By Anushree Pratap (UG ‘23) and Ishita Ahuja (UG ‘23) A survey conducted from August 6
Transcribed below are answers given by the candidates in the Presidential Debate and Discussion organized by The Edict in collaboration with the Ashoka Alumni Association.
What will you do to build trust? How would you engage with issues of sexual harassment and mental health?
I think that’s a fantastic question. So how I see it is, when we talk about the community vibe, there is this friendship and love that transcends across cohorts, but at the same time we’re putting a lot of trust in these people who are, one can say, strangers on some level. And how do we ensure that this trust is not misused? I would like to address this with the two examples you cited, of sexual harassment and mental health. I think as it has come out in the recent few months with emails and the discourse at the weekender, sexual harassment is a big problem, not just at campus, in our community, but in the world, and we’re all seeing the watershed movement that’s happening across the globe. I think the first step towards this is building safe spaces where people can talk about these things. This was already attempted at the weekender, and personally for me, as an alum, to be in that session, and learn about those grim realities, it was quite a revealing experience. I have been personally very moved by it, and I’ve had several conversations with the administration about it, on a personal level, not as a council member, just personally. So I think that was something which was just initiated and we need to build on that — build these safe spaces at local chapter levels, batch levels, community, council level, wherever it’s possible. Aishwarya Muralidharan, who’s a fellow council mate, started something called Circle of Trust, which was her attempt of reaching out to people struggling with mental health issues, to give them a space. These guys have regular Skype sessions where they talk to each other and it’s just beautiful.
Coming back, there is a strong need to build sensitization on these things. A very actionable point is, I feel, that local chapters are something which can be involved in this. So maybe, in the funding to local chapters, set aside some funds which can be used in engaging professionals into this and conducting workshops for the fellows, and building a safe space where you can talk about these issues. I don’t have an answer on how do we solve this, but considering how passionate people are about this, I’m sure we can get these amazing people on our task force and start thinking about it. I know that we want to do a lot with the CASH committee, the university. Again, I’m not sure if that’s the best way to go. I would personally prefer if as a community we could get together, sort of build best practices among ourselves for addressing this, and then transfer that to the university to take it forward and replicate from our model.
So to the first part, building trust. Trust is a very, very big word, and it’s the foundation, the fabric of society. One of the reasons people trust is that things happen as per expectations, expectations are met. So the first thing would be to define these expectations. So for example, when fellows, undergraduates, masters’ students, PhD students, become alums, they need to know how the alum body functions. Who do they go to talk to for what kinds of issues? What is the channel of action to be taken for a variety of things, mark sheets for example on the one hand, to references on the other hand, to starting an interest group; it could be a number of issues. So to define what those channels are. Second thing is, to have these processes in place by which those results are actually delivered, and have metrics in place to make sure we’re doing those things right. So for example, Gaurav, a little while ago, had spoken about mentorship satisfaction metrics, if people are satisfied with their mentorship. The thing is, if you’re able to then, track how, from a service delivery perspective, how the association is delivering these services consistently over the years, it will continue to build faith and trust in the system of the association. That’s one part of the building trust aspect. The second aspect about delicate issues such as mental health or sexual abuse. The former, this is by extension again, the idea of a family. But the family is a feeling, right? The ethos. Realistically, we’ll be at 2000 people in a very, very short time, in two years. We’ll be at 2000 people. It’s a very, very large number. How do we retain, how do we make the family feeling real? Again, using systems and processes that are delivering on their various mandates. So to have these little — this group that Aishwarya had started, I didn’t know about this, which is a shame, because I would imagine myself to be active and generally aware of what the association is doing, but I didn’t know of this. Maybe there was a transmission loss of some kind. But to have these kinds of fora where people can get together and support each other. A family is a family when it loves and supports its constituents. And so it must be with the association as well.
