Learning from activist-scholars

Srilatha with members of the RDI Student Forum Committee (Stephanie, Namarta, Danya, Caitlin and Sherrin
Srilatha with members of the RDI Student Forum Committee (Stephanie, Namarta, Danya, Caitlin and Sherrin

Srilatha Batiwala, the keynote speaker at the Research for Development Impact (RDI) Student Forum moves between the world of academia and activism. Her keynote address mapped out how she has interwoven both activism and scholarship over the years and used the two to inform and complement each other. A rare breed, as she herself even described, many individuals keep their activism and scholarship work separate as there can be numerous challenges in interweaving these two worlds.

The RDI Student Forum brought together students from numerous Australian universities to discuss the question of leadership in international development. We received funding from the RDI Network, Institute for Human Security and Social Change, La Trobe University and the Intellectual Climate Fund, La Trobe University to run the event. We wanted to know how students could become active agents in the development sector for effective leadership? How do individual values influence leadership practices? And what skills do students need to develop to be a leader?

Srilatha talked about how leadership starts where you are, and we should look at how we can influence those in our own spheres, starting small and creating waves of change. That could be the organisation you work in or the people in your family. We can’t ask others to believe in a better world when our communities don’t even represent that world.

What other ways can students be leaders? Srilatha spoke of bringing a critical lens to both her activism and her scholarship. She challenged academics to place their feet to the fire, and to test their theories in reality. At the same time, she challenged activists to think and act more analytically by embracing theory.

What does it mean to be an activist-scholar? For Srilatha this means being committed to a cause and not a ‘career’. Her keynote address came alive through personal stories and anecdotes from working with Dalit women in India to writing grants at the Ford Foundation in New York. And a cause, encouragingly, can be served from multiple locations. From being involved in grassroots movements, to working for a research institute or a university, to working at a non-profit or community-based organisation, to being a mother or feminist grandmother! Srilatha has served her cause, the empowerment of the poorest, most marginalised women, from many positions.

As Musa Al-Gharbi also wrote about, students of social science are usually motivated not only to understand social change but also want to contribute to make change happen. We felt inspired and hopeful in the audience. Many of us, including myself, are in the final years of a postgraduate degree, and were no doubt contemplating, what is my cause, or how can I use my studies in my community to advocate for social change? Many audience members at the RDI Student Forum were Australian Awards Scholars who will return to their home countries and communities across Asia, the Pacific, Africa and the Middle East.

One of the main themes that Srilatha talked about and the subject of her ‘little red book’ was power. What we learnt from Srilatha about power and leadership is that women, in order to access their rights, need safe spaces and processes in order to unleash their own power and build collective movements. This thinking challenges a dominant approach in international aid and development which perceives women as disempowered and in need of encouragement to participate in their own empowerment. Women are empowered, Srilatha argues, but lack the platforms in order to bring forward their voice. Srilatha also reminded us to never underestimate the power of ideology. Her experiences in India in the context of a caste system are testament to this. Such feminist understandings of power caused many of us in the audience to critically reflect. What underlying ideologies exist in my own communities? What kinds of power are invisible or hidden? Whether you are an activist, a scholar or both, being aware of the dynamics of power is a definite skill to be an inclusive leader.

When it comes to being a leader as an activist or scholar, both passion and power need to be considered. Srilatha has given us a fantastic example of how to be a leader in both. As students ponder what comes next after our research, it is encouraging to hear that these two domains can complement and strengthen each other. The RDI Student Forum will be back in two years time.