints:

Narrow mechanistic view (Fault-finding): Holding the entrepreneur accountable for his or her wrong decisions and lack of responsibility. From this viewpoint death of entrepreneurs like Siddharth is a result of their own mistakes and failure. They misuse the system and fail to deal with when questioned. This is similar to the patriarchal, alpha male paradigm that blames the entrepreneurs (the masculine provider) for defaulting the system and shames him for making his family or tribe suffer.

Systems mechanistic view (System-analysis): Holding the system accountable that’s victimising the entrepreneur. This viewpoint shifts attention from the individual to the whole system and analyses the structural and policy dimensions. Many business leaders and politicians have been speaking from this viewpoint, when they refer to tax-terrorism and insensitive policies by the current government.

Both the above viewpoints on left side of the matrix, are logical and persuasive. But they lack empathy. They look at the issue and try to quickly fix it by holding either the entrepreneur or the system accountable. They don’t put themselves in the situation. To understand the right side of the matrix, we need to step into shoes of the entrepreneurs like Siddharth. Something we were able to do when we created a Social Presencing Theatre based systems map (refer last blog)

Narrow empathetic view (Mental-wellbeing): Reflecting on the mental and emotional stress an entrepreneur undergoes that makes him take such drastic step. Those holding this viewpoint empathise with Siddharth and call upon other entrepreneurs to take care of their mental well-being. They advocate that entrepreneurs must have close friends and professional support to help them through these situations. 

Holistic empathic view (Co-sensing and transforming the ecosystem): Reflecting not only on the emotional struggles of the entrepreneur but the larger field that co-creating the suffering. Those holding this perspective are like gardeners who go beyond sympathising with the dying plant and attend to the whole ecosystem. They feel the collective pain and reflect on their own role in co-creating the mess.

The holistic empathic view reminds of something my teacher and systems thinking guru Peter Senge told me ten years back.

“You cannot change a system unless you see your thumbprint (role) in creating it”.

This quote changed my perspective in life. Unless we see how we are creating the current state of suffering, we will only remain helpless victims of the same. And victims have no power to change the system anyways. From a holistic systemic viewpoint, we all are interconnected. We can see how we are co-creators of the capitalist economy that creates, exploits and kills entrepreneurs like Siddharth.

As investors, we are only invested in higher returns on the capital we invest in. We create pressure on enterprises to take the risk and return higher dividends. We don’t care anything about sustainable practices of the enterprise or well-being of the entrepreneur. Together with banking system, we have co-created a short-term, individualistic growth culture cares little for people or planet.

As the government, we want to control and claim higher taxes. We citizen elect governments and become part of the impersonal machinery that puts undue pressure on entrepreneurs. I recall how voters celebrated the demonetisation and GST policies while so many small scale entrepreneurs struggled to survive. It was painful to see an entrepreneur friend of mine breaking down financially and emotionally during that period. 

As employees of these enterprises and banks, we want job stability, salary raise and secure lifestyle. We don’t know the risks and burden an entrepreneur takes to feed his enterprise. As family and friends, we often want the status quo of lifestyle to continue. Praising the patriarch and never letting him off the hook. As a community, we shame and blame if they fail their role as providers. Makes it difficult for entrepreneurs like Siddharth to retreat, surrender or restart.

As a society, media and consumers, we have co-created a narrative of “grandiosity and shame”. We feed on rag-to-riches, alpha, hero stories. We inspire our youth to think big, dream big, and leap beyond their own bearings. We have created systems that seduce them do so through low-risk loans, venture capital and so on. 

We first feed them to the “grandiose” narrative. A few may succeed, temporarily. Sooner or later they fail. Then we trigger the “shame” narrative. Shaming them for failing the system, the family, the community, their own image. Some sneak away unceremoniously out of the limelight. Some bear it all and commit suicide.

 

Something in this story reminds me of the 2017 biopic “The Mercy“. It is a real-life story of a  businessman, Donald Crowhurst, from the United Kingdom. He had a beautiful family and a decent lifestyle inspite of his struggling business. He got seduced by the grandiosity narrative and, in spite of being an amateur sailor, he applied for the Golden Globe Race to sail solo around the world without any stop. Media made him an instant hero. Investors put their money to help him build a new boat. Rest of us projected our unlived hero dream on his frail shoulders. A few weeks before his journey he realised that he has bitten more than he could chew. As a technologist, he was certain that his new boat would fail. Yet the media refused to listen, investors got hold of his house mortgage, everyone put pressure on him, and he, himself, could not fail his family. And so he went on the expedition. Though he sailed half way around the world, impressive for an amateur, he could not return as a failure and face the shame. He jumped in the sea and committed suicide. When the news of his suicide reached his wife and children, media surrounded their house, hurling insults and demeaning him. At one point his wife opened the door and said

“I don’t know if my husband slipped and fell, or if he jumped… as you’re now saying. But I would like you to rest assured, that if he did jump, he was pushed. And each and every one of you here had a grubby hand on his back. Every photographer, every sponsor, every reporter, every sad little man who stands at a newsstand to feast on the scraps of another’s undoing. And once he was in the water, you all held him under with your judgement.

Last week you were selling hope, now you’re selling blame. Next week you’ll be selling something else.

