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AGE AND ACTIVISM: Some reflections on my experience

sriFirst written: 7 October 2010

I grew up in India’s deeply age-hierarchical society and culture, and one in which women’s freedom of expression, movement, decision-making rights and status in the family was highly correlated to their age.  A young girl is perceived particularly as lowest on the family totem pole, and socially the most constrained.  You shouldn’t talk or laugh too loudly, your dress, posture (especially after developing breasts) and body movements should be modest and self-effacing.  By early adolescence, you should be ready and willing to serve your elders in whatever way you can.  You never, ever, “talk back” to them when scolded or ordered to do something.

Having been born and brought up in a somewhat unconventional family, I had more freedom than most girls, but a good dose of the conventional conditioning as well.  My grandmother was a feminist-before-her-time, and since she brought me up for most of my first six years, she encouraged my innate precociousness, gift of the gab, and tendency to speak my mind; by the age of six she had also persuaded me that I must have a profession (she wanted me to be a lawyer or a doctor – because that was considered a good profession for women), earn my own money, and have my own bank account so that my husband could never control me through money. My parents, especially my father, encouraged my intellectual ability, and taught me to be very analytical about EVERYTHING.  He would always say that we should look deep into things and pursue answers to the key question: WHY??  Somehow, he instilled in me a very strong and deep sense of egalitarianism, and the importance of practicing equality in all one’s relationships and actions. But I also spent most of my childhood in an extended family residence, with several older cousins who firmly asserted the age-based pecking order.

So by the time I was in my teens, I had a strong sense of myself, confidence in my own mind and ideas, but acted with socially appropriate deference to people older than me.  But as I became involved in activism in my early twenties, my age consciousness – and conditioned notions of other hierarchies based on education, wealth, caste, religion, etc. – gradually changed.  As a student social worker working in Bombay’s slums with some of the poorest people in the world, I realized that my social work teachers understood far less about the social change process than members of the slum community itself; that the teenaged sex workers I was “assigned” to “reform” knew much more about life’s realities than I did, and that some of the oldest people in the slum had wisdom and insight that the white-haired dons in my social work school did not.

But more than anything else, my first job played a critical role in shaping my attitude to age and activism.  My boss – Dr N H Antia, or “NHA” as we fondly referred to him – was one of India’s top plastic surgeons, who had chosen to found a community health organization – the Foundation for Research in Community Health, or FRCH ( – dedicated to advancing a democratic, people-centered health care system in the country. He was a visionary and also quite eccentric, but here I will focus on the way he unwittingly built a huge line of next-generation leaders. The irony is that I don’t think he ever consciously thought that this was what he was doing – he didn’t sit down and say to himself or anyone else: “We must bring young people into our institutions and movements, and empower them to grow and become leaders for the future.”  But that is exactly what he did.

When NHA first interviewed me in 1975 for starting FRCH’s health policy research wing, I was just twenty-three years old (with a five-month-old infant son to boot!).  The job he described to me more or less summed up the mandate of the World Health Organization, but NHA was never one to think small.  It didn’t occur to him to wonder whether I had the requisite experience or qualification.  Do it, he said, and I did. I knew nothing about public health – but within a year, I had single-handedly built up one of India’s first libraries on public health issues, and produced a lengthy paper on the history of health policy in India since our Independence – the first of its kind, I later learned.  I do not recount this to boast of my achievement, but to highlight how the faith NHA placed in me and a score of other raw young people like me in the years to come, the freedom he gave us to work, the assumptions he made about our intellectual ability, were unprecedented.  No one else would have entrusted us with so much responsibility at such a young age, or reposed so much confidence in our ability to deliver!

