TEDxYouth@ColomboChange 2013; Positive Disruption

I was invited to speak at the TEDxYouth event in Colombo, Sri Lanka in April 2013. Posting the transcript of my speech here.

Whenever someone asks me what I do for a leaving, I’m stumped. Whenever someone asks the same question from my family, they are even more baffled. This is because all my life, I have dabbled in lots of different things, trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. Dabble is probably the wrong word to use since I’m usually deeply immersed in whatever I do, whether it is writing, photography, journalism, blogging, research or as of late, learning the ropes of social activism.

I was never one of those people who knew exactly what I wanted to do but from a very young age, I had firm ideas of what I didn’t want. I didn’t want a 9 to 5 job where I would be stuck inside an office each week. I didn’t want a job where I couldn’t explore the different skills and talents I had acquired over the years. The one thing I did know was I wanted to make a contribution and I didn’t mind shaking things up to do so J

My first platform for shaking things up was blogging. I discovered blogging almost ten years ago and I started off anonymously. Why did I start blogging? Simple. I wanted my voice to be heard. It was never just for myself. I wanted comments, I wanted interaction and if I had to ruffle some feathers, I didn’t hesitate. At all. Some of it makes me look back and cringe but I also realize that it prepared me for the road ahead.

By the time I finished schooling, I was already looking for things to do in the gap year until I entered university. My friends were working in BPOs, banks, their parents’ offices. I wrote to three newspaper editors, asking them if I can work for them. I didn’t have any contacts but I loved writing. And all three of them got back to me though on hindsight it was probably to see if this naïve confidence was for real J

Journalism. I loved it with a passion. I loved talking to people, I loved the thrill of chasing a story, reaching a deadline and seeing my name on the byline. But soon enough I started realizing the limitations of mainstream media. Not all my stories made it to print. Especially the ones that would shake certain people up. Or they made it to print but were so heavily edited that I couldn’t recognize them.

This made me start blogging under my real name, to give these untold stories a valid platform. But using my real name as a blogger came with its own set of challenges. The comments I received covered the entire spectrum from encouraging and ego boosting to choice adjectives and expletives that ranged from fat and ugly to bitch and whore. I got emails telling me to keep writing and I got emails telling me to stop writing.

When I joined University, I couldn’t keep up with the erratic schedule of the news cycle. After one year of suffocation, I started looking for things to do. Again, being a law undergraduate, the obvious choice would have been a law firm and I did briefly go down that path. But after a month of being stuck inside an office and running out of creative excuses to leave early each day, I decided to tap into something I was actually passionate about.

One of the things I used to blog about the most was being a young woman in Sri Lanka. My everyday experiences as well as some of the horrifying injustices happening to others that I came across. And I could see the mixed reception those posts received which made me want to learn ways to approach women’s issues in a more organized way as opposed to the ranting.

So obviously I went to Google and typed “Sri Lankan women’s organizations” J And I immediately chose Women and Media Collective, or WMC for short and I’m ever thankful for that Google search. Following my tried and tested method of finding employment, I again fired an email telling them I’m interested in joining them part time.

And what do you know, they got back to me. Noticing that I was a blogger, they asked me to maintain their website. And that in itself was an education. I learnt about the history of the women’s movement in Sri Lanka. I learnt about the battles they won and the battles they lost.

And I found an entirely new set of role models. Women who had paid with their lives for doing what they believed in. Women who were living unconventional lives. Women not playing by the rules. Women who were making a contribution to society, whether it was on a grassroots level or on a national level.

It all felt right.

However, as I engaged with them over the years, I started noticing the lack of engagement with young women and young men and also their apparent lack of interest to engage with WMC’s work. I remember participating in what was called an inter-generational meeting, which never transpired into anything more than that meeting.

Being a young woman myself and often being one of the few representing my demography at various events organized by women’s organizations, I started thinking about this issue.

At that point, apart from email, there was very little use of ICTs in general and new media in particular, by women’s organizations. Their work and ideology was not being disseminated via the main sources and channels of information for the youth of today, the Internet, web and mobile.

I do acknowledge other factors such as the political climate of the country, which hindered and discouraged the use of media as well as new media for their work, and still does. However, I felt that there were still ways for women’s organizations to engage on this space.

Following research on women’s engagement with new media in the margins of the Sri Lankan State, WMC set up a new media unit with the intention of expanding our target audience to include the youth. In addition to a revamped trilingual website, we began to engage and communicate via avenues of new media such as Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and tweeting.

How many of you are on Facebook? How many of you read your news predominantly on the Internet or through mobile news alerts? How many of you watch YouTube videos, especially considering you’re at a TED event today? J

What do you do on your new media platforms? What do you share? Speaking for myself, I’m very active on a variety of new media platforms and whenever a new platform is launched, I’m always eager to try it out.

New media, especially Facebook, has blurred the line between public and private spheres. My identity has become an amalgamation of my public and private lives, my personal and professional lives. Sachini Perera the daughter, sister, wife and friend is also Sachini Perera the writer, photographer, blogger and feminist. While I still fiercely guard some aspects of my private life, I have allowed the line to blur because all these things are in fact an extension of myself.

And this is reflected in what I share on my new media platforms. Anything from news to interesting articles and blog posts to music to memes. I also share and promote content that I create such as my writings and photographs as well as content I generate for my organization.