But tomorrow and every day after, my children will still need their father. And I will still need my husband.”

 

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

——————-

Gratitude & Dedication:

I was inspired to write Part 2 of this blog by Shamnad Basheer. A spirited soul, a legal academician, social entrepreneur and innovator. I had met him and fourteen other inspiring legal professionals at a gathering in Kerela organised by Agami last month (some of work is reflect in Part 1 of this blog). 3 weeks back, Shamnad was travelling in the region where V.G.Siddhartha came from and shared inspiring stories encouraging me and others to “step beyond atomistic thinking and reconnect with the whole we are part of”. Unfortunately, Shamnad died in an accident on way back from Chikamangaluru on 8th Aug 2019. In a short span of few weeks, he inspired me to keep activating the ecosystem of goodness. Unfortunately, he is not here to read this piece. 

~Manish

 

Death of an Entrepreneur: Part 1: “Our Collective Blindspot”

When a plant dies, the gardener does not blame the plant. He checks the soil, water, sunlight, in short, the ecosystem that helps a plant nourish or perish.

VG Siddhartha, the founder of Cafe Coffee Day (CCD), committed suicide. He has been known as role-model, self-made, successful business entrepreneur. Industry leaders remember him for his sincerity, dedication, and commitment to social upliftment. CCD grew rapidly and became a brand known as Starbucks of India. Newspapers say that he was under heavy debt and broke down from continuous harassment from government and banks. Three days back, he went missing and left a letter on social media. The letter reflects his good intention and his breakdown to the institutional pressures.

Maybe there is more to the business story that we will know in days to come. Right now, as a social witness, I am saddened to see a life gone. Like many entrepreneurs of the capitalist economic system, he took too many risks, grew too fast and collapsed.  We can blame him for impractical decisions and being too aspirational. He blamed himself for the same and took away his life. I wonder why he did not use his political connections and flee the country like many others. Maybe he was too thin-skinned to not take responsibility for his actions. But wait a minute. Is he the only one to be blamed for what happened? Is he the only one failed in this story? 

Coincidently, two weeks back, I was working with a group of social entrepreneurs and innovators from the legal field. They were convened by Agami to reflect on how we could transform the current legal system in India. One of the cases we worked with was about “how Alternative Dispute Resolution could help financial institutions resolve disputes with loan defaulters?”. 

We used Social Presencing Theatre (SPT), a contemplative social art practice, that helps in making visible the hidden dimensions of our current systems challenges. After understanding the complexity of our challenge we identified key stakeholders and co-created a social sculpture (a systems map) representing how these stakeholders are stuck in the current reality.

Our systems map had two main players— “the bank” and “defaulters”, who were influenced by other stakeholders including lawyers, the justice system, financial institutions, family etc. While we mapped the inter-relational dimensions of the legal system around the bank and defaulters, the map also illuminated the systems blindspot— the powerful financial system that produces and promotes capitalist web and punishes when one falls out of it. Somehow the players representing “finance system”, including government & investors, remained almost invisible to other players. They were powerful and kept controlling others indirectly, while the rest of the system struggled to work with the stuck between demanding bank and struggling defaulter. This made us wonder— who creates the defaulter in the first place? 

In the case of CCD, VG Siddhartha was the good-hearted “defaulter”. He was created and destroyed by the crony capitalist systems that we are part of. Unfortunately, we have co-created a capitalist economic system that thrives on rapid growth and risk-taking of individuals like Siddharth. And when they struggle, we call them as “defaulters” and suck every ounce of spirit till they drop dead.

We all are part of this system. We don’t think twice before demanding high dividends from our shares invested in these corporations. We want our coffees and products cheap and of high quality. We, just like those impersonal banks and demanding tax authorities, are least invested in the success or failure of the one who is creating value for us.

No loan-seeker goes to banks intending to become a defaulter one day. No bank professional wakes up intending to harass an entrepreneur. We all are equally stuck in same system. We need to ask— what are the deeper systems that are promoting the values of unchecked growth that leads an entrepreneur to a point where they have no option but to fail or flee? A change at that level would ask us to step beyond our current sectoral role into larger systems transformation role. Something that is much more complex, collaborative and necessary.

Afterthought: (added on Aug 3, 2019, after a conversation with few friends): While entrepreneurs and bankers are obvious stuck players in this situation, there are powerful, impersonal Invisibles. This includes demanding investors, regulating government and mindless consumers. All demanding higher returns, seeking higher control and extracting higher value. None of them cares for the well-being of the entrepreneur. They need “more” and are “happy” as long as the business entrepreneur serves their demands. Together they promote and control the ego-driven, limit-less growth paradigm that seduces, creates, exploits and kills an entrepreneur.

We weave the carpet for our heroes to rise
We set up the guillotine for them to be sacrificed
While the higher throne remains unchallenged and smiles
Who needs a warrior once the kingdom survives!

Manish Srivastava

http://www.sacredwell.in

 

Gratitude:

I am grateful to the Agami team including Supriya, Keerthana, Artika and my co-conspirator, Sonali Ojha.  In these moments of sadness, Agami brings hope by gathering 15 path-breaking young social innovators who are committed to transforming legal ecosystem in India. The pictures above show them in action— mapping the ecosystem by activating the wisdom of the social field.