Soon, because of the quality of this early work, FRCH gained a lot of national recognition, and the team had grown to include other twenty-something-year-olds.  We as an organization were invited to undertake various research studies and convening functions by the Government of India’s Ministry of Health and other august bodies.  NHA thought nothing of sending me to present papers, facilitate these meetings, do the background research, etc. etc.  It never occurred to him to worry that I would botch things up, misspeak to some important official, or anything like that.  Of course any one of these things could have happened, and if they had, he would also have thought nothing of screaming at me in front of any passer by!

My experience was not unique – if you look around India, at the people heading major work on public health, maternal mortality, women’s health and rights, etc. etc., you will see the middle-aged versions of the extraordinary number of young people he mentored and recklessly trusted to take forward the mission – you will see that each and every one has gone on to blaze a trail, to undertake path-breaking work, to found institutions and movements of their own, and to make an indelible mark on the health landscape of this country.  And I think most of NHA’s mentees would agree that this early experience in our lives transformed us forever as activists and researchers – most of us would trace our self-confidence, intellectual development, capacity to work independently, our ability to hold our own in the most hallowed settings, and most of all, to work to the highest intellectual and ethical standards, to this time in our lives, when we were recruited and set afloat by a man who did not have the time or the imagination to control us, tell us how to do our jobs, or expect anything but the best from us. How many senior feminists in the world can boast of anything similar?

So when I finally moved out of FRCH to co-found an organization to work with women living in Bombay’s pavement slums, it was with a set of colleagues (all women) whose ages ranged from 18 to my 30.  And we soon went into partnership with the National Slum Dwellers Federation, headed by A. Jockin (winner many years later of the prestigious Magsaysay Award), who was at least 40 at that time.  And some years after that, I had my first leadership role, at the age of 37, as State Program Director of a major national government-supported women’s empowerment program (Mahila Samakhya – ).  The huge team of 150 activists and support staff – – almost all women – that I recruited to implement the program and build a major movement of the poorest Dalit and indigenous women in my home province of Karnataka, ranged in age from 17 to 58. When I was recruiting them, I don’t remember even once thinking about their age – in fact, I took a lot of criticism for recruiting a province-level program coordinator who was just 19 years old at the time!  And after that I set up and ran a women’s policy research and advocacy unit at the National Institute of Advanced Studies in Bangalore, again with a team ranging in age from 44 to 26, while the age range of the entire Institute’s faculty and research staff was 72 to 22!

In none of these locations and roles did age mean much to me – neither mine nor anyone else’s.  My focus was always on linking everyone’s passion for the cause, for our mission; in relating to each person’s core abilities, which is what my mentor N H Antia had practiced so naturally.  And over and over again, it was clear to me that people’s ability to deliver, to shine, to innovate, to be highly responsible and accountable, to be insightful, brilliant, tactically ingenious, rarely had anything to do with their age.  Yes, sometimes the wisdom of experience counted – but then, when strategizing on how to deal with an upper-caste landlord, my teenaged village-born activist colleagues were far wiser and cleverer than I, so I always listened to them.

This has been my experience in my personal life as well: my daughter-in-law, twenty-five years my junior, but also far less formally educated than I, is far more “emotionally” intelligent, and a better mother and relationship-builder than I.  My daughter has managerial skills fit to run a large corporation, and a standard of efficiency and competence in all that she does that I can’t ever reach.  I don’t want this to sound patronizing – it is said with simple admiration, and to drive home the point that being older than them doesn’t make me more capable than them in the areas in which they excel.

So you can understand why I’m always a little bemused by all the hype currently surrounding “multi-generational” organizations and ways of working – because I have rarely experienced anything else.  In fact, the least multi-generational organization I ever worked in was the Ford Foundation in New York!  And working in the University environment of Harvard, though technically multi-generational, was less so in practice since age hierarchy was very strong there.  In fact, it was at Harvard that I experienced an unexpected assertion of my cultural conditioning on age and status.  Arriving in the classroom at the Kennedy School to teach my first class, I was suddenly very upset and annoyed by the sight of several students (all men, incidentally) slouching in their seats with their feet on top of their desks.  I informed them that in my culture, showing your feet to the teacher was deeply disrespectful, and not acceptable to me.  They were welcome to assume these poses in their dorms or homes, but not in my classroom.  Needless to say my tone was so stern that they promptly put their feet down and sat upright, and never greeted me with the soles of their sneakers ever again.  I leave it to you to judge – was this an age-based response or a cultural one?  I’m still not sure, but I can tell you what I was thinking: “These snotty young louts! How dare they?”