Few years ago I came across the Take Back the Tech initiative, which calls for people to use ICT in activism to end violence against women. It inspired me to marry new media with a campaign that Sri Lankan women’s organizations have been carrying out since 2005. 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Based Violence is an annual global campaign that demands the elimination of all forms of violence against women with over 2,000 organizations participating from over 154 countries.

There had never been an online component to this campaign in Sri Lanka and I conceptualized the Sri Lanka 16 Days Blog. In 2011 and 2012, as part of WMC’s work for the 16 Days campaign, I launched and curated this blog, using social networking and blogging as a platform for raising awareness about gender based violence.

My target audience was young women and young men as statistics show that they are the largest group active in this sphere.

The blog was a trilingual platform on which they could express themselves in any format whether it was blog posts, Facebook updates, tweets, creative writing, art, photography, essays, short films, interviews, cartoons and podcasts. Creation of such a space was a first for women’s organizations in Sri Lanka and I was a mixture of apprehension and excitement as to how it would turn out.

The response was very encouraging.

One of the highlights was a poignant entry by Roel Raymond who decided to speak about her personal encounter with violence for the first time on this platform we provided and in doing so, inspired many others to speak and to take action. For an example, some youth groups such as Beyond Borders and Reach Out were inspired to conduct their own online campaigns.

I’m in complete awe of her for having the courage to speak out. It exceeded the expectations we had for this blog.

Through this exercise I made an attempt to break the silence about gender-based violence, within the inherent limitations of this space. And the interest generated in the online campaign resulted in it being featured in mainstream media, which meant that we took the discourse on gender-based violence further and expanded our audience. This was particularly important because one of the main challenges women’s organizations face in Sri Lanka is the lack of access and exposure in mainstream media.

This campaign helped us recognize certain groups of people. There were people who were keen to express themselves but didn’t have a platform to do so. There were others who spoke up with a little encouragement from us. There were also many who were expressing themselves and breaking the silence on their own platforms but got more exposure by being featured on our blog and then being republished on websites such as Groundviews and also on newspapers.

All these groups used the 16 Days blog as a platform to disrupt the silence on gender based violence, in whatever format they were more comfortable in. For an example, Beyond Borders launched an interesting project; a photo a day about gender-based violence during the 16 days. They found out that there weren’t many images available on gender based violence and they made a compilation of photographs that would be freely available on the Internet for download and use in any campaigns or projects on gender based violence. And to this day, I see those photos appear in articles and I myself use them for some of my work.

The 16 days blog was a small but powerful step in my attempt to make some noise via new media. And it was an emotional experience for me. Something I conceptualized and created had made a tangible impact, no matter how small.

An argument against such interventions through new media would be that it encourages clicktivism, a term used to describe activists using social media to organize protests. As people are increasingly misconstruing merely liking or sharing something on Facebook as activism or a sufficient contribution, there is a danger of online campaigns destroying meaningful social activism.

And there is also a question as to whether new media platforms are just enabling tools to an existing mobilization of people and consciousness or whether they can also be a means to mobilizing people and cultivating consciousness.

These were things considered when I joined a small team of individuals who conducted an online campaign and organized an event for the One Billion Rising movement, which called for one billion women around the world to join together in a show of collective strength on the 14th of February 2013. This particular campaign in Sri Lanka was initiated by Tehani Ariyaratna, a friend and colleague, and we decided to collaborate on it.

We had zero funding and very little people power as well. Therefore our main strategy was to harness new media, especially Facebook, to engage and mobilize a large group of people, mostly young. The challenge we were faced with was how to translate the enthusiasm displayed in an online sphere into the offline sphere because this campaign required people to physically gather together. We were taking disruption a step further by trying to get people to leave their computers, put down their phones and tablets and come out to demonstrate.

There is widespread denial about the existence of gender-based violence in Sri Lanka, starting from State officials to policy makers to the general public. But statistics tell otherwise.

Our reiteration of these statistics and sharing of news reports on incidents of violence against women and children made an impact and again, we had people speaking up, especially young people. Many approached us with hesitation, some choosing to remain anonymous, but as more people spoke up, the numbers started growing.

Our main challenge of mobilizing the same group to the offline sphere was successful to some extent when about 600 people gathered at Lipton Circus, Colombo to demonstrate against gender-based violence and hold a candlelight vigil in honor of victims and survivors of the same.

This was a first for many of them. Some of my closest friends, both women and men, who have always observed my work from afar with more than a little skepticism were there holding placards and candles. My mother who gives me regular phone calls to tell me that I may have been a little too harsh in my latest Facebook update or blog post, was there holding a placard. Why were they there? Each of them had a story to tell, whether it was harassment on the road or on a bus, or physical or mental abuse suffered by them or someone they knew. They had had enough and wanted to take action and through both our online platforms and the demonstration and vigil, we had offered them spaces in which they could do exactly that.

It was not a first for me but it was the first time I was in the company of so many other young people at a demonstration. It was a different energy and I had Goosebumps the entire time. If I have to use one word to describe how I felt, I’d say exhilarated.

We were not paid a cent by anyone to do this and in the weeks leading up to the demonstration, Tehani and I often talked about how this was the most fun we’ve had in our careers so far. And we talked about the endless possibilities new media offered us as compared to when people mobilized before email and Facebook.

A few thoughts in conclusion. What are you passionate about? How can you use new media, whether it’s your Facebook profile or a blog, to drive those? Do one new media experiment this year, no matter how big or small, and make a contribution.

Thank you!

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