Again with things like sexual abuse, to an email that was shared by an alum last night, there are a number of things I think the association can do to make a sort of safe space, some of which have already been listed on that email. From holding gender sensitization workshops to having an ombudsman facility. Obviously the association is not a legal entity, so the association cannot take decisions on this but it can create conversation and dialogue in a structured manner for people to feel comfortable having certain issues. I think a 2014 batch alum just shared something on module wise or training workshops before people can graduate or something like that which can build a culture of openness and of trust even at the student stage. Alumni can play a role there as well. So for me this circle of trust is, building trust is, again, process. Process and systemic dependent. And we will continue to to build metrics, review processes to make sure that we’re actually delivering on all those fronts and as we grow in numbers that is what I think will continue to have the community keep its faith in the association.
The question is actually addressing something more philosophically first. And so going in with that, the first person, very fundamentally, that we trust in our life would be our mom and then our parents, and our close family and then friends. And how does that develop? Breaking down that process it’s a lot bit of transparency we see. We trust our parents blindly just because we know that by de facto they are transparent with us and they are going to take whatever rewards or whatever outcomes come out of their action, that accountability part. And then it develops into fraternity where we have our friends. Going by that analogy, I think right now, in the association where we are going to be dealing with a thousand members, and soon enough there will be 5000 members in the coming six to seven years. At that point, again I think we have to again break this down fundamentally into the association. The association is like some — Transparency and accountability is something we have to push for. I mean, as Gaurav rightly mentioned, having metrics for mentorship module. Then, as Jasmine did mention about the point or any penalty and the trust that we already have. To harness that I think that is also going to functionally break down into batches and chapters. We feel more comfortable with people we share a common background of education with, or where we have spent some time with them, and also where we are living. So strengthening those batches and chapters is an essential part towards building broader trust.
Yes, there are critical issues regarding sexual harassment and mental health even amongst the alumni in their workplaces. And a lot of alumni in the recent times in their individual groups or amongst friends have shared that. We can come up with these resources, I mean, the task forces at the level of chapters, at the level of batches. But that’s going to be only effective when we get them together. The recent Secret Santa event for that matter, well it was just a gifting campaign where you met other people. The feedback was that people made a lot of new friends and not just across their professional imperative points but that’s also going to be some of those long lasting friendships where people can share these things so I think breaking these things down, localizing, even the fraternity, the localization of a support system is going to go a great way. And so getting the self sufficient local chapters, getting the batches to function, I think the batch reps initiative that was started by the first alumni council is a great step towards that and we have to further that more by building resources financial and functional to make them, I mean, not just as one off secret santa event or one off initiative but also the forums where people can come together, people can come actually talk about these things. So community, as I would feel is that Alumni Association or council cannot put all the thrust but right now the seed should be on developing these systems.
When it comes to trust-building you tend to trust someone that you know. And I think that even in my batch of 200 people I’d be very honest, I don’t know everyone in my batch. But I still feel like whenever I think of someone, when I have to ask for help, something that I cringe about doing. When I know that it’s a fellow and even if it’s not someone from my batch I still have the courage to go and ask someone for help. And like Lav had said, when your expectations are met and more often than not, I do receive help and whatever I ask. So I think because it gets reinforced so often, I encourage other people to ask for help even if they don’t know fellows from other batches. And I try and be a good network for someone, like someone else was for me. And so I think that going further, we might not all be able to physically meet each other. As alumni keep increasing, our annual weekenders will not be able to have everybody meet everybody. So like Parushya mentioned that local chapters need to be very good at making people feel like, okay I’m from this chapter and I know people from my chapter. And that we should try and increase in person time as much as possible, and have, not events but have themes, that run longer than maybe one meeting or two meetings and that engage people for a longer period of time. So it could be any one thing, knowing your city better, and we could do that through a walk one week, or having a meal together, or planning a trip together. And in terms of virtually building trust, I think our app could help us there. So if we move cities can you automatically see which fellow is situated there in the city, and what’s happening in terms of this weekend or next weekend. I think that if we know fellows better then we’ll be able to trust them better.
And in terms of mental health and sexual harassment, I think that the conversation around both is definitely more open than other universities and that people are aware of at least mental health issues that they’re suffering from, and their vocabulary is I think better enriched than other people I know who are not from Ashoka. And that Ashoka is doing what it can to help people get better but I don’t think that the center for well-being is enough as it is. And that apart from doing workshops I think that it’s important for people to really understand the terms that they use and what depression really means. It’s a word that is very loosely thrown around and not properly understood. And the same way with sexual harassment, how does one recognize that one is in a situation of being harassed, what all does it entail, how you should protect yourself, or I mean things can get very fuzzy and I think that we should start from there in terms of better being able to understand things that we talk about so that everybody is on the same page in terms of what we think. I think that we can start there as a community.