When I left the women’s empowerment organization, which is the last time I held a formal leadership position, and went on to work at Ford and Harvard, I decided two things: I no longer wanted to be the “head honcho” (been there, did that), and I wanted to dedicate myself to building practice-based knowledge about social change, particularly in the realm of gender and women’s rights.  But I also decided, thanks to witnessing the angst of my grantees (when I was at Ford), about “generational change in leadership”, to work as a subordinate in organizations led by much younger women.  I had also become much more conscious, by then (this was the year 2000) that I wanted to demonstrate to others, and experience for myself, one’s capacity to transcend and overcome age-based hierarchy – and the final test of this, after all, is whether an old, opinionated, experienced, sometimes overpowering feminist like myself could work under a younger supervisor or leader.

So here I am in AWID, whose Executive Director Lydia, and my immediate supervisor Sarah, are the same age as my son and daughter, and the entire AWID team is younger than me.  And I also do a lot of work for CREA, whose Director is nearly fifteen years younger than me, and the actual people I report to for the programs I work with are mostly in their twenties or thirties.

Many people ask me about this – at meetings, I see many “senior” feminists like myself looking at me curiously as I perform a role that is consciously respectful of Lydia’s and Cindy’s leadership, as I consciously defer to them and watch very carefully to make sure I observe the boundaries of my role and place in the process.  I can see the curiosity in their eyes and the unspoken questions: “How does this work? Doesn’t she find it galling to defer to these much younger women? It’s all a sham – we know who’s the boss.”

Many others have actually asked me about it – why have I chosen this path when I could very easily be the big boss of some big organization?  Why didn’t I apply to be President of the Ford Foundation? Head of UN Women? Head of Action Aid? Don’t I want to be Director of AWID? Is it all pretense or am I really happy?  Doesn’t this role constrain me from making the kind of contribution I should be making given my ability and experience? One answer I can offer is that the transition in my personal life and professional life have mirrored each other.  I became a grandmother (four times over, actually!), and greatly enjoyed stepping  back from the role of mother, to support from the back.  This helped me find meaning and joy in being a grandmother in the movement as well – not taking the lead but supporting from the back, and enjoying the affection and respect for my experience and insights that this accords.

I like to think that I have made this transition well – that people don’t experience me as insufferably superior about my age and knowledge – but I leave that to others to decide. All I can tell you is that when I meet or work with anyone in this cause, my first thought is not about how old – or young – they are.  I find I generally don’t think much about people’s ages, but much more about who they are, what their interests are, how I can engage with them, what I can learn from and contribute to this relationship, things like that. And my entire working life has taught me one thing, which I will say again at the risk of being repetitive: age and ability are really not directly proportional, at least in the arena of social activism.

Sometimes it’s hard to make people believe the simple truth: I’m really happy being exactly where I am.  For me, multi-generationality is not a slogan but a lived reality.

Srilatha Batliwala is a feminist activist and researcher with four decades of experience in advancing gender equality through grassroots activism, advocacy, research, bridging theory and practice, and capacity building and mentoring of young women activists. From 1975 to the mid-90s she focused on building movements of poor urban and rural women in India. She then moved into research, advocacy, grant-making and academic work in several premier international institutions including the Ford Foundation and Harvard University, and since 2007, with AWID. Srilatha has written and published extensively. Her most recent work is a collection of her past twenty years of key writings, “Engaging with Empowerment – An Intellectual and Experiential Journey”. She is based in Bangalore, India.

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