So I believe then you like any community, when you share a common identity then automatically there is trust. So I would better trust a young india fellow than someone, right? So basically, helping us to understand like, that identity and also building that connection in the sense, like building that connection how, in the way of reiterating our shared lived experiences. Like we all have same kind of lived experiences. I think if we have portals, we have platforms where we can share those experiences, I think trust can be built a lot more. And I also feel like transparency is the way to go. We need to be transparent about everything that is happening. Also, whenever I feel that a community, like I can trust a community when I see people like me that I can connect to, there are people who are standing there for me. So I think like ensuring diversity in that way, I think all these are ways that we can build trust among our own community.
In terms of very critical issues like sexual harassment and mental health, I think we truly as a community need to do something on that. And I also feel on these issues need a lot of expertise and also a lot of research to be done. And for me, if I would have to take a decision on that, I would actually start or create a task force around this and get all the alumni who are having some kind of experience and also who have lived experience, like create a diverse group, and then start addressing these issues and create something very unique for our own community. And in terms of mental health, I think like given I have TA’d for Dwight and Professor Kenwyn, there is so much of help I think alumni can do in terms of helping the current fellows. And even in alumni itself I think because we are a community of diverse people and lot of people are going out and reaching much in their life the others would feel there is a lot of mental health issues in the alumni community as well. I believe that really taking external help and learning the best practices that is happening across the world, I think that is something which I would personally want to do.
So I’m saying that the key way to build trust within the community, within the ever-growing community, is to be as transparent with your decision-making, with what you’ve delivered so far, and what you intend to deliver in the future. So this is the primary way that you build trust within the community. Secondly is to be responsive to the alumni, you know, alumni issues and requests. For example, I stretch it with the sexual harassment point. Let’s say somebody comes up to the association with a case of sexual harassment, right? This might not even necessarily be an alumni, this might be a student. He or she might have approached the university administration but nothing would have been done there. So we need to ensure that firm action, firm and quick action is taken on that. And to substantiate on that you know I am being part of — I’ve led the creation of an anti-sexual harassment committee in my office. We did this proactively after the recent incidents which came into picture and we did this proactively and there was a — there was one case which came up. It was not really a major case of harassment but we ensured that corrective action was taken against the employee and he was fired within 24 hours, right? You cannot hold on to such issues, you cannot form committees after committees and hold such issues or weeks and months together. You need to take firm and quick action. So that these are two ways that you build trust with.
And the second part of the question is how do you handle issues like sexual harassment and mental health. I think one of the — so for sexual harassment, how you handle it on campus is going to be very different then how you handle it for alumni who are not on the campus. When on the campus you need to first gauge what the current situation is and the best way to do that is via both a qualitative and quantitative assessment. We can float surveys and understand how many people are aware about the existing policies including the redressal policies, right? So if people are not aware about that, that is the issue I’d like to tackle first. And if people are aware about that but still not approaching the administration, let’s say, then that is another — that is a different problem. Then I’m looking at that problem in that light and attack it from there, right? So we need to first gauge what is the extent of the problem. Similarly for mental health as well, like what are the reasons for mental health issues cropping up in campus and outside. We need to be aware about that, whether it is career related or whether it is about a relationship going sour or whether it is about, let’s say, a family member being lost or you know you not being happy with what the community around you looks like. So we need to understand all of those things and then prioritize them in order of how you can fix them, right? And having worked at a healthcare startup and actually, one which connects doctors and patients online as well, I’ve seen that a lot of people respect privacy, they want others to respect their privacy. And for mental health issues I think an online consultation platform like …(inaudible) would be a good place to get professional help from. And I mean independent of what happens in the elections, I’d be happy to enforce that partnership with Ashoka for the students as well as for the alumni body.
We are deeply thankful to Shivangi Tikekar from the UG’17 batch for transcribing these